Scholars and social activists have started to put a tremendous amount of faith in the Internet, and blogs in particular, to mobilize social change in the twenty-first century. The Internet’s potential to be a “new public sphere” theoretically makes it an ideal place for political and social evolution to play out in the future. These virtual public spheres connect individuals from around the world based on shared interests. In this sense one might expect Ali, the author of the blog “Black-Gay-Arab” (www.black-gay-arab.blogspot.com), to embody many of the characteristics expected of the new, Internet-mediated social movements. However, as an interview with Ali on the Canadian radio program Search Engine indicates, Ali locates “Black-Gay-Arab” in the political discourse that Joseph Massad terms the “gay international.” Although Ali writes the majority of his blog in Arabic, he also posts in English and links to websites that position his blog solidly in the Western conception of gay and human rights.
It is the decentralized and participatory nature of blogging that creates blogs’ political power. In “From Virtual Public Spheres to Global Justice: A Critical Theory of Internetworked Social Movements,” Lauren Langman argues that it is the nature of blogs to feel like a conversation; this tone heightens their ability to create and maintain social movements. Andrew Sullivan explains that blogs embody the potential of the Internet to create virtual public spheres because:
What bloggers do is completely new-and cannot be replicated on any other medium. It's somewhere in between writing a column and talk radio… And it harnesses the Web's real genius-its ability to empower anyone... In that sense, blogging is the first journalistic model that actually harnesses rather than merely exploits the true democratic nature of the web. It's a new medium finally finding a unique voice (Qtd. in Langman 62).
Blogs allow for the kind of information-sharing critical to establishing “post sub-cultures,” groups that take up both local and global issues and try to create an identity that looks outward to create a globally-oriented self (Langman 58).
It is precisely this globally-oriented self that Ali, the author of “Black-Gay-Arab,” presents on the 20 March 2008 edition of the Canadian radio program Search Engine. The program’s host, Jesse Brown, begins the segment (MP3, 8:00-14:00) by saying: “It can be hard to be black, it can be hard to be gay, and these days, it can be hard to be Arab.” Brown then goes on to praise “Black-Gay-Arab” as “pioneering;” it was the first known blog to come from an openly gay person in Ali’s country. Unfortunately, Brown tells the audience, Search Engine cannot reveal the author’s real identity or home country because the author, referred to by the pseudonym Ali, fears a violent backlash if his identity is discovered. The “About” section of black-gay-arab.blogspot.com, however, indicates that the blogger is based in Khartoum, Sudan.
Brown begins the discussion with the question, “What is it like to be a black, gay Arab?” Ali uses this question to explain that the word gay does not have the same meaning in his region that it does in the West. Ali’s answer echoes Massad’s argument in “Re-Orienting Desire” that the Arab world has not historically used the categories hetero and homosexual. Instead, the Arab region has generally emphasized the active and passive partner. Ali tells Brown that as long as a man is “macho” it does not matter who he has intercourse with. Later in the program, in a way which Massad would probably find typical of today’s gay international discourse, Brown tells Ali that CBC listeners will find this emphasis on being macho “surprising.” In his response Ali aligns himself with members of the gay international, particularly the founder of GLAS, by implicitly saying that the Arab world still has not “caught up” with the liberated, confident and Western model of gayness and sexuality (Massad 374). Ali’s blog and radio appearance, therefore, ought be understood as an “incitement to discourse” about gay rights (ibid). This line of questioning smoothly transitions into Brown’s next question about the illegality of homosexuality in Ali’s country.
As a virtual public sphere the Internet has the ability to foster identity-granting subcultures. Ali’s interest in blogging, he tells Brown, stems from the fact that there is a comfortable anonymity on the Internet. Ali has come out only to a few close friends and family members. Homosexuality may be illegal in his country, but on the Internet Ali has found a community of like-minded individuals to share his experience with. Ali claims that if you go through Arab gay and lesbian blogs almost all of them express relief at discovering a shared community. Although these groups are virtual, they “nevertheless foster or create spaces for the democratic construction, negotiation, and articulation of new constellations of project identities that are decoupled from national, ethnic, or religious moorings” (Langman 57). On his blog Ali can “be public without being public.”
Massad argues that in the Arab world it is not same-sex desire or activity that the state represses but the use of “gay” as a public and political identity aligned with the West (382). When Ali responds to Brown’s question about using the blog for political change, he explains that his goal is simply to “let out whatever is in [his] heart.” This may be surprising to a Western listener accustomed to hearing calls for legal reforms based on social identity politics, but Ali’s goal is in fact in-line with the argument Langman makes for the liberating impact of online interaction: “Self-identities provide emotional satisfactions and/or anxiety reduction through membership in a community that grants recognition, provides a sense of agency, and gives one a basis for meaning” (56). Unfortunately, in Massad’s view, this adoption of the gay international identity may end up hurting those individuals who practice homosexual contact without identifying themselves with the gay movement. While it is tempting to assume that narratives of the homosexual experience will change societal norms, Massad argues that it is not the upper-class members of the gay international (implicitly, individuals like Ali who speak excellent English and have reliable access to a computer and the Internet) who are harmed by this identity but the poor, uneducated, and rural who find themselves unable to fulfill their sexual desires and persecuted because they are now outside the norm (384).
Brown closed the interview by asking Ali for his reaction to Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s infamous comment that, “In Iran, we don't have this [gay] phenomenon, I don't know who's told you that we have it.” This comment sparked a great deal of controversy in the West. Indeed, Ali laughs while he says that Ahmadinejad need only go online to see that he is mistaken. Despite the controversy in the U.S., given Massad’s reading of same-sex desire in the Arab world there may not be any gay people in Iran—at least not in the way the gay international imagines.
Search Engine no doubt wanted to highlight the potential for the Internet, and blogging in particular, to create alternative public spheres in regions of the world that are notorious for state oppression. Ali’s blog may indicate that there are alternative narratives of life in the Arab region but, given how he frames his blog, “Black-Gay-Arab” cannot be understood to challenge the gay international or the West’s perceptions of homosexuality in the Arab world. Ali’s blog reaffirms the discourse of the gay international and echoes the notion that the Arab world has not “caught up” with the West. Writing a blog as a self-identified gay person may challenge social norms in his own country, but Ali’s work does not establish a discourse that challenges the gay international’s influence or problematizes the establishment of a binary homo/heterosexual conception of desire.