White clouds chase one another across the blue sky and a lively westerly breeze blows through the empty streets of Malé. The Muslim Festival of the Sacrifice is just around the corner. Many have already left the capital and are on their way to visit relatives on smaller islands. Those who can afford it use these days off to travel to a neighbouring country.
In our regular café Hussain drinks his coffee black and smokes a cigarette. His eyes, which normally flash with joy of life, today are expressionless and do not reveal any emotion. I know the signs: My friend Hussain is only like that when he is deeply unhappy. We drink coffee and I listen to him, even if he doesn't want to reveal anything concrete at first. I know that at some point he will tell me what is bothering him. After all, life is not easy for Hussain.
Seven years ago he fell in love with a man. I was happy for him, but at the same time I had a queasy feeling in my stomach, which worsened when he told me that the subject of his affection, Ali, was married. In order to understand my ambivalent feelings, I have to explain what it means to be a gay man in the Maldives.
The draconian legislation of our country is still based on Sharia law and treats homosexuals very harshly. If the homosexual behaviour of men is discovered, the punishment, depending on the severity of the accusation, can range from a hundred public lashes to lengthy prison terms. And even after a flogging the punished person is unable to slot back into his former life. He is socially ostracised, ridiculed and mocked and it is almost impossible for him to find a new job. Surprisingly, homosexual love among women is not criminalized. However, lesbian love is not understood by many as “real” love or “real” sexuality. Women therefore do not have to fear drastic punishments, but they are also exposed to ridicule if their relationship becomes public.
I believe that a large proportion of Maldivian men and young people have had homosexual experiences at least once in their lives. But nobody admits it publicly. The famous exception is the case of the blogger Rasheed, who openly spoke out for the rights of homosexuals and had to atone for it: He was pelted with stones and attacked in front of his own house with a knife. He then left the country and today he has withdrawn from public life.
But in everyday life, even worse than legal discrimination is the social taboo of homosexuality among men. This is why many gay men lead a double life. They are married, have children and lead a very “normal” life on the outside. The social norm of marriage, the pressure of the family, is simply too powerful for many to resist. They go elsewhere to follow their true desires. This was also the case for Ali, Hussain's great love.
Although it is very common in the Maldives for married men to have an extra-marital affair another man, I had warned my friend against it. It inevitably means becoming emotionally dependent: to always be the lover, the second choice, to live in standby mode and only be able to live in secret. But in love, Hussain told me, there is no logic or reason.
But I am getting ahead of myself. At first, Hussain only saw his situation through rose-tinted glasses. A few weeks ago he raced enthusiastically into my apartment. “Ali invited me over the holidays to a romantic holiday trip to Sri Lanka,” he said. “And what about Ali's wife?” I asked worriedly. “That's no problem at all, she's going to her parents' home island in the Ari Atoll,” he replied, and none of my objections could dull the radiant smile on his face.
Now Hussain is sitting next to me, petrified, looking so desperate that I can no longer bear it and ask. In a faltering voice he tells me that Ali's wife spontaneously changed her mind and is now coming to Sri Lanka too. Apparently she had become suspicious and wanted to know what was going on with her husband's extremely close friendship with Hussain. Her innocent request to come on the journey made Ali nervous. He cancelled Hussain's trip at short notice to avoid the risk of being outed as gay. An argument on the phone finally ended with the two lovers taking a break from their affair. That's why Hussain now sits in front of me, looking as if the world had come to an end.
There is nothing I can say, no words of comfort. Because no matter what I say, the simple fact remains that homosexual love in the Maldives is, sooner or later, always painful.
The chances of finding a happy, monogamous homosexual partnership on the Maldives is near impossible – particularly if you are Maldivian. For tourists on the resort islands these laws and the social ostracism do not apply: There are even resorts that are advertised on the Internet as “a dream location for gay weddings”. Gay Maldivians can, if they can afford it, enjoy a little break from the constant concealment of their true nature on a resort island. But in everyday life, in the streets of Malé or Addu City, two men could never hold hands.
Recently, a beauty salon in Malé had to close after massive protests. Its misdemeanour: In an advertisement, the rainbow flag was to be seen alongside cheerful, beautiful people. The case of a Maledivian, who married his partner in Berlin in August 2019, also made headlines. His wedding photo, posted on Facebook, triggered a huge reaction on social media and even made it onto Maldivian television. It was reported there that this was the first case in which a Maldivian citizen had married a man. A member of the Maldivian parliament wrote on Twitter: “I will inform all relevant authorities to deprive him of his citizenship.” These reactions show that the situation for those who love the same sex is hardly getting better. On the contrary, the social pressure from orthodox religious groups is increasing, and nobody dares challenge the strict laws.
Some of us therefore decide to suppress the inner part of ourselves that longs for romance and love. Others engage in hasty, physical encounters in anonymous guest houses, mediated through apps like Grindr or Planet Romeo. This is risky, because there is always the danger of being outed or of being caught in a spontaneous police check. Others die a thousand mental deaths because they are unable to lead a fulfilled life, since their beloved is already married. And to avoid the harsh reality, many resort to pipe dreams, hoping that one day a beautiful knight will come riding on a white horse to sweep them away. This constant fear of being persecuted and publicly exposed dominates our everyday lives.
It is said that the Maldives are a paradise on earth. That may be true. I am sure it is like paradise for the millions of tourists who sun themselves on our exquisite coral islands. But for those of us who live here and have to bury who we really are, the reality is far from sunny.