Hani Homsi (not his real name) is young, Syrian and gay. He now lives in the UK, and has agreed to meet me to talk about his formative years in Damascus, as well as his perspective on the current Syrian uprising.
But first I want to know what he made of the 'Gay Girl in Damascus' hoax - a blog purportedly written by a young lesbian living in the Syrian capital but which, it turned out, was the work of a 40-year-old heterosexual American man. Probably not the representation gay Syrians had been longing for?
"I don't think it helped in any way." Hani's voice falters slightly as he looks around the room, leans forward, and fixes his gaze on the tape recorder between us. We are in a secluded corner of a sprawling café but he is nervous, and I will soon appreciate why. I reassure him that neither his name nor any other identifying details will be published. He sits back, takes a breath and continues:
"A tactic of the regime has been to say, 'It's all fabrication'. They could have said about [about the blog], 'Look, this is something westerners are bringing you which we're sure you don't want'."
Hani provides further clarification when he tells me that the word "gay" does not easily translate into Arabic, and the notion of being gay is widely regarded in Syrian society as a "corrupting western invention". He believes that the hoax could have made it easier for anti-gay religious groups to advance their cause. As for the regime's attitude to gay people, "they have bigger things to worry about now" and don't meddle in citizens' personal lives "as long as you support them and don't interfere politically".
Political interference, as far as President Bashar al-Assad's government is concerned, means any detectable expression of dissent, no matter how peaceful. The regime's response to opposition demonstration, as we are seeing reported on an almost daily basis, is violent and merciless.
Hani has heard many stories from his family about "friends of friends" who have been brutally tortured, murdered or have simply disappeared. "It is just unbelievable the amount of cruelty they [the regime] are capable of. Really, you would rather die 100 times than be taken by them."
The last time Hani saw his parents was several weeks ago, when they met him outside of Syria. He was shocked by how anxious and wary they had become.
"When we were talking, they were just whispering. They said they were not used to speaking [at normal volume] even in the privacy of their own home - because there may be listening devices. I found that shocking - very, very different to when I last lived there [in Damascus]. Watching the news, on channels such as Al Jazeera, they drew the curtains, as they felt they couldn't afford to be seen watching these channels."
It is a stark reminder of Hani's bravery in speaking to me. He has spent many years keeping quiet, bearing a double burden of secrecy - about his dislike of the regime and about his sexuality - but he is not holding back now, spilling out vivid, articulate sentences in perfect English. I take my chance and venture a more personal question: when did he realise he was gay?
"I always sensed I was different," he pauses. "No, I knew I was different."
How did he know? How does a gay Syrian explore their sexuality, given the prevailing attitude among fellow citizens?
"This is a bit private. Do you want to know about it?" He grins at my enthusiastic nodding. "I did have an underground affair with a next-door friend of mine. We did actually have an affair. Our families knew each other; he was just one year older than me; he went to the same school."
Hani's eyes light up and he giggles as he remembers the guileless way in which the affair began.
"I was 14, and I remember it was winter. We were all watching a film, me, him and his sister... Suddenly there was a power failure, as there had been a snow storm - every time there's snow, the city gets completely cut off... so we decided to play hide-and-seek. We [Hani and his male friend] ended up hiding together, under the bed, we were really close. And we felt something, and it started then and there... both of us were so sort of thrilled by it. It was almost a surprise and so convenient - he lived just next-door. I remember saying goodbye, and saying 'I'll see you here tomorrow'."
The clandestine relationship lasted for six years, throughout the boys' school days. Once he was old enough, Hani would occasionally borrow the family car and drive with his friend into the mountains north-west of Damascus - preferably in mid-winter, to maximise the likelihood of getting snowed-in. Was it a love affair?
"We never talked about each other as a couple, let alone using the word gay to describe ourselves. At one point, he even started going out with a girl." So his friend wasn't gay? "I think he was worried about his social image: he wanted to have a girlfriend. And he was very, very good-looking, so any girl wanted to go out with him. Thinking about him now, I think he might have been bi [-sexual], if you want to use that categorisation."
I am surprised that the pair's illicit rendezvous continued so frequently over such a long time, not least because I had always assumed that in less tolerant societies there is greater pressure on gay people to curb and conceal their sexuality. Hani turns this supposition on its head, explaining that the scarcity of "gayness" in Syrian culture and public discourse equates to a certain degree of obliviousness. Male relations are "more queer" inasmuch as they are "less defined" (as straight, gay or otherwise); men kiss when greeting each other and may hold hands in public "without anyone really noticing".
The boyhood friends keep in touch but have not met for more than three years. I detect no sense of regret in Hani, who is now in his late-20s and openly gay among his British friends. I wonder what it is like living so different a life now, and watching from afar the escalating troubles in the country that remains his family's home. Does he believe the Syrian people will manage to overthrow their oppressors, as the Egyptians did?
"It's difficult. The difference is, the Egyptian army wasn't being controlled by the government. In Syria, the state is everything; whether you're from the university, the hospital, from anything, you are all controlled by one entity. The army is very much the heart of it, and they have the power."
If President Assad's time is running out - and surely it is - will his departure mark a hopeful new beginning for Hani's family and former neighbours? I am surprised by the cautious, ambivalent tone of the response: before the uprising, Hani explains, the regime had been slowly loosening its stranglehold on civil liberties and was consequently gaining support among "an emergent class of relatively wealthy Damascene and Aleppan merchants". The president was beginning to seem almost 'progressive' (in the western-capitalist sense) - at least in comparison to his father Hafez al-Assad, whose leadership style was shaped by Soviet communism.
"They [the regime] were starting to allow lots of things" - such as private TV channels showing satirical drama (satirical in a "disguised, Shakespearian" sense), and some non-state-controlled newspapers with articles criticising the government.
Assad's fatal mistake, according to Hani, was to ignore the discontent in poorer areas of Syria, "where people thought, 'No matter what I do, I can't improve my living circumstances, I'm just going nowhere - but the people next door have done it, so why can't we?'... The fact these people have been neglected is ironic, given that Hafez al-Assad's revolution [when he became president, in 1971] was pretty much a peasant uprising against the landowning classes of Damascus and Aleppo."
I want to ask Hani about his hopes for his family and whether they know he is gay, but it is getting late and café staff are shuffling in around us, wiping down tables and preparing to close for the day.
We exchange emails the following day, and he makes a startling disclosure: his parents have suspected he is gay since his father "found some stuff in my diary", about five years ago. This "stuff" revealed nothing about the affair, but Hani's mention of having felt attracted to other men was enough to elicit furious non-acceptance.
"We had massive row... They were some of the worst days in my life. I really thought I'd lost them forever." An uneasy truce was reached, whereby Hani "was made to promise to change and become 'normal', i.e. heterosexual - otherwise, I would have been disowned".
To this day his parents remain "very suspicious" and "don't dare ask questions" about his personal life. When his mother expresses her wish that he one day marry a woman, he plays his part in "a game of perfect pretence".
Except it is not a game - games are fun, like hide-and-seek. Syria may be drawing near to a new era of free expression, but for gay Syrians like Hani one realm of secrecy will remain as compulsory and oppressive as ever.
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