Peril and privilege: gay expat nightlife in Dubai

Peril and privilege: gay expat nightlife in Dubai

Ryan Centner overcame significant challenges to investigate how Western gay men living in Dubai use their economic, social and cultural privileges to create communities where they can meet and socialise. Homosexuality is illegal in Dubai, so gay men technically risk deportation, imprisonment and even the death penalty.

How can a sense of belonging be forged in a setting where one’s existence is forbidden? That is the question that LSE’s Dr Centner and his co-author Harvard’s Manoel Pereira Neto explore in their groundbreaking research into Dubai’s expatriate gay men’s nightlife.

But it was not an easy topic to research. Dr Centner explains: “It’s an illegal, or criminalised, identity and set of behaviours and practices, so in a very general sense, it’s a taboo. And taboo subjects are very often under-researched, sometimes because people have a hard time gaining access, gaining that trust, but also because, even if people gain that access, there could be significant repercussions for themselves as researchers, or for the people who are the research participants.

“As two queer researchers, we were able to enter the worlds of relatively privileged Western gay expatriates. Secrecy is often the norm, but the field was familiar to us, through previous visits and research projects.”

he researchers carried out fieldwork in Dubai, in stints, over a span of six years. They began with participant-observation in eight bars and clubs. They also conducted interviews, relying on personal contacts, to find 26 gay men, aged 24-48 and representing 15 nationalities. Most were single and had attended university in North America or Europe. They came from a wide range of salaries and occupations, including airline cabin crew and bankers. Just over half could be categorised as “white.”

Their forthcoming paper explains: “Much of the Dubayyan gay nightlife takes place in venues within the city’s copious international hotels, which are technically open to all who can afford them. These palatial, shimmering structures are havens from the extreme heat, even hours after sundown.”

The researchers wondered, at first, how so many men knew that these are events attended by many other gay men: “These were indeed ‘parties’ – on a specific night of the week for different sites – frequented by gays, not bars identified as gay. Not a single venue’s webpage uses the word ‘gay’ or related euphemisms, nor do they hint at targeting a gay crowd.”

It transpires that all information about the parties is by word of mouth or WhatsApp group chats with other expatriates. As soon as a party appears on a TripAdvisor review or blog, it will either change name or venue, or both, to divert potential intervention by Emirati authorities. Gay dating apps are also shunned for fear of entrapment by police.

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