"Coming Out To America" tells the story of Sam, a gay Egyptian seeking asylum in the United States. Though Egypt doesn't have any explicit laws against homosexuality, gay men there are routinely arrested and tortured. In one infamous incident, 52 men were arrested in 2001 on a floating disco called the Queen Boat -- an event that left Sam, then a clandestine gay man living in Cairo, even more afraid.
Details about the Queen Boat incident vary depending on the source, but here's how Human Rights Watch described it and other events in a 2004 report called "In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt's Crackdown of Homosexual Conduct:"
May 2001 saw the best-known case in the crackdown: fifty-two men ultimately went to trial, many arrested during a police raid on a Cairo discotheque, the "Queen Boat," frequented by gay men. The proceedings, less judicial exercise than extravaganza, accused the men -- many of whom did not even know each other until their jailing -- not just of dissident desires but of participating in a blasphemous conspiracy. Sensational headlines savaging them as "Satan-worshippers" and "sexual perverts" filled the papers (and) spread a new image of homosexual conduct: no longer a private matter but a menace to public safety, the code of a cult eroding moral values, a subversive network threatening state security.
The hysteria made the "Queen Boat" case the most public episode in the campaign, and it indeed comprised a watershed in some ways. Before the headlines, Cairo had the tentative beginnings of a community of men who desired other men -- people who perceived a commonality among one another, and sometimes (though not always) described themselves as "gay." A few pubs and meeting places, circles of friends who shared stories and talked about the meanings of their desires -- these were the substance of that incipient solidarity, which remained largely invisible to others, and neither challenged any authority nor impinged perceptibly on the public sphere. The scandal and scare tactics around the trial, the paranoia the press evoked, shut the inchoate community down. Friendships died and solitude set in.
Yet the Queen Boat trial ... marked neither commencement nor climax of the crackdown. Even before the bar raid, agents of the Vice Squad (a morals police within the Ministry of Interior's national police force) had started surveillance of the Internet, answering personals advertisements placed by men seeking men, arranging meetings with them, and arresting them. Internet entrapment expanded until, by early 2003, it appeared to reach a rate of at least one arrest a week. It both builds on and enforces the growing fragmentation of friendships and atomization of trust. Warnings of danger, words of caution, no longer move through shattered circles of increasingly suspicious men. Having closed down places where community could be affirmed and communication could happen, police are now in position to pick off men one by one.
In other cases, police in Cairo and elsewhere have raided private apartments, or wiretapped phones to collect and arrest contacts, or used "trusted secret sources" to finger men suspected of homosexual conduct. Vice Squads maintain lists of homosexuals; massive roundups may follow if a gay man is murdered, with dozens or even hundreds arbitrarily detained. The victims are interrogated and tortured, sometimes for weeks.
In that environment, Sam believes he can never be free. That's why he's applied to stay forever in America; if he's granted asylum, he will never be able to return to Egypt. It's a heartbreak Sam is willing to endure. "Here, I can live as a gay person. I can just fall in love and have a home and a place like everyone else," he says. "But there, I can't."
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More from our Immigration archives: "Gay immigrants aren't alone in fighting the 'social visibility' criterion in pleas for asylum."