Words by Wajeeh Lion
Featured Images: @suhail_y_y
This article is part of the “Ya Leil Ya Eyein” issue
Suhail Yousef AlYahya was arrested in October 2019 after posting pictures of himself posing with his cat wearing swimming shorts on his Twitter account. Suheil was sentenced to three years in prison and tortured in the form of 800 lashes and has been in Thahban prison in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia ever since.
This was not the first time Suhail was in prison. He was incarcerated in February 2018 on charges of parental disobedience, a draconian Saudi law that allows parents to declare their children disobedient and hold them in contempt. Following his release in November 2018, he started his college education in California State University, Fullerton where he was a student until the Saudi government lured him back under the pretense that his mother was dying.
Suhail happens to be one of my clients. Since leaving Saudi Arabia and reaching political asylum in the US, I have been working in advocacy and international LGBTDQI+ human rights with American Civil Liberties Union, Jobs With Justice, Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and Institute for Gulf Affairs. We are advocating for our community’s rights to safety and freedom, two basic rights that many others are denied. In Suhail’s case, we have hit a roadblock because Saudi authorities have blocked access to him and other prisoners like him. We demand more.
There is no such thing as “LGBTQ rights” in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, though this has not stopped us from making change. I haven’t seen anyone who put it better than Adam Crafton in his October 2021 article, “Risking death to tell the truth: Saudi Arabia’s LGBTQ+ Community,” published by TheAthleticUK. He wrote, “The imperative is clear. This is Saudi Arabia, where the adherence to strict interpretations of Sharia law renders it illegal to be LGBT+ and punishable by arrest, lashings, imprisonment, or even death… The state is so powerful that, on many occasions, the state does not need to police the situation. The Kingdom’s subjects will do it for them.” Saudi Arabia has no laws in place to protect the LGBTQ+ community from violence — assailants are not prosecuted or held accountable to the victims.
Within these societal and legal limitations, there are semi-secret LGBTQ organizers who provide material and moral support to adults and young people within the community, including tips about hiding their identity to avoid getting caught. These are everyday people like lawyers, doctors, students, educators, and engineers; dissidents who stretch within and from the diaspora. One way these activists work together to contribute to and protect the Arab LGBTQ community is by inviting the community to participate in Twitter spaces to discuss topics such as sexual education, relationship advice, and domestic violence. These conversations, often led by myself or members of the LGBTQ community in Saudi Arabia, rely on the anonymity of the participants. The sessions generally last from one to six hours, at times reaching 12 hours. The spaces become a mixture of education and therapy, as participants are finally able to tell their stories. The sharing of stories is a defining action in the fight against homophobia and the attacks on the LGBTQ community in Saudi Arabia – it is essential that we become visible.
At times, clients will use the conversation platform to contact me and ask for help. I assist by finding resources and contacts nearby to secure the safety and wellbeing of the client, and sometimes I act as the client’s main point of contact. Generally, one of three things will happen: we will lose contact with the client, the client will not have the resources to leave, or the client will manage to escape. The process is complex and frankly heartbreaking. For example, one client claimed that he was sexually assaulted by his brother and the police, and he had been facing domestic abuse at home. We connected the client with the US State Department and Lifeline Embattled CSO Assistance Fund, but we still lost contact with the client and are unsure of his whereabouts.
As the Saudi LGBTQ community gains attention from international media, we are able to build a larger international network. Our hard work is paying off. Journalists including Nick Miller at TheAthletic have contacted me and other activists about the Saudi LGBTQ human rights crisis, and published articles that have increased our visibility and allowed us to share our experiences, stories, and work with international audiences.
We can create spaces on social media platforms like Twitter and Clubhouse for the general public to learn more about the crisis and participate in an open public dialog. Many of the people didn’t know we existed. I lead and/or participate in these conversations daily, speaking to allies along with those who wish the LGBTQ+ community harm. People of all genders and sexual orientations and as young as 17, from both inside and outside Saudi Arabia, join these conversations. Some participants who are unaware of or even opposed to LGBTQ+ rights will leave the session as allies. The breadth of the audiences and openness of the conversations is unprecedented, and no topic is off-limits. It is normal and essential for us to meet as allies and enemies amidst the cacophony of new information.
Social media has also helped us in advocating for Suhail. We create hashtags like #FreeSuhail and #SuhailPride, even getting enough attention to trend on Twitter in Saudi Arabia on more than one occasion. We create Twitter storms, which involve flooding the platform with posts specific to a topic or hashtag. We connect with international journalists who have further amplified Suhail’s voice; We also organize actions for the community, including a “pride for Suhail movement” in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Dublin, London, and Berlin during the global Pride celebration on June 26th, 2021. As people from around the world marched and celebrated together, a projector beamed his face and a rainbow onto the embassy buildings with the captions, “Prisons are full of innocents like Suhail” and “We fight the dark by the light.” We joined the Pride March with banners bearing slogans calling for Suhail’s release, returning to Twitter to share evidence of the event.
As Suhail is set to be released in October 2022, we now rely on social media to demand his immediate release! We are still waiting for the Saudi government but we know that is hopeless, that’s why we turn to the international community for assistance to take action now. Though the Saudi government has claimed many times that they are modernizing the country, they remain loyal to the old way that is backed by religious and cultural “tradition”. On the other hand, these modernization are in name only to change the world perspective on Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi LGBTQ+ and allied community is a team of underground gladiators, risking everything to seek true modernization and a realization of equality and justice. As the community unites, we find resources to support each other and grow bigger. We work tirelessly to amplify the voices of those who are suffering injustice in Saudi Arabia by plugging into international media, to tell the world about the horrors of what it means to live as an LGBTQ+ identifying person in Saudi Arabia. We choose to face these awful realities with resilience and the hope of a better tomorrow.
About the writer:
The first openly gay man from Saudi Arabia. He has political asylum in the USA. A graduate of Kansas State University with degrees in Political Science and Economics, Abdulrahman Alkhiary (“Wajeeh Lion”), is committed to international advocacy for human rights, anti-violence, and LGBTQ+ rights. He was the first recipient of the International Leadership Award from the Kansas State Alumni Center, he is also one of the recipients of the 30 under 30 Pi Kappa Phi achievement award. @WajeehLionn