On Gay Businesses, Emancipation and Activism

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One of the major problems inherent in building any emancipatory politics on the basis of an “oppressed” identity is the assumption that that the support of that identity and its promotion should, as a political strategy, take precedence over any and all other considerations. The latest battle cry of many Lebanese LGBT activists, for example, has been that we must, as a community, support gay businesses, and that doing so is a legitimate form of activism for LGBT rights complementary to more traditional strategies, such as lobbying for legal reform or speaking publicly about non-normative sexualities. Both the gay tourism and the gay bar industries have been at the forefront of promoting this idea, encouraging queers to spend their money in queer-owned businesses under the mistaken assumption that by supporting these businesses we are supporting “the cause” – however ill-defined and subject to disagreement that “cause” may be.

Of course, a growing awareness that where we spend our money and how and what we consume makes a difference is a good thing, but a myopic awareness is dangerous. Granted, the presence of a gay bar scene has been an integral part of building a visible LGBT presence in the country, an almost natural outgrowth of the liberal, promiscuous nightlife that began to mushroom in Beirut in the mid to late 90s. We forget though, that “gay businesses” (by which I mean owned by a gay person or serves a predominantly gay clientele), far from being a catalyst for liberation, can be, and in many cases are, discriminatory. Of the gay bars that exist in Beirut for example, several do not allow trans people, and particularly trans women, into their premises.

The thriving gay life as projected by the bar scene gives an illusion of liberation, albeit a very powerful one. And that illusion rests only with those who are able to buy it, consume it. Positing the rise of gay bars as either a tool towards or an end goal of liberation, or even as a sign of progress, allows us to forget who is being excluded. Queers who are poor or female are ultimately left out of the equation. It is a sign of progress only if we conceive of progress as benefitting a select few who have a certain amount of privilege to begin with, and if we deem it good that queers are being encouraged to consume themselves into emancipation.

Businesses owned by gay people have always existed. What we are seeing now is the production of a new economic sector that is explicitly labeled “gay” and designed specifically to serve gay people (usually men). “Gay” becomes a lifestyle option you can buy, creating clear boundaries around what it means to be gay, to look gay, to act gay. It allows us to think that, if there are contained spaces in which “Gay” is permitted, that amounts to liberation. But emancipation and justice are not piecemeal projects: If we forget about the poor and the disenfranchised now, we are not going to remember them later because the world we are reproducing, based as it is on the flow of money and on consumption, has no space for them.

I do not support gay businesses because they are gay, and I see no reason to (in fact, there are several that I do not go to on principle). The businesses I do support are ones that have ethical practices, or at the very least make an effort to monitor how they conduct their affairs: Do they treat their employees fairly? Do they discriminate between their clients? Do they actively try to procure fair trade products? Do they make an effort to give back to their communities?

At the end of the day, my goal is not to make the lives of a very particular subset of gay men better. It is to work towards making the world a more just and equitable place for all.

- Contributed by Shax

Guest Contributor

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