Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Being Queer in Lebanon

This graffiti was in Gemayze, an area of Beirut with many restaurants and nightclubs that are frequented late into the night. It is also the home of beautiful old buildings that you can appreciate if you take a walk to see them during the day. I have been waiting to share this photo with this post. I find the image of stiffled voices fitting.

I am not Lebanese, but I am a lesbian and I just came back from visiting Lebanon. I therefore have an opinion about this. Being queer in Lebanon is tiring. I found myself wanting to shout out the word QUEER! This is because I rarely heard it mentioned. I sparsely heard any of the words that make up LGBTIQQ, actually.

In the States, one of my friends always wants to get together and hang out with other lesbians. She also tries to get me to go to gay bars. I honestly don't see the need. I surround myself with open people, so who cares if they are queer or straight. This was not the case in Lebanon. I was keenly aware of everything queer.

I made one friend who is also a lesbian. This and the fact that we had a good list of things in common made us friends. We even went to a gay bar together. A cafe/bar, really. My gaydar was on the lookout, but to no avail. I think a few of the waiters might have been and I know that the owners are, but that is as far as it goes. And, I am not going to post the name of the bar, just to be on the safe side. That's how paranoid you get in Lebanon. Nevertheless, according to my sources, this is one of the few places in town where you can hold your girlfriend's hand without being greeted with stares.

I was able to attend a reading of an amazing author, Rabih Alamedinne, when I was in Lebanon. I have just finished reading his Koolaids and have been planning a short review of it. He is gay and Lebanese, by the way, and so are some of his characters. It is so refreshing. He read from his new book, The Hakawati, and I was surprised that he did not directly mention gay issues in his talk. Seeing that I was in push mode, I did. Then, he used the word "sexuality," and even "fuck" a bit later but that was all. He did say that he was no longer as angry as he was when he wrote Koolaids. Perhaps Alamedinne has gotten to where he is smilingly comfortable as Arab presses buy the rights to his books and then decide they can't publish them in Arabic after reading them. He is pushing buttons, but making a living all the same :)

I, on the other hand, am angry. So angry that I made whatever trivial points I could. I even had my mother marrying a woman in our on the board writing assignments in Arabic class. One of my teachers tried to correct me. Your mother cannot marry a "zouja," you must mean "zouj." When I assured her that I had put the feminine signifying ta marbouta there on purpose, she let it go. I know I baffled her, which was my point.

Why am I angry?

I am angry because I have friends whose parents avoid the subject. Who leave the room when my friends try to talk about their loved one. I have friends who don't feel comfortable telling their family who they are and who they love and may even fear reprisal (Honour killings do happen). I have friends whose families lock them in their room forcing them to climb out of their windows to be with the persons they love.

When I was thinking of leaving Lebanon, a friend of mine wrote this in an e-mail: I love my life in the U.S. too much to be able to live in Lebanon. Take "U.S." out of this, and it is an even more striking statement.

In other words, I love my life. I want to live my life without having to avoid topics or jump out of windows.

More questions and statements that I have heard:

We need to find you a good husband. (You can find me a wife if you want.) The friend who responded this way is wonderfully bold.

Why is your hair so short? You would look so much more feminine if you let it grow long.

Mommy, why isn't Margaret married? (Because people should get married when and only when they find someone they love.) That was a hetero Lebanese friend of mine's response to a question that her 5-year old daughter asked. Bless both of their hearts.

However, there is one place in Lebanon where women can love whomever they choose. If you are in search of a space in Lebanon where you can be yourself as a queer person, I recommend MEEM. The group was young and oozing with energy. Their location is secret and I plan to do my part to keep it that way. I was honored to go there and meet these incredible young women. One woman in particular struck me. When I first met her, she was wearing a veil. I left the room and came back, introducing myself to a young woman in a boy's shirt and shorts. She looked vaguely familiar. Of course, it was the woman in the veil whom I had met earlier but I can be a bit dense. We talked about how her sister was up on the latest veil fashions while she threw on whatever was available. The clothes she had on underneath were her baby brother's.

Most of the members of the family, even those who shun you, are decent people. They just never had to face someone with your courage. -Rabih Alamedinne, Koolaids

A week or so later, I was in a swankily shiny mall in East Beirut feeling super frumpy and not fitting in. After a high heeled shoe buying experience, (I don't wear high heels), I couldn't hold it anymore and went in search of a restroom with a straight friend of a friend. I recognized one of the Meem women in the bathroom. Ah, let there be light. A short dyed punky kind of hair light. For confidentiality purposes, I wasn't sure I should say anything but she smiled and so I said "Hi" while dashing to the stall, my friend's friend behind me.

But there was a tinge of uncomfortableness in me. I want the world to know who I am but at the same time, I am under the illusion that I can assexually maneuver through this Lebanese landscape. As Alamedinne puts it in Koolaids, "He [I] wasn't ready for his [my] two worlds to meet." And yet, I was proud to know the one spikey haired boundary pushing queer in the mall. I'm a contradiction.

I will end this post with two short videos created by the incredible Meem Team. Be inspired and love whomever you damned well please in the process.


MLC said...

What a difficult way to live and one hopes for a time when we will all be simply human and nothing less, truely free and equal.


glued blue glass said...

We have a ways to go all over the world. Check out this map of the laws in the various countries. Canada, the Netherlands, and Spain have the best laws.