Hidden in Plain Sight: Documentary Sheds Light on Pakistan's LGBT Community

The film offers a rare look at challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Pakistanis.

This group of actors performed in a play about transgender rights in Lahore, Pakistan, in March. (Photo: Courtesy 'Poshida' filmmaker)

Aug 18, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Many people in Pakistan’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community adhere to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Laws introduced under British colonial rule made homosexual acts illegal in the predominantly Islamic country. Now, a rare documentary aims to shed light on the issue by following the lives and challenges faced by several LGBT Pakistanis.

Poshida: Hidden LGBT Pakistan was made by three Pakistani filmmakers who wanted an international audience to better understand the stigma, religious conservatism, and violence faced by the LGBT community. Because of the risk of violence, the director interviewed by TakePart asked to remain anonymous. Here’s an excerpt, which has been edited for clarity.

TakePart: LGBT communities all over the world face varying degrees of discrimination, violence, and marginalization. Why was it important to you to tell this story about Pakistan specifically?

Poshida codirector: Pakistan is an interesting place to make an LGBT film because in some ways, it's easy to be who you are, and in other ways it's absolutely impossible to be yourself. It's such a complex landscape, which is influenced by class, gender, nationality, and social norms. For example, there is an American Pakistani in the film who understands clearly that she has the privilege of being able to leave Pakistan. But there are others—like our transgender guy contributor—who is terrified of being found out. In a way, the LGBT story in Pakistan tells you so much about how the country works, what the country’s values are, what its history is. For example, we talk about the legacy of British colonial rule. There were forms of transgender communities that lived unhindered until the British came along and criminalized everyone.

TakePart: What were the central challenges to creating this documentary, and how were you able to work around them?

Poshida codirector: It was less dangerous for us to make the film than for those in it to participate. For that reason, we need to be careful about where the film is screened and to take measures to protect the identity of people associated with it. The main challenges were to get certain people to take part, particularly lesbians and trans guys. We actually met far more contributors than are in the film, but so few were comfortable to be on camera.
The film editor in Pakistan did not want to be credited on the film, and some contributors asked for their voices and faces to be disguised.

TakePart: How did you gain the trust of members of the LGBT community—who may be putting themselves at risk by telling their story in a public forum?

Poshida codirector: We gained trust over many years of making friends and meeting their friends. In Pakistan having the “reference” or being introduced through someone trusted works wonders. Poshida is also a tribute to the strength and resilience of some of our contributors, those who've been vilified, persecuted, and thrown aside all of their lives.

TakePart: What do you think American audiences in particular need to better understand about the LGBT community in Pakistan?

Poshida codirector: There's an important part of the documentary that deals with U.S. involvement in LGBT rights in Pakistan. Basically, there have been local LGBT activists. But U.S. policy seems to be to bulldoze over cultural sensitivities, thereby angering the conservative and religious majority and undermining the efforts of native activists. For example, a pride event hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad incited angry protests and actually forced LGBT Pakistani activists further underground. It is really problematic, and we have people in the film giving examples of how that's happened. The other thing U.S. audiences, and the West as a whole, need to understand, is that the Pakistani LGBT landscape cannot be viewed through a Western lens. The film explains how gender variance and same-sex love has been intrinsic to South Asian cultural and religious history for centuries. It's only since the West has had this huge influence on Pakistan and the rest of South Asia through colonialism and culture that problems have started.

TakePart: Within the LGBT community, was it more challenging to gain access to one group or another?

Poshida codirector: Definitely. It was relatively easy to access transgender women because there is some state protection of their rights. They have been part of the cultural landscape for centuries, and in recent years their fortunes have started to look up with the passing of various laws that, for example, give legal recognition to them as "the third gender."
 Otherwise, it was quite difficult to gain trust and access to certain sections. Class was a big issue in this regard. The poorer contributors tended to be easier to access, and we think that's because they were so marginalized in the first place. It was almost like they had nothing to lose.