Back in 2016, while the United States was still celebrating the nationwide legalisation of same-sex marriage the year before, Jordan was busy trying to shut down the Arab world’s first LGBTQ online magazine, My.Kali. Khalid Abdel-Hadi had launched the magazine eight years earlier as a 17-year-old Arab Muslim gay man in need of an outlet to express himself. In the intervening time, My.Kali had grown to reach more than 100,000 monthly readers from around the world.
As a teenager, Abdel-Hadi kept a diary of his thoughts and feelings, but his family and schoolmates were always opening it. He couldn’t be out even in what was supposed to be the most intimate of spaces.
In 2007, he and some friends decided they needed to create their own outlet if they wanted to find their voices. “At that time, you really needed to dig deep on the internet to find stories about gender and sexuality. It wasn’t as easy as it is today,” he said. “ My.Kali came from a need, not a want—the need to express oneself.”
Being obsessed with magazines from a young age, Abdel-Hadi desperately wanted to exist in one. He tried interning at local publications—mainly coffee-table magazines that covered local events, fashion, and décor—but he was rejected for being “too out there,” he says. He and his friends decided to put him on the cover of the first issue—a teenage Abdel-Hadi posed shirtless next to the headline “Alert Miss-Attitude.” Within days, Jordanian media exploded with coverage of the magazine, outing Abdel-Hadi as the gay founder of the region’s first-ever LGBTQ magazine. Many blurred out Abdel-Hadi’s face; others blacked out the whole image, considering the picture to be gay pornography.
“At the time, the Jordanian parliamentary elections were going on, but the news about the first Arab LGBTQ magazine overshadowed the whole thing,” Abdel-Hadi said. “People went crazy, and I thought I was going to be imprisoned or killed.”
As a teenager, Abdel-Hadi didn’t fully comprehend the severity of that label, first Arab LGBTQ magazine, which he says was imposed on it by the media. “I didn’t understand the idea of having an identity and structure for the magazine,” he says. “I was young and just did what I wanted without really thinking of the consequences.”
At first, the magazine had only a few hundred readers, but with the international attention, it quickly reached 4,000 readers a day; at the magazine’s peak, some articles would reach as many as 50,000 readers. People wanted to read about the experiences of other LGBTQ Arabs, coming-out stories, and articles about regional pop culture. Abdel-Hadi’s inbox flooded with messages from LGBTQ people across the region. One message particularly resonated with him: It came from a gay man who was contemplating suicide but found solace in My.Kali and the fact that there were more people like him out there.
“Ten years ago stories about gender and sexuality were not as accessible as they are now,” Abdel-Hadi said. “The internet helped many people who were confused and thought they were the only ones.” Jordan is one of the few countries in the Arab world that doesn’t criminalise same-gender sexual activity, but being LGBTQ there is still extremely taboo.
Abdel-Hadi says that things would have been easier for him if he had something like My.Kali when he was growing up. “It would have been better than watching Will & Grace on American channels or reading between the lines of Arabic films,” he said. “The magazine really needed to exist.”
“At the time, the Jordanian parliamentary elections were going on, but the news about the first Arab LGBTQ magazine overshadowed the whole thing. People went crazy, and I thought I was going to be imprisoned or killed.”
Since My.Kali launched, the LGBTQ community in the Arab world has become much more vocal about its need to be acknowledged. Several publications were started in the years between 2012 and 2015— Mawaleh in Syria, Ehna in Egypt, Gayday in Tunisia, Aswat in Morocco, and Barra in Lebanon. Each one has been shut down because of political unrest, death threats, or governments blocking their sites and social media pages.
In 2016, My.Kali released its first-ever bilingual issue, featuring articles in both English and Arabic, and was able to reach a much wider audience than with its previous English-only issues. The Arabic version of the magazine again caught the eye of Jordan’s conservative elites, and the website was blocked. “We knew the Arabic version was a risky move,” says Abdel-Hadi. The staff migrated the content to a Medium page in order to get back up online, then worked with Access Now, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to an open and free internet, to bring its own website back a few months later.
My.Kali is now the only LGBTQ media outlet left standing in a region where queer and trans people are still widely rejected, which puts a big onus on the magazine to keep lifting up the voices of Arab LGBTQ people. That’s why Abdel-Hadi plans to bring a new structure to the magazine, which will explore music, art, fashion, and politics in depth and with a broader reach. “The roots of the magazine are in Jordan,” he said, “but we are a regional magazine that tries to include people of all genders, sexualities, and nationalities.” It might be better for LGBTQ people in the Arab world now than it was ten years ago, but the fight to be heard and recognised continues.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.