(The author is a marketing professional working in Dubai. Their name has been concealed to protect their identity. The following is an as-told-to account, recorded and written by Rohini Roy.)
Disney Pixar’s animated movie Lightyear will soon hit theatres across the world, but not in the United Arab Emirates and a dozen other Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Reason? It includes a same-sex kiss.
The film would have been a perfect stepping stone for representation of same-sex relationships in Dubai’s big screens. It would have been a great start to normalise such relationships for children. Instead, the portrayal of a same-sex relationship, and a brief kiss between two characters, is most likely to have pushed the government to ban the animated film.
As a 38-year-old gay man living in Dubai, I am not only sad but also confused by the UAE’s decision to keep Lightyear from the movie hall. A city that prides itself to be the ‘most-technologically savvy’ and ‘modern’ cannot tolerate two women kissing on screen? But again, this is hardly surprising – and let me tell you why.
(Not) Finding a Sense of Community in Dubai
I made Dubai my home 10 years ago, in search of better employment and financial opportunities. Little did I realise that I would be moving to a region that is far more patriarchal than where I grew up. In the decade since, I make a difficult decision almost every day – suppressing my queer identity for financial stability.
This is a country where two men do not even have the freedom to hold hands, let alone wear their identity on their sleeves.
Let me illustrate with an example. I love going out for weekend brunches with my co-workers. But I needed to start listening to finance and sports podcasts – just so I can blend in and take part in ‘manly’ conversations. My creativity, my area of interests, lay buried. I neither have the platform nor the freedom to express myself, my queer identity.
For us, the process of finding a sense of community and belonging here is a nightmare. Our identity is a constant threat to our existence. People from the community are afraid to reach out to each other, simply because of the inherent fear that the person may ‘out’ them. Being ourselves could land us behind bars any moment.
Meeting people from the community is always a hush-hush, within the confines of people’s homes, or in locations we cannot disclose.
How We Watch Queer Films
When the sensational Call Me by Your Name released in 2017, the entire world was raving about it. It was almost a celebration for the queer community. But I had to wait until I could travel out of the country to watch it.
Accessing censored movies here is a complicated, exhausting process – but you are tempted to take that risk because that’s how much representation matters. We either download queer-themed films in handheld devices when we are abroad or use a VPN. Some even go to the extent of installing personal satellite devices in their homes, knowing well that it could backfire at them any moment.
Bollywood movies, such as Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020) and the recent super-hit Badhaai Do, which have been appreciated for representation (with all their problems, of course), did not even air here in the UAE.
When I heard my friends talk about Hansal Mehta-directed Baai, in Amazon Prime Video's latest anthology, Modern Love: Mumbai, I rushed to the streaming platform to watch it. Only to find that the only queer episode in the seven-episode series was also the only one not airing in the UAE. Sometimes, streaming platforms let queer storylines be, if such characters are secondary ones. But even with such rare stroke of luck, people very much look down upon it.
Why Representation Matters
Growing up in India, I knew I was queer when I was 15. But growing up during the 1980s and the 1990s also meant limited access to internet and chat rooms to connect with ‘people like me.’
This also meant that everything and everyone screamed 'patriarchy’ and ‘masculinity’ at me. I was reprimanded by family members for not being muscular enough, for not enjoying football or cricket, and for being ‘soft like a woman.’
There was constant pressure to get married and to be more masculine. What others wanted was always a priority – and my life was never about me.
I worked on being financially independent to reclaim control over my life. Eventually, I opened up to my parents and came out to them, too. I grew up wondering if my feelings were valid. I questioned why I’d feel more excited when I looked at a man even though that I was ‘taught’ otherwise. I would ask myself if I was 'normal.’ Representation in movies – the ones that Bollywood is proudly making today – would have given hope to a small-town boy like me.
It would have made me realise I am as ‘normal’ as anyone else. My identity is as valid. And so is my love.
As a teenager, I questioned myself three decades ago. Things should be better for queer children and teenagers today – but there has hardly been any progress for members of the LGBTQIA+ community in the UAE. They are exactly where I was, and I fear, they will definitely continue to be.
I Repeat – Not an Easy Choice To Make
Without doubt, the landmark verdict by the Supreme Court of India in 2018 has changed the way LGBTQIA+ people live their lives in India. There is legal backing, an undeniable recognition and validation – even if the Indian society has miles to go.
I’m denied the privileges a heterosexual person is granted here. What’s normal for them is a luxury for us. I must think twice before expressing love – something which is intrinsic to being human.
So, when people ask me why I am choosing to live here, I want to tell them that as much as I would like to be free, I also worry about my survival. Thousands of queer people who live in cities like Dubai also do.
Only if I live, will I be able to celebrate my sexuality. My existence is a constant conundrum – I must choose between my livelihood and sexuality every day.
I am constantly choosing to live in a country that provides no dignity to my sexual orientation but gives me a better chance at survival. Let me reiterate, it is not an easy choice to make.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)