The fight for LGBTQ ac­cep­tance in the Mid­dle East.

Gay Times Magazine - - CONTENTS: - Illustration Didi Ka­mal Words Joy Stacey (PhD re­searcher in Cul­tural and Crit­i­cal Prac­tice, Univer­sity of Sus­sex)

Ex­plor­ing the queer nar­ra­tive in Beirut, Joy Stacey in­ves­ti­gates queer life in the Mid­dle East, meet­ing ‘an ex­tra­or­di­nary group of in­di­vid­u­als who refuse to be vic­timised’.

Beirut was once de­scribed to me as a ‘wolf in sheep’s cloth­ing’. On first view, while the cityscape con­trasts the crum­bling ru­ins of its for­mer life and con­tem­po­rary mas­sive overde­vel­op­ment, I found the so­cial side of life ex­tra­or­di­nary. It’s home to a re­mark­ably tal­ented com­mu­nity of mul­ti­lin­gual, highly ed­u­cated and proac­tive cre­atives, with food and a nightlife to match, and lec­tures, ex­hi­bi­tions and screen­ings on most nights of the week. With the hos­pi­tal­ity of Arab cul­ture and such a small, crowded city, mak­ing friends and form­ing pro­fes­sional net­works is re­mark­ably easy. This side of life how­ever is open only to those who can af­ford it, and on the flip side the Syr­ian refugee cri­sis paired with gov­ern­men­tal fi­nan­cial cor­rup­tion means that there is very lit­tle in­fra­struc­ture and enor­mous poverty, with an es­ti­mated one in three of the pop­u­la­tion hold­ing refugee sta­tus, and vast un­em­ploy­ment in­hibit­ing even the most qual­i­fied. For all its ad­van­tages, it is an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult, un­pre­dictable, pol­luted, frac­tured and noisy city – ev­ery­thing, good or bad, is to the ex­treme.

I had first vis­ited the city in May 2016 for Dar El Nimer’s ex­hi­bi­tion At The Seams: A Po­lit­i­cal His­tory of Pales­tinian Em­broi­dery. My broader aca­demic in­ter­ests are in visual cul­tures, gen­der, sex­u­al­ity and iden­tity in the MENA re­gion, and dur­ing my visit I had met a large num­ber of highly skilled artists, aca­demics and ac­tivists who mo­ti­vated me to spend more time in a city that ap­peared to hold a great deal of po­ten­tial. I re­turned in late De­cem­ber 2017 for a six month stay, funded by CHASE Con­sor­tium’s Pro­fes­sional De­vel­op­ment pro­gram.

My work in Beirut was split into sev­eral projects; cu­rat­ing film screen­ings at Beirut Art Cen­ter, build­ing part­ner­ships for an ed­u­ca­tion non-profit that I am cur­rently de­vel­op­ing, and most sig­nif­i­cantly, ini­ti­at­ing and pro­duc­ing Queer Nar­ra­tives Beirut podcast. The lat­ter project was con­ceived of dur­ing my first visit to the city when I met an elec­tro-mu­si­cian, Rakans, at an ex­hi­bi­tion open­ing in Gem­mayze. Rakans is a queer per­former who takes on mul­ti­ple per­sonas in his act, and was the first of many peo­ple I came to meet who are chal­leng­ing gen­der and sex­ual norms in Beirut de­spite the threat of ar­rest un­der ‘im­moral­ity’ laws. Since this meet­ing, I had been look­ing for an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate a col­lab­o­ra­tive me­dia project ex­plor­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity in a city where queer vis­i­bil­ity is more com­mon than the rest of the re­gion.

While Ar­ti­cle 534 ren­der­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity il­le­gal is highly con­tested, prior to my visit there had not been mass ar­rests for some years. For trans­gen­der peo­ple the law dif­fers greatly; gen­der re­as­sign­ment surgery is le­gal, and since 2016 it has been le­gal for peo­ple to change their gen­der on their ID post-surgery. Those iden­ti­fi­able as trans­gen­der how­ever suf­fer from sig­nif­i­cant so­cial per­se­cu­tion, and trans­gen­der peo­ple from all walks of life are fre­quently ar­rested on pros­ti­tu­tion charges ir­re­spec­tive of whether they are sex work­ers. Women’s rights are more com­plex and also sig­nif­i­cantly lack­ing, with women be­ing un­able to pass na­tion­al­ity to their chil­dren, and the mul­ti­tude of re­li­gious courts dic­tat­ing the rights of in­di­vid­u­als based on re­li­gious her­itage.

The LGBTQ com­mu­nity in Beirut had changed dra­mat­i­cally in be­tween my first and sec­ond visit to the city. The first Beirut Pride fes­ti­val oc­curred in May 2017, for­merly un­der­ground drag shows were now openly ad­ver­tised on Face­book, and in­di­vid­u­als were openly dis­cussing LGBTQ rights with in­ter­na­tional me­dia like never be­fore. Be­yond the main­stream me­dia cov­er­age how­ever, I wanted to ad­dress preva­lent is­sues of ori­en­tal­ism, sen­sa­tion­al­i­sa­tion and ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion in re­spect to cov­er­age of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity in the Mid­dle East. To break from this, I chose to use pod­cast­ing as a medium that can avoid ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion and al­low for anonymity, to work on a word-of-mouth ba­sis when re­cruit­ing in­ter­vie­wees, to work with mul­ti­ple in­ter­view­ers, and to work with each per­son to de­cide on how they told their story. The re­sult­ing series, Queer Nar­ra­tives Beirut, com­prises six­teen episodes recorded with ac­tivists, per­form­ers, aca­demics, pub­lic fig­ures and cre­atives who each dis­cuss their work and the nu­ances of ad­dress­ing gen­der and sex­ual dif­fer­ence in Le­banon.

My first record­ing was with Anya Kneez and Evita Ka­davra, the drag queens at the fore­front of the cur­rent boom in drag club nights. Cov­er­ing is­sues from fe­male body hair, to men­tor­ing younger queens, to hid­ing their drag from their par­ents, they epit­o­mised the meet­ing of po­lit­i­cal and so­cial ac­tivism with cre­ative cul­tures unique to the city. Among many, other in­ter­vie­wees in­cluded YouTube co­me­dian Lary BS, trans­gen­der ac­tivist Norma, artist Izdi­har Afouni and bod­ily rights ac­tivist Nour Nasr, each dis­cussing their work, their ex­pe­ri­ences in the city, their ex­pe­ri­ences with the press, and the im­por­tance of be­ing heard in the fight for un­der­stand­ing and equal­ity. Dur­ing the process of record­ing the series the sec­ond Beirut Pride week took place, and only three days in was shut down by the Le­banese author­i­ties on im­moral­ity charges, with the ini­tia­tor Hadi Damien ar­rested and forced to sus­pend all ac­tiv­i­ties un­der threat of two years in jail. The em­bold­ened com­mu­nity was deeply shaken, and per­son­ally it was hor­ri­fy­ing to see newly emerg­ing lib­er­ties be­ing snatched away so swiftly. A spe­cial dou­ble-episode of the podcast speaks to Hadi Damien about how and why he set up Beirut Pride, fol­lowed by his ac­count of his ar­rest and the forced sus­pen­sion.

De­spite the set­backs, this ex­pe­ri­ence was an ex­tra­or­di­nary ed­u­ca­tion in the re­silience and brav­ery of a com­mu­nity fight­ing for ba­sic rights. Le­banon’s lack of sta­bil­ity means that the fu­ture is un­pre­dictable, but with a grow­ing num­ber of coun­tries abol­ish­ing laws that in­hibit bod­ily and sex­ual rights, and a lo­cal com­mu­nity who are in­creas­ingly gal­va­nized, I do be­lieve de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion is a re­al­is­tic pos­si­bil­ity. The broader lo­cal and global task is to nur­ture so­cial un­der­stand­ing and ac­cep­tance; this is why shar­ing sto­ries such as those on the podcast is so es­sen­tial. As Le­banon has such a vis­i­ble LGBTQ com­mu­nity that – in my ex­pe­ri­ence – it’s looked to by com­mu­ni­ties in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries as an ex­am­ple of what is pos­si­ble in the MENA re­gion. It’s my hope to re­turn in a year to make a sec­ond sea­son, telling new sto­ries and trac­ing changes in the in­terim time.

The com­mu­nity in Beirut are rapidly de­vel­op­ing and an un­der­doc­u­mented part of the cur­rent global civil rights move­ment for gen­der and sex­ual equal­ity, and they de­serve to be heard.

This is an ex­tra­or­di­nary group of in­di­vid­u­als who refuse to be vic­timised, who risk their own safety to nur­ture an in­ter­sec­tional com­mu­nity, who work to ed­u­cate their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, and who fight for the rights of those who are un­able to step into the spot­light them­selves.

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