Hope for a new, gayer Middle East

First-ever pride parade in Jerusalem, Israel in 2002.

It’s no secret that the Middle East lacks the certain cosmopolitan feel that most American gays have grown accustomed to. The anti-gay laws that blanket the thousands of miles between the shores of Morocco and the bitter Iranian desert sound like something out of the Dark Ages. LGBT youth could never come out to their parents—it’s likely they would be killed. Yet, as the Arab Spring has shown, a variety of factors are creating sweeping change in the region that could possibly usher in a new view on homosexuality.

This year, Baku, Azerbaijan, is playing host to the Eurovision Song Contest—Europe’s version of American Idol. The contest has an enormous gay following; yet in Muslim Azerbaijan, homophobia is ingrained in the culture. Even though homosexuality is no longer illegal—putting the small Caspian republic far ahead of many of its neighbors—hate crimes toward the LGBT community are rarely reported because gays fear corrupt officials. Many young gays flee from their family, fearing they will be killed.

Many pundits predicted a fiasco in Baku. The rumor of a gay pride parade ignited tensions with the local population. Supporters said they would never get city approval for it, so didn’t bother trying. Yet there were no riots or a spike in hate crimes. Thousands of gay fans and tourists have reported feeling quite safe. Instead, Azerbaijan’s youth is being exposed to a new culture—and way of thinking. Young people across the Middle East are being influenced by radical new ways of communicating and an ever-growing reservoir of information. This is at the root of the Arab Spring, which primarily concerns corrupt government. But the essence of this revolution is secular.

The next generation of Islam is grabbing power, and it is less homophobic than the last. Western ideas have penetrated this age group most through the use of Twitter, Facebook and an ever-increasing number of media outlets. Fortunately for gays in the Muslim world, this is also by far the largest generation. Birth rates across the Middle East have exploded, as advances in medicine were made widely available. According to the CIA World Fact book, the median age in Egypt is 24; in Saudi Arabia, it’s 25; and in Azerbaijan, it’s 29. Compare that a median age of 39 in the U.S. In Japan—one of the world’s oldest populations—the median age is 45. It’s easy to see why change is coming so fast.

Two things are happening here that could soon mean an increasing tolerance of homosexuality in some areas of the Middle East. Young people are becoming more politically active, but they’re also becoming more informed and are looking beyond their own borders for influence. As this generation grows into power and their elders pass from favor, attitudes about homosexuals are likely to ease.

Seeing this from our side of the coin, it looks like a blessing. Although we may never have to travel to the Middle East, it’s fair to say most gays have a certain level of compassion for our cousins in less open-minded regions. Yet this is exactly what the most conservative Muslim clerics have been preaching against: the corruption of Islam through Western culture. Either way you look at it, it’s happening.

I’m a little conflicted on this. I’m not insinuating that Western culture is superior and should be imposed upon other peoples. Yet, call it “white man’s burden” or whatever you choose: developments like this should be viewed as positive in the human rights realm. It just so happens that many cultures repress all sorts of minorities. Does that make Westerners more enlightened? Ask a gay teen in Azerbaijan fleeing from his own family.

Conservative forces in the Middle East are fighting with their lives to keep that land locked in 700 A.D., but the globalization of culture is reaching their people whether they like it or not. It should be an exciting next decade for gay rights in the land of Islam. It didn’t happen overnight in America, and it won’t in Azerbaijan. But now, more than ever, is there a glimmer of hope.