There weren’t any gays in Jordan in the 1980s. There were khawals (‘faggots’) and tants (‘sissy boys’): these words, uttered with contempt, were a feature of my childhood long before I understood what they meant. Then they became clues to the explanation for my own feeling of wrongness. In the wake of the First Gulf War, our cloistered world in Amman was penetrated by the internet and cable TV, and online chat rooms and American sitcoms offered a language and a way of thinking previously unimaginable to adolescents like me, who had no words with which to conceive their sexuality and no forum in which to express it. I had crossed a border.
Mark Gevisser’s ‘pink line’ is a shifting frontier, separating ‘those parts of the world that have come to the point of accepting the existence (and equality) of people who deviate from sexual or gender norms, and those … that continue to deny it’. It is a ‘border between different knowledge systems’ and cultures, but it also maps onto geographical borders – between countries and continents, between the suburbs and the city – and the temporal boundary ‘between the past and an imagined future’. For queer people, Gevisser writes, it is the difference ‘between fear and vulnerability on the one hand, and sanctuary and affirmation on the other’. In countries where homosexuality is punishable by law, it draws a stark distinction between public and private life.
Gevisser, who is South African, spent the years between 2012 and 2018 conducting interviews in dozens of countries. In Uganda he found the queer community navigating the globalising aspirations of the LGBTQ+ rights movement and a political class allied with US evangelicals. In Ann Arbor, after the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the agenda had moved on to the right of children to access toilets according to their chosen gender. In Egypt, after the revolution of 2011, Gevisser writes, emboldened activists began openly to use cafés and public spaces in the downtown ‘liberated zone’. There was ample reason to celebrate the end of the Mubarak regime, which had suppressed and harassed gays. In 2001, for example, police raided the Queen River, which was moored on the Nile at Cairo, arresting 52 men and subjecting them to beatings and medical examinations to ‘prove’ their homosexuality. But the post-Mubarak moment was fleeting. After Sisi came to power, a police crackdown began, with politicians claiming the gay community was a fifth column, populated by Western agents. Many people opted for safety and went underground, where such communities in the Middle East have long been found, or into exile.
The accounts Gevisser provides are immersive and sometimes voyeuristic. There is gruelling testimony (‘I can’t even die in peace,’ says Zaira, a lesbian woman in Mexico trying to give her partner custody of their child); victories – even small ones – are rare. There are chapters reflecting on the mechanics of ‘othering’ and historic witch-hunts, including the Lavender Scare in the US, when a manufactured moral panic led the Truman administration to purge gays and lesbians from government positions on the grounds that they were vulnerable to blackmail and likely to have subversive, un-American ideas.
Gevisser is also interested in the globalising thrust of Western (mostly US) queer culture. The ‘pink dollar’ – the purchasing power of Dink (double income, no kids) homosexual couples – contributes to the gentrification of big cities and underwrites a vast tourism sector. He sees the pink dollar as an economic and ideological faultline: the assertion that ‘consumerism and tourism [open] the insular world … to fresh ideas and capital and people’ is countered by the struggle to protect mostly non-Western cultures against this threat.
A few years before Gevisser embarked on his project, Joseph Massad, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia, published Desiring Arabs (2007). In this book and in Islam in Liberalism (2015) he argued that the global pretensions of Western liberal discourse – ‘gay rights are human rights,’ Hillary Clinton declared in 2011 – were destroying indigenous expressions of sexuality and gender in non-Western cultures represented as ‘dark, unjust, intolerant, regressive’. In Arab societies, Massad observed, same-sex relations had flourished for centuries before being criminalised by the former European colonial powers, which now, together with NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, advocated ‘coming out’ as part of a broad human rights agenda. Massad identified this as a form of soft power, a hijacking of gay rights in the service of US interests.
Addressing attacks on the queer community in Egypt, Massad took a different line: ‘The campaign of the Gay International misses [an] important distinction. It is not same-sex sexual practices that are being repressed by the Egyptian police but rather the sociopolitical identification of these practices with the Western identity of gayness.’ Even the mainstream Arabic term to describe homosexuals, al-shudhudh al-jinsi, is itself a translation of ‘sexual deviance’. Massad argued that there was, in fact, a vernacular vocabulary that might have helped young people in Arab cultures – myself, for instance – navigate the difficulties presented by their same-sex desires. This was subverted, erased or co-opted over time by Western as well as local homophobes. After all, to assert the presence of indigenous sexual or gender expressions, as Massad does, is to accept that homophobia, too, has its own local iterations, and is not a wholesale colonial import.
As a middle-class adolescent in a reasonably liberal family, it wasn’t difficult for me to adopt Western notions. But if Massad is right, I and others like me had unwittingly fallen prey to the Gay International. We had been imaginatively colonised (his thesis lends weight to the old accusations that we are foreign agents and outcasts). My father’s first response to my coming out was: ‘Cambridge did this to you.’ (He has since come to accept it.) Massad’s scholarship has been used selectively to empower both anti-imperialists and conservatives in their shared conviction that homosexuality, as framed in the universalising language of LGBTQ+ rights, has no place in the Arab world. Gay people have often felt caught between these two camps, between competing forms of identity. This is not of course an uncommon experience for citizens of colonised or formerly colonised countries, as veiled women can attest.
Gevisser has little time for Massad’s conception of a Gay International pitted against indigenous traditions. Massad’s argument, he insists, is a form of ‘wilful nostalgia’, which imagines ‘natives thoroughly insulated from global influences before the Gay Internationalists came along, and unable to think – and dream – for themselves’. It’s true that each time I return to Amman I am struck by the confidence with which younger members of Jordan’s queer community assert themselves, and the fearlessness – or innocence? – of their drive for visibility. Many have developed a sophisticated understanding of their place in the world and of the alleged Western-Arab divide, openly espousing LGBTQ+ discourse without abandoning their commitment to the region. Others reject gay codes and lifestyles even as they pursue same-sex relations, defining themselves, for instance, as mithli (‘same’), to describe their gayness without falling prey to universalising language. The purity Massad evokes, if it ever existed, is long since lost.
Palestine offers a stark illustration of the alleged conflict between imperial projection and indigenous tradition. In 2020, Julia Zaher, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, made a significant donation to the Aguda, an Israeli gay rights organisation, in order to establish a helpline specifically for Palestinians. Zaher is the head of Al Arz, one of the biggest sesame paste producers in Israel, and it wasn’t long before Palestinian retailers began a boycott of her products, amid a squall of homophobic commentary: homosexuality was a foreign import, with Israeli overtones, and had no place in Palestinian culture. Gevisser’s pink line had, it seemed, been drawn between liberal Israelis and conservative Palestinians, and this was the way the ‘gay tahini’ fracas was reported by most Western media. But there was another side to the story, one that received less coverage: many Palestinian organisations and individuals, including alQaws (the leading voice for Palestine’s queer community), condemned Zaher’s decision to donate funds to an Israeli NGO rather than a Palestinian one. The controversy, as they saw it, was her complicity with Israeli apartheid. According to the former president of alQaws, Haneen Maikey, Aguda didn’t have the interests of queer Palestinians at heart if it could remain silent about Israel’s oppression of all Palestinians, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. A spokesman for Aguda said that it was ‘committed to equal rights for all people in Israel, regardless of religious or national background’.
Gevisser’s approach to Palestine reflects his position as a South African; he situates the Palestinian cause ‘in the tradition of 20th-century liberation movements’. The ANC, he writes, wrestled for years with the question of queer rights, and mainstream Palestinian politics, similarly, ‘saw any kind of special claim as a distraction from the primary freedom struggle. On top of this, homosexuality carried a very particular – and deadly – stigma: of Israeli contamination, and of collaboration with the oppressor.’ Israel likes to project itself as a haven for gays in a region it depicts as a bastion of homophobic prejudice: Tel Aviv’s Pride parade is one of the biggest in the world. Exaggerated stories of Palestinian queers escaping persecution in their own community to seek shelter in Israel distract attention from Israel’s own acts of oppression, as well as the coercive use of sexuality by its intelligence services to ‘turn’ Palestinians into collaborators by using blackmail, entrapment and the threat of exposure. The fact that Israeli surveillance equipment is used by authoritarian governments elsewhere – including China, Egypt and the UAE – to identify gay citizens is never mentioned.
Sa’ed Atshan, a Palestinian associate professor of anthropology based at Emory in the US, has argued that resisting Israeli colonialism shouldn’t mean denying Palestinian homophobia – he praised Zaher’s donation to the Aguda on these grounds as well as for offering a service to Palestinians in Israel. Alliances with Israeli organisations are permissible, even desirable, he thinks, provided all groups are committed to ‘co-resistance’ against Israeli domination. AlQaws, as well as other activists, including those from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, are unconvinced. These are the ‘radical purists’ (many of them admirers of Massad) whom Atshan has in mind in Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique, which argues that the Palestinian LGBTQ+ movement, both in Israel and in the territories, is disabled by an overarching ‘critique of empire’. Purists police all forms of sexual or gender identification in the name of anti-imperialism. But the nature of life under colonisation and occupation, in Atshan’s view, means that no one, not even ‘the most radical activists and academics’, can lay claim to the moral high ground. Everyone is implicated in some way. It’s better to edge forward in modest ways.
Atshan has a point. One of the gay Palestinians who spoke to Gevisser recalls that when Israeli security forces attempted to blackmail him into collaboration after he began dating an Israeli Jew, he went to alQaws for help and was told: ‘You gay boys just want to go and see the good life in Tel Aviv, and then you come crying to us when you get into trouble!’ A number of Palestinians in the West Bank have told me they wished alQaws would focus less on anti-Zionist policing and more on their everyday needs. It could, for instance, draw up a list of doctors who would hold consultations in confidence, without the Palestinian authorities accessing patient details; it could also set up clinics where STI checks could be carried out confidentially.
In his final chapter, Gevisser invokes ‘It Gets Better’, the viral internet video initiative intended to reach gay American teenagers troubled by depression and suicidal thoughts. He is critical of the idea that countries such as Uganda and Egypt ‘might, with the right kind of influence, “mature” into the kinds of society, with the kinds of freedom, that are found in Western Europe or North America’. He points out that this restricts the possibility of seeing other cultures and civilisations as equals on their own terms, and in turn does away with a dialectical process in which the Global South informs the Global North’s understanding of itself. This brief moment of doubt and introspection is informed by studies including Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages (2007), which examines the way that states achieve respectability on the global stage by employing a Western-defined LGBTQ+ rights discourse (Israel’s ‘pink-washing’ is a case in point). More recently, Rahul Rao’s Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality (2020) also questioned the idea of linear ‘hegemonic progress’, focusing instead on the intersection of global and local factors as they shape indigenous expressions of sexuality and gender in countries such as Uganda and India.
In Palestine, the word ‘queer’ has already passed into Arabic as كوير (in transliteration ‘kwir’). But mirroring the American experience, with or without Western funding, is not the only path. In refusing to parrot Western rights discourse, alQaws is on the side of the local and indigenous, embracing Massad’s critique of the Gay International while rethinking the conditions for queer culture in the Middle East, with its colonial and imperialist elements stripped out. It is not the only organisation in the region that is working to spell out the limits and dangers of foreign LGBTQ+ ideologies. None is free of purist tendencies or innocent of the collateral damage they do to the gay community, as many Palestinians and other Arabs can confirm. Gevisser and Atshan are correct in thinking that queer rights in the Middle East cannot be disentangled from the colonial past and the imperialist present. But their embrace of liberal pragmatism is not the way forward. The recognition that identity is far from simple and the willingness to sift through the detritus of colonial trauma: these are prerequisites to real emancipation, and here the radical purists play a far more constructive role than either of these writers is willing to concede.