For most people in the West life in the Arab world for gay people is hard to fathom. It is, like many other parts of life in this region, complicated.
One of my favorite television shows growing up was a Ramadan special featuring an Egyptian performer called Sherihan. One year she had a Ramadan special called ‘Sherihan Around the World’,
a twenty-minute singing and dancing extravaganza, which had her dressing in exquisite costumes from around the world and performing elaborate song and dance routines. Sherihan was a woman, but she was the best drag queen I had ever seen: camp, self-aware, and fabulous. She had planted in me, without my knowledge, the first seeds of my own gay identity.
Twelve years later, when I was living in Amman, my boyfriend broke up with me. I was becoming too open with my sexuality, he said. I had confided in too many people. Being with me was becoming dangerous. I told him that no one would kill us, let alone threaten us. The Jordanian police don’t have a history of targeting gay men, I reasoned, especially those of our social class. But that wasn’t the danger, he explained.
The danger was that being seen with me was making people think he was ‘gay’. And he did not want to be seen as ‘gay’.
I did not see this transformation coming, but it happened. The ‘Gay Identity’ had unknowingly been growing inside me like a tumor, until suddenly one morning I woke up and realized I was infected, and the disease was terminal. I had become someone who identified as ‘gay’.
I blamed Sherihan. After all, she started this mess.
Many Arabs who engage in same-sex practices do not identify as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, or ‘bisexual’.
For every queer Arab who has formulated their sense of self by watching ‘Will and Grace’ and ‘Paris is Burning’ are countless others who do not feel it is unusual to engage in same-sex practices and remain unconnected to the word ‘gay’.
Even amongst those who may feel at home in their gay identity, the notion of publicly coming out rings hollow in a culture where who you share your bed with is a private matter.
Like everywhere else in the world, sexual identities in the Middle East intersect with class, gender, and the complex interplay of private and public, making it impossible to speak of a singular ‘queer Arab’ experience.
There are a multitude of queer Arab experiences: from gender rights activists providing underground abortion services to long romantic partnerships between Bedouin men in Siwa, each queer life in the Arab world is unique.
Trying to write about a singular gay Arab experience would be, as one Lebanese gay rights activist put it, the equivalent of “writing a story about gay life in the US, and just interviewing someone from the Westboro Baptist Church, a closeted teenager in Nebraska, and Adam Lambert.”