KHARTOUM (Reuters) - When Ali started blogging that he was Sudanese and gay, he did not realize he was joining a band of African and Middle Eastern gays and lesbians who, in the face of hostility and repression, have come out online.
But within days the messages started coming in to black-gay-arab.blogspot.com.
"Keep up the good work," wrote Dubai-based Weblogger 'Gay by nature'. "Be proud and blog the way you like," wrote Kuwait's gayboyweekly. Close behind came comments, posts and links purporting to be from almost half the countries in the Arab League, including Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain and Morocco.
Ali, who lists his home town as Khartoum but lives in Qatar, had plugged into a small, self-supporting network of people who have launched Web sites about their sexuality, while keeping their full identity secret. Caution is crucial - homosexual acts are illegal in most countries in Africa and the Middle East, with penalties ranging from long-term imprisonment to execution.
"The whole idea started as a diary. I wanted to write what's on my mind and mainly about homosexuality," he told Reuters in an e-mail. "To tell you the truth, I didn't expect this much response."
In the current climate, bloggers say they are achieving a lot just by stating their nationality and sexual orientation.
"If you haven't heard or seen any gays in Sudan then allow me to tell you 'You Don't live In The Real World then,'" Ali wrote in a message to other Sudanese bloggers. "I'm Sudanese and Proud Gay Also."
His feelings were echoed in a mini-manifesto at the start of the blog "Rants and raves of a Kenyan gay man" that stated: "The Kenyan gay man is a myth and you may never meet one in your lifetime. However, I and many others like me do exist; just not openly. This blog was created to allow access to the psyche of me, who represents the thousands of us who are unrepresented."
NEWS AND ABUSE
That limited form of coming out has earned the bloggers abuse or criticism via their blogs' comment pages or e-mails.
"Faggot queen," wrote a commentator called 'blake' on Kenya's 'Rants and raves'. "I will put my loathing for you faggots aside momentarily, due to the suffering caused by the political situation," referring to the country's post-election violence.
Some are more measured: "The fact that you are a gay Sudanese and proudly posting about it in itself is just not natural," a reader called 'sudani' posted on Ali's blog.
Some of the bloggers use the diary-style format to share the ups and downs of gay life -- the dilemma of whether to come out to friends and relatives, the risks of meeting in known gay bars, or, according to blogger "...and then God created Men!" the joys of the Egyptian resort town Sharm el-Sheikh.
Others have turned their blogs into news outlets, focusing on reports of persecution in their region and beyond.
The blog GayUganda reported on the arrests of gay men in Senegal in February. A month earlier, Blackgayarab posted video footage of alleged police harassment in Iraq.
Kenya's "Rants and Raves" reported that gay people were targets in the country's election violence, while blogger Gukira focused on claims that boys had been raped during riots. Afriboy organized an auction of his erotic art to raise funds "to help my community in Kenya".
There was also widespread debate on the comments made by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last September about homosexuals in his country.
The total number of gay bloggers in the region is still relatively small, say the few Web sites that monitor the scene.
"It is the rare soul who is willing to go up against such blind and violent ignorance and advocate for gay rights and respect," said Richard Ammon of GlobalGayz.com which tracks gay news and Web sites throughout the world.
"There are a number of people from the community who are blogging both from Africa and the diaspora but it is still quite sporadic," said Nigerian blogger Sokari Ekine who keeps a directory of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender blogs on her own Web site Black Looks.
WAYS TO MEET
The overall coverage may be erratic, but pockets of gay blogging activity are starting to emerge.
There are blogs bridging the Arabic-speaking world from Morocco in the west to the United Arab Emirates in the east. There is a self-sustaining circle of gay bloggers in Kenya and Uganda together with a handful of sites put up by gay Nigerians.
And then there is South Africa, where the constitutional recognition of gay rights has encouraged many bloggers to come wholly into the open.
"I don't preserve my anonymity at all. I am embracing our constitution which gives us the right to freedom of speech ... There is nothing wrong that I am doing," said Matuba Mahlatjie of the blog My Haven.
Beyond the blogging scene, the Internet's chat rooms and community sites have also become one of the safest ways for gay Africans and Arabs to meet, away from the gaze of a hostile society.
"That is what I did at first, I mean, I looked around for others until I found others," said Gug, the writer behind the blog GayUganda.
"Oh yes, I do love the Internet, and I guess it is a tool that has made us gay Ugandans and Africans get out of our villages and realize that the parish priest's homophobia is not universal opinion. Surprise, surprise!"
By Andrew Heavens
(Editing by Andrew Dobbie and Sara Ledwith)