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Safe in the U.S., Gay Arabs Still Struggle in the Closet

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Jun 18, 2008
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Dancing cheek to cheek with a handsome swain is a dream that, for many gay Arabs, carries with it the implicit risk of violence, even death, back home. But in America, homophobia and anti-Arab sentiment notwithstanding, it’s a dream that can come true.

As reported by a June 17 article in the Village Voice, gay Arabs--the subject of the recent documentary A Jihad for Love by filmmaker Parvez Sharma--may find that they need to flee their home countries due to systematic, often forceful, repression of homosexuality by the state.

Especially in nations governed by Sharia law, a theological system of jurisprudence rooted in Muslim scripture, gays are subject to harassment, arrest, torture, and, in the worse countries, the depredations of anti-gay death squads, such as the ones that roam the streets of Iraqi cities, killing gays with impunity on the orders of religious leaders.

The Village Voice article cited the experiences of gay Arabs from countries like Egypt and Morocco who take advantage of their living situation in the United States to express and explore what comes most naturally to them: their sexuality.

It’s not easy, even in the land of the free: the Village Voice article reports that many gay Arabs still cling to the closet, even though they are not at immediate risk, as they would be back in their home countries.

Part of the reason for this, the article explains, is that Arabs enjoy tight-knit families that place a premium on marriage, often arranged between the parents of the prospective bride and groom. Gay Arabs face such social and familial pressure to marry a person of the opposite sex that their survival mechanisms rely not only on the closet, but on finding work in places away from the family home, places where they can pursue their true natures even as they support the family back home.

Alternatively, some gay Arabs seek higher education abroad; this buys them a few years to breathe easier, but it’s a temporary solution.

Always, however, discretion is the key: if seen at a gay Arab group meeting, for example, gay Arab individuals fear that word will get back to family members, with potentially dire consequences.

And it’s not only resident aliens in the States for a few years to attend university or on work visas who feel a need for caution: even American-born children of immigrant Arab families may feel insecure about their families learning the truth, as with one Lebanese-American lesbian, called Jennifer in the article.

The issues of fear and anti-gay sentiment are not restricted to Arabs of the muslim faith, however. Even Arab Christians and Jews deal with traditionally anti-gay attitudes endemic to their (or their parents’) native cultures. The scars can be deeper than the skin: the writer Sulayman X, in his novel Bilal’s Bread, dissects the dynamics of a traditional, immigrant Arab family living in the United States: in the course of the book, a young gay man named Bilal is repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse by his older brother.

Such instances of forceful same-sex encounters may not be uncommon in real life, even in nations where homosexuality is so vehemently condemned. The Village Voice article quoted a young man named Nadeem, the president of the Gay & Lesbian Arab Society, who described a meeting of the group in which the topic of conversation was the participants’ first sexual experience with a person of the same gender.

Said Nadeem, who came to America from Iraq, "About 10 people were in the discussion, and for three of them, their first experience was being raped."

Added Nadeem, "I was like: ’Whoa, OK-I guess we’ll have to talk about this.’"

The Village Voice story touched upon the intersection between Americans of other ethnic backgrounds (largely Causasian) and gay Arabs and Arab-Americans; there’s even a term for white men attracted to Arabs, as it turns out: "hummus queens." (Such terms exist also for white men attracted to Asian males--"rice queens"--and men of non-Caucasian heritage attracted to white male partners--"potato queens.")

But such social support groups have dwindled with the advent of Internet hookups, which for some might mean that while there’s a sense of easier, safer, more anonymous movement in terms of satisfying genuine sexual needs, the ancillary aspects of sexuality, the emotional support and understanding that a larger social network can offer, has become less available because gay Arabs are simply not electing to take advantage of those things--partly because gay Arabs, like other gay people, have busy lives and it’s hard to find the time, but also because attending such groups, even in the land of the free, carries a risk of familial and societal repercussions.

But, to some extent, that changed after 9/11, 2001. With the FBI scrutinizing Arab immigrants as potential terror suspects, and with social prejudices against Arabs peaking in dratamtic fashion, suddenly being gay was less the issue than being Arabic in a country that viewed all Arabs with suspicion. That brought more gay Arabs back to groups like GLAS, and also forced some gay Arabs to integrate more closely into the fabric of American life--including participating in Pride parades, such as the 2002 Pride event that GLAS was part of.

The Village Voice describes the marching of gay Arabs in the parade as "a double coming out," because marchers not only exposed themselves to TV cameras that were beaming their faces around the world, but they were also standing up, with pride, as Arabs and Arab-Americans.

One result: gay Arabs looking for asylum in this country now had evidence--their Pride participation--to point to in proving that they truly were gay, not simply making that claim to gain admission to American shores.

That resurgence in membership to groups like GLAS has subsided with time, but left an indelible impression for many who were formerly deeply in the closet. Even as many gay Arabs living in the United States still conceal themselves for most of their day-to-day lives, for some, America truly has become the land of the free.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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