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Thursday, 2 April 2009

From the Death Penalty to Hummus Queens: Arab Gay Life

Source: Band of Thebes

Tuesday night at IGLHRC's event at New York's Gay Center the three people who seemed least shocked by the news of the impending executions of up to 128 Iraqis, some of whom are gay were the three excellent Arab panelists from lgbt rights groups. George Azzi [at the microphone] from Helem, the only lgbt organization based in the Middle East, said approx., "At least they're announcing it. Usually they just do it." The US is dodging the issue as a "civil" matter. The panelists also said Middle Eastern governments have become much more savvy, usually charging gay men falsely with crimes like murder, or listing consensual gay acts as "rape," making it virtually impossible for foreign humanitarian groups to intervene.

Difficulties await Middle Eastern lgbt people at every level, starting with the fundamentals of communication: Most Arab languages lack neutral gay terms, so the only way to come out is to declare oneself a "molester," "pervert," or "deviant." (Revealing the extent to which all topics of sexuality are avoided, IGLHRC's Hossein Alizadeh [necktie] said when he was asked for a list of words in Persian with their transliterations; he said he realized, at 34, he had no idea how to pronounce the word for vagina.) One of Helem's successes has been to inch the Arab media toward a more appropriate lgbt vocabulary and to stop them from automatically linking homosexuality with pedophilia or Zionism.

Most gay Iranians or Iraqis who flee, go to Turkey, where they arrive with nothing and are not allowed to stay, or to work, yet are required to pay taxes. They are often too frightened to get medical services, and the police abuse them. If they are lucky enough to gain asylum from one of the few nations that grant it, Turkey won't let them leave unless they've paid their $600-700 tax. Alizadeh reminded the audience that in the entire world there is no organization dedicated solely to helping lgbt refugees. [Reader Paul Canning of LGBT Asylum News points out IRQO's work for Iranian gay refugees. Now I wonder if Alizadeh meant there's no multinational organization devoted solely to aiding lgbt refugees.]

If the Turkish example sounds convoluted, study the law in Iran, where two gay men were legally married to each other in Teheran in 1978. Even today, despite their hostile president, homosexuality is not illegal in Iran. But it is illegal for two men to have penetrative sex if witnessed by four other men. If witnessed by only three men, the three men can be charged, not the couple having sex.

Nadeem Ghali [wearing the white shirt], from GLAS, the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society, was equally honest about the struggles facing lgbt immigrants from the Middle East. Discussing the lack of a self-affirming gay identity, Ghali said shame, self-loathing, and intolerant families can still be major factors. Although some families who have been longtime residents here have gradually relaxed their attitudes through exposure to Western culture in general and Will & Grace in particular, Ghali said it's not uncommon for immigrants to be steadfast in the views they left their country with 30 years ago and in fact be more conservative here than the people back home. As if adjusting to American life weren't challenging enough -- with even New Yorkers asking, "Did you live in a tent? Did you ride a camel?" or "Hummus queens" eroticizing the Arab male -- along came 9/11. Many working class Middle Eastern immigrants lost their jobs. Suspicions, anger, and prejudice were stoked to new highs. The next Pride parade was the first time GLAS was to march in public and they were "very scared." All along the parade route, when NYC spectators saw that GLAS was lgbt Arabs, they increased their cheers and applause.


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