A Response to FP’s “Underground and in the Closet: The state of the gay Middle East”

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On June 15th, 2011, Foreign Policy featured David Kenner’s “Underground and in the Closet: The State of the gay Middle East.”

Indeed, having had enough with all the media attention on “who turned out to be a straight guy in Scotland” Kenner decides to write a list about  ”the real gay men and women in Damascus — and Dubai, Cairo, and Amman — [who] are facing more serious problems than confused Internet identities.” Five locations – Dubai, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria – are listed, and in 225-250 words, each location is discussed within two sections: “the law” and “the reality”.

Basically, Kenner focuses on the institutional and social regulation of homosexuality within these five locations, and pinpoints either instances of reinforcement or gaps through which gay persons were somehow able “to flourish” (read “to party”), not visibly, but “underground and in the closet,” of course.

I have many issues with the list. I will present these issues below in the form of a list.

1. The Title

“Underground and in the Closet” - Mr. Kenner, I will not rehash the same old arguments on visibility and Western constructs. This title frames us within a Western discourse of coming out and visibility. I will refer you to my article and hope that you will take the time to read it: “Framing Visibility: Coming Out and the International LGBT Spectrum of Progress.”

“The State of” –  No. We’re not all living under the same (or even similar) conditions. “The State of” implies that we are.

“The gay”  - Double no. “the gay” – What gay? Does that include lesbians? Does it include transgenders? I have seen the work of many activists and groups in the region, and most of us are working on a wide-range of issues and do not limit our discourse or struggles on being homosexuals. We’ve learned that limiting our activism to LGBT would be completely superficial and counter-productive for our movements. We are aware that our sexualities and genders are regulated, that patriarchy takes its heavy toll on our freedoms, that religion is often (mis)used to divide us. But guess what? It isn’t just us homosexuals, it’s anyone who doesn’t conform to existing social contracts.

“Middle East” – Middle and East to what exactly? I cringe whenever someone says Middle East. It’s Eurocentric. How about “living in Arab societies” as an alternative?

2. The Photo

If FP is going to use a photo of Pace Peace flags in Turkey across the list, they could at least include a section on Turkish gays, no? It would’ve probably helped make the list more “Middle-Eastern” too (PS: Iran is also another keyword, so is Israel, not pinkwash though).

3. The Sources of Information

Why would you give Gay Middle East, an Israeli-owned and operated organization, a platform to speak on behalf of Arab gays? How can this article, list, be any credible if it does not communicate with people on the ground? If it relies on one source of information? There are organizations and groups across the region working on sexual and bodily rights. There are activists who are vocal within all of locations that you have listed. Even the Syrian and Jordanian persons you speak with are correspondants for Gay Middle East. All it takes is a simple internet search, a bit of reading, and a short email written to many accessible groups to understand the politics and background of LGBT struggles across the region. To read more about the many ways Gay Middle East is problematic, you can check out Scott Long’s After ‘Amina’: Thoughts from Cairo, #lgbtME: We Do Not Live In Vacuums, Whose Gay Middle East (.com)?, and GayMiddleEast’s Zionism.

4. The Representation of Arabs and Islam

In “Gays, Islamists, and the Arab Spring: What Would a Revolutionary Do?” Maya Mikdashi and R. M. write that “gay Arabs cannot be cut out of the fabric of their societies; they are Arab, they are Muslim, Christian, conservative and progressive, soldiers and civilians, communists and capitalists, sexist and feminist, classist and revolutionary, and both oppressors and the oppressed.”

There’s a running joke in the community here, and it goes something like this: “My family would probably have more issues with my girlfriend’s sect than with her gender!” You see, we live in complex societies, and our struggles as queers cannot be reduced to a clash between our (homo)sexuality and religion, Mr. Kenner, but must encompass analyses of classism, racism, sectarianism, Islamophobia, Orientalism, patriarchy, sexism, etc. If you’re going to write about the relationship between gays and organized forms of religion and portray the Muslim Brotherhood as the powerful threat against gays in Egypt, then the least you could do is to look at different understandings of the situation (such as “Gays, Islamists, and the Arab Spring: What Would a Revolutionary Do?“).

5. Bekhsoos

In the section on Lebanon, you claim that two of Bekhsoos’ “most popular articles have been an evisceration of Lebanese author Joumana Haddad for distancing herself from political feminism and the story of a man who resolves to get tested for HIV.”

First of all, what is described as “an evisceration of Lebanese author Joumana Haddad” is actually a gentle, sensitive and articulate open letter to the author. Evisceration, really? What a heavy-loaded term, you chose to use there, Mr. Kenner.

Second of all, this isn’t true. Had you looked carefully, you would have noticed that you clicked on our ‘top rated’ and not ‘top viewed’ stories. Indeed, our top three viewed stories are:

- At the age of 14 – a painful recollection of  a gay man’s violent rape experience.

Hormonal Treatment for MTF Transsexuals – a featured article that intersects between our health and trans columns and which addresses the realities and difficulties of transitioning, based on the experiences of a male-to-female transexual, Randa.

I’m Changing My Sex – an international viral awareness campaign launched from Bekhsoos, linking the Coalition of Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Society’s “One Day, One Struggle” to the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

6. Lebanon

When the New York Times published Patrick Healy’s “Beirut, Provincetown of the Middle East,” many of us were outraged. The article is basically one white man’s experiences with upper class gay parties and lifestyles in Beirut. He essentially portrays Beirut as”the gay capital of the Arab world” while completely disregarding alternative experiences of lesbians, transgenders, and anyone who is excluded from, or cannot afford these “gay parties” really – experiences that are naturally left out of Healy’s narrative. For more critiques, read “Oh, the fun we’ll have! Selling (out) gay Beirut” and “Beirut, Lebanon: ‘Provincetown of the Middle East’ – Not!” You can also check out our special issue on gay tourism in Lebanon here.

Law 534, which criminalizes unnatural sex, is actually a product of French colonialism. For more information on this and on how the law is used to regulate citizens’ sexualities, please check Hiba Abbani’s analysis here and the following article (also one of Bekhsoos’ most read) “Lebanese Judge Rules Against the Use of Article 534 to Persecute Homosexuals.”

You say that “a flourishing online gay community exists in Lebanon.” This is very true. Nevertheless, it is a very partial view of the situation. Meem, a support group for lesbian, bisexual, queer & questioning and transgender persons in Lebanon – alone, for example, has over 350 members on the ground. Yes, we have a strong online presence, but most of our support services, activities, and projects, take place offline. The way they sometimes should.

I will leave it to my friends and colleagues to tell you more about their experiences and the Lebanese systems of regulation in the comments section. I will also refrain from commenting on other locations and urge activists from across “the Middle-East” to write from their own perspectives.

Lynn is actively involved in Meem, a community of queer women and trans folk. She's also into pixels, among other things.

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