Rasha Moumneh, a researcher for the MENA region at Human Rights Watch, gave a keynote address for the Outgames Human Rights conference on a plenary panel entitled: Our Rights, Our Differences: The Global and Diverse LGBT Community. In the address, she argued that the "global LGBT movement" depoliticizes gender and sexuality, and ignores the intersectionality of different forms of oppression, in the Middle East and the "global south" at large.
By RASHA MOUMNEH
COPENHAGEN, Aug 10, 2009 (MENASSAT) — It was the second staging of the Outgames, a week-long event that draws hundreds of LGBT activists from around the world and included tournaments in 38 different sports disciplines, a variety of cultural events, as well as a human rights conference "addressing issues and concerns of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people) community."
The reaction to Moumneh’s speech, according to Georges Azzi, director of the Beirut-based LGBT-rights organization HELEM, was mixed. “Some people stood up and applauded, while others in the audience stayed seated, did not applaud. There were definitely people who were upset; supporters of Israel in the community weren’t happy,” Azzi said. He added, “When I spoke in New York [at the Gay and Lesbian Center] after the Gaza war, the same thing happened. People got up and left, when we criticized Israel. We support all human rights [struggles].”
“Thank you, it’s wonderful to be here. I was asked to come here today to speak about the situation and progress of LGBT rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Obviously it’s impossible for me to cover the breadth of LGBT issues in the entire region in the space of 10 minutes, or even 10 hours for that matter, so I’m not going to. What I am going to do instead is posit some observations I’ve had about the international LGBT rights movement in relation to this particular region.
I have to say it’s always fantastic to see so many faces from the movement gathered under one roof, if only for a short period of time, to talk, exchange, debate, and learn from each other. A lot of us from the movement are here. A lot of us unfortunately aren’t, and this isn’t a coincidence. The term “global LGBT rights movement” is perhaps a little misleading, unless by global we mean of the global North, because that is largely the locus of power from where this movement operates. And we need to always be conscious of that, we need to always be aware of who frames the terms of debate, of how that debate is framed, and ultimately, to what end. I think this is particularly relevant when discussing the Middle East and North Africa because there seems to be an abundance of people from the global North falling over themselves to speak on our behalf. There is a missionary zeal within the international LGBT rights movement to deliver us, to save us from our wretched lives, to rescue us from other people like us (and by us I mean Arab/Muslim/brown). There is an un-self-reflexive othering that takes place of people from the global south generally and from the Middle East in particular. A few weeks ago I was introduced to a gay European activist, a lovely, earnest, well meaning fellow who had this insight about Iran to share with me; he said: “you know, something has changed for the average person in your average Western democracy. We now see that people in Iran wear Chanel sunglasses and high heels and use mobile phones just like us, and that’s led to an amazing transformation. They’re like us, we can relate to them now, we can support them.” Of course he was making a point about how the media has the ability to shatter stereotypes, but that statement in itself is so incredibly loaded. Does that mean that if they didn’t possess the trappings of “modernization” then people from Europe would be less likely to support them? Or that “like us” amounts to having the latest mobile phone? Or that we need to start proving our credentials in order to earn European support?
I think that statement is also indicative of a lot of other things particularly relevant to the LGBT rights movement. There is an unfortunate tendency within the movement towards a reduction of people’s multiple selves into a single aspect employed falsely in place of the whole: in this context, sexuality and gender identity. By doing this, by positing a “global gay citizen” stripped of context, of environment, of relationships, of community, of a politics, in order to sustain the myth of a “happy global gay family,” we are doing harm. As if, if we just manage to take away all this extraneous noise that is “culture” (for lack of a better word) and politics, we would then emerge with a distilled, undiluted “Essence de Gay.” And Essence de Gay is invariably white, usually male, and predominantly middle class. But that is not how people live, it is not how people identify, and it is dishonest and disingenuous to claim that. But we do, and we do it regularly, and this has been an integral part of the incredibly strong drive to completely depoliticize gender and sexuality, when by their very nature they are political. And we see this from every side. On the one end we hear about how homosexuality is a Western conspiracy bent on destroying the moral fabric of Arab societies (much as the religious right in the US characterizes the “homosexual agenda”). I cannot count how many articles come out in the Arab press accusing some LGBT rights group or another of having ties to Israel and a Zionist agenda.
On the other end, and particularly when we, as queer activists, start talking about the intersectionality of different axes of oppression, we are accused of “politicizing” human rights, of diluting and obscuring the Essence de Gay by bringing up annoying things like occupation, militarization, nationalism, war, and racism, things that are simply not talked about in polite society. I’m not sure why this is breaking news, but the battles we are waging are political, and I for one, gave up on polite society a long time ago.
I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, where as many of you are aware, there is a murderous campaign against gay men and men with non-conforming gender presentation. The information we gathered there pointed to the Mahdi Army as the driving force behind this campaign. After the surge, many members of the Mahdi Army were imprisoned, and the militia was greatly weakened. However, more recently many were, and continue to be, released from prison since they were being held without charges and without trials. By going after the most vulnerable segment of the population, those individuals that no one would rush to defend, the Mahdi army attempted to position themselves as force for the moral cleansing of society, reconstituting themselves politically through recourse to emotive issues such as social decay, westernization, tradition, and moral purity. There are clearly more issues at play here than just homophobia, particularly when we remember that the Mahdi Army was at times strengthened by the Americans themselves as a sort of proxy army.
A recent article in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper reported that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has decided to change tactics when dealing with the problem of Iran and its nuclear program, since it became apparent to them that in the wake of Iraq, the world is less likely to support yet another war in the name of preserving the peace. So they sat there in their fancy Foreign Ministry offices and had a stroky-beard meeting and started thinking: “Who? Who can we harness for this? Who is going to lead this campaign against Iran for us so that we don’t end up looking like the bad guys?” And they had their A-ha! moment. According to Haaretz, “The new campaign, to be overseen by the Foreign Ministry, aims to appeal to people who are less concerned with Iran's nuclear aspirations and more fearful of its human rights abuses and mistreatment of minorities, including the gay and lesbian community. The campaign plans to recruit the international gay community, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed in 2007 when he said there were no homosexuals living in his country.” The ironic part is that they are so utterly transparent about their propaganda. The insulting part is that they assume that they can be because we won’t really care that we are being used as pawns in an explosive geopolitical conflict. And the sad part is that they are correct. They are correct because too few people have spoken out against it. They are correct because Tel Aviv is featured as one of the OutCities during this event without even a thought of what that means, without an awareness that by doing this we are creating a hierarchy of rights, implicitly saying that one set of rights, that of LGBT Israelis, is more important than another, that of Palestinians, queer and straight, living within Israel or within the ‘67 borders of Gaza and the West Bank, who suffer daily from occupation, land expropriation, house demolitions, the apartheid separation wall, and the death and destruction wrought by one of the most powerful military forces in the world today. But none of this is our concern of course. This is clearly a politicization of human rights and there’s too much noise around the Essence de Gay for it to be relevant to us. But willing ignorance is complicity.
We’re totally fine talking about the threat of radical Islam to queers and women, but anything beyond that, like for example the unflinching support of Egypt and Saudi Arabia by the US government, the former of which, as Parvez Sharma mentioned yesterday, was the site of one of the most aggressive campaigns against gay people in the past few years, that’s stuff we don’t really want to engage with.
Before this conference, I had the privilege of being part of the first ever meeting of queer Arab activists from all over the Middle East, North Africa, and the diaspora in Europe, around 80 people in total from organizations, individuals, and unorganized groups put together by Sabaah, an Arab LGBT organization here in Copenhagen. It was awe-inspiring to sit there with all these incredible people who were really putting themselves at risk in their home countries to engage in the difficult struggle for their rights as queers living in Arab societies. Interestingly, and this occurred to me only after we were done, the words “Islam,” “Islamism,” or “religious extremism,” did not come up once in the three days we came together. Not once. On the other hand, an inordinate amount of time was spent talking about how we, as activists, should deal with and respond to donors, foreign governments, and the international LGBT movement because it was apparent to everyone that there is a problem in the way these groups engage with local LGBT organizing. But, as many of you who attended yesterday’s panel entitled “Desiring Arabs” witnessed, when faced with an overwhelmingly white audience, Islam seems to become the only issue on the table. Which is of course not to say that we don’t have a problem with religious extremism, or that the only, or even biggest, obstacle we face is with activists from the North, but I think that this is a telling illustration of the lack of truly honest engagement between people from the North and those from the South, and of the fact that the Middle East is not by any means a one issue region and that it is actually much more complex and multi-faceted than that.
I’d like to go back to yesterday’s plenary conversation about the lack of trans representation at large LGBT events such as this one. Of course representation is important, but more than just having token trans people as keynoters, it is incumbent upon us to create inclusive spaces for trans people, for bisexuals, for women, for the disabled, for all and any underrepresented groups in our communities, and that is not as easy as it sounds. Often it means that we have to rethink our politics from the bottom up, or else we run the risk of tokenism. Similarly, it is incumbent upon us, as LGBT activists, to know, to seek out information about the world we build our activism around, to understand its complexities and intersections and to create a progressive and inclusive politics of justice, because the lies we are fed come in so thick and so heavy that it takes energy and commitment to sift through them to get to our truths. And if we don’t, we do harm - to ourselves, to our communities, to the people we are standing in solidarity with, and to our movements for social justice. That, to me, is energy worth spending.