Amina Arraf fooled me. I share this with plenty of others, but it’s still embarrassing. Now, as other straight men start to appear from behind their lesbian masks (“Oh, but I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard,” they’ll all say), we’re going to have a Debate, one of those moral media Debates the U.S. specializes in, about what the Internet is doing to our souls and sexes and sanities.
Not here. I am in hot, dust-devilled Cairo at the moment. I’m speaking to people about how opportunities for raising issues of sexual and bodily rights have changed since the Revolution. Here, l’affaire Arraf seems both remote and very near. People worry about the persistence of torture, and the virginity tests that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces forced on women protesters after they were arrested. They worry about the ex-dictator’s rushed trial, the junta’s attempts to discredit the democratic movement. But it’s not just the fake Amina, Tom MacMaster, who turned out to live across the Atlantic; most of the controversy has played out there too. It’s been a perfect distraction for Western audiences, drowning out the Syrian regime’s brutality and killings—so perfect that if it turned out Bashar al-Assad himself had watched some pirated DVDs of The L Word and sat down at his MacBook to fantasy-blog, no one here would be surprised.
But the story does have echoes here, and consequences. The Syrian government, like others, claims that dissident movements are Western fronts, illegitimate and alien. The scandal is ready-made for their propaganda. Iran’s press says, “The story of Amina is part of the campaign of lies carried on by Western media against independent nations in the Middle East.” The argument that dissident sexualities are also derived from the West has long been ubiquitous here. It can only be so long before someone takes up the Amina tale to contend that all indigenous discussions of sexual diversity are merely imperialism in high-tech drag. Meanwhile, activists for lesbian and gay rights in the region who once read Amina’s concocted blog, and felt solidarity and some similarity with her position, now feel personally dispossessed. The place reserved for “Middle Eastern lesbian” in the parade of identities that interest the West is gone. One lesbian friend of mine here told me, “It’s like I go to my seat in the theater and it’s already taken. My life is double-booked.”
It’s worth wondering, then, what underlies the reception of Amina’s story. That individual disappointment may be the point to start. It has a long resonance. The sense of double-booking—that some Western travel agent resold your ticket on the train of History to himself—is part of the story of contemporary liberation movements in the Middle East, as elsewhere. Imperialism expropriates and assimilates what it can, before discarding the rest. T. E. Lawrence (another masked man, hiding his homosexuality behind heroic myth) charged out of Cairo into the collective European imagination, taking credit for the Arab Revolt while derailing the dream of independence. Bush claimed Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution as the result of—what? His tax cuts? Facebook and Twitter try to trademark the protests on Midan Tahrir. And so on.
Erasing Middle Eastern independence has always had been an erotic, not just political, business. Lawrence’s homoerotic fantasies of adopting nubile boys away from their culture and tradition were certainly one version. The notion, persistent among some governments and some Western feminists, that somebody has to save all Muslim women from subjection—the burqa justifies the bomb—is another.
And queers have always been easy marks for this Orientalist juncture of sex and salvation. This isn’t the first time that the figure of the “Middle Eastern gay” or “lesbian” has been enlisted in somebody’s ideological campaign. 2005 saw a viral wave of indignation over horrific photos of two young men hanged in Iran. There was never any strong evidence they were “gay,” or were executed for their sexualities. But the international panic—coinciding suspiciously with Ahmadinejad’s election, and with U.S. and Israeli military threats against Iran—has been widely exploited by Geert Wilders and other European Islamophobes to spread their propaganda in Europe. Israel has also seized on the issue of “gays” in Iran to promote its own foreign policy ends.
Consider, too, an apparently benign website such as the blog “Gay Middle East,” which proffers up news from the region to a Western, English-speaking audience. The blog has been widely cited as an authoritative source, from CNN to Al-Jazeera. Never mind the bias in its name, which suggests that gay men are its subject and target to the exclusion of lesbians and others. It also carries subtler slants.
Its London-based editor was born in Tel Aviv, and reportedly still carries an Israeli passport. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to feel bound to reveal this to the dozen or so sources in Arab countries who convey local news to him—and in many states, sending information to someone affiliated with Israel could lead to charges of treason. (That he is a friend of Michael Lucas, the rabidly racist Islamophobe, is an equally peculiar factor.) The site consistently portrays gay life in most Arab countries as a parade of horrors, while showing Israel as a paradise of equality and pride. You wouldn’t learn from it about the Palestinian queer movement to support BDS, about the upsurge of sexuality activism in Egypt, or about the hardships LGBT Gazans have suffered from the Israeli blockade. In another curious twist, the same editor—who is not a Muslim—doubles as “Human Rights and Press Relations Coordinator” for an enigmatic organization called the “Association of British Muslims,” which despite its name seems to have little membership in UK Muslim communities. The group serves instead to release media statements supporting gay rights, opposing so-called “extremists,” and urging denial of visas to certain preachers. Some of these are admirable goals, some possibly not. But the context suggests that the organization may in fact be an agent provocateur, aiming to divide British Muslims for some other cause.
Associating “gay rights” with Israel will do nothing good for most LGBT people in the Arab and Muslim Middle East—just as unnecessary internal splits will hardly help UK Muslim communities. But advancing rights is not really these groups’ agenda. “Gay Middle East” aspires not so much to promote freedom and diversity in the region (a website written even partly in Arabic would far better serve that goal) as to spread a certain version and vision of the region to the rest of the world.
It’s a vision where queer Arabs suffer, and others save. It’s neither true nor complimentary to those on the front lines, but it’s comforting to those outside. It’s not one that allows for the agency or activism of Arab LGBT people in defining their own identities, determining their own lives.
Think, too, about identity politics that a title like “Gay Middle East” implies, and how it might actually play out in the region. I’m not going to recapitulate the arguments of Maya Mikdashi and R.M. in their essay published on Jadaliyya and excerpted here. Enough to say that the democratic explosion in the region means profusions of new voices as well as old and suppressed ones, with desires and demands and styles of self proliferating. In response, Western media and many Western activists charge in to simplify–they seize social actors by the shoulders and demand, “Freeze! Who are you?” As Mikdashi notes, this has in many cases meant pitting “Islamists” and “secularists” against each other as incompatible foes. It’s meant treating “gays” as both barometers of secularism and standard-bearers for its cause. This is hardly helpful either to secularism or to LGBT rights.
Paranoia about Islamism infects almost all perspectives on the region that come out of the U.S. and U.K. Things look differently here. “The Salafists have always been here, the Islamists have always been here,” a lesbian friend in Cairo told me. “There’s nothing new about it. The difference is that now they can preach and organize on the street, and the task is on us to find ways to organize too, and oppose them.”
The obvious fact is that there can be no democratic space in the Middle East that doesn’t make room for Islam, and include Islamists. The only alternative is a return to a semi-secular authoritarianism that shuts down opponents with tanks and torture. Gays and governments in the West are already voicing quiet nostalgia for the military regimes. Few here share it. The problem secularists and progressives (they are by no means the same thing) face isn’t how to keep Islamists out of politics: it’s is how to bring them in, by articulating a limited set of shared values and commitments that can make their participation make sense.
Meanwhile, progressives also need to claim as much political space as possible. For LGBT people, that doesn’t mean the idiotic idea of hosting pride parades in Cairo or Damascus. Rather, it means finding terms and language—which may range from privacy to personal freedom to resisting torture—in which their claims can be intelligibly voiced to a larger public. There are as many visions of how these aims can be pursued as there are activists. But, as a militant young gay man in Cairo said: “Why should I listen to people telling me that my enemy is the Islamists? We may despise each other, but we are part of the same society now. My enemy right now is the military and its grip on society. Get rid of that, and we can open up a democratic politics. And I will conduct my battles with the Islamists there.”
A politics like this is a balancing act, complicated and giddy. The present moment and the coming years will be full of fine-knit strategies, sudden choices, and unraveling uncertainties for Middle Eastern progressives, queers among them. I think part of the appeal of “A Gay Girl in Damascus” for some in the region was that she actually seemed to inhabit those questions and contradictions. She spoke in a way to the highwire walk many queers across the Middle East perform daily.
In truth, she only lived out the paradoxes so easily because she wasn’t real. That she made it seem easy should have been the giveaway. The fact that she was a fiction, though, doesn’t make the paradoxes go away. Others still live them. Their voices and experiences are the ones that count.
Which means, if you want to know more about any of this, don’t listen to me. Listen to those in the region who are real, and talking about it. Go to Bekhsoos.com, or Jadaliyya.com, for a start, and read the voices of progressives, feminists, and queers on the front lines. They are working, talking, and thinking through one of the great revolutions of our time: one transforming people’s lives and bodies as they labor and worship, desire and love.
Scott Long, who served as founding director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT Rights Program, has worked extensively on sexual rights issues in the Middle East.