Imagining gay liberation in the Middle East

Imagining gay liberation in the Middle East
Comment: Ensuring LGBTQ rights across the region is a moral responsibility, and should reflect the diverse make-up of the region, says Sa'ed Atshan.
5 min read
28 May, 2015
LGBTQ protests have taken place across the region [AFP]
Is it possible to have a Middle East and North Africa where the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals and communities are protected?

My answer is a resounding yes. Anyone who cares about the region and the fundamental dignity of its inhabitants has a moral responsibility to ensure their rights are protected.

Contrary to popular belief, LGBTQ movements exist in the Middle East, even though they share a number of formidable challenges. Having served as an activist in the queer movement in Palestine, and based on my work promoting consciousness in the US about queer Palestinian struggles, I understand many of the difficulties activists face.

For example, we must grapple with the charge that these movements are the product of Western cultural imperialism.

That the category of homosexuality and the socio-politicisation of gay identity is a particularly western phenomenon imposed on the region. It is disheartening to hear such simplistic charges. These movements are organic to the region.

Why do we not try to break down these East-West boundaries? We live in a globalised world, a transnational world with virtual spaces.

People are sharing ideas across boundaries all over the globe. I am not comfortable with these reified notions of West and East. Not everything that comes from the West is necessarily coercive.

To argue that because I identify as gay, I am a "sellout" to some kind of western sexual imperialist project is problematic. LGBTQ movements across the Middle East have to grapple with this issue, and reiterate that having interlocutors in the Western world does not mean we are "tainted" by them.

It is important to remember that these movements are organic to our countries and national contexts. It is not homosexuality but homophobia that is a western import to the Middle East.
It is not homosexuality but homophobia that is a Western import to the Middle East
When western powers colonised the Middle East, and also Africa and South Asia, they saw us as too sexually permissive, too accepting of homosexuality and homoeroticism, and in need of being civilised. Many homophobic laws in the region are British-imposed laws.

Our movements also face the regional challenges including: high unemployment rates, poverty, corruption, authoritarian and autocratic regimes, extremist movements, conflicts, and violent western interventions.

Sometimes talking about gay rights in these contexts is seen as a luxury. People say it is not a priority. I am Palestinian, and I am also a LGBTQ activist. Our response has to be that all forms of oppression intersect.

Take the Palestinian feminist movement for inspiration. You cannot divorce the national liberation struggle from women's struggle for emancipation. They are inextricably linked.

Similarly, Palestinian freedom and queer liberation cannot be divorced. LGBTQ rights is a priority, not a luxury. It is not a luxury when a lesbian woman is forced by her family to get married. That means that for the rest of her life she is going to be subjected to marital rape. For the woman about to be married off, this is an urgent matter.

Homophobia is real. It kills bodies, it kills spirits. We cannot build democratic, pluralistic, healthy, open societies when vulnerable populations are marginalised in this way. I reject the idea that this is a luxury.

That being said, I am optimistic there will be real progress in my lifetime. We do not have the luxury of losing hope. Hope is what sustains life. I am always hopeful.

Despite challenging contexts, over the past decade there has been an increase across the region of LGBTQ-affiliated individuals coming together. There have been victories. One of these is Helem – which means "dream" in Arabic – the oldest LGBTQ organisation in the Arab world, based in Beirut.

Recently, Helem successfully lobbied the Lebanese psychiatric association to strike down the notion homosexuality is a mental illness. That is significant for the region because the Lebanese medical establishment is well-respected. Tunisian Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi also said recently that homosexuality should not be criminalised. We have to recognise these positive developments.

Then you have people like my aunt, Laila Atshan, a psychologist in Palestine. She is heterosexual but a huge LGBTQ ally. A few years ago she was at a conference in Sudan for mental health practitioners from across the Arab world.

One of the speakers, a psychiatrist, was discussing how to convert patients from homosexuality to heterosexuality – how to "fix" them. My aunt stood up and said, in front of hundreds of people: "I have a question. I am a blind woman. I've been completely blind since birth. Who among you can make me see?" She paused, and repeated the question.

"Whoever can make me see can make a homosexual a heterosexual. As mental health practitioners we must embrace human rights and human diversity. It is our responsibility to help patients celebrate and accept who they are," she said to applause. 
Whoever can make me see can make a homosexual a heterosexual
People thanked her afterwards. She told me it gave her hope that so many people see this debate as problematic. The younger generation in the region is going to be much more open to nuanced discussions about sexuality, thanks to the internet and queer-friendly images that are circulating around the world. 

In this spirit that I organised a conference in April at Brown University in the US where I teach, titled: "Sexualities and Queer Imaginaries in the Middle East". It was part of the Brown Middle East Studies Engaged Scholarship series. 

The conference was for people who are passionate about supporting LGBTQ movements in the Middle East and North Africa.

We invited a diverse group to enable engaged scholarship and dialogue between academics and non-academics. They included artists, novelists, human rights activists, journalists, filmmakers, and religious leaders. 
The conference aimed to encourage academics to produce scholarship that informs the work of practitioners, and for the work of individuals on the ground to be used to inform scholarship.

Regional diversity has ensured differences between movements across the region. It affects how individuals define themselves as queer, and how their queer identity intersects with other identites. This is why the words "sexualities" and "imaginaries" were pluralised in the conference title.

During the conference there were rich discussions about how the regional landscape will look after LGBTQ liberation. The video recordings are all online.

We hope you will join us in imagining gay liberation in the Middle East.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.