“There’s no one around”, she whispered to me as we waited for the old-fashioned elevator to reach the floor of our AirBnB. As we stood in the hallway of this old apartment building on the Nile in the Dokka district of Cairo, Chrissy leaned in to kiss me. “No!” I said suddenly and pushed her back to her surprise. I pointed out the camera I had just seen in the corner behind her. That was a close one!
This exchange pretty much summed up what it was like to visit Egypt as a lesbian. I found myself always looking for people who might see us, cameras in the corners of secure buildings, museums and tombs and was always careful not to look at Chrissy with too much love in my eyes. Any false step was a potential huge risk. And if you think this is alarmist, read the incredibly heart-breaking (and scary) story of Sarah Hegazy, an Egyptian lesbian who was brave enough to raise a Pride flag at a concert. She was arrested, tortured (gagged and subjected to electric shock until she became unconscious) and verbally and sexually assaulted.
And just to be clear, showing affection in public is not acceptable in Egypt regardless of sexual orientation. However, lesbians take a much bigger risk when doing so. I was always worried that I would slip up and call my girlfriend one of my obvious pet names like “baby” or “honey”. Or, what if I looked at her too intently?What if someone detected something when I smiled at her. The risk was always there. Where straight couples showing affection in public would be frowned upon, the potential outcomes for lesbians and other LGBTQ people are far worse.
Egypt is full of wonder with its ancient past being so well-documented and interesting things around every corner. There are plenty of reasons lesbians would want to visit the Land of the Pharaohs, but definitely beware that being a woman-loving woman is neither accepted nor tolerated. I wish I could report that what happened to Sarah Hegazy was an unusual occurrence, but sadly police brutality against lesbians is unfortunately commonplace.
The official response of the Egyptian government is that they do not recognize lesbian relationships at all; they simply do not exist. Much like our gay male counterparts, lesbianism falls under “sexual debauchery”, an arrestable offense carrying a punishment of up to six years in prison. Lesbians are said to have a “psycho sexual sickness”. As a result, Egyptian police often target lesbians (as well as other LGBTQ people) on dating apps in order to arrest and beat them.
This need for extreme caution was not new to me. I had experienced it when traveling with my former wife to Jamaica where we did indeed fear for our personal safely. I had found it difficult to remember not to call her by any pet name or term of endearment, not to touch her too lovingly in public and not to physically console her when she was sick. I tried this in Egypt too.
For two weeks, my girlfriend Chrissy and I learned about Egyptian history, sampled the many vegan Egyptian dishes and experienced desert landscapes. When we were sitting in the White Desert watching the son dip behind the horizon, Chrissy told me she wished she could hold me.
I recalled the technique I developed in Jamaica for safe intimacy in a public place. “I’m putting my arm around you ” I whispered. “I’m pulling you in close and kissing you on the cheek”. We sat safely apart, but imagined holding each other in the romantic setting.
We managed to sneak a few kisses when we both felt safe after checking for cameras. Due to the Covid pandemic, so few travelers were in Egypt. We sometimes found ourselves alone, save for some workers at iconic sites like Karnak and the Luxor Temple. Chrissy was even completely alone when she entered the Great Pyramid of Giza. Once, in a tomb of the Valley of the Kings, we were able to kiss each other after the guard stepped out to pray.
So, for lesbians considering visiting Egypt…go, enjoy, taste, learn, explore! Just be very cautious and aware of your surroundings. If you are not willing or able to give up holding her hand, putting your arm around her, kissing her and lovingly call her by her pet name, Egypt is not safe for you. I very much hope that Egyptians, as well as people in other countries where homosexuality is illegal, come to see that lesbians are not a threat to their society. Until then, be careful out there!