First magazine for gay Arabs debuts
“Homosexuality is seen as being exported to the region by a country whose armies and fleets have attacked Arabs: the United States, so homosexuality is widely seen as a disease spread by the United States and Israel to corrupt Arabs and undermine their religious faith.”
— Dalal al-Bizri, a Cairo-based Lebanese sociologist, noting that gays are more reviled than drug addicts in the region.
In spite of that sentiment, gay Arabs can now read BARRA, a new quarterly that provides a free forum “for gays and lesbians in the region to express their feelings of social oppression and stigma.”
What a welcome publication this must be in one of the most hostile regions in the world for queer folks. Helem, the first Arab non-governmental organization that fights for the rights of gays and lesbians, is behind the publication. (Lebanon Daily Star):
Currently releasing its second issue, Barra incorporates several features and news articles written by Helem activists or independent homosexual writers from all over the region.
Helem’s coordinator Georges Azzi said his group tries to raise awareness by speaking at colleges. “There are increasingly more gay-friendly bars, also, for instance the International Day Against Homophobia (last May) was observed for the first time in Lebanon,” Azzi said, “with Helem marking the occasion with a gathering of about 200 people, straight and gay, at a seaside hotel in Beirut.
“It also organized a screening of ‘I exist,’ a documentary on homosexuals of Middle Eastern decent living in the United States, and distributed buttons and pamphlets with the slogan, ‘You drink coffee, I prefer tea. Does that mean one of us is abnormal?'”
Looking at the Queer Lebanon site at Helem, it’s kind of sad — the ability to be out is so restricted that the resources and places to meet people are very limited, with no completely safe space yet. One lonely cafe entry notes a Dunkin Donuts as a pick-up arena.
[Dalal al-Bizri] said that more Arabs were coming out as gays, or “at least coming to terms with their sexuality, even though in some countries they face laws that can land them in jail, and extremists who beat them up because of Islam’s condemnation of homosexuality.”
According to Azzi, Lebanon is the only Arab country where gays can find refuge and Helem is the “first Arab non-governmental organization openly fighting for their rights.” Helem was set up last year despite a vaguely worded law punishing “unnatural sexual intercourse” with up to one year in jail.
“Lebanon, with its mixed population of Muslims and Christians, has a history of religious pluralism and exposure to the West. But elsewhere, homosexuals are on their own,” Azzi said.
A little more on the wonderful documentary film mentioned above, I Exist: Voices from the Lesbian & Gay Middle Eastern Community (2002). The “traditional values” of Middle Eastern culture, as you might imagine are completely and dangerously intolerant of homosexuality. The gays and lesbians interviewed in this film face rejection, violence and even death for coming out.
The interesting aspect of the film is that there are profiles of native-born Middle Easterners as well as Arab-Americans. The bigotry and rejection occurs within their families because of the strong cultural ties.
This film was extremely moving and disturbing for Kate, who is of Lebanese descent. Her father’s family (even though they are at third-gen American) mirrors some of those prejudices. It doesn’t help that her family settled in that hotbed of progressive thinking known as Alabama, either. But I can also say that, on a personal level, there has been much progress in understanding over time, given the various cultural issues at play.