Islamabad - For decades, homosexuals in Pakistan have been hiding behind curtains of secrecy to avoid stigma in a conservative Muslim society.
Many who revealed their sexuality have been abandoned by families, deserted by friends and looked down on by society as a whole.
The theocratic Pakistani state was out to punish homosexuals for what was regarded a sin in the Islamic republic.
The marginalized lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is now making slow but steady inroads into normal life.
Last month, a virtual platform was launched to help members of the LGBT community socialize, share their experiences - and vent their frustrations.
“The main motivation is our own life stories,” said Fakhir Q, one of the people behind the pioneering Queer Pakistan website.
“We have been through a lot and we know how it is growing up in a society like Pakistan with practically no support whatsoever.”
“So we want to provide a platform for people like us to show them they are not alone,” Fakhir said, giving only his first name.
He said the response to Queer Pakistan has been “remarkable,” with interest from all parts of Pakistani society.
The membership is from both the genders, with some 44 percent identifying themselves as female and 56 as males.
“It's pretty diverse, goes from lower-middle to elite-protected class. The age group is 19-35,” Fakhir added.
However, except for a few videos with subtitles in Urdu, most content on the site is in English.
But Fakhir said most young people with a urban or semi-urban background can use the site, as English is a widely understood language in Pakistan.
“I'm very excited about it,” said Noman, who had to leave his job with a private bank in the capital Islamabad because he was bullied for being a gay.
“It is great to have a place where we can meet like-minded people, it doesn't matter that it's only virtually.”
But whether the excitement will last may depend on the wider reaction to the initiative, and the signs for the LGBT community are far from positive.
“These practices are completely against Islam. It is the government's duty to control them,” said Mufti Munibur Rehman, a religious leader representing the relatively moderate Brelvi Islam.
“The government should legislate to permanently ban these sinful characters and the society must boycott them,” he added.
Similarly, a spokesperson for Pakistan Telecommunication Authority said the government was already examining the content of the website and would block it if found objectionable.
“We can block all websites with either blasphemous or pornographic content under the law,” spokesman Kamran Ali said.
Farzana Bari, Pakistan's leading expert on gender issues, said there was a long way to go before sexuality could be discussed in the public domain.
“If some people want to create a space for them (LGBTs), we should let them do that,” Bari said. “But it is not easy. It is still a taboo.”
A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that Pakistan was among the least tolerant about homosexuality among the 39 countries surveyed.
Social rejection of homosexuality was evident when a gay pride celebration at the United States embassy in Islamabad provoked angry reaction across Pakistan in 2011.
American flags were burnt, anti-US slogans were chanted and mobs attempted to storm consulates in various cities to denounce the event.
“The West should not try to impose their values on us. We are a society based on religion,” cleric Rehman told dpa.
Fakhir said he didn't have high hopes for major change in attitudes anytime soon.
“The current situation in Pakistan is quite grim. We are looking forward to pushing into the cyber world and causing ripples that will engage others and bring about a big change,” Fakhir said.
“It would be stupid to push for marriage equality just yet. So all we are hoping to do using this website is speak out loud and make our presence felt.” - Sapa-dpa