Homophonous New Web Site, 'Mideast Piece,' Unites Gay Men Across Region

A new Web site for gay men in the Middle East is hoping to promote unity with messages of peace and coexistence sprinkled with photos of chiseled bare-chested men, tips for locating hopping bars and links to sites like "Queer Jihad."

Daphna Berman
Daphna Berman

A new Web site for gay men in the Middle East is hoping to promote unity with messages of peace and coexistence sprinkled with photos of chiseled bare-chested men, tips for locating hopping bars and links to sites like "Queer Jihad."

The Web site, which was launched in January, includes a road map for peace, as well as a mission statement that aims to unite readers around a "shared adoration of that most sacred and bronzed of species, the Middle Eastern man. Whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Druze, these desert men are more valuable than any Saudi oil well," according to the site. The project is the brainchild of John Leonard and Matt Lebow, two American gay men living in Israel who met as volunteers at the Jerusalem Open House.

Mideastpiece.com, unlike many other gay Israeli blogs and Internet sites, is not pornographic, though photos and content may be a bit racy for some people's taste. The site includes local resources for gay men across the Middle East, as well as practical information on how to locate a gay bar in Cairo, for example. Often, there are featured photos of a "Mideast Piece of the Week" - usually a shirtless male.

"We wanted a place for gay Arab, Jewish, and Iranian bloggers to submit their content and build a network where there wasn't one previously," says Lebow, a Vermont native who studies in Jerusalem. "Gay men in Tel Aviv or Cairo are under the same threat of extremism and fanaticism that tries to control the legal system."

Posts on the site run the gamut and cover subjects like Iran's execution of gay men and the recent celebration of Israel's Independence Day. The site boasts about 2,000 visitors a day, including hits from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Mideast Piece also includes links to gay bloggers in Bahrain, Lebanon, and Turkey, though the majority of the site's readership still originates in Europe and the U.S.

"The Internet is the new meeting place for many gays, not bars or scary parks," says Leonard. "We wanted a place on the Internet where you can type in ?mideast gay' and not get porn or something bad, but rather something positive and life affirming."

It's a version of Playboy, he explains, in that it has "art, music, culture, politics and aspects of life people are interested in - with pretty pictures." The site operates according to the following statement of principles: "Mideast Piece is where a shared dialogue can provide solutions, mutual support, and hope to gay men of the region - plus tips on where to get a great body wax. Gay Jewish Israelis and neighboring gay Arabs," the statement continues, "have more in common than, say, a gay New York City Jew and a homophobic Salt Lake City Mormon in the U.S. We must focus on what unites us, instead of what divides us."

Aiming to offer hope to gay men living in the Middle East under threat of violence and anti-sodomy laws that force many of them to form underground communities, the site is "meant to inspire small changes - whether it's being brave enough to go to a bar, have an Internet conversation, or save up for a vacation to another place with more freedom," says Leonard. "Being in the closet can feel hopeless and young guys don't have the experience to know that the way I feel today in the closet won't be the way I feel forever. People feel trapped in a situation they didn't sign up for."

The project is also a form of Israel advocacy to show bloggers a side of life here they wouldn't see in the mainstream media.

Leonard, a North Carolina native who was raised Christian and moved here for his Israeli partner of five years, says that people don't realize that gay rights are relatively progressive in Israel. "I am totally legal and have a residency card, health insurance, etc. because my partner and I are in a committed loving relationship and the State of Israel recognizes that. That's light years away from our neighbors and the U.S."

The site, which has been nominated in two categories for the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards, is in English, but may eventually be translated into Arabic, though it would be a "long way down the road," its creators say.

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