A Queer Imperialism?

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You only have to go back to the justification of the occupation of Afghanistan as a “war for women” to know that one way imperialism justifies itself is through its supposedly progressive credentials. But this could also be said for white supremacy. The new racism, whether by the ruling class or its populist variants, presents itself as anti-racist, anti-patriarchal. Even queer politics is not escaping this dynamic and it’s no accident that the Israeli apartheid regime recently kicked off a “gay friendly” public relations campaign.

Diamond Walid’s critique over at MRzine is timely.

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Beirut: City of Projected Fantasies

by Diamond Walid

Beirut has been labelled the Paris, sometimes the Switzerland, of the Middle East. According to one recent New York Times article, it is now the region’s Provincetown (the Cape Cod resort favoured by gay visitors). This ever-changing city seems to have become a mirror where people project their own fantasies.

Comparing Beirut with another city, whether Paris, Rome or Provincetown is a denial of its uniqueness. Beirut’s gay culture is also unique and specific. As a gay man who has lived in the city for more than 30 years, I know that notions such as “gay”, “straight”, “public displays of affection” and “homophobia” can take on completely different forms and meanings in this part of the world. Yet there was no mention of these nuances in the New York Times article, obviously built on a series of denials.

“When I go out from Bardo [a gay-friendly restaurant] I always feel at ease hugging my friends — of course in a decent way — in front of the police. This is the kind of change I am talking about,” Raed is quoted as saying. No mention of the fact that Lebanon, like all countries of the region, is a place where men often touch, kiss and hold each other’s hands in public, whether gay, straight, policemen or not (whereas in New York, holding hands can apparently cost you your life). Or the fact that Lebanese heterosexual couples do not necessarily show more public affection than gay ones, also for reasons of “decency”. If any “change” has recently occurred, it is only in the fantasies of some.

Reading this article, it seems as though gay culture in Lebanon was non-existent until the clubs it mentions opened or the Mr Bear Arabia election took place. In reality, one could go back to the Phoenicians to find same-sex relations an integral part of local culture. In more recent years, and even during the civil war (1975-90), gay men and women have gathered and partied in many public places, more or less visible but nonetheless vibrant.

The author not only denies local gay culture its history, but also its real space. Most of the venues cited in the article are hangouts for the Beiruti moneyed élite. In some, you will not be admitted if you don’t come with an expensive car or wear certain fashion brands. Thankfully, the vast majority of the Lebanese don’t belong to this obnoxious crowd. The less affluent gay population meets in different places, doesn’t talk about its escapades in the Marais or Soho, doesn’t always speak English or French or watch Sex and the City. In fact, it seems to have its own world, much larger and more open than the one described in the article.

The story of Paradise Beach is a telling example. This large public beach in the city of Byblos was very popular with working-class gay men from different cities and religions. A colourful place where gay men mingled and flirted more freely than elsewhere. Until the day the beach was privatised and turned into a luxury resort, with a strict admittance policy. However, a small strip of land was still left unsold and frequented by the working-class gays. The sight was amusing: the resort’s stiff and bourgeois crowds — gay and straight alike — eyeing with utter shock their flamboyant neighbours. Today there are no more public gay beaches left in Lebanon.

The article also denies other Arab countries their own gay cultures. Many western journalists sum up Arab gay realities with sentences like: “Saudi Arabia: homosexuality punishable by death”, “Iraq: gay men killed.” Full stop. But gay men are also killed in “civilised” western countries. While homophobia is certainly a problem in Arab countries, like anywhere else, it never overshadows the thriving and lively local gay cultures. Yet no one talks about these cultures. “Cairo: bad”, “Damascus: bad”, we’re told by Ricardo, the Spaniard in the article. Even Dubya and his “Axis of Evil” would envy such eloquence.

How ironic that many Lebanese gay men, including myself, actually feel more comfortable in places like Damascus or Amman and go there often in order to escape the Beiruti agitation. There might be no Kylie Minogue nights there, but on the other hand there is a lot less snobbery and less fuss about homosexuality. My friend Ali recently went to Jordan to be wedded to his boyfriend by a Muslim cleric and then spent his honeymoon in Damascus. The advantage of such trips also comes in finding an anonymity one is denied at home.

But even Amman seems to have its “globalised” gay crowd. Watching Ugly Betty and wearing D&G is what gay culture is about, these people seem to say, along with the NYT article and many gay men across the global village. I can still remember how discovering Steven, the gay character in Dynasty, during my childhood in the 1980s, opened a whole new perspective for me. It is another matter altogether to equate this mass consumption with gay culture, or even with gay rights advocacy. Just as Beirut’s old neighbourhoods are being gentrified, its “superb architecture” (sic) being torn down to make way for soulless, surveillance-camera-equipped skyscrapers, its local gay culture is facing the challenge of McDonaldisation.

How long before writers start describing Beirut as a new Bangkok — rather than a Provincetown? Will sex tourism advance its population’s gay rights or social wellbeing? In the meantime, Beirut is certainly turning back into the playground of multinational companies, regional interests and greedy entrepreneurs (“I can see a future for us here”, one businessman says in the article).

The NYT article falls into the category of the infomercial, tailor-made for a certain clientele, and it has every right to. However, it is typical of much reporting about the Arab world, perpetuating tired stereotypes: Arabs are homophobes, except for the “westernised” ones, Arabs are “sexy savages”. In doing so, not only is it extending the cultural gap further, but it is also exposing a much wider divide: the one between the haves and the have-nots.

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3 thoughts on “A Queer Imperialism?”

  1. Whose queer liberation?

    Imperialist forces, like the US and Israeli states, constantly come up with new ideologies to justify their superiority over people of color. In “The Trouble with Irshad Manji,” we pointed out how women’s liberation, when void of a class and race analysis, simply serves to further racist notions of “saving” third world women, at the expense of their lives, homelands, families, and cultures. The Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan on the pretext of “liberating” oppressed Muslim women is the clearest case in point. The irony is that the imperialists want Muslim women to take off their veils to breathe the so-called freedom that comes with occupation. But every time Muslim women raise their fists in the air to fight apartheid or colonialism, the IDF and the US army destroy their entire family and community. What kind of women’s liberation is that?

    In the past year, the issue of gay marriage has been sparking debate among queer communities, and people are asking the question, what is queer liberation? Is marriage the be all and end all? In the run up to the debates and victories around gay marriage here in the US, the New York Times too, sneaks in its own vision of queer liberation. It is one that celebrates gay marriage, supports US imperialism and capitalism, and laments the plight of Third World queers. Increasingly, we see articles such as this and this (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/08/world/middleeast/08gay.html) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/18/world/middleeast/18baghdad.html. In line with the liberal concern for women and gay rights around the world, the NY Times surveys the state of gay folks in Iraq, and their continual oppression under the Muslim communities they belong in. Slipped under the rug is the message that isn’t spelt out, but that we are all supposed to get: Iraqi gays should thank the US army for attempting to make Iraq a reflection of the US, where happy gays frolick and get married. US imperialism and colonialism are suggested as the only ways to tackle homophobia in the Middle East.

    This racist concern for Iraqi gay men is linked also to how gay marriage, and queer liberation are talked about here in the US. Who gets all the love here? Middle class, white gay men. No, not working class queers, not trans folk, not lesbians, not homeless queer youth, not genderqueers nor sex workers, much less queer folks of color — these are the scary gender and sexually deviant folks who might think queer liberation is a little more than assimilating into straight society, who remember Stonewall as a riot that overthrew the status quo. These are the motley queer crowd, whose needs and desires are too rowdy for the pristine pages of the NY Times. For the liberal gay establishment, the hate crimes and murders of these folks don’t really count. Only then, can the US be presented as a beacon of tolerance and liberation for rich white gay men, in contrast to the barbaric, homophobic Third World.

    And only then too, can the Middle East serve as a fantasy of a rich, white, mobile gay tourism. In the article below, Diamond Walid responds to the voyeurism of the NY Times’s Travel section that scopes out new sites of gay conquest in the Beirut. When the Travel section of the New York Times ignores the existing complexity of sexuality and gender expressions in the Middle East, when it obliterates the varied ways in which people resist homophobia and celebrate their sexuality, when it wipes off the class divisions within queer communities, it ends up presenting rich, white, middle-class gay identity (Sex and the City, Kylie Minogue, and fenced-off gay resorts) as the ONLY definition of “gayness.” Gone are the lives of Muslim gay couples who got married by Muslim clerics, gone are the public gay beaches that existed long before OUT magazine created their Travel section. Walid points out how the influx of gay tourism not only erases existing gay lifestyles and cultures, but also destroys them.

    Indeed, gender and sexuality are now new frontlines for US imperialism’s justification of its superiority over Third World peoples. Where the US military and capital are slow to arrive, the Travel pages of the New York Times lay the ideological groundwork for them.

  2. excellent analysis Makanaster. In a way, we can see a lot of what the NY times is representing here as a gentrification effort. Just like in some places in the US white gale male elites are displacing Black and Latino communities as well as working class queer neighborhoods, so too are the liberal imperialists and their jet-setting Lebanese lackeys gentrifying Beirut, kicking out everyday queer folks. What Mattilda Bernstein describes in “Sweatshop Produced Rainbow Flags” ( http://www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com/gayrights_lip.html) is happening internationally. I agree with you, the NY Times coverage is definitely an attempt to coopt the movement for marriage equality into a new vision of the American Dream that can be a cutting edge justification for US Empire. What is obliterated, as usual, is how everyday folks, religious and nonreligious alike are waging courageous and revolutionary struggles to build and defend a wide variety of new types of family.

  3. Here are some thoughts on the second article that Makanaster posted:

    1) Who’se killing gay men in Iraq? It’s the Sunni and Shiite death squads. The US funded and backed the Shiite death squads as part of its counterinsurgency program. It’s also so-called tribal leders ashamed by gay relatives. Well, the US backed the most reactionary Sunni leaders to help smash the Suni insurgency, and now these “tribal” leaders have more power than they have since the time of the British occupation.

    2) Ayatollah Sistani called for gays to be killed in the most brutal ways possible. Sistani is a major US ally, and a key part of the Shitte ruling class the the US helped build.

    3) Under the puppet government the US set up, homosexuality is illegal. The Iraqi police WHO THE US TRAINED harass and arrest gays.

    4) The Sadrist movement – who are anti-US – discourage people from killing gays even though their Fri sermons are anti-gay. This is not particularly progressive and it needs to be confronted as well, but it’s notable that Sadr seems to the left of Sistani on this question.

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