On Queers and Political Movements

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As we approach our 6th annual celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) on May 17 (now a tradition of the Lebanese LGBT community), it is important that we reflect on the particular significance of the event this year within the wider political atmosphere in Lebanon. LGBT activists have been involved in the recent anti-sectarian movement as participants, organizers, and critical observers, and our involvement, predictably, has not passed without clashes and antagonism. And so, we ask ourselves, as a queer movement, where do we stand from these (supposedly) radical political spaces and where do they stand from us? How can we work together or is it possible at all for us to work together in the first place?

What Do We Want?

Let us start by identifying what we our demands are as a queer movement and what changes we want to see happen. I use the term “queer movement” to specify two important conceptual frameworks. Firstly, I am purposefully talking about “queer” not only as an umbrella term for LGBTIQ but also as a radical political identity adopted by many activists who are particularly concerned with challenging heteronormativity, patriarchy, consumerism, classism, and other systems of oppression that intersect with the LGBT struggle. Secondly, I am talking about a movement, as opposed to an organization or event or a group of individuals, in order to examine the questions through the lens of long-term, evolving, widespread, and collective activism by a sizable population that includes organizations and individuals working with various strategies and tools.

We go back to the question of what our queer movement wants. Naturally, it wants to see an end to all kinds of discrimination based on gender and sexual difference. It also seeks justice for marginalized and racialized groups. Our movement does not simply want to see an end to homophobia and transphobia assimilated within the current political and social systems in Lebanon. It imagines a society that is radically more just overall and that LGBTs have their share of freedom within it. Activists have argued at length for why our movement needs to be inclusive of other struggles and why we need to look at our community not only through the myopic scope of gender and sexual identity, so I am presuming that I (hopefully) don’t need to elaborate on it. It should be a given for all of us by now.

And so, as a queer movement, it is only natural that we support the movement to “bring down” sectarianism in Lebanon because sectarianism is damaging both in and of itself (promoting hatred, discriminating among citizens based on their sects, etc..) and in the way it feeds other societal problems (corruption, inefficient and lazy politicians, etc…). As queers, we are also “citizens” of this nation and its deeply rooted sectarianism affects us all in multiple ways. And even if we suppose that it does not affect us – which is false – there is nothing wrong – indeed there is so much that is right – about supporting causes which do not affect us directly. But, for example, if we think that civil marriage does not affect us because we cannot get married anyway, we should still support its campaign because it benefits others in our society. And if the protection of women from family violence does not affect our gay men, we should still support it because it is beneficial to women in our society. One could also argue that all of these campaigns in the long run benefit us as queers living under the rule of Lebanon’s constitution and laws in many ways. But still, even if we suppose they don’t, we should support them because they demand justice for someone.

Pressure From Both Sides

And yet, while the idea of comprehensive social justice may seem natural to many of us, we find many in both our LGBT community and our civil society who do not share this intersectional view. And so we are faced with:

  • The LGBT activist who supports sectarianism
  • The secularist activist who is homophobic
  • The civil marriage advocate who is sexist
  • The transgender activist who supports right-wing politics

And so we find ourselves, as a queer movement, marginalized from both sides: our LGBT community that does not want to advocate for anti-sectarianism and an anti-sectarian movement that does not want us or our issues to be part of it. And while I used to believe that the first battle is a lot easier than the second, I find myself reevaluating just how accessible it is for us to raise the awareness of our LGBT community on causes not limited to homophobia. But, at least, it is clear what we need to do: educate, educate, educate. LGBTs come together based on an imagined shared identity not on shared politics or ideology. But that should not be seen as a weakness as long as the movement’s leadership is aware of the opportunities to use this common identity as a way to get people with differences in opinion to meet, discuss, debate, and understand each others’ diverse struggles.

For the second battle with the anti-sectarian movement, what needs to be done is less obvious and merits greater discussion. Our analysis can be applied to any movement that we want to work with, but I will use the anti-sectarian movement as the main example because of its particular emergence on the national political scene in the last two months. I also need to preface that I am assuming, in talking about the movement, its larger vision and goal without going into a discussion of its pitfalls, problems, and whether or not it has been or will be successful.

We knew from the onset that many of the activists involved in the anti-sectarian movement would aggressively attack queer activists who wanted to do the same and that they would also attack any queer-related issues we wanted to put on the agenda. Indeed, this is what happened to individuals who came out as queer or who simply “looked” queer and attended the organizing meetings of the marches. And when the issue of gay rights came up in the group discussions, massive panic emerged against what they perceived as the infiltrating gay agenda and some were quick to denounce civil marriage (although none of the civil marriage campaigns ever mentioned gay marriage) as unacceptable because it was a precursor for gay marriage. Emotionally and mentally, these attacks drained many of us and alienated us from the very idea of trying to work with this diverse and edgy crowd, and yet, we must persevere in fighting for our place in the movement because it matters to us even if we are not welcome. In doing so, we must remember three important things:

Finding the Right Timing

Every cause has its time. That is not to be confused with placing causes into a hierarchy. It is not to say that we must shut up about homophobia, for example, because now (i.e. 2011) is not the time to talk about it. But sometimes now (i.e. this particular meeting) may not be the time to talk about it. It takes guts to bring up homophobia in meetings where the majority of the crowd may not be sensitized to queer issues, yes, but it is not always wise to solicit their aggressive remarks, which – especially in times where crowd mentalities rule – can easily drown out any supportive remarks. We also know from experience that homophobia and patriarchy are strongly rooted in people’s minds and it takes a lot more than a general comment for them to overcome their judgements and upbringing. It takes time and many personal interactions and a lot of patience from our side to change people. And so, sometimes – and we eventually gain the wisdom to tell which times – we should still work with others whom we know are homophobic toward whatever goals we have in common. It is not sacrifice or retreat from our part; it is strategic thinking. What supports this strategy around timing is that we have our own movement that is strong and vibrant and working on our issues anyway and we can know with certainty that, eventually, these movements will meet organically and peacefully.

Investing in Inclusion

The second point is related to a rule we have inherited from a history of Arab liberation struggles: if we are not included from the beginning of the revolution, we will not be included after the revolution. In many cases of global history, groups who fought for national independence or other revolutions were quickly sidelined again once the fight was over. We can see it most recently when it comes to women of the Egyptian revolution, who protested side by side with men on the streets of Tahrir and who are now struggling to have their issues and voices heard in the new political era. When marching to demand gender equality for International Women’s Day, many of them were harassed, beaten, and told to return to their kitchens. From these historic lessons we learn that being included from the beginning does not automatically imply that post-change society will suddenly dismantle its patriarchy or its homophobia because they seem to be forms of oppression far more deeply and widely ingrained than dictators. And so, we must remember, as a queer movement, that our battle is perhaps the longest and the most difficult and that no single investment in other movements is going to pay off quickly and force people into adopting our radical politics. That is not to say, however, that we should not use the strategy: we supported you then and, therefore, we call on you to support us now. On the contrary, it is a smart tactic that will pay off in the long run. But we must use it baring in the mind the following (point three).

Sitting at the Table

It is far more important to be at the table than on the agenda. I cannot emphasize this point enough. What it means is that it is much more important for us – as queer people – to be sitting in on the meetings than it is for our queer issues to be on the meeting agenda to be discussed. That’s because we – in our flesh and blood – are the greatest advocacy tool for the queer movement there is. And when we persist in spaces, the spaces will eventually open themselves up to us and to others like us. So it’s important that we gain and maintain places at the table of other campaigns and movements with our commitment and hard work and sincere contributions (and also with our friendliness and charm and good humor). If we gain the respect and love of other activists, it will be much harder for them to reject us or our issues when we decide the time is right to raise them. If we have a place at the table, we will be able to choose wisely when the time is right to voice our concerns and to push the boundaries of the campaign or movement. One of the pitfalls of any political movement is when its constituency cannot bring themselves to be patient about their specific issues long enough to uphold the common cause for as long as it takes to become stronger. Every cause has its time – strategically – in larger gatherings. And if many of us are involved in the organizing and can earn decision-making roles within these movements, our influence will come naturally.

I return, in conclusion, to the upcoming event of IDAHO on May 22nd. This is our time and our space. We will invite the activists we have worked with on other issues – like the anti-sectarianism movement – and some will attend, while others will refuse. But it is without a doubt that those supporting our movement will increase with time as we continue to work together with them, even the most homophobic of them, and rely on our own community as a space to recharge on support and refill on love. And wherever there is any campaign for social justice, we will be there, in large numbers, out or not, vocal or not, to give a lot more than we expect to receive in return.


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