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Even amongst those who may feel at home in their gay identity, the notion of publicly coming out rings hollow in a culture where who you share your bed with is a private matter.
Trying to write about a singular gay Arab experience would be, as one Lebanese gay rights activist put it, the equivalent of “writing a story about gay life in the US, and just interviewing someone from the Westboro Baptist Church, a closeted teenager in Nebraska, and Adam Lambert.” Despite this, queer Arab bodies have become a battleground in a much larger war.Twelve years later, when I was living in Amman, my boyfriend broke up with me. I told him that no one would kill us, let alone threaten us.I was becoming too open with my sexuality, he said. The Jordanian police don’t have a history of targeting gay men, I reasoned, especially those of our social class. The danger was that being seen with me was making people think he was ‘gay’. I did not see this transformation coming, but it happened.The ‘Gay Identity’ had unknowingly been growing inside me like a tumor, until suddenly one morning I woke up and realized I was infected, and the disease was terminal. Many Arabs who engage in same-sex practices do not identify as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, or ‘bisexual’.For every queer Arab who has formulated their sense of self by watching ‘Will and Grace’ and ‘Paris is Burning’ are countless others who do not feel it is unusual to engage in same-sex practices and remain unconnected to the word ‘gay’.After all, it is no secret that both liberals and conservatives in North America and Europe have, since 9/11, waved the flag of women’s rights, and to a lesser degree LGBT rights, as a way to gain Western public support to wage wars in the Middle East.
Images and stories of oppressed Afghan women drove the call to war in 2001, and the more recent footage of ISIS throwing gay men off towers and enslaving Yezidi women stoked the fires of intervention in Syria.
Queer Arabs face a dual struggle: we are battling oppressive forces within our own communities, and we are also resisting the global narrative that tries to use our “oppression” for broader military or political goals.
One of my favorite television shows growing up was a Ramadan special featuring an Egyptian performer called Sherihan.
One year she had a Ramadan special called ‘Sherihan Around the World’, a twenty-minute singing and dancing extravaganza, which had her dressing in exquisite costumes from around the world and performing elaborate song and dance routines.
Sherihan was a woman, but she was the best drag queen I had ever seen: camp, self-aware, and fabulous.
She had planted in me, without my knowledge, the first seeds of my own gay identity.