Years ago, in one of the many social groups that coalesce around shared interests and social affiliations of LGBT people in Egypt, we used to gather at a friend’s place and watch old shows of Sherihan’s. My friends compared her to Lady Gaga and many of us believed that in fact Sherihan anticipated Lady Gaga by a decade or more.
In many of her performances, costumes and makeup, she actually outdid Lady Gaga. We were proud of an Egyptian artist who was fearless, bold in her choices and so extreme in what she could get away with, but at the same time remained irresistibly entertaining. No doubt the glitter and sequins helped. I never investigated the source of Sherihan’s inspiration, but whatever it was, she definitely transformed it and made it her own.
As spectators and people who identified with a broad LGBT community, we identified with Sherihan, and she became our version of “drag” with her exaggeration and theatricality.
In Saleem Haddad’s recent article in the Daily Beast, The Myth of the Queer Arab Life, the author also identifies with Sherihan and her extraordinary performance. Yet I find almost everything he writes after this acknowledgement to be deeply problematic.
Haddad does say something poignant about queer Arabs and their bodies being sites of contention for control and meaning. Nothing could be more true. But otherwise his self-congratulatory, unabashedly self-promoting article just revels in bourgeois ennui and ingratiating, self-indulgent prose — and invites us to do the same. What is at risk, and what the author wilfully ignores throughout his long diatribe against Arabs and their structures of oppression, is the fact that Arab queers do exist. Indeed, the Arab queer writing these words has lived in an Arab country for the past 33 years.
There can be no doubt that individuals who choose to express their sexuality in a certain way, be it gay or straight or transgender, face formidable social and political constraints in our context that regulate their bodies in very specific ways. Haddad is right to lament the many ways in which queer bodies are recipients of violence, whether from society via its moral and social mechanisms of punishment or from governments deploying law enforcement to subject people and punish them for the desires they express and the sexualities they act and re-enact in their daily lives.
This violence has taken very real, sometimes catastrophic shapes and forms in Egypt. Nearly every LGBT person who came of age in the late 1990s remembers the Cairo 52 case, where 52 individuals were arrested and tried for “debauchery” (the Egyptian constitution does not criminalize sodomy outright) in a case seen as politically motivated (rumors at the time that one of Hosni Mubarak’s sons was gay were said to have inspired the crackdown). I remember the Cairo 52 very well. In fact, the man I was in love with at the time got arrested, and eventually had to leave the country. There can be no doubt that for a long time thousands of LGBT people in Egypt, myself included, lost hope of ever being free from the threat of persecution.
Violence on a less spectacular scale occurs frequently. Countless friends have been arrested after being set up by police via dating websites and, more recently, social networking apps. Friends have also been subjected numerous times to hate crimes, aggravated robbery or worse — death, in the case of some transgender members of our community. Being part of a community invisible to the outside world with no recourse to any form of organization or recognition for the daily threats we face, I understand the despair Haddad talks about. I understand it very well, having been subjected to it more times than I care to remember, in ways that have been brutal.
Yet, having acknowledged the hardships and immanent violence, the social stigma, the fear, all of it, the answer can never be to proclaim the so-called impossibility of queer Arabs. This is an insult to the thousands who struggle every day to live their lives in ways that are true to who they are and how they see themselves. It undermines people who made the choice to stay, people who do not have the choice to go anywhere and people who are trying to understand how they can live within this unforgiving reality. It plays into the despicable discourse promoted by Joseph Massad and others, that gay identity is a Western construct and that Arabs historically had no such “category.”
Massad’s fixation on a fictional pre-colonial utopian vision of sexuality (one perceived as fluid, chaotic and helplessly romanticized) is not just disingenuous, it literally accuses all LGBT individuals in the Arab world of being “agents of Western imperialism” and the “gay international” (whatever that means). There is no such thing as “an authentic Arab subject.” This is a delusional myth, and it is dangerous to perpetuate discourses that pivot on a mythical past identity. Arabs, like any other peoples on earth, are part of a much larger group called humankind, who through a long process of history (some of it violent, some of it not) have been interacting and continuing to interact with each other, influencing each other and evolving as a result of this exchange. Arabs are no exception in being “exposed” and “contaminated” by Western culture. It is an inevitable process. Arabs, queers and non-queers, see what everyone else sees. They borrow and incorporate all kinds of ideas, manners, traditions and lifestyles that are consistent and not so consistent with their history and culture. It is futile to single out LGBT cultures as “foreign” and “Western.” What about everything else Arabs have taken from Western culture, from the printing press all the way to Saturday Night Live?
I cannot undermine the magnitude of despair any LGBT individual might feel in seeing members of the Islamic State throwing men off a building because they have been “accused of being gay” (how did they know?), or ignore the difficulty of having sane LGBT relationships in any part of the Arab world. These are agonies I face on a daily basis. Every day I ask myself: Is it a possibility for me, as a gay man, to live without fear with another man in Cairo, or in any other part of the Arab world?
In many instances, the answer that comes to mind is no, I can’t see it happening. LGBT communities are part of the societies in which they are situated, and therefore also contain misogynistic, traditional, conservative and homophobic expressions. On any given day the number of gay men who don’t believe in same-sex relationships is 10 times higher than those who do. I share Haddad’s dismay and shock that his former partners and boyfriends saw him as “too gay.” The number of times I have been rejected by friends, lovers and potential partners because I projected an identity that challenged gender norms is astounding. For me, being queer cannot be reduced to my own frustration about how others perceive or reject me — it is a destabilizing acknowledgement that questions and unmakes my own assumptions as to who I am. Perhaps this is what disappoints me most about Haddad’s decision to leave the Arab world and talk about the impossibility of Arab queerness, when at the very heart of queerness is an unrealized radical potential that we all constantly strive for.
Queerness, for me, is a fundamental critique of reproductive heterosexuality as an organizing force of human relationships and an idealistic re-imaging of human worth and agency beyond this heteronormative value system. Queerness therefore becomes an immediate, political contention in the way we perceive ourselves, those around us and the many systems (legal, cultural, economic and so on) that are grounded in this perception. How did an idea so radical, so political, become such a burden, an ideal to dismiss as impossible? Or worse, an ideal not worth fighting for.
At the heart of the dilemma is the problem of recognizing incremental change. Since the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, as mass protests broke out throughout the Arab world, an explosion of activity took place that tried to carve out a space for LGBT communities.
The raid on a public bathhouse in Cairo in 2014, instigated by reporter Mona al-Iraqi, and subsequent popular criticism of this move, showed overwhelming support for respecting the right to personal privacy, even for gay men. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought thousands of heteronormative Egyptians would fiercely condemn a TV reporter for violating people’s privacy. Even in countries where homosexuality is a crime, such as Lebanon, there have been calls to end “tests of shame” — referring to anal examinations of men suspected of being gay.
LGBT groups in Tunisia have been publicly protesting the criminalization of homosexuality. This is not to say that we have a rights movement comparable to the LGBT movement in the US, for example, in the wake of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. But in countries where many believe homosexuality is a Western import, such public displays of support and demand for respect and fairness cannot be overlooked. These moments of resistance that we have been seeing over the past five years have also taken a visible presence virtually. I know of at least 10 Egyptian pages and groups on social media that try to organize and offer advice, help and support for LGBT individuals. When I came out in 1997, there was barely a functional internet. Two decades later, a key human rights organization in Egypt celebrated Trans Visibility Day. There can be no denying that, within a larger context of the battle for rights and freedoms, LGBT communities have achieved progress on this issue of visibility and rights. Not as much as we would like, and not on the scope and scale we aspire to, but this incremental and accumulative process has had an undeniable effect.
I don’t take issue with people getting fed up or tired of fighting. Many opt to make the decision Haddad did, to leave. But if we who have the privilege of relocating to a more accepting context leave, fewer remain to fight. Haddad and myself are privileged by our socio-economic context — we clearly both had access to a certain kind of education, to references and ideas that question discrimination based on sexuality, to Western media and intellectual debates — so we have the means and the resources to leave, if we so decide. And if the efforts of those of who articulate our realities amid threats are dismissed, what of the thousands who are unable to speak out in the same way?
Every individual who becomes aware of the formidable struggles we face every day has an inescapable responsibility. It is our responsibility to not just make the truth known, but to find ways to make our lives possible — even within contexts hostile to our existence. There could be no greater offence to our endless struggles than to dismiss any possibility that they may one day lead to a more just and fair existence.