Slow Thaw for Gays in Arab World

There is more awareness now that gay Arabs do exist and that the challenges posed by sexual nonconformity won't go away.

Brian Whitaker
Brian Whitaker
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Screenshot from Facebook page of Helem (the Arabic acronym of "Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders"), a non-governmental non-profit organization.
Screenshot from Facebook page of Helem (the Arabic acronym of "Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders"), a non-governmental non-profit organization.Credit: Screenshot
Brian Whitaker
Brian Whitaker

Although gay Arabs have been generally supportive of the Arab Spring, the Arab Spring has not been very supportive of gay Arabs. But because the activists among them see themselves as part of a broader struggle, they face the question of how much they should set aside their gay activism while fighting for bigger and more immediate goals.

This question came up last November when a Facebook group wanted to declare January 1 as Egypt's National Gay Day. A blogger in Cairo called Nilesby wrote: "Is shocking people this way going to support our cause, or harm it? Is the time ever 'right'? ... I do think there are times that are more appropriate than others. There are also ways more appropriate than others. How to measure this 'appropriateness'? I have no idea."

Another blogger dismissed the argument that the time isn't right, and wrote: "Over and over we have waited, and put the 'greater' cause ahead, only to find ourselves pushed back once things are settled ... We have learned that yes, the time is not right, simply because the time for us to speak out was yesterday .... Our demands are only ours because the 'greater' cause only rarely embraces them ..."

But, taking a longer view of the prospects for gay rights, I think the Arab Spring is opening up new possibilities. There are basically two strands to achieving LGBT rights (and sexual and gender rights as well ). One is institutional acceptance, which involves changing laws, and the other is social acceptance, which involves changing attitudes. They don't always happen simultaneously.

What we are seeing with the Arab Spring is the beginning of generalized institutional change, starting with the removal of authoritarian regimes. But that is also being driven by social pressures - frustrations over a lack of personal and political freedom, a lack of economic opportunities, a lack of opportunities for self-fulfillment, and so on. These social pressures began long before the events in Tunisia and they'll continue long after the dictators are gone.

Looking elsewhere in the world, institutional acceptance of LGBT rights has often been the result of political upheaval. For example, in South Africa when apartheid ended, or in Latin America when the age of the military juntas came to an end.

I can't visualize anything similar happening with LGBT rights in the Arab countries at present; they are more likely to follow the more gradual route we saw in Britain, among other places.

What happened in Britain was partly a change in ideas about the function of governments - a realization that policing what consenting adults did in private was not a legitimate concern of the state. This was combined with a recognition that in order for a crime to take place there has to be a victim, and that laws against homosexuality were generally unenforceable.

On the institutional front, these are the sort of arguments that have some prospect of being accepted in at least some of the Arab countries eventually. In Lebanon, for example, there has been persistent talk of overhauling the penal code to remove those sections that are no longer seen as part of government's legitimate business - including the one that criminalizes "all unnatural intercourse."

On the social front, I don't see much scope at this stage for a confrontational, in-your-face style of campaigning - mainly because the number of people willing to stick their heads above the parapet is too small.

In Lebanon, though, the local LGBT organization, called Helem, has been functioning openly for about 10 years now and has played quite a smart game. This has been based on raising the visibility of gay people in a fairly low-key way and presenting them as part of the country's social and political fabric. The first public appearance of a rainbow flag in Lebanon, for example, was during a demonstration in 2003 against the Iraq war.

The Lebanese activists have also worked hard at cultivating allies among other sections of civil society, constantly making the point that LGBT rights are an integral part of human rights.

In 2006, when Lebanon was bombed by Israel, Helem's office became the center of a relief operation for people who fled their homes - and this certainly helped to change perceptions of them among the Shia community, and even in Hezbollah.

When I first started writing about gay issues in the Middle East 10 years ago, it was still very much a taboo subject. I think there is more awareness now, at least among the more progressive elements, that gay Arabs do exist - despite the lack of public role models - and that the challenges posed by sexual nonconformity won't go away.

These challenges go to the heart of the Arab Spring. They raise questions about the relationship between the state and the individual, and above all about the continuance of patriarchal rule. In a system where masculinity is highly valued and gender roles are rigidly defined, any deviation from the sexual "norms" and expected gender roles is not only subversive, but is regarded as extremely threatening.

Brian Whitaker is an editor at the Guardian, and author of "Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East" (Saqi Books / University of California Press ). This opinion piece is based on a talk he gave last month at a conference on the Arab Spring at SOAS, London.

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