Matthew Healey

A singer performing at a concert in Dubai caused controversy on Wednesday after defying the Gulf state’s anti-LGBT laws by kissing a male fan on the lips.

Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai has highlighted the hypocrisy of Abu Dhabi in its crackdowns on the LGBT community.

"The UAE has built a tolerant, cosmopolitan image, but the laws continue to reflect the conservative, traditional values of the society. It is not uncommon for visitors to be confused about what is or is not acceptable behaviour," she said.

However, even where homosexual acts are not criminalised in the Middle East, a largely conservative Muslim society where open displays of same-sex love and being transgender are severely frowned upon, homosexuals can often face harassment and abuse.

Radha Stirling comments on the apparent protest by The 1975’s singer Matthew Healy against Dubai’s anti-LGBTQ laws during local concert.

Homosexuality is illegal in the UAE, with punishments from serious jail terms all the way to a death sentence. Any expression of an LGBTQ identity, or of being in any sort of LGBTQ relationship is strictly forbidden in the Emirates. In recent years we have seen an Australian man report an assault to Dubai police, only to find himself charged with homosexuality, and sentenced to over a year imprisonment. Others have been arrested for «appearing» feminine in their clothing».

Dubai has become a popular destination for many celebrities and performers who champion LGBTQ issues, such as Lady Gaga and Madonna; and even openly Gay artists like Elton John and Ricky Martin. The contradiction has been conspicuous, and it is inevitable that Dubai’s conservative laws will need progressive reforms. It is noteworthy that Matthew Healy was reportedly responding to a member of the audience, most of whom, it is fair to suppose, believe in LGBTQ rights. Thus, the UAE’s laws are increasingly at odds with the attitudes and values of the population. It is unrealistic for Dubai’s leaders to think that merely hosting performers with progressive views will satisfy people’s desire for equality. It is more likely that such gestures will bring the fundamental conflict of values to a head. At some point, Dubai is going to discover that the image of tolerance creates expectations of actual tolerance, not only among foreigners but among locals.

I believe that Dubai, more than any other city in the Gulf, has made efforts to modernise and to become more liberal and Western; but the progress has been very slow, and on the LGBTQ issue, non-existent. It is possible that Healy’s action may cause a backlash among Emiratis, and have the opposite result he may have intended. Social and political reforms in the Gulf are not easy, and there is a reflexive resistance to any external pressures to change. But, sometimes a bold action is required to create an impetus for reform, so hopefully, Healy’s action may spark a genuine reevaluation in the UAE of repressive treatment of the LGBTQ community.