The situation for gay and lesbian travellers in the Middle East is more diverse than you might imagine. Israel is the best place in the region to be gay – homosexuality is legal, and Tel Aviv in particular has a thriving gay and lesbian scene. Elsewhere, especially in conservative Jerusalem, the gay and lesbian scene is well and truly underground. The same doesn’t apply to the Palestinian Territories, and hundreds of Palestinian gays have been forced to seek refuge in Israel.
Homosexuality inhabits a legal black hole in Turkey – not illegal nor is it officially legal. On one hand, İstanbul and Ankara are both home to small but thriving gay communities. Turkey is, however, a Muslim country and homophobia is on the rise; the local authorities have from time to time used morality laws to close down gay advocacy groups. As always, discretion is key.
It is slightly more complicated in Egypt and Jordan, where, although the criminal code doesn’t expressly forbid homosexual acts, laws regarding public decency have been used to prosecute gays, especially in Egypt; the Jordanian capital Amman nonetheless has a couple of gay-friendly spots.
Homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon, Iran, Syria and Iraq, although Beirut takes a fairly liberal approach with a small but vibrant gay scene. In March 2014 a Lebanese court ruled that same-sex relations are not 'contradicting the laws of nature' and cannot therefore be considered a crime. A number of similar rulings have led some to claim that homosexual acts are effectively legal in the country, but the legal situation remains unclear.
In countries where homosexuality is illegal or ambiguous in a legal sense, penalties include fines and/or imprisonment. That does not mean that there isn't an active gay scene, but it does mean that gay identity is generally expressed only in certain trusted, private spheres.
Global Gayz – Middle East (www.globalgayz.com/middle-east) An excellent country-by-country rundown on the situation for gays and lesbians in all countries of the Middle East.
Spartacus International Gay Guide (www.spartacusworld.com/gayguide) Good for information on gay-friendly bars and hotels. It also has a Gay Travel Index.