"By creating Ahwaa, we're crossing a red line in the society," said Ahmed Zidan, Mideast Youth's Arabic Editor, "trying to tackle and address the ignorance of the stereotypes here, and at the same time acknowledge the problem of homophobia and try to solve it. It's absolutely deadly here for the mainstream! But for the civilized small communities here, liberals and seculars, our friends come out to us. I have a handful of homosexual friends. Their families don't know, but as close friends in a small circle of special communities, homosexuals come out!"
The site's attitude and functionality are both open. You don't have to be gay to join, though you do have to be respectful; nor do you have to use your real name. Specific issues discussed range from religious issues surrounding homosexuality to whether Facebook is homophobic to simply saying it loud (she's gay and proud).
The site allows users to decide how much to make public and how much to keep private. It also has a section for those seeking, and looking to offer, support.
What distinguishes the site is how they establish relevance and dissuade haters, according to Mideast Youth's director Esra'a Al-Shahei.
"The functionality is what makes this unique - the site uses game mechanics (point system) which, based on how many you collect, gives you access to more hidden sections of the site, which will be introduced in version 2. You collect points depending on how many people find your comments to be useful. When you click 'This was helpful!' on a comment, that user gains 10 points. By leaving a comment / advice / experience, you get 5 points. It's a way for us to deal with trolling, the system takes care of them by gradually making them irrelevant - and they disappear. The community helps decide who is helpful and trustworthy enough to graduate to other levels depending on how engaged and interactive they are on the site. You can also filter by the type of response, or hide them all, or to view only the helpful ones."
By making the site bilingual in Arabic and English, Ahwaa throws out bridges from the Arabic and Muslim worlds to Western Muslims and non-Arabs. This is as groundbreaking as the site's topic. Not only can gay Muslims benefit from the advice and perspective of those living in less restrictive societies but those outside can lend support and get to know those within, dispelling, among other things, the myth of non-existence.
"The LGBTQ community in this region goes through so much with so little support," said Esra'a Al-Shahei, Director of Mideast Youth. "We felt a tool like this can help build a vibrant and supportive community in a way that was unique and interesting."
Making connections, across the Arab world and across the globe, makes it harder for people struggling with their sexuality to disappear, figuratively or by their own hand or otherwise.