It is rare that events concerning gays and lesbians in other countries make the front page of mainstream newspapers. So when The New York Times covered the arrests and torture by the Egyptian military of fifty-two gay men in May 2001, the astonishing picture in the “paper of record” of so many gay men covering their faces with white towels as they were herded with cattle prods into a Cairo courthouse was enough to propel many gay and lesbian people in the West to look seriously at the conditions of their own kind in the Middle East for the first time. As Monica Taher of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said, “It was a wake-up call for gay and lesbians, especially in the U.S.”
This wasn’t the first crackdown on gays in the Middle East (or in Asia, Africa, Latin America, where similar assaults were occurring). It just became the most newsworthy, and put a tiny spotlight on what many of us involved with international gay and lesbian issues had been reporting in our respective media. It finally nudged enough funding sources to support a documentary I was doing at the time called Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World. Freaked by a new breed of determined U.S. Christian fundamentalists filling the federal corridors everywhere in the Age of Bush, PBS, which had broadcast my earlier documentaries on gay life, ultimately couldn’t bring itself to air this film. That made a weird kind of sense. It’s one thing for the establishment U.S. media to make a fuss over poor victims of an Arab tyrant, and another to embrace the reality that these gay Arab men represented before they were victims: the push-pull between liberation and backlash that has accompanied gay people everywhere—including, ironically, PBS.
The roundup of the Cairo 52—many of them arrested for dancing on a disco party boat on the Nile—came after a brief flourish of gay visibility in Cairo and other big international cities like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, a time that was quixotically called the “neo-gay ’90s.” This public emergence of gay identity (as opposed to the practice of same sex, which has been going on all over the world for millennia) roused fundamentalists in those regions and led authorities to move to shut down gay cafes, gay websites, gay theater, gay meeting spots, gay disco boats, and gay people. As Julian Jayaseela, a political activist and AIDS worker in Kuala Lumpur, told me, “There is a price to pay for visibility. It definitely attracts the bullet.”
I suppose I should have known that this basic, earthy dialectic of gay life would elude Joseph Massad, an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of Desiring Arabs. I have never been a big fan of academia, especially when it comes to sexual politics. I know, the Queer Theorists and Queer Studies crowd are finally allowed to get down to the nitty-gritty, but some of these folks really have to go out of their way to make sex not sound sexy or smutty but smart. To prove that they are not enjoying themselves but are real academics, they write as if some committee were looking over their shoulder, and just as they got to the point where you can almost smell real life, someone brought out the antiseptic and put on the klieg lights.
Massad isn’t a Queer Theorist; his focus at Columbia is modern Arab politics, and in his book the rich history of Arab culture around sex and desire is drowned in a lot of nonsense about a “Gay International,” which he seems to think is a reactionary imperialist idea. Massad understands that visibility attracts the bullet; he just thinks that those who come out have brought it on themselves and, worse, are pawns of Western neocolonialists bent on “destroying social and sexual configurations of desire in the interest of reproducing a world in [their] own image” in the name of liberation.
“By inciting discourse about homosexuals where none existed before,” he writes, “the Gay International is in fact heterosexualizing a world that is being forced to be fixed by a Western binary.”
In other words, sex was all cool and fluid in the ancient East, and guys used to be able to “penetrate” other guys and not have to worry about being called anything. Those were the good old days, when sex didn’t have to have horrible Western identities. Everyone was straight, so life was easy and gay. Then along came the “Gay International” and ruined it all, compelling poor straight people or bisexuals in those countries who are practicing their same-sex expressions into a gay (or straight) identity, and bringing out the worst in governments that previously paid no attention but now are forced to call in the hangman for the lovers who choose the wrong side.
Of course, Massad says this all very academically, with tons of footnotes, so you automatically think he must know what he is talking about. But when all is said and done, it reminds me of arguments we’ve all heard about gay people ruining the American male bonding party of old days because they insist on being gay. And it’s really sad for the guys on the football team who used to like all that butt slapping after a great play, because now, thanks to the gays—who demand that they shouldn’t be imprisoned or bashed, and even go so far as to have their own parades, and sing gay songs, and make movies and TV shows—the regular guys can no longer slap each other’s butts without someone suspecting they might be queer. And if sometime that suspicion grows strong and the pressure is really on, they might have to bash someone, and then hire a lawyer to argue “gay panic.”
Massad is absolutely right that things have changed in the East. The old rules have been broken. They’ve been broken in the West, too, where forty years ago no one in the mainstream knew gay from anything. They’ve been broken because just to be gay means in some way to break the rules.
I’d guess that in every culture there are people—straight, “straight,” bi, gay—who mourn the passing of the old days. Sometimes that’s sincere, because there was something sweet in the old homoerotic social affections before straight people thought they could mean anything more. And sometimes it’s a fantasy, even a racist fantasy, because people fetishized the secrecy, the danger of the exotic: “In Mexico City or Marrakesh, we go and make love, and we’re not gay, we’re just men!”
But the old world was deadly, too, in its repressions and cruelties, and the new one still is. Massad says gay identity is a Western construct, as if to say to Arab political exiles who call themselves gay, among them some of the Cairo 52, “No, no, no, you can’t have gay feelings, that’s Western; you can have only sex feelings.”
But gay liberation is no more intrinsically Western than black revolution is intrinsically Haitian. People have sex and fall in love; they’re different and they don’t want to lie and hide. Some do, but many more want to come out, and if that can happen, it will happen. And if a government is going to lash or torture or kill people who come out, gay people are going to fight for gay people. Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you don’t have some yelling rights.
The truth be told, for all the hoopla about Will and Grace and Ellen, in reality gay and lesbian people here, never mind those arrested on disco boats in Cairo, are a marginal group. Homosexuals are still not an officially declared minority by the U.S. government. Perhaps reality sets in for those internationally who think about coming out when they realize that state torture, imprisonment, or execution of gay people is not considered a human rights abuse by the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Yes, they can get married in Massachusetts and some European countries, but they can also be hanged in Teheran, imprisoned in Cameroon, or bashed in Mobile.
Perhaps Massad’s silliest attack is on Barney Frank, an openly gay U.S. Congressman whom one would expect to defend the Cairo 52, since he has also defended gay people in non-Arab countries, including the United States. In the book, though, it is Barney the Westerner, the supporter of Israel, who is attacked for defending gay people in the Middle East.
Similar to Queer Theory books, Massad’s academic need to take the thrill out of sex leads you to the point of wanting to throw the whole thing out the window. Massad starts out saying, “Although I will look at different kinds of literature—academic studies, journalistic accounts, human rights and tourist publications . . . I do not seek to flatten them by erasing these differences . . . but rather to demonstrate how . . . a certain ontology and epistemology are taken as axiomatic a priori by all of them.” He then painfully flattens the whole subject matter. Common sense tells you there must be simpler ways to discuss these sexual things and not be afraid to sound like you are not smart enough.
In Michael Luongo’s new book, Gay Travels in the Muslim World, Westerners and Arabs lay out wonderful, simple tales on the cutting edge of those impossible cultural demarcations. (Also the soon-to-be released documentary A Jihad for Love will allow you to actually see and hear real gay and lesbian Muslims take on these issues directly.) Don Bapst, an American tourist, recalls in Gay Travels the time that he didn’t want Paul, his lover, to bring an Egyptian young man back to their hotel room. “Paul said I was being closed minded,” he writes. “But explaining our same-sex relationship to an Egyptian would take months, not minutes. And how could we really develop any sort of genuine communication with someone when hiding that essential aspect of our lives? It would take time to learn how to communicate about such things. We’d have to find a new vocabulary. Hell, we have to learn Arabic for starters. I was sure it was all possible, but it would take more time than we were allowing ourselves on this visit.”
These eighteen stories in Luongo’s compilation, covering the Middle East and including Afghanistan, bring us up close to the changes that have taken place since the old Marrakesh wild days of Paul Bowles and the Arab fetishism of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch same-sex crowd. In one of them Ethan Pullman (an alias of a Palestinian kicked out of his family because he came out while in school in the United States) grieves the loss of his family: “My story might not be unique by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, there’s really no way to know for sure, because many homosexuals in the Middle East choose to remain silent, out of fear of persecution by governments and family, out of self-imposed loyalty, or, worst of all, out of self-hatred. As long as honor crimes, sodomy laws, and insane fatwas exist in the Muslim Middle East, there will be lives at risk.”
The multiple levels of lives at risk make up the backdrop of a modern-day Jean Genet story told by Jeff Key. He is an American gay GI guarding over an area in Iraq when he catches the eye and attention of a gay Arab brother playing soccer.
“ ‘You’re beautiful,’ the young Arab man says quietly as his eyes dart around to make sure no one hears. We stand there enjoying the torture of our situation. ‘You have. . . .’ And he pantomimes ‘lip balm.’
“I dig in my pocket and produce my dirty, half-used tube. I gotta tell you, I don’t think anyone’s ever put on lip balm in a sexier way. ‘What you call? . . . And he kisses the air. ‘What’s this?’
“I ask and make the kissing noise.
“ ‘Kiss. We call it kiss.’
“ ‘Kiss,’ he repeats and hands back the Chapstick.
“ ‘No, no, you keep it.’ I put up my hand to refuse it.
“ ‘Kiss,’ he repeats and pushes it into my palm. Well I’ll be damned; he’s giving me a kiss. I smooth the stuff onto my own lips as he watches, and in an instant my anger at both our culture’s ignorance is diminished, and shame and anger are overcome by bliss and absolute pride—in us, in our people, in our everlasting overcoming ability to love, to show love no matter what. We are everywhere. We are Love, and we shall overcome.
“ ‘Hey Key, let’s roll, dawg.’ Fuck.
“ ‘Goodbye, Akmed.’ And I slap the lip balm back into his palm. ‘Kiss.’
“ ‘Goodbye, Jeff.’
“I leap onto my vehicle with my best cowboy-American-Marine-jumping-on-his horse leap. He sadly smiles.”
Key was injured in Iraq and came home. He knows his imperial oil mission was wrong, and has since been active against it. But he still wonders about the friend that he met for only a few minutes. There is no question that the criminal war and the generally destructive role of U.S. policy in the Middle East will for years bring suspicions at least from the Arab world onto any American, gay or straight, who would walk its streets, and danger for Arabs who would associate with them.
Sexual identity won’t change that, but Key’s straightforward romantic moment cuts across the great divide so beautifully to prove a sensitivity, among so many gay and lesbian people in every culture, behind that slogan first heard shouted loudly by the young gay liberationists as a chant on the first Christopher Street Gay Pride March in 1970, a year after the Stonewall Riots: “We Are Everywhere!” That strong belief keeps the hope of reconciliation alive for gays and lesbians around the world.
Gay Travels in the Muslim WorldEdited by Michael T. Luongo. Harrington Park Press. 200 pages. $19.95.
John Scagliotti is the creator of “In the Life,” public television’s series on gay and lesbian issues. A documentary filmmaker, his films include the Emmy Award-winning “Before Stonewall.” Scagliotti can be reached via his website www.afterstonewall.com.