Virginity tests, vile bodies: Stories from Sisi’s Egypt

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

What is this furniture
That speaks of departure?
People take up their folding chairs
And emigrate.

Günter Grass, “Folding Chairs”

Three stories about Egypt today:

ONE.  Women’s vaginas belong to the State. Memorably, in March 2011, Egypt’s army forced 17 women demonstrators arrested at Tahrir Square to undergo virginity tests. One general defended the exams to CNN under cover of anonymity, saying, “These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters … We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place… None of them were.” A suspiciously similar justification for the appalling abuse was offered on the record by the head of military intelligence, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Sisi promised the military would stop inflicting the exams, but said nothing about other authorities. Sisi is president now. The police enjoy unrestrained power. Last night I spoke to a woman in her early 20s, a university student, who was forced to submit to a virginity test this week. She had accompanied a male friend to a Cairo police station to support him when he was summoned under suspicion of a crime. There, officers searched her bag and found condoms. They threatened to charge her as well — with prostitution.

They didn’t ask my consent or explain what was going to happen, just told me that a woman would search me. Then they brought in a woman who worked in [a nearby business] and all the officers left the room. I knew then this was not an ordinary search, because there would be no need to bring in a woman for that — they could have searched my clothes themselves, I was wearing ordinary pants and my blouse had no pockets.

The woman asked me to take all my clothes off. Then, when I was naked, she told me I had to bend over, over a chair. I did it and she checked my vagina. The woman herself was kind: she kept asking if I was OK and trying to reassure me.  She went out, and I put my clothes on, and the officers came back in.

One of the officers said: “Are you a virgin or not?” That was the first question they asked me when they returned. I said, “I am not. I am sure the woman said that to you.” But he said: “No, she told us you were still a virgin.” Then I understood that the woman had lied to try to protect me. I asked him not to blame her. The officer said: “We can make you a lot of trouble. No one is going to doubt you are a prostitute, because you are 20 and for sure you are not a virgin.”

At the end of her interrogation, which lasted all night, police told her she would be released. But first,

They made me sign a paper with the questions and answers they had asked me. Then I asked them to write another paper and attach it,  certifying that they had inspected my vagina.

The officer smiled. “After we do all these investigations, and we set you free, you are trying to put the blame on us! Very well, I can write it. But if I do, it will put the guilt on you, rather than us, and we will send your case to the prosecutor [niyaba]. The shame and the guilt are yours. And the address we have from your ID is your family’s, and if we take you to the niyaba your family will find out everything about your immorality. Is that what you want?”

I felt I had no choice. I agreed not to ask for the paper in order not to be charged with prostitution.

How often do such stories happen in police stations all over Egypt?

"Fear Me, Government": Street art by Keizer, from . Obviously they do.

“Fear Me, Government”: Street art by Keizer, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com. Obviously they do.

TWO. The State decides which bodies are legal or illegal. On November 2, the press reported that in El Waily, a district in the northeast of Cairo, Judge Yasser Abu Ghanima ordered a “sissy” [mokhanath] jailed for alleged fraud after trying to undergo a breast augmentation procedure. Hospital officials, detecting a physical anomaly, had handed the deviant male immediately to the police. Arrests of transgender or gender-dissident people in Egypt are commonplace now. But this one was special. The victim’s state ID and birth certificate actually said she was female. On inspection, though, her body wasn’t good enough for the government.

El-Watan interviewed the woman in jail, and published a story on November 3 which was sensational and sympathetic in equal measure.

She doesn’t know how to live and how to deal with the tragedy. On her official documents it says she is a 26-year-old female and her family treats her as female, but the government, represented by El-Zahra Hospital and El-Waily police station, has charged her with fraud in official documents and impersonating a female.

"A Girl is just like a Boy," stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A girl is just like a boy,” stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

The woman’s story, if El-Watan is to be trusted, is indeed terrible. She grew up in a poor family of five children in a village just north of Cairo. Her parents didn’t send her to school. At ten years old, she discovered that what she had “in my lower half” looked like a penis.

“So I told my mother and my sister, and they said that it is a birth defect and can be removed by surgery. I lived with it until I reached the age of 18. Then a neighbor called on me and proposed to me. I was surprised that my mother and my brothers told him I am engaged. I asked my mother about the reason for refusal. She told me that the reason is a congenital defect, I am half male and half female.”

Though they raised her as a girl, her family seems to have tried to rein in her gender presentation after she reached adulthood, rebuking her severely when she bought a ring and a woman’s necklace from a jewelry shop. “I attempted suicide more than once after the treatment that I got from my relatives.” Finally, more than a year ago, she cut off relations with all her family except her mother. “I rented a room by myself; I left the house without anyone knowing the reason, except I told my mother and she understood.” She got a job as a cleaner in a plastic factory near her village.

”I support myself after my parents and relatives abandoned me, trying to save money so that I can have surgery. The doctors told me that the congenital defect can lead to diseases such as cancer. My colleagues at work didn’t notice any difference. I avoided appearing in girls’ clothes that are too revealing. …

“For a year and a half I’ve been living on my own. I visited more than five doctors in government hospitals …. The surgery in a private clinic costs more than 10,000 pounds {$1400 US], and my salary isn’t more than 700 pounds [$100 US] per month. … I refused to have any romantic relationships or marriage. … No one knows the tragedy that’s inside me.”

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

Finally, she went to El-Zahra University Hospital, in the Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo, dressing herself in full niqab, and asking for surgery to enlarge her breasts.

“The physician examined my upper part. When I asked the doctor, ‘Will it work, doctor?’ she answered by saying: ‘Don’t worry, dear.’ Then they asked me for a urine sample for analysis. It was rejected. It caused a stir of doubts, and the doctor summoned colleagues, and I had to show the lower part of my body revealing I was ‘a girl with a penis.'”

The hospital personnel “ran to report the ‘girl with the penis’ to the police,” according to El-Watan. She was immediately taken to the El-Waily police station. “Prosecutor Wael El Shamy ordered a forensic investigation to determine her gender,” and “assigned detectives to find her family members and call them in for questioning. The prosecution decided to hold her in the waiting room of the police station and not to place her in a men’s or women’s cell for fear of assault.” There, given the publicity, she will probably be shown off as entertainment to guests.

She was “scared and crying” when El-Watan interviewed her in custody. She pleaded for a doctor “with the heart and conscience to cure me.”

“I ask everyone to help me. I am not just a deformity or birth defect. The upper part of my body is a girl’s, with nipples and long hair, and and there are no other abnormalities. I beg the Minister of Health and the National Council for Human Rights to help me to live a normal life.”

Probably, from this account, the girl was born with an intersex condition. Probably she’s never spoken to a doctor who gave her a chromosome test or a clear account of what is happening to her body. What’s striking is that the doctors immediately saw her genitals as a criminal, not a medical issue. With no questions and no sympathy, they sent her straight from examining room to jail.

Sally Mursi

Sally Mursi

Gender variance and gender ambiguity have a varying and ambiguous status in Egyptian law. The famous case of Sally Mursi, dating back 25 years, has become a — the —  lens through which these issues are seen. While a medical student at Al-Azhar University in 1988, Mursi (born Sayed Mursi) made huge headlines by undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, a mufti who later became Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (the highest position in Egyptian Islam) issued a fatwa approving the operation on health grounds; so far as is known, this is the first ruling on transgender issues from a Sunni scholar. The state grudgingly changed her ID papers. But despite the fatwa, the men’s wing of Al-Azhar Medical School expelled her and the women’s school refused to take her; the university defied a series of court orders to readmit her. Mursi could only find work as a nightclub dancer. Other segments of state bureaucracy persecuted her despite her new ID. The Ministry of Culture denied her a dancing permit, the morals police raided her shows, and the government accused her of evading military service, compulsory for men. The Doctor’s Syndicate even expelled her surgeon, Dr. Ezzat Ashmallah, for performing the operation — though he was reinstated later.

So gender reassignment surgery is technically allowed in Egypt, but it doesn’t give the patient a path to a secure legal status. It’s as if the state prefers people in a legal limbo where it can harass them when it likes. The operations are forbiddingly hard to obtain: applicants confront “a long and complicated list of procedures that always end up with the [Doctor’s] Syndicate’s refusal to allow gender transformation surgeries,” according to my friend Dalia Abdel Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Sympathetic doctors still face professional opprobrium, even arrest. In 2010, prosecutors questioned a physician in Assyut, in Upper Egypt, after the Doctor’s Syndicate turned him in for conducting male-to-female surgeries. The Ministry of Health complained that the operations did not produce “real,” biological women: the patient “is still physically a male without vagina, uterus or female ovaries,” a bureaucrat there said.

The state is still at odds with itself over what makes a “real” man or woman. Unsurprisingly, then, transgender issues in Egypt are conceptually, medically, and legally tangled up with intersex issues. Both raise the same questions: what (and where in the body) is the truth of gender?

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Some Egyptian doctors have staked out their territory where transgender people are concerned, claiming they can produce the truth, that medicine can resolve the “problem” — though their own professional syndicate punishes them for saying so. Similarly, some doctors are struggling to establish their expertise and control over intersex people’s bodies. Surgeries to mutilate and reshape the genitals of intersex infants, widespread in many other countries, seem mercifully less common in Egypt. One reason: female genital mutilation pre-empts them. One surgeon said in 2004:

“Circumcision is an informal law in Upper Egyptian families. In most villages, they circumcise the girl 40 days after her birth. So in intersexed cases, they simply cut off the penis, putting us and the patient in a more difficult situation,” he says. “We then have to start from scratch, constructing a new penis. Female circumcision is a crime that should be banned by all means. As you can see, it doesn’t only damage a girl’s life, it can also destroy the future of a male.”

Yet news reports suggest that in recent years an increasing number of adults like the woman in El-Waily are seeking doctors’ help because their bodies don’t make sense to them.

Here’s the thing, though: The state wants hegemony over physical existence. And it isn’t about to surrender its power over ambiguous bodies to busybodies in white coats. Despite doctors’ efforts to brand gender identity as a medical issue, which at least takes it out of the law’s ambit, trans* people are still criminals in Egypt. In the last year a massive campaign of arrest and abuse brutalized trans* people and mokhanatheen (“effeminate” men). It conveys a clear message. In Sisi’s reborn Egypt, men must be men, not long-haired revolutionaries, not insidious sissies. The state will decide what’s deviant, and punish it.

Arrest of alleged mokhanatheen in Heliopolis, Cairo, on May 4, 2014, from Akhbar El-Hawadeth

Arrest of alleged mokhanatheen in Heliopolis, Cairo, on May 4, 2014, from Akhbar El-Hawadeth

Intersex bodies are caught in the repression. Your ID isn’t enough to make you safe. You may have lived a life conforming to your legal papers, but if your body doesn’t fit your birth certificate point for point, it’s not a “condition,” it’s a crime. Doctors’ duty is to surrender confusing cases to the police.

Sally Mursi told a reporter how, when her gender reassignment surgery ignited scandal in 1988, she and her surgeon “were summoned by the State Prosecutor’s Office,”

“which was investigating charges against us, claiming I conspired with Dr. Ezzat Ashamallah to cause myself a permanent deformity that stirred up ‘social instability and public disorder.’ Don’t you dare underestimate me … I’m as dangerous as any terrorist!”

Egypt is now suffering another state-sponsored frenzy over fears of terrorism, and bodies that stir up “social instability” are demonized all over again. The story of the woman in El-Waily isn’t just a personal tragedy. It’s a paradigm of a regime that founds its legitimacy on masculinity, mass panic, surveillance, and control.

"Don’t label me," stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“Don’t label me,” stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

THREE. One thing the press stories on Egypt won’t tell you about is the departures. Not loud enough to furnish headlines, the withdrawing footsteps drum in an undertone these days, a slow diminuendo of closing doors. Several well-known rights activists left the country in recent weeks, shadowed by warnings of imminent arrest. Yesterday, November 10, was the deadline for NGOs to submit to the supervision of the “Ministry of Social Solidarity” (Miniluv); recalcitrants may be shut down, their staff arrested. Some groups are already shuttering, some employees discreetly looking for visas. The melancholy and menace of endings suffuse casual encounters. You go to a goodbye party for a friend who’s off for a three-day conference abroad, and find he has no definite plans to return. All my gay friends are talking about leaving, all, without exception; to walk the street with one is to trek haltingly between the windows of travel agents’ offices, plate glass shimmering with flights priced out of reach. And these are the lucky, still free to dream of exits. Prisons and camps are crammed with tens of thousands of political prisoners, most though not all Islamists, who will stay till the regime is done with them.

Annibale Gatti (1828-1909) Dante in Exile, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

Annibale Gatti (1828-1909) Dante in Exile, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

No such exodus ever blighted the Mubarak years. I always felt most Egyptians would never abandon Egypt until the last extremity: even the most endangered used to try to stick it out back then, staying put despite the direst warnings. Yet settling over Egypt’s remaining liberals now is a fear some barely bring themselves to whisper. Nobody ever thought things could be worse than under the old dictator. They can.

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

A decade ago, liberals and activists and democrats led almost charmed lives — seen from the darkness of today. They might be harassed at the airport or threatened by State Security in late-night calls, but they were rarely arrested. If they were detained, the thugs would hold them a few days, even torture them a bit pour encourager les autres, then set them loosethey almost never went to prison. Mubarak didn’t take the liberals seriously. A few kids staging tiny protests, a few offices emitting press releases: this was not where he divined a threat. The most horrific extremes — the electroshock and ice-water tortures, the years or decades in stinking cells with no hope of trial, the disappearance into nameless places where no spouse or lawyer could find you — he reserved for his most feared enemies, the Islamists: the Muslim Brotherhood and those to the right of it.

Sisi’s regime doesn’t just jail and torture the Brotherhood. It kills them. The penalty for guilty liberals has also ratcheted upwards. The main tenet of this dictatorship is that Mubarak failed because he was weak. Leniency seduced him; he relaxed the reins to let human rights groups yammer, reporters report, bloggers blog, students demonstrate. No more. When human rights researcher Yara Sallam is sent to prison for three years, it’s a signal to NGOs that cells are ready for them. When journalists from Al-Jazeera get 7-to-15-year sentences, it’s a sign for foreigners and journalists: neither passports nor press cards protect them. No one is safe.

So much of Sisi’s regime is about dominating people’s bodies. The draconian protest law passed last year criminalizes the physical solidarity and togetherness that produced the Revolution in Midan Tahrir. Sexual harassment controls women on the street. The metastasizing police presence treats almost every gesture as a subversive act. The government doesn’t just want to regulate opinion or suppress dissent; its invasions have a grittily material aim, getting under the skin and in the bones, as if Sisi wants to subject the whole population to a military drill.

"No to sexual harassment," street art by Mira Shihadeh, from

This picture does not represent reality: “No to sexual harassment,” street art by Mira Shihadeh, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com

They control you. They can throw your body in jail at any time; or they can use you to find out what other bodies are up to. Last week police compelled a young man — I’ll call him Walid — to admit he was gay after detaining him for a different offense. I interviewed another person held briefly in the same case, who said:

They told Walid that he had the chance to go free. But the officer who was playing “good cop” added: “If you want to get this case cancelled, here is a pen and paper. Write down all the men you have had sex with: name, and age, and address. We promise we won’t hurt them — it’s just a favor to us.”

Walid hesitated and the policeman said: “While we were questioning you, you must have realized that we know everything. We know the [Internet] accounts of you people, we know your numbers. We don’t even need this. But I am trying to help you. You need to show us you are grateful.”

Walid wrote down a bunch of  names, some foreigners and some Egyptians. When he was finished, the policeman said: “All right. Now tell me which ones are tops and which are bottoms.”

A friend of mine asked me the other day if it was true he could get Ugandan citizenship and resettle there. He’s gay, and he knows all about Uganda and the gays. That tells you how bad things are in Egypt.

The dissidents, the revolutionaries, the activists, the long-hairs, the ones with weird or unwanted bodies, the gays and the mokhanatheen: They all look the same to the government, grimy deviants. Probably they are, but they are also prophets. Nobody likes prophets, because they are unmoored from the real. They dream of freedom — political, bodily, sexual — when it does not exist and is an insult to the unfree. Mubarak’s dictatorship bred prophets, who turned the crawlspaces and margins where they were ignored into cribs of liberty where they could dream. The prophets saw the light coming, and many saw the darkness that would follow it too. And what is the fate of prophets?

When the locusts occupied our town,
no milk came to the door, the dailies suffocated,
our jails were opened to release
all prophets.
They streamed through the streets,
3800 prophets,
talking and teaching without restriction,
and eating their fill of that gray
and jumpy mess
we called the plague.

So everything was fine and up to expectations.

Soon our milk came again; our papers reappeared;
And prophets filled our jails.

Günter Grass, “Food for Prophets”

Street art supporting  the digital platform "The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’

Street art supporting the digital platform “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’

Two trials, two travesties

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover the faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Convicted men in the wedding video trial cover their faces as police lead them from the courtroom cage, Cairo, November 1, 2014: Photo © Independent (UK)

Eight men were sent to prison today in Cairo, because their faces flickered through a video that prosecutors said showed a “gay wedding.” They got three years; after that, they’ll serve another three years’ “probation,” sleeping every night from dusk to dawn in a police station. Their lives are ruined.

It’s not even clear yet what charges they were convicted of. The heavy book thrown at them seems to have included “incitement to debauchery” (fujur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct in Egyptian law); that’s article 14 of Law 10/1961, in itself worth up to three years in prison. There were also articles 178 or 179 of the criminal code, anti-pornography provisions that punish “manufacturing or possessing materials that violate public morals,” or “inciting passersby to commit indecency on a public road.” The charges were ridiculous. The defendants didn’t spread the video or incite anyone to anything — when the film went viral on YouTube, those who were in it tried desperately to get it taken down. The film clip wasn’t remotely pornographic. YouTube is not a public road. There was no proof the men were gay. A representative of the country’s Forensic Medical Authority — who inflicted abusive and intrusive anal examinations on them all, and found even by those bogus standards they were “unused” — said, “The entire case is made up and lacks basis. The police did not arrest them red-handed and the video does not prove anything.” In Egypt, though, trials no longer proceed through proof, just prejudice and fear. Rampant political opportunism trampling the remains of rule of law: that’s General Sisi’s Egypt.

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

Full leather drag: Central Security (Amn El-Merkezi) forces on the march in Cairo

On October 26, in a court in a sun-baked Cairo military compound, 23 defendants also got three years in prison, and three years of further dusk-to-dawn confinement. They included my friend Yara Sallam, a feminist and human rights activist, and six other women, and sixteen men. Among them also were Sanaa Seif, a young democracy activist, the daughter of the late, heroic human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif el-Islam, who died in August while working on her defense; a well-known photographer, Rania El-Sheikh; Mohammed Anwar or “Anno,” a revolutionary veteran who was a gifted member of a modern dance company as well; and more. Their crime was being on the scene of a peaceful June 21 demonstration near the Presidential Palace. The protest was against Egypt’s new, repressive protest law, which the military government imposed by decree last year. The law lets the state imprison anyone who voices opposition in the streets without permission. It’s meant to put any and all dissent in its proper place: a penitentiary.

If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution: Mohammed Anwar

“This is a politicized sentence. There isn’t any evidence against the defendants,” one of the defense attorneys told the media after the verdict came down. Who the hell cares? The day after the verdict Sisi excreted a new decree. It gives military courts jurisdiction over crimes committed in almost any public spaces. The security establishment saw its powers expand exponentially at a penstroke, like a black mushroom cloud ballooning out to darken the country. More and more civilians will appear before military prosecutors and military judges, to face military sentences, their civil rights shrunken to scraps and rags. Meanwhile, Sanaa Seif’s sister Mona Seif (who has campaigned for years against military trials for civilians) and her mother Laila Soueif are on a hunger strike to protest the increasingly total reach of state repression. Before last week, they refused food; since the verdict, they have refused liquids as well. No one doubts: the government would like to see them die.

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Laila Soueif (L) and Mona Seif (R) on hunger strike earlier this month, in a corridor of the Supreme Court building in Cairo

Three years for peaceful protest; three years for exchanging rings. Every trial in Egypt these days is a travesty. “Travesty” has many meanings, among them a joyous play with gender; in Latin America, in Turkey, travesti refers to trans people, whose communities subvert some of the most rigid social norms. And trans people have been among the victims of Egypt’s regime, rounded up in bars and on streets and in private apartments for defying the military definition of conformist, nationalist, ideal manhood. Self-expression looks like dangerous deception to the Sisi state.

That’s the state’s inward irony, its private joke. By the draconian terms of Egyptian law these travesties of trials themselves should be jailed: for assuming false identities; for conspiring to deceive; for defrauding the public they claim to defend; for cross-dressing as justice.

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

Yara Sallam (top L), Sanaa Seif (bottom L), and three other defendants in prison garb at a September 13 hearing

اسئلة قانونية بخصوص المثلية في مصر

بعد أن صار المثليون ومتحولو النوع الاجتماعي والجنس في مصر هدفاً لاعتداءات الشرطة كصورة من صور الحماية الزائفة للأخلاق، فقد قمنا بجمع اسئلة من المجتمع المثلي والاجابة عنها بواسطة متخصصون قانونيون بهدف حماية المجتمع المثلي من هذه الاعتداءات قبل وفي حال وقوعها. برجاء مشاركة هذا المنشور مع جميع الصفحات المتعلقة بالمثلية الجنسية والمتحولين/ات جنسياً حتى يتاح لأكبر عدد من الاشخاص الاستفادة بها

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Egypt’s “gay wedding” furor: A ship of fools

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

In Egypt any man can harass, brutalize, and rape a woman. It happens all the time. The State will ignore it for as long as possible; the media will say she asked for it. Just try a harmless expression of mutual, consensual desire, though. They’ll hound you to within an inch of your life.

Let’s start with the video. It came out of nowhere, but by Saturday morning it was everywhere. That day — it was August 30 — I spent with some young, impeccably liberal Egyptians. They kept staring with stunned fixation at their smartphones, repeatedly hitting “play,” watching it go viral, wondering what was going to happen to the men.  The YouTube comments could have told you what was coming: “They’re outside of prisons; they should worship God within them,” one outraged viewer wrote. That night I met with some of the men in the clip. One of them kept breaking uncontrollably into tears. They were trying to report the invasion of privacy, get YouTube to take it down. No use: By next day, it was on the website of Youm7 — the tabloid that’s been carrying on a homophobic campaign for months — and on TV. You think you are just a private person, contained in the fences of your skin; then suddenly you find you’ve escaped yourself, become a common spectacle and possession, a fetish cupped in the palms of everybody’s hands. No doubt this is why politicians and movie stars are so vacuous, stripped of self; but imagine sitting in ordinary obscurity and abruptly discovering you’re now an infinitely duplicable, circulating flash of light. “Mirrors and copulation are both abominable,” Borges wrote — it was one of the aphorisms of his invented world of Tlon — “because they multiply mankind.” But that was before the Internet.

Yesterday, some of those accused of being in the video went on trial. They face years in prison. The whole fiasco reminds many Egyptians of another moral panic that crushed innumerable lives: the Queen Boat show trial of 52 men, back in 2001.

I won’t link to the video here; the men have been exposed enough. It lasts little more than a minute; it shows some kind of party on one of the boats that cruise the Cairo Nile. (You can buy a ride individually or rent the felucca for a group.) The cameraphone tilts and pans past some celebrating people; there’s a cake, and two seem to exchange rings. When it went viral, it was instantly dubbed “Egypt’s First Gay Wedding.”

4549887301409591956-الفنان محمد صبحي

Mohamed Sobhi attempts to keep gay marriage from spreading to him

Some of the men I talked to asserted the whole thing was a joke. One of the alleged grooms called the popular talk-show of Tamer Amin to say as much — that he had a girlfriend and was just “playing around with rings.” If it was a marriage between men, then in a sense it was intrinsically unserious, since the law doesn’t recognize that. Nor does the law punish playing at marriage. The furor kept mounting though. Amin, on his show, called for retribution. (Tamer Amin is eager to anathematize people he thinks are gay, but equally happy to excuse rape. When a Cairo University student was sexually assaulted earlier this year, Amin told viewers that “She was dressed like a prostitute … The sexually repressed boys couldn’t control themselves … I blame her for dressing like this, and her parents for letting her leave the house in that dress.”)  Mohamed Sobhi, an actor notorious for his paranoid rants against Jews, demanded the State “respond’ to the “the spread of the phenomenon of gay marriage.”

And the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the dictator’s most feared opposition, berated the regime that overthrew it, for going soft on perversion. A former MP for the Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party warned that “For the first time in Egypt, we hear of gay marriage. The coup leaders embrace the Western agenda of demolition and decay of religion, and Egypt is converted into a brothel.” She added that the “authority of the coup” lay behind the wedding.

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

The supposed ceremony thus became a political crime. The State took up the challenge: it started arresting people. Last Wednesday, September 3, police picked up at least 13 people in the streets around Ramsis Station, and interrogated them about the video. The next night, they seized an unknown number as they were leaving a club downtown — I’ve heard figures as high as 26. Most were released, but somebody pointed an incriminating finger. On Saturday, the media announced that men from the film had been arrested, by police directed by Major General Magdy Moussa. (The exact number is still not clear. Most news reports say seven people were arrested; Al-Mogaz says two more are being sought; Youm7 claims ten are involved, and even after a confused hearing Tuesday, where the lawyers were denied access to court papers, it’s impossible to verify a figure.) [NOTE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has now confirmed eight defendants have been arrested.] Youm7 showed grainy video of people being hauled to jail. The full names of nine victims, some presumably still at large, appeared in the press.

Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

We will hurt you when we find you: Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

The charges against the men aren’t clear, but they reportedly included incitement to “debuachery” (fugur, the legal term in Egyptian law for homosexual acts), and “publication of indecent photographs.” The images showed “the purpose was the celebration of attachment to one another, in scenes deemed shameful to the maximum degree.” Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, personally intervened in the case to show its seriousness, ordering quick action. Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority conducted anal examinations on the arrested men — an intrusive, abusive, torturous and medically worthless procedure. They found no evidence of homosexual conduct. That didn’t stop a court, on September 9, from ordering the men jailed for another 15 days so the furor can continue.

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medica Authority, who said the "bride" had turned out "normal"

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medical Authority, who said the “bride” had turned out “normal”

I spoke to one of the men trawled up in the police nets last Wednesday night: picked up at 3:30 AM on a street near Ramsis Station. This is his story:

I was standing with a friend — he had tight jeans, that was probably why they thought we were gay. Suddenly a policeman came out of nowhere and grabbed us. We were thrown into a microbus nearby. I tried to scream and the policemen told us to shut up. There were about 13 of us crammed in there, all picked up in various places.

In the past, Cairo police often looked for gays by riding in a microbus with an informer, who pointed out victims passing in the street. Almost a third of the Queen Boat defendants were arrested that way (not on the boat!) This time, the microbus took them to the Mugamma, the huge Stalinist building in Tahrir Square, a symbol of State bureaucracy. There police broke the men into groups for interrogation. One man “scampered off by a different door” — possibly he was the informer.

Soldiers in front of the Mugamma in Midan Tahrir, January 2011, by Joseph Hill

The Mugamma looms above Tahrir Square, guarded by soldiers, during the Egyptian revolution, January 2011: by Joseph Hill

My group was me, my friend, and another man I didn’t know. We were taken up to the 12th floor, the “Adab” [morals] division.
At first the police were very aggressive with us. They beat us with sticks, and called us many names. Then the boss came in to question us.

The boss was very civil. He said for months they had been arresting gays as a way of stopping the spread of AIDS, because these men were having sex without condoms.

This is false. So far as we know, no evidence that anyone transmitted HIV through barebacking has been presented in any cases so far. The manipulation of public-health rhetoric is a bit strange coming from a government that claims it can cure AIDS by turning it into sausages.

But now, he said, there is this video. He said we have a new president, and Sisi is determined not to let this kind of thing happen, and will not let the Muslim Brotherhood get any benefit from it. I told him I didn’t know anything about the people in the video. All the same, they took our phones and made backups of all the information on them.

We were kept there for six hours, till after 10 AM. After the boss left the other policemen came back and made fun of us, calling us female names and asking if we were carrying condoms. My friend and I were set free; they held on to the third guy who was with us, because they said there was a theft charge against him. I don’t know what happened to the others.

The information on the phones — particularly if passwords were stored on them — could help the police open the victims’ Facebook and other social-media accounts. Plenty more could be rounded up that way.

Don't blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

Don’t blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

This whole uproar raises several issues. First: why now? The men I spoke to told me the video was made last October. One theory, seized on by the press, is that someone released it now to get revenge on a participant. It’s not implausible, though, that the authorities somehow obtained it earlier, and have been waiting for the moment when it might prove useful. There is plenty to distract people from in Egypt these days. Rolling power outages afflict the country; September 4 was promptly dubbed “Black Thursday” because the blackouts were so severe. Meanwhile, no sooner did Sisi win his rigged Presidential election than he announced massive cuts to fuel subsidies, pushing up prices for many basic goods. In such straitened circumstances, the spectre of “gay marriage” has long-proven value as a distraction. In Morocco in 2007, a YouTube video allegedly showing such a ceremony provoked riots — and jail terms for participants — in the town of Ksar el Kbir. In Kenya in 2010, similar stories stirred up vigilante violence in Mombasa. In Egypt itself, the first, sensational press reports in the famous Queen Boat case said a same-sex wedding was taking place on the raided vessel; some months before that, the press had pounced on unproven rumors of a marriage in the Delta town of Zagazig. “Gay marriage” has become a perfect encapsulation of cultural powerlessness before the imperial West.

Second, of course, the video leaked amid a months-long campaign of arrests and vilification of people accused of homosexual conduct or of dissident gender expression. Transgender people in particular have been rounded up in clubs and on the streets, and seized in private homes. These arrests continue. In early August, police arrested a woman and two men in Rehab City, a gated community on Cairo’s outskirts, and charged the latter with homosexual conduct. I’m reliably told the cops stopped one of the men at a checkpoint, on his motorcycle; finding him suspicious, they went to his home, and found the conclusive evidence — condoms. (So much for the officers’ concern for public health.) Later that month, “security forces” arrested ten people in what they called a “prostitution ring” in Giza, in western Cairo. They included, it seems, a trans woman, whose photo was singled out to appear in El-Watan. (Only the eyes were imperfectly blacked out; obscuring the face was done by me.)

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

But it’s not just alleged gays and trans people who are victims of the atmosphere of repression. The police presence in downtown Cairo is formidable now. Just under three weeks ago ago, cops raided a host of sidewalk cafes, forcing them to shutter because they had tables on, well, the sidewalk. (I recall when Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved similarly against street life in Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district, Western conservatives condemned it as creeping Islamic totalitarianism. When Sisi does it, nobody bothers.) The next day, they cracked down on street vendors. Grim, barred trucks from Central Security palisaded the avenues, filling up with hapless men whose crime was hawking scarves and jeans in the passageways off Qasr el-Nil. There is a general campaign of social control going on, and a general rehabilitation of the reputation — and power — of the police. Homosexuality is simply another convenient bogeyman. Its particular convenience, though, is that it unites several things Sisi despises: “Western” influence (as in those marriages), abnormal gender roles, and the youth culture and revolutionary decadence symbolized by the downtown world. Attacking “debauchery” allows him to set the State firmly against all those debilitating forces.

Third: the fact that the latest arrests came after criticism by the Muslim Brotherhood shows where Sisi senses his greatest vulnerabilities. Having overthrown the conservatives, he needs to prove his moral credentials. It’s significant that no comparable wave of repression happened under the Brotherhood itself: they had no credentials to prove. (It’s also significant that this panic has burgeoned during the week the government sentenced several Brotherhood leaders to decades in prison.) Sisi’s Minister of Religious Endowments — who more or less controls all the country’s official mosques — explained the official line elegantly to the media last week. Every Egyptian should reject “all anomalies” such as homosexuality, “because in the end they only serve the forces of extremism and terrorism, which claim to be the protectors of religion and morality.”

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gomaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gumaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Finally, what all this produces is fear, comprehensive and immobilizing. No one can guess what will come next, how far the crackdown will go. There are vague stories the State has planned a massive trial of alleged homosexuals for later this month, or next month; no one knows whether this mini-Queen-Boat is enough for them. Cairo Scene, a English webzine for the privileged party set, has claimed the police are already arresting gay men over Grindr; no one has been able to confirm a single case, but the rumor only adds to the terror. My sensible colleagues are pruning their phone lists, taking down photos from Facebook, and waiting — waiting for what, nobody can tell. Even I have drawn up a list, for friends, of things to do if I’m arrested; when insouciant I behave that way, you know something is wrong. A full-fledged moral panic is spreading in Egypt. It even has a song — by an Egyptian band, proclaiming that something must be done to stop the she-men with skinny jeans:

The panic infects political discourse, turning everything to triviality. The contrast between the indifference accorded real and terrible stories of violence against women, and the seriousness with which a mock wedding is reviled, remains ominous. The men on the boat may have been careless or presumptuous, but the whole country increasingly resembles a ship of fools. The absurdity isn’t innocuous, though. The point of moral panics is that they can always find new victims.

 

Policing Pride

Stonewall riot, New York City, June 27, 1969

Stonewall riot, New York City, June 27, 1969

Forty-five years ago yesterday, the Stonewall riots began, the reason Pride happens at this season. I have a Dark Gay Secret: I’ve never enjoyed most Prides. Mostly it’s because of how I deal with crowds. Prides are peculiar marches, not about specific goals but about visibility itself as a general good; the exultant pointlessness, which is the point, disconcerts me slightly, and I feel like a guy who comes to a lazy cocktail party thinking it’s a fancy-dress ball. I swing into a different state of mind, perversely, if there’s a chance the police or a mob might attack. Then I’m poised to document, record, act, a good human rights gnome, as I’ve done at tiny embattled Prides from Budapest in 1992 to Zimbabwe in 2000 — or at probably hundreds of other demonstrations from Romania to Egypt. That I know how to do. But otherwise I stand around wondering what’s the value of my personally being visible — does anyone want to see me? — and why the hell I’m there.

This is by way of explaining that in sixteen or so years of living in New York, I only went to Pride once. It was 1998. A friend and I staked out sidewalk space on lower Fifth Avenue and watched the platoons go by. It was fun till we heard a roar of exuberant welcome, a surging surf of cheers, billow down from a few blocks before; as the thunder neared we saw a blue-uniformed brigade the crowd was wildly applauding, and someone told us it was the first-ever contingent of LGBT police officially allowed to march in the parade. This was nine months after Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been raped by policemen in a Brooklyn jail. I turned away. I asked my friend: how could they go all jismic over an institution that, however many gays it hired, was historically their oppressor, still firmly in the business of oppression? (This was the warm noon of Giuliani time.) He frowned dourly. “They love power,” he said.

Today is Pride in London. (A few years ago it was renamed to avoid the whole annoying question of whose identities were included — L? G? B? T? Q? — and make it more a self-lauding celebration of the city’s own diversity, however unspecified.) A good if only slightly jargony article by Huw Lemmey asks questions similar to mine in more detail. He describes how the festivities welcome the Metropolitan Police, parading in full uniform.

Their bodies are used as symbols, building an image of the police as an inclusive and tolerant body reflecting the makeup and values of society as a whole. …It is wrong to say Pride is now a depoliticised event: it is more politicised than ever. It has been turned over to the service of the dominant ideology, and so is harder to distinguish from the cruelties and injustices of everyday life. We have lost Pride.

We'e here, we're queer, don't move, motherfucker: Metropolitan Police march in Pride in London, 2013

We’e here, we’re queer, we love you, really: Metropolitan Police march in Pride in London, 2013

As this shows, it is easy to see the privileged police participation as symbolic of things a lot of people dislike about Prides these days, though fewer and fewer find language to resist them: their mainstreaming, commodification and corporatization, symptoms of a movement demobilized. For “corporate and state institutions,” Pride’s an opportunity. The “’visibility’ of their employees on a public march associated with youth, diversity and openness became a positive boon.”

Police kettle Climate Camp protesters at the G20 summit, London, 2009

We’re here and fuck you: Police kettle Climate Camp protesters at the G20 summit, London, 2009

It’s equally sensible to see in the cops’ presence a more precise historical wound: an insult to those who preserve the memory of police violence, whether against an Abner Louima in New York or a Jean Charles de Menezes in London, or the many others whose unreported stories they represent; or a white- or pink-washing of the ways security forces deal with less anodyne demonstrations. Faced with gatherings more militantly “diverse” than Pride and more impelled by politics than pleasure, British police crack down hard. They routinely “kettle” or encircle any nonviolent protest, isolating it from public view, enabling brutality, dangerously crushing the participants. The Guardian calls this a method for “authoritarian governments” that “brook no opposition and contrive a compliant society.” Since I haven’t been to a demo in London since 1993, I’ve mainly seen the practice in open, diverse, democratic Egypt, where twice I was almost trampled to death in a protest constricted by a tightening security cordon. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London has bought three watercannon for his city this summer, to soak menacing subversives who cannot make it to the beach.

State Security (Amn el-Dawla) forces encircle a small anti-war demonstration, Sayyeda Zeinab, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 15, 2003: photograph by Scott Long

State Security (Amn el-Dawla) forces encircle a small anti-war demonstration, Sayyeda Zeinab, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 15, 2003: photograph by Scott Long

Since in New York or London (like so many other patrolled and guarded cities) victims of state violence tend to be people of color or other marginalized minorities, critiques of the police presence also resurrect suppressed questions of identity and justice within queer communities themselves. When “law enforcement become[s] part of the corpus of Pride,” Lemmey writes,

other bodies are necessarily erased. …  how can we ask people materially, psychologically and physically oppressed by the police (or the financial services institutions, or the Army) to “come out” and be proud of a collective political project which so visibly and proudly features those institutions that oppress them? …. By excluding those bodies from Pride, we perpetuate a public image of LGBT people limited to those who have no conflict with the police in their daily lives, ensuring a vicious circle of erasure for the excluded.

There is a fourth issue, which also grows out of the troubled history of LGBT people with policing. As long as the police are around (and, as Raymond Chandler wrote, no one has figured out how to say goodbye to them yet), they’ll be called on to protect LGBT people against violence, as well as to eschew homophobic violence themselves. All the sensitivity trainings and diversity hires and appearances at Pride serve this end: opening the institution to the benefit of people it’s supposed to serve, but hasn’t. The ability to claim the state’s protection when you need it is a constituent part of citizenship. But protection against whom? When these establishments promptly move on to identify other enemies, other aliens, new outsiders, new victims, are these vaunted openings also making LGBT people the privileged clients of repression? And when does a client become an accomplice? “I must distance myself from this complicity with racism, including anti-Muslim racism,” Judith Butler, declining the “Civil Courage Prize” she was offered at Berlin’s Christopher Street Day in 2010, said: 

We all have noticed that gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans and queer people can be instrumentalized by those who want to wage wars, i.e. cultural wars against migrants by means of forced islamophobia and military wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. In these times and by these means, we are recruited for nationalism and militarism. Currently, many European governments claim that our gay, lesbian, queer rights must be protected and we are made to believe that the new hatred of immigrants is necessary to protect us. Therefore we must say no to such a deal. To be able to say no under these circumstances is what I call courage. But who says no?

That’s still a question.

Police raid a migrants' camp in Munich, Germany, 2013

Police raid a migrants’ camp in Munich, Germany, 2013

World Pride, a putatively global confab, has been going on in Toronto, Canada this week.  Although people can attend panels to hear about particular abuses by particular police forces in, say, Uganda or Russia, one subject that’s unlikely to come up is how security techniques, surveillance, and control have gone just as global as Pride has. Yet Toronto’s cops learn from Giuliani’s how to deal with the intrusive and unwanted, and a rich cross-fertilized discussion of how to round up people and neutralize or kill them goes on between those enlightened cities and Cairo or Sao Paulo. Mike Davis warned a decade ago that the defining question of the twenty-first century city will be how to police the poor. This is ever more evident. Queer Ontario has put out a “Statement of Concern Regarding the TAVIS Policing of the Downtown Eastside during the World Pride Event,” and I will reproduce it in full:

Queer Ontario is very concerned about the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) policing initiative of the downtown eastside scheduled to coincide with the World Pride (WP) event. As many visitors to Toronto are expected during this major tourism event, we are concerned that the police are stepping up their intervention and surveillance of marginalized and vulnerable downtown eastside residents. We are concerned that the police are using a global tourism event as a pretext to crackdown on the area’s poor residents, the homeless, street-based sex workers, drug users, and others essentially engaging in an “undesirables cleansing” of the area.

We are concerned that the rights of our most vulnerable citizens will be violated during the TAVIS policing effort as its policy of targeted ‘prevention’ of crime does little to address the social and economic marginality that the area’s residents face — a social and economic situation marked by poverty, racism, gender violence, homelessness and discrimination. Especially vulnerable are the area’s female and female-identified transsexual and transgendered street-based sex workers and the local drug-using population. Adding to the problem is the fact that the downtown eastside is where many of the social services that the residents rely on are located – forcibly displacing local residents would thereby compound their difficulties.

Anti-poverty activists demonstrate against TAVIS in advance of World Pride, June 2014.

Anti-poverty activists demonstrate against TAVIS in advance of World Pride, June 2014.

As the TAVIS policing effort is contemporaneous with the World Pride event, we are especially concerned that the World Pride Committee not remain silent on this issue facing our poor and disenfranchised residents of the downtown eastside, and area which is adjacent to the Church Street Village and which is home to many of the city’s LGBTQ population. We are asking the World Pride organizers not to remain silent on this issue and to remember the history of policing in our LGBTQ communities. Heavy-handed and discriminatory practices by the police are not unknown to LGBTQ folks, past and present. Everyone has a right to the city and to unhindered access to the services many need to survive; not a few of whom will be directly affected by the TAVIS effort will themselves be LGBTQ people, and are, by and large, unable to afford many of the events WP has to offer.

We at Queer Ontario urge you to take this issue seriously as there are many people in our communities and beyond who are expecting World Pride organizers to remember our queer history and to act accordingly, working with the police to temper their activities during this time. We hope WP does not choose to engage in a shameful silence when the cops do the work of violating the rights of some of the most vulnerable members of the public and our poor citizens. We urge you to consider your role, as leaders of global events attached to a Human Rights Conference to not become a force for denying the same rights that queers/trans folks have had to fight for decades to obtain.

This is a very important issue for how events are going to be organized in this city now and for years to come. We ask that WP organizers step up and make their voices heard for the more marginalized citizens in the downtown area. We request that they not let a major global event become a handmaiden of short-sighted policing efforts and the displacement of the poor and marginalized, which have often accompanied such global entertainment and sporting events worldwide.

Sitting pretty: TAVIS forces on patrol in Toronto

Sitting pretty: TAVIS forces on patrol in Toronto

TAVIS, a “police unit that swoops into violence-prone pockets of the city to gather intelligence and connect with regular people,”  has severely “strained relations with heavily policed communities,” the Toronto Star phlegmatically reports:

TAVIS officers stop, question and document citizens at the highest rate of any other police unit, as they are expected to do. They also have the highest degree of carding of blacks, which, to be sure, is partially a reflection of the demographics of where they are most often deployed. …

With 22,000 arrests to its name in five years, TAVIS scares a lot of people — although not the city’s white, rich, criminal, drug-smoking mayor. But the anxieties about World Pride also draw on events like the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, where police sweeps and harassment drove sex workers and other undesirables out of their neighborhoods, doing serious harm to their livelihoods and (by limiting their access to health services) lives.

From ‏@stonewalluk  , 2013: "London Met Police came to visit us at the Pride family area, St Anne's Churchyard and took a couple of our stickers!"

From ‏@stonewalluk , 2013: “London Met Police came to visit us at the Pride family area, St Anne’s Churchyard and took a couple of our stickers!”

Large urban Pride fests like New York’s or London’s are not just celebrations for LGBT communities, or for their host towns. They’re tourist events, chances for neoliberally refurbished cities to show off their vibe and neutered variety to a consuming world. Queer Toronto gets the broad point right: Prides are now in the same class as giant sports carnivals — which, as I’ve written before, always feed fears of alien identities tarnishing the urban image, and always lead to policing the unwanted into either prisons or invisibility, the latter sometimes temporary, sometimes lasting. Among folks expelled from view when Pride comes to town may well be many ostensibly fitting into the LGBT lineup, but in practice not: sex workers, migrants, people of color, the poor.

There’s a growing number of studies of how sports events provide pretexts for social cleansing, from the London Olympics to the Rio World Cup. So far as I know there have been no similar investigations of how Pride is policed: who benefits from “protection,” and who are its victims. Absent such knowledge generalizations are irresponsible, but it needs looking into. (As one starting point, note this statement from the North Star Fund in New York, highlighting the coalition work of three of its LGBTQ grantees — the Audre Lorde Project, FIERCE, and Streetwise & Safe — to combat discriminatory policing.) The police presence at Prides is hardly just the nice symbolic gesture of marching and carrying flags. The logic of security forces does not brook their being decorative. Police also intervene in the layout and life of the city, to mold them to the Pride image; their appearance among the marchers promotes a certain apathy toward what they may be up to at the margins. How much violence happens in the name of safety? Look at that picture of Stonewall at the top. Then, next time you’re at Pride, ask yourself: Which side of the barricade are you on now?

Security forces encircling an antiwar protest at the Cairo Book Fair, Egypt, January 31, 2003: Photograph by Scott Long

Security forces encircling an antiwar protest at the Cairo Book Fair, Egypt, January 31, 2003: Photograph by Scott Long

 

Brutal gender crackdown in Egypt: The tomorrows that never came

An epitaph for Egypt's revolution: "Remember the tomorrows that never came?" Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

Heartbreaking epitaph for Egypt’s revolution: “Remember the tomorrows that never came?” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

You go home, you lock your door. If you live in a place like Cairo where everybody talks about crime, maybe you bolt it two times, three times. The door is centimeters thick but it marks an almost geological division: between your life, your self, and all those other lives that have no place in yours. Yet one knock, one blow of a fist, can tear through that integument like tissue paper. The flaccid walls melt, the architecture of a dream; they fold like cardboard stage-sets in a hurricane.

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another…. Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your  life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? … The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.” …

Everyone living in the apartment is thrown into a state of terror by the first knock at the door.

That’s Solzhenitsyn. But in each repressive society, among every persecuted people I’ve ever known, from old Bucharest to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the knock on the door takes on an almost metaphysical meaning: the barriers around your personhood dissolving. It’s a signal of intimacy, now transmuted into dread.

There is a crackdown, now, in Egypt. Activists calculate that, since last October, 77 people have been arrested, but the real figures are surely higher. The prison sentences are draconian; one victim got twelve years. It is one of many crackdowns. You could compile an honor roll of endangered people in Egypt: atheists, journalists, revolutionary protesters, Islamist supporters — of whom the army slaughtered more than 1000 last summer alone. What’s distinctive about this particular pattern of arrests isn’t so much its breadth as the peculiar intensity of its assault on intimacy and privacy. The police burst into people’s homes and apartments; they’re seizing those whose main offense is that their clothes and hair are different. Didn’t we hear a year ago — from everybody including the well-paid Tony Blair — that the Muslim Brotherhood had to be overthrown and its members murdered because they wanted to trample personal freedoms, impose compulsory hijab, to turn Egypt into a new Iran? So why are its successors, Sisi’s military dictatorship and its supposedly secular henchmen, the ones enforcing a dress code with truncheons and guns?

"Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot)." Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

“Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot).” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

The current wave of arrests started last autumn, as far as anyone can make out; back then I wrote on this blog about the first two cases. On October 11, police in El Marg, a working-class neighborhood in eastern Cairo, raided a bathhouse and gym and arrested fourteen men. Residents of the quarter had seemingly complained about the comings and goings in the place — they sacked it in rage after the raid. Beaten and abused in detention, the men were charged with fugur or “debauchery,” the term of art by which male homosexual conduct is criminalized in Egyptian law. The arrests got good press; Al-Akhbar Al-Youm, a semi-official newspaper, picked up the story immediately; and that must have provided encouragement. On the night of November 4, in the western suburb of 6 October City, police raided a private party in a detached villa. Among dozens in attendance, they picked up ten people (including a woman working as bartender). Here, the pattern began to set, like an obscene drawing scrawled in wet cement:

  • The invasion of a private dwelling.
  • The focus on gender nonconformity — after the proprietor of the house, police singled out the most “effeminate” guests, including a male bellydancer. (The link to the military regime’s exacting standards of manhood was very clear. The immediate motive for the raid was apparently that visitors to the house who passed a nearby, post-coup checkpoint had offended the soldiers’ sensibilities; the troops called the police in the nearby village of Kerdasa to come do something.)
  • The draconian sentences handed down. Eight defendants got the maximum permitted by the law on fugur — three years in prison; the host had a battery of related charges thrown at him, including “corrupting” others and managing a house for purposes of “debauchery,” and got nine years. (The woman was acquitted.)

Since then, the arrests have come in an accelerating rush, till now a new raid happens virtually every week. Some incidents:

  • In the Red Sea resort of Hurghada,on December 14, police arrested two men (according to their IDs) who were wearing “women’s clothing and wigs” in a nightclub; they found “lipstick and condoms,” “makeup and creams” on them, according to the media.  The press also reported that the morals (adab) police perceived a pattern of “young people aged 16 to 20 from the Western provinces and Cairo” coming to Hurghada to “wear women’s clothing, carrying handbags with makeup tools and accessories and sexual creams and condoms.” In April, a court sentenced one of the two victims to three years in prison; the other was sent to a juvenile facility.
  • In February, the same Hurghada vice squad announced the arrest of three more “deviants,” aged 19, 20, and 23: “dressed as ladies and carrying handbags, in which an inspection found cosmetics and women’s clothing.” They confessed they wanted to “turn into women.” The police reassured the public that a “security crackdown” on deviance was in progress. There have probably been more Red Sea arrests of which we know nothing.

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada "security crackdown" on trans people: from El- Dostour

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada “security crackdown” on gender-nonconforming people: from El- Dostour

  • On March 11, the newspaper Youm7 headlined a court conviction for a “prostitution ring” in the Mohandiseen district, in Cairo west of the Nile: “a mixed network of girls and ‘third sex.'” Among the five defendants they mentioned, two were women and three were (biological) men; two of the latter apparently had women’s nicknames. The defendants’ ages ranged from 17 to 23, and the paper cheerfully printed their pictures. They had apparently been arrested, after “the receipt of information” and “investigations,” in a vice squad raid on an apartment they shared. They received one-year prison sentences.
  • On the very same day, March 11, Youm7 also reported the vice squad in Alexandria had arrested nine university students for “practicing sexual deviance,” in a raid on an apartment in the Montazah district. The newspaper said they had been caught “in flagrante delicto.” Egyptian LGBT activists later reported they had been released without charge, but it has been impossible to confirm this for certain.
  • On April 21, the vice squad in the Suez Canal city of Ismaïlia arrested a 22 year-old with male identity papers, who was wearing women’s clothing in a public park. The victim faces trial this month; the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has sent a lawyer. Youm7 reported the case and printed two photographs of the defendant, face fully exposed, seemingly seized from her house or phone.
  • On April 1, vice police in Nasr City — a district of eastern Cairo — arrested four people in an apartment. Their ages ranged from 18 to 31; according to their friends, two of them identified as male-to-female transgender. They had only moved into the flat the day before; it seemed that neighbors or their new landlord reported them. Prosecutors charged them with fugur. A lawyer who went to the jail to help them heard police calling them the “four faggots [khawalat].” The case moved extremely quickly; on April 7, a Nasr City court convicted them all for”debauchery.” The oldest also was found guilty of “facilitating debauchery” and maintaining “premises for the purposes of debauchery,” under provisions of the same law. He received eight years in prison, while the other three took three-year sentences.
Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

  • Also in Nasr City, during the first week of May, the vice squad arrested five more people in another apartment raid. Marsad Amny (“Security Observer”) printed their full names. It also reported that they were “clients” of those arrested in the earlier raid; activists believe the cops found them through the phones or friends’ lists of the previous victims. According to police, they confessed that they “hold private parties and drink  alcohol and liquor, and then they imitate women and [practice] vice with men.” The press also pruriently reported they had acknowledged “abusing pills” (presumably hormones) for breast enlargement and to “soften the voice and remove unwanted hair from their bodies. … They said that taking the pills helped them to acquire the shape, parameters, and characteristics of the female body.” And they owned “industrial tools for the practice of sexual deviance,” which is anybody’s guess. Today — May 19 — the Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights told me that one of the accused has been given a four-year prison sentence; three received eight years; and the court sentenced the flat’s main tenant to twelve years.
  •  On May 4, police arrested six people in a flat in the Cairo district of Heliopolis. Youm7, which carried a report the next day, called them “effeminates” (mokhanatheen, مخنثين, sometimes translated “shemales” or “sissies,” sometimes more respectably as “intersex” or “androgynes”) and claimed they were part of an “international sex network,” apparently because one had a Moroccan passport. The paper carried three successive, sensational stories based on information the police leaked, including pictures of the defendants and even two videos filmed in the lockup. Another paper said they confessed to “suffering from excess female hormones in the body and having sex hundreds of times.” The media also quickly announced that two of the accused “had AIDS,” suggesting an HIV test had been carried out in detention. Charged with “debauchery,” they are facing trial.
Major General Hisham el-Sawy of the Minisry of Interior, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

Major General Hisham el-Sawy , director of the general administration of the morals police, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

The news accounts and police statements actually suggest a still wider crackdown coming. The stories stress again and again that the “deviants” “advertise themselves through social networking sites,” or “through the pages of Facebook.” I interviewed a man arrested a year ago who recounted how the cops told him, “We know the cafes where you people gather, and we know the websites you use too.” Some of the recent court decisions adduce defendants’ personals ads, on sites like “Worldwide Transsexual Dating,” as evidence against them. Plenty of LGBT Egyptians use apps like Grindr, or have ads on multiple sites, or have posted indiscreet things on their own Facebook pages or in supposedly secret groups. A few strategically placed informers, and these people — thousands of them — could wind up in prison.

All that has happened before. From 2001-2004 Egyptian police arrested thousands of men for “debauchery,” entrapping many over the Internet. I can say with pride that this crackdown ended because we at Human Rights Watch, together with Cairo activists, documented it in clear detail, including the sleazy methods undercover cops used to delude and capture people. (“It is the end of the gay cases in Egypt,” a high Ministry of Interior official told a well-placed lawyer in 2004, “because of the activities of certain human rights organizations.”) For the next eight years, excepting an abortive spate of arrests of gay men suspected of being HIV-positive in 2008, no one went to prison for fugur in Egypt.

"A salute to our martyrs:" A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A salute to our martyrs:” A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead whom military and police killed. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Years of relative calm, then this. What underlies these new horrors?

First, media sensationalism feeds the arrests. Each juicy story gives police more incentives to pursue publicity. Youm7 (Seventh Day“), a privately owned paper, is the worst offender. They’ve blared out each new arrest with hungry glee, publishing names and faces, marching into jails with police collusion to capture the miscreants on videocamera.  Founded six years ago under Mubarak, Youm7 has parlayed its official connections to become one of the most popular papers, and websites, in Egypt. Since the Revolution, it’s become unofficial mouthpiece for the military and the security state. During the Morsi presidency, it whipped up hysteria against the Muslim Brotherhood (most famously, it claimed that the Brotherhood had dispatched roving medical vans to perform female genital mutilation door-to-door in rural Egypt, a story that spread widely before people noticed there was no evidence). More recently, its editor-in-chief was one of the elect anointed to tell a waiting world that Generalissimo Sisi planned to run for President.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” The face was not blurred in the original.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7  didn’t.

Youm7 and its imitators dehumanize the arrested “deviants,” portraying them as both pathological and irrefragably criminal. Each article offers new images and verbiage of degradation.

But here’s the second point: of course, the government is feeding these stories to Youm7. And spreading stigma is a defining mark of the post-coup military regime. The whole strategy of Sisi’s government has been to divide and conquer Egypt, with a thoroughness earlier rulers never achieved in living memory: by creating instability, conjuring up threats and then assigning faces to them, it gins up the impression of necessity around its palsied grip on power. It started last summer, portraying the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters (at least a quarter of the country) as not just terrorists but rabid animals whom only death could discipline, indifferent to life, including their own. Stripping humans of their humanity, however, unleashes an energy that brooks no confinement to particular targets. The circles of lives unworthy of living, of those expelled brutally from both the society and the species, keep expanding. Egypt is now devouring itself in an infuriated quest to define who is no longer Egyptian. The “perverts” are just the latest victims.

Police and media together have generated a full-fledged, classic moral panic. Just ten days ago, walking downtown during Friday prayers, I heard a sermon piped over loudspeakers in the very heart of Cairo: “Why do we now see men practice abominable vices?” the imam demanded. “Why do they put on makeup, lipstick, and behave in the way of women?” I forget the answer. The question was the point. These forms of “deviance” are now the common topic in corner mosques as well as national news. All the typical tropes come up. Youm7 interviewed pundits about the “problem” — a psychologist, a professor of Islamic history, and a “security expert,” who compared queerness to drug addition.

Recently a serious phenomenon has surfaced in our society, with devastating  effects on individuals, society and the nation. This phenomenon is the crime of homosexuality [“الشذوذالجنسى,” sexual deviance].

Advocating personal freedom, which our society could not apply correctly, does not mean that the individual is free in his actions regarding his personal and physical requirements. Affronts to legitimacy and legality should be disciplined, so that they do not conflict with the laws of nature or violate human dignity. But “homosexuality” is an affront to all humanity.

“Homosexuality” is filed as a taboo — but we must open it up whatever the reaction. It is a phenomenon that has swept Egypt following the revolution. Although it existed before it has now risen to the surface. …  It has even appeared in the recent involvement of some Arab princes in the practice of “homosexuality.”

As that suggests, you can subsume plenty of other enemies under this sweeping rubric. Revolutionaries, dissidents, and even Gulf magnates who may have given money to the Brotherhood are all tarred. In a violently xenophobic atmosphere, Western criticism of the arrests only proves there’s a foreign conspiracy against Egypt’s morals and manhood.

And, third: manhood is basic here. The crackdown mainly targets the people in Egypt’s diffuse and fragile LGBT communities who are most vulnerable and visible, those who defy gender norms. This is despite the fact that, while Egyptian law does criminalize male homosexual conduct, it says nothing about “crossdressing” or “effeminacy.”  Still, in many of these cases people were convicted of homosexual acts with no evidence but their looks (or the clothes or makeup in their handbags) alone.

Evidence survives that Egyptian cultures before the advent of British and French colonialism had specific niches for the gender non-conforming. Khawal is now an insult for men who engage in homosexual conduct, regarded as a terrible term of opprobrium. In the 19th century, however, it meant male dancers who dressed as women, who enjoyed (like some South Asian hijras) a recognized role as celebrants at events such as weddings.

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: "Egypt - haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer."

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: “Egypt – haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer.”

Whatever those niches were, though, in the 20th century they closed. Khawal came to mean not a gendered role but a sexual practice. Despite a few well-publicized cases of Egyptians seeking sex reassignment surgery, there was little social space for most people – particularly men – to cross gender lines for anything like a significant section of their lives. Only in recent years has there been a growing awareness of “transgender” identity, and an expanding willingness by a brave, determined few to live in at least a liminal space where gender blurs. Many of these folks don’t define themselves as “trans,” nor are they bound to particular gendered pronouns.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

One way to put this is that “gender identity,” if it means anything in Egypt, often exists in a continuum with “sexuality” rather than as a disaggregated axis for identity. But the development of downtown Cairo and a few other urban zones as places where all kinds of self-consciously “alternative” styles tacitly tolerate each other; the burgeoning availability of Internet information; and the discursive and personal freedoms the Revolution pried open, all encouraged a lot of people to experiment with new ways of appearing and even living, with being “ladyboys” (a term often heard in LGBT people’s Arabic), or fem, or trans. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The attention also meshes with other potent anxieties. I’ve written here before how the Revolution raised a nervous question about what Egyptian manhood meant. The generals who seized control of the country after Mubarak fell began at once to disparage dissenting youth as effeminate: long-haired, culturally miscegenated, and incapable of masculine virtues like loyalty and patriotism. As if in reaction, revolutionaries adopted a language of attacking others’ manhood: “Man up,” a call to courage and defiance suggesting that opponents were wusses, became a running cliché of revolutionary speech.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version disparages the police as "gay." Activists painted over the insult and turned it into a statement on homophobia.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version calls the police “gays.” Other activists painted over the insult and made a different statement: “Homophobia is not revolutionary.”

What resulted? An environment where all sides constantly debated masculinity and leveled accusations at its absence. Coupled with a fear of national vulnerability and diplomatic irrelevance (which the military governments carefully cultivated) this created ideal conditions for defaming transgressors against gender as traitors to culture and country. A stridently soldierly, macho dictatorship could hardly look for a more useful bogeyman than the mokhanatheen, who embody like a freeze-dried concentrate all the vices it attributed to its enemies.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: "The names change, the crime remains the same." The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: “The names change, the crime remains the same.” The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Fourth: the crackdown is convenient for the reputation of the police. In the Revolution’s wake, Egypt’s police forces stood discredited and despised. The cop represented the point where most citizens met and suffered from the power of a regime beyond the law. Almost everybody had a personal story of police extortion, or arbitrary harassment, or torture. After February 2011, the police almost disappeared from most Egyptian streets – loathed and cowed figures, fearing for their lives.

With Sisi’s ascendancy the cops are back with a vengeance. You see them at every traffic circle, big-bellied, smug, hitting up taxi drivers for their daily bribes. The regime’s purchased politicians praise the gendarmerie whose lucre-fueled alertness saves the nation from Islamist terror. Their presence hasn’t necessarily made them popular; memories of their abuses die hard. But going after still more despised enemies of virtue gives their image a lift. The news stories hammer home the moral: when it comes to “deviance,” our security forces are on guard.

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo. At top: "Those who appoint a successor never die." a parody of a proverb. At bottom: "O system! You're afraid of a pen and brush. ... You long to fight with walls, to have power over lines and colors." ACAB: "All cops are bastards."

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo, 2012. At top, Mubarak’s face emerges under that of General Tantawi, his Minister of Defense who overthrew him: “Those who appoint a successor never die,” a parody of a proverb (“Whoever has a child never dies”). At bottom: “O system! You’re afraid of a pen and brush. … You long to fight against walls, to have power over lines and colors.”At upper right, a policeman is beating a graffiti artist. ACAB: “All cops are bastards.”

Finally, you have to notice that this crackdown so far doesn’t proceed by policing public spaces like cruising areas or cafes, or by sneaking into pseudo-public spaces like Internet pages or chatrooms. It may go there, but not yet. It’s private homes the police invade. With each news story, they tout their X-ray ability to peer through the walls like cellophane.

And this is the grimmest message, though at first it may not seem so. If Egypt’s Revolution had one collective goal, it was to roll back state power. State surveillance of personal life, of people’s rooms and bodies, was the precondition for the state’s other abuses: especially torture, the crime that all the Arab Spring revolts most focused on, the ultimate assertion of government authority over people’s physical existence down to their bones and nerves and skin. The Revolution rebelled against the policeman’s eyes at the window, his ears in the walls, his clawed hand on the shoulder.

That’s over. There is no privacy. The hand is a fist, and it is knocking at the door. The knock is a reminder that the state is still there, that it can control whatever you do, what you wear, what your bodies desire. The knock insinuates itself into your dreams. It’s trans or gay or lesbian people, or effeminate guys or mokhanatheen, who hear and fear it now; the message reaches them first, in the early stages. Accustomed to dread, they’re an attentive audience. (A gay man with nothing exceptional about his appearance told me three nights ago that he is afraid to answer the door these days, afraid to go out of doors lest his neighbors see him and suspect something and report him to the police.) But it’s a message for everyone, and eventually everyone will listen. The Revolution promised “personal freedoms,” but forget it; “our society” couldn’t “apply them correctly”; they’re a corrupt aspiration, an evasion of the necessity of control. Remember all those dreams of tomorrow? Tomorrow went away.

"Shut up! because your freedom doesn't help me": Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

“Shut up! because your freedom doesn’t help me”: Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

 

 

Jeddah Prison, Cell 18: Entrapped in Saudi Arabia

Baiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

Braiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

“Ahmed” is not his real name, and I’m afraid it’s not a very inventive substitute. As we sat trying to brainstorm a proper pseudonym for him, he told me he’s always wanted to be called “Ginger.” But he doesn’t look like a Ginger: he’s a dark and slightly stolid-looking figure in his 30s, conveying a composed center of gravity that probably stood him in good stead through everything he had to endure.

I talked to him the day after he’d been forcibly deported back to his native Egypt from Saudi Arabia.  He spent more than two years imprisoned in Jeddah, for visiting a gay chatroom.

Here is his story.

I was working as a pharmacist in Saudi, in Jeddah.  I worked in one hospital for four years, but then I transferred to another hospital because of a disagreement about the salary. When I changed to the second hospital there was a problem about the accommodation. In my first hospital I was living alone, I had my freedom. When I was transferred to the second hospital I was living with two other foreign guys who were straight, and they knew I was gay. They refused to have a gay with them, they forced me to leave the apartment. I handed in my resignation, came back to Egypt, stayed maybe three months, found a new contract for another hospital in Jeddah. I returned, and I enjoyed working in the third hospital.

In that place I think they realized that I was a gay, but they accepted me because I was doing my work, I wasn’t doing anything bad.  There was another guy at the hospital, a doctor from East Asia, and everyone knew that he was a gay—he’d flirt very openly with guys he liked, saying “We can hang out together if you can teach me Arabic.”

There’s a lot of life, everything is available in Saudi. For gays there are parties. Makeup, men in dresses… everything you can imagine or you cannot imagine. But for sure it’s hidden. There were foreigners in the scene, but it was mostly Saudis. So many Saudis like gays. If they know that you are gay, they will like you. Not everyone is hating! Some of them are enjoying having sex!

So one night in 2011 – I was working night duty – I finished and came home to my flat. I had something to drink – I knew some guys who could get it for me. Then I got onto a public chatroom, and I started to search for people. A guy said, Can I know you? How old are you, how do you look?

I told him my A/S/L [age, sex, location] and my e-mail. I offered to show myself on the cam. At that time, I was wearing my hair up, wearing some lingerie and my makeup and stuff like that.  I was looking cute.

He said, Can I come to you? You have a place. So he came to my home. He sat around with me, talking and joking.  But we didn’t do anything. He said, We can meet again this evening. I have my own flat, and I don’t feel comfortable here. I knew some guys didn’t feel right in a stranger’s place, and I respected that.

The evening came, around 7 PM or so – I still remember it vividly. He called and told me, I gave you my word, and I’m not lying, I’m coming to you. He said, I have a gift for you.

Then he told me also to bring my things, lingerie and makeup and stuff like that. I trusted him.

I went down to the front of the building to meet him. Just after I got in his car, maybe after a few minutes, I found the government, the guys in the religious police [Gama’t al-Amr be al-Ma’arouf], opening the door of the car, putting the cuffs on me. Of course he knew my home, so they came back there and took everything, the lingerie, condoms, my laptop, which contains porno movies and some pictures of myself

Then I found myself in the police station.

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

I was in a horrible state, crying — I think I had a nervous breakdown. They accused me of being a shazz jenseyyan [sexual pervert]. Everything they asked, I told them yes. Was I taking a contraceptive pill for females [for hormones]? Yes. The lingerie is for you? Yes. You’re a shazz, you’re getting fucked, you feel deeply inside yourself that you are a girl. Yes. But I said, Even if I do feel something like that, it’s not hurting anyone.

I knew the law, because it’s a religious country — not just religious but it’s a country where you must be straight. I know what happened before in Egypt [the Cairo 52 case and the subsequent crackdown] and that was in Egypt – what about a country like Saudi Arabia? Each time I went out on a date, I had a fear that I would be arrested. I expected it. But I did not expect that I would stay in prison so long.

The police didn’t use any violence against me. It’s not a matter of violence, it’s a matter of the whole process being unfair. I wish they had treated me with violence, instead of leaving me in jail for two years.

The manager in the hospital visited me in the jail. He told me that because I’d confessed, I would be deported.  To me this was something good: at least I would be free.

Instead, after a week, they summoned me from jail to the court. The judge was an awful judge, the worst. He told me, You are a sexual pervert.  I didn’t know how to answer. I answered I have dressed and made myself up like that but I’m not having sex — I’m just showing off. He did not tell me or ask me anything after that.

That day, I was handcuffed to another guy from the same cell. He was also in a gay case, but his hearing was before another judge, so we were led together to my judge, then together to his judge. His judge was reading the case file, asking him about the details, what happened, what they were saying – telling him, If you want I will call the witnesses, but if they say it’s all true, the sentence will be double. If you want to confess now, I can help you. I was astonished. Why was no one investigating my case that way? Why didn’t I even have the right to make a defense?

Two or three weeks later, they told me the judge wanted to transfer my case to the higher court [al-Mahkama al-A’ama] and he was asking that court to give me the death sentence.

The higher court, which can impose the death sentence, only can do that in cases where two people are arrested together and they each say, yes, he did that with me. Or if you have previous convictions. Or if you are married – it’s much worse to be accused of homosexual acts if you are married. None of that was true of me.

I waited in jail for four months or five months, and nothing happened. After that I was summoned to interrogation again.

The person who questioned me is called an interrogator (al-mohaqqek), but he’s the same rank as a wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) here in Egypt. The question he asked over and over was whether I was married, or had ever been married. Finally he wrote on a paper that I had not, and I put my fingerprint, and he said, Your case belongs in the jurisdiction of the lower court.

I was so happy that day.

But I waited for another four months. My birthday passed. Another summons came from that interrogator again. I had a lawyer by now. (It had been really hard to find one; nobody my friends approached in Saudi would take the case, because it was so dirty. Finally I asked my father in Egypt to look for a lawyer there who could pull strings with Saudi colleagues to get them to represent me.) I got in touch with my lawyer and told him my case was back with the lower court.

But in two weeks he called me to say, no, it was still in the hands of the higher court. Then he told me that instead it had been referred back to the interrogator. And the interrogator summoned me again, and he went over every point in the case. The new point that they asked me about – it was only the second time it had come up —was about the pictures on the laptop. There was a photo of two guys having intercourse, but the photo was only of their bodies, no faces. One of them was actually me; but there was no way of proving that. In the police station they’d asked me about it, and I’d claimed it was photoshopped or something, that it wasn’t me.  Now the interrogator asked about it again and I told him I had no idea who the men were — but he said, You already confessed to the police that it is you. I protested, I never said that! Where is my confession? But on that basis he transferred the case to the higher court again.

After maybe six weeks, they summoned me to the higher court. The lawyer was with me now, and the judge was very correct, asking me lots of questions.  The only point I admitted was that I had some feminine clothes and I like sometimes to look like a girl, but only inside my home. But they kept insisting that I had sex.  The only proof of this was that I had condoms. I admitted that I owned the condoms, and when I did that, they convicted me, saying it proved I was having sex in Saudi Arabia.

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

At least the request for the death penalty was refused. They sentenced me to three years and 300 lashes, to be delivered over six sessions, 50 lashes each.

In the end I spent two years in Braiman Prison in Jeddah, and I only went through three sessions of the lashes, 50 lashes each time. Finally I was released by a pardon of the king, a general amnesty.  The homosexuality cases are included under these and the amnesties happen regularly, so that most people convicted in a homosexuality case don’t spend too long in the jail. There was a guy with us whose sentence was seven years and he got out after one year. I was unusual, I stayed more than two years.  And after I was released, they deported me.

In prison, I understood that the purpose of the judge in the lower court, when he sent the case to the higher court, was just to keep me in jail for a long time waiting for the court decision, since I couldn’t be amnestied till I was convicted. He just wanted to prolong my jail time.

I spent those two years in Cell 18 in Braiman Prison. It is the special cell for people convicted for homosexual acts. There are a lot of men there. The day I arrived, there were maybe 50, 55, or 58 in the cell. But when I left there were 75.  Most of them feel like girls – we call each other by feminine names. We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

A lot of them had been arrested on the Internet, I can’t count now how many. The chief of the cell was arrested over the Internet, through chat on Palringo.  Some had been arrested on Hornet, someone on U4Bear, some on WhosHere — the religious police know all the apps and chatrooms. Some of them had got a phone call asking to meet, from someone they’d talked to before on WhatsApp, and that guy turned out to be police.

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

I actually enjoyed getting to know these guys in the prison. Some were Saudis but most were from [a nearby country].  From there they go to Saudi legally, some for regular work, some for prostitution. And those are making so much money. Maybe for fucking just one time they can rake in 300-500 Saudi riyals [$75-125 US].  The religious police were more concerned with targeting foreigners than Saudis. The foreigners don’t have complete rights in Saudi. It’s a kind of racism.

No one knew of anyone who had been executed [for homosexual conduct]. People would talk about one case that had happened a long time ago. One guy, an Egyptian in our cell, gave me some details; but I don’t know if he was telling the truth. He said these guys were arrested at a party. They stayed in in jail for maybe two or three years without even getting a sentence, and they could tell they would stay more and more. That guy told me that they were having sex in front of everybody in the cell, prisoners and officers, and they were even singing at the time of prayer. [The authorities] told them it’s not right to do that, you have to stop. And you are in jail, so there must be some kind of repentance.

They refused to stop. So their case was transferred to the higher court. And the guy heard they were executed. This, he said, was maybe two decades ago. He told me he had been arrested once in Saudi maybe ten years back, and heard about this from other prisoners as something that had happened five or ten years before that.  But I don’t believe everything he said.

Since then, though, because executions were getting bad publicity in the media, they stopped the death penalty for most cases of homosexuality – only for rape of a child, a boy, a man, something like that. In cases like mine, they just hold the sentence over you as a threat, to scare you; but it’s not actually going to happen.

But it’s not easy to look at a paper in jail and read that the judge is demanding that you be put to death.  It’s difficult. It scares you. It still scares me.

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Last word on Kuwait: Unfortunately

Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the Gulf Cooperation Council's Health Comittee

Gene genie: Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Health Council

“Told you so” is no pleasure in this life. Still. Arab News (an English-language Saudi paper) this evening published a piece confirming most of what I wrote about Kuwait’s proposed policy. It entails gender tests, not exams for “gayness,” and it targets migrant workers, not tourists.

The Kuwait Ministry of Health has proposed tightening genetic tests for immigrant workers in order to prevent transgender migrants from entering the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council job market.

Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the GCC Health Council, said, “The health checklist for migrant workers now contains a mandatory examination to determine gender.” … The proposal will be made in a meeting for the Central Committee for foreign workers’ at the Health Council to be held on Nov. 11, Khojah told Arab News.

Youssef Mendkar, director of the Public Health Department at the Kuwait Ministry of Health, confirmed that the proposal aims to prevent transgender migrants from working in GCC countries. The tests determine the gender at birth. Gender is also determined through the worker’s medical history.

According to local media, sex conversion operations are considered normal in some countries which supply manpower to GCC countries. He said that statistics from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Interior show that some foreign workers had a different gender recorded on their identity documents.

Khojah also said that the exams are already in operation in some GCC countries – “More than 2 million expatriate workers underwent the new gender tests in 2012” – but didn’t say where. The tests are probably chromosomal samples, and there are questions enough about these and the definitions of “sex” they imply; but the reference to “medical history” also raises the possibility that still other kinds of investigation, including abusive forensic examinations, may be involved.

One of the more thought-provoking comments on my last post came from HIV/AIDS activist Gus Cairns, who wrote on Facebook – I’m oversimplifying– that if you can rouse public outrage on an issue by saying it’s about gay men, and you can’t by saying it’s about trans migrants, surely there’s a case for saying what’s strategic. Terrible abuses based on gender under Kuwaiti law have gotten little notice over the years. I admit I feel some nagging guilt for helping burst a balloon that, floating over the ravaged rights landscape, at least had the possibility of drawing some attention to them.

In the end, though, I don’t think you can get far by advocating about fictions. Inevitably the Kuwaiti government would be able to respond, blithely, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” — and there would go any traction to the claims. Moreover, the problem with slants like this (a “gay exam” targeting privileged white tourists) is that they aren’t just popular because they’re sensational: they draw unwanted strength from releasing the darkest, rottenest impulses of the collective psyche, which float up from the depths like dead manatees. Gay superiority (over the L and B and T), gay imperialism (over other minorities and their needs), chauvinism, homonationalism, Islamophobia … these may not fully have reached the surface, but they were bubbling around under the reactions to this story. They lurk undesired in some of the furor over Russia as well, which is why, despite the surfeit of good intentions, so much of that still leaves me viscerally uneasy: not least because I respond to them too. The 24-hour Twitter cycle, the quick swell and ebb of anger, offers little time to think about what the facts are, much less what our words imply or why we use them. But we should be alert to these concealed beliefs and motives, and militant in resisting them. They pollute both the language of rights and the dream of liberation.

If you wonder about some of the politics behind the Kuwait tale, consider this: why was a group called Act for Israel (“Mission: to represent Israel’s interests in US through new media”) urging Peter Tatchell to take it up; and why did Tatchell answer by boasting that he’d already “helped break this story”? What was that all about?

Tatchell Kuwait IBT copyThe last word? I hope not. It remains formidably hard to whip up concern over the fates of poor workers, or foreign laborers, or trans people, and even harder to build a movement around the intersections. But I hope at least some of the folks who got agitated about this case when they thought it was a threat to football stars and white tourists will continue to follow it now that they know it’s about the marginal, the migrant, the despised. A simple Google search (try Kuwait gay tests) will turn up the names of notables who worried about FIFA and the limelight. Now let them show they care about those who don’t make the headlines. I remember (the music is at the end of the clip below) the frightening lines Brecht wrote at the very terminus of the Threepenny Opera:

Some in light and some in darkness
That’s the kind of world we mean
Those you see are in the daylight
Those in darkness
Don’t get seen

Kuwait’s “medical screening for gays”: Truth, fiction, and why it’s not a “gay” issue

"Illegals" -- foreign violators of Kuwait's labor and residency laws -- under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

“Illegals” — foreign violators of Kuwait’s labor and residency laws — under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

I first noticed it yesterday on Pink News, the UK’s G-and-sometimes-LBT news website: a new horror from the Persian Gulf. “It was revealed that Gulf Cooperative Countries introduced new rules to ‘detect’ and ban gay people from entering the country.” It doesn’t take long for any story about Arabs and sex to go viral. In this case, given that Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup, the headlines hitched a ride with anxieties over the Sochi Olympics, and turned into warnings about threats to sports. Peter Tatchell leapt in headfirst, proclaiming that “FIFA now has no option but to cancel the world cup,” because “gay players and spectators will be banned from attending.” The story was soon in the Daily Mail: “Gulf states to introduce medical testing on travellers to ‘detect’ gay people.” Russia Today picked it up (probably hoping that they could lure Jamie Kirchick to move his strip show to Al Jazeera). Of course it spread all over Twitter. Tommy Robinson, the leader of the UK’s thuggish and Muslim-bashing English Defense League, should have been thinking happy thoughts on his very own special day – he was collaborating with the Quilliam Foundation, a doubtful British affair that calls itself “the world’s first counter-extremism organization,” to announce his departure from the Fascists and conversion to tolerance and understanding. But he wasn’t too busy to send out a Tweet suggesting that his about-face, like the Qulliam Foundation itself, was a bit of a put-on. Islamophobia dies hard:

What about this story? Some of it is true, but only sort of. Some of it’s grossly distorted.  Let’s try to unpack what the truth is.

FIRST: Are there “new rules”? Not yet. It’s still just a proposal.  It comes from Kuwait, not Qatar – specifically, from the Director of Kuwait’s Department of Public Health, Dr. Youssef Mindkar, who discussed it with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai yesterday. He said a new proposal

aims to discover the “third sex,” “gays” [al-mithliyeen], during the clinical medical examination procedure upon arrival, to prevent the entry into Kuwait and the Gulf of those certified as “improper” [ghair la’eq]. Mindkar spoke to Al-Rai of “strong measures to be included in Gulf regulations on employment screening, especially in respect of the third sex.”

So let’s be clear: this is a matter of employment screening – of people coming into the Gulf to live and work, people who already have to undergo medical testing on arrival. It’s not a screening for every arrival at the airport. It does not mean, as Tatchell claimed, “that gay players and spectators will be banned from attending the football world cup.” Whatever Dr. Mindkar has in mind, the sacred anuses of fans and footballers will be exempt, unless they plan to settle down and get jobs as gardeners or drivers in the Gulf after the games are through.

Trust me, you won't feel a thing: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

Trust me, this won’t hurt a bit: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

SECOND: Who decides on this? It’s not clear.The first Al-Rai article quoted Dr. Mindkar as saying “the project will be proposed during the meeting of the Central Committee of the Program on Expat Labor [of the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC], which will take place on 11 November in Oman with a view to amending the regulations.” The Gulf Cooperation Council is a 22-year-old organization for economic and political cooperation between BahrainKuwaitOmanQatarSaudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It tries to develop common policies on everything from patent regulations to labor policy to crushing and killing dissidents (its Peninsula Shield Force invaded Bahrain in 2011 to put down demonstrations). The Oman gathering will address the second concern: how to treat foreign workers. One recurrent issue is health – that is, protecting the region from diseases that migrant labor supposedly carries. Already, incoming workers must undergo medical screenings on entry; Mindkar is suggesting the meeting could recommend adding some new procedure.

Al-Rai is a newspaper close to Kuwait’s government. So it’s interesting that it followed up next day with an article interviewing Kuwaiti parliamentarians about the idea. This suggests they don’t feel it’s just a simple tweak of medical procedure – it’s a visa policy change that might need legislative action, in which case it would only apply to Kuwait, not the rest of the Gulf. It also suggests this is mainly for domestic political consumption. (Most of the MPs were supportive: the move would “safeguard our children … from abnormal behaviours contrary to religion.” Only one expressed some qualms: “Generally I reject legislating for legislation’s sake. Any legislation must be based on scientific study, and must be legal and constitutional.”)

In practice, the Gulf states are even worse than the EU at coming up with joint policies in the sensitive areas of work or borders. (A Schengen-like proposal for a common tourist visa has been discussed interminably.) In other words, even if some new policy is adopted by Kuwait itself, it’s still not clear it would affect Qatar or other states.

Raise your hand if you're a manly man: Session of Kuwait's National Assembly

Raise your hand if you’re a manly man: Session of Kuwait’s National Assembly

THIRD. What kind of “medical screening”? And for whom? Here’s where it gets interesting. Both Al-Rai articles repeatedly said the screening would search for the “third sex” (al-jins al-thaaleth). Only once in each article did they use the word al-mithliyeen, which is a politically-correct, recently invented term (derived from mithliyyu al-jins, “same sex,” constructed by analogy to “homosexual”); it’s sometimes translated “gay.”

What is the “third sex” to Kuwaiti ears?

Popular Arabic doesn’t contain any word (even mithli) that corresponds exactly to the way English-speakers and other Westerners use “gay” – which doesn’t stop Western reporters and the rest from jumping on this story and announcing it’s about “gay” people. This isn’t just about translation, it reflects different social norms: different concepts of identity. In the US, Europe, and much of Latin America, for instance, a strong, almost defensive distinction has grown between “gay” men and people who are “trans” or “transgender” (or “travesti,” or other words). The cultural importance of maintaining this difference is one reason the aggressive gay male Penis Police break out in anxious sweats when faced by someone they find ambiguous – somebody like Johnny Weir who’s too man-identified to be shoveled off into what they see as the transgender trash can, but who is just not their kind of man.

The distinction can be irrelevant in many other parts of the world, though. Here in Egypt, for instance, a separate female-to-male “transgender” identity is only starting to be articulated among middle-class people. (Many elements go to make it up, some local and some patterned after non-Egyptian possibilities. Demotic, working-class subcultures of men who danced in women’s clothes were well-known in 19th century Egypt, even if they didn’t cross the gender line full-time. On the other hand, a recent trip to Alexandria with a trans-identified friend involved more repeated viewings of RuPaul’s Drag Race than I care to remember.)

This is important because people who think the Kuwaiti proposal is an anti-“gay” measure clearly haven’t followed what’s been happening there in the last decade. In Kuwait for seven years now, “third sex” has mainly been a term of abuse for people whom the US or Europe might call “transgender.” A major moral panic has been raging (also in other Gulf countries, especially Bahrain). Press, preachers, and politicians rant about the dangers of men who aren’t “manly,” or women who are too much so. (Sometimes they refer to the latter as al-jins al-rabi, the “fourth sex” – or sometimes just “boyat,” as in boys.) This peaked in 2007, when Kuwait’s parliament passed a provision to punish anyone “imitating the opposite sex in any way” with a year’s imprisonment, a hefty (US$3,600) fine, or both. MP Walid al-Tabtabai, who drafted the law, said repeatedly it was aimed at stopping the “third sex.” Here he is on YouTube feeding the fires of panic: “Imprisoning ‘third sex’ and boyat is a law I’m proud of.”

 Boys will be boys, and if they won’t, send them to me

During my years at Human Rights Watch, we monitored the panic and the resulting police crackdowns from 2006 on. My colleague Rasha Moumneh, now sadly moved on from HRW, wrote an excellent 2011 report about the Kuwaiti situation. While police abuse of transgender-identified women has been especially violent and brutal, she stresses that the law does not just single out a “transgender” identity, much less “gay” sex, but rather targets anybody who doesn’t follow gender norms. It’s easiest for police to pick out biological men who are overtly wearing women’s clothing – but all men seen as effeminate, or women seen as butch, are potential victims.

Gender and sexuality often become foci for broader anxieties in times of rapid social and political change. The criminalization of “imitating the opposite sex” in Kuwait is one  element of a broader regime of gender regulation that began to take hold after 1992, when  tensions between “liberal” and “traditionalist” Kuwaitis after the Gulf War intensified as  each tried to establish their status as influential political entities. The battle over women’s rights and role in society constituted one of this conflict’s most  prominent arenas, and presented an opportunity for traditionalists and Islamists to join forces. … Given this long-running controversy within government and society over the appropriate  roles of men and women, it is not surprising that parliament would turn its attention towards those who visibly challenge these gender roles.

HRW documented how people arrested under the Kuwaiti law are often subjected to bodily inspection by a forensic doctor, to determine what their “real” sex is. It’s likely this is the meaning of the “medical screening” that Dr. Mindkar proposes: a doctor checks potential entrants to find their biological sex, and if it doesn’t correspond to their demeanor or the clothes they’re wearing, goodbye.

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

By no means do I minimize the abusiveness and intrusiveness of these examinations, or the humiliation they can inflict. Probably doctors would limit themselves to inspecting genitals at the border. But in part because “transgender” and “homosexual” are not neatly separated categories, it’s quite possible that indications a biological man has been anally penetrated can serve as proof that he “imitates the opposite sex.” I spent years documenting the forced forensic anal examinations practiced by the Egyptian police on thousands of victims. Such fraudulent tests were also part of the Lebanese police’s repertory. Though they prove nothing except the obscene prurience of the responsible officials, they have been blessed in the past with pseudoscientific imprimaturs. For example, sitting on my shelf is a 1993 Arabic publication by the World Health Organization’s East Mediterranean Regional Office, on “Forensic Medicine and Toxicology”; it recommended them as a way to discover the “habitual bottom” (ubna). It’s conceivable that the Kuwaiti border’s anti-deviance armory could include forcing these tests on suspect migrant workers. We just don’t know.

FOURTH. Isn’t this just more proof of the exotic, barbaric practices of repressed Muslims? Yes, of course, if you believe everything you read. It’s amazing how a story like this allows people to bring in every little tidbit about sheikh-and-terrorist sex that they garnered from the rumor mill, or from having wet dreams about Lawrence of Arabia. It’s as if, every time you mentioned gerbils, you had to segue to that friend of a friend of a friend who told you how Richard Gere ….

For instance: the International Business Times filled out its story on the border controls by informing you that

In 2012, Kuwaiti police officers arrested two men for allegedly having homosexual acts in a car at a café’s parking lot in Kuwait city. Police also found the men had a four-year-old “marriage contract” and were planning to travel abroad to obtain a legal marriage certificate. According to many Arab LGBT organisations, it is common practice among Arabian Gulf gay couples to sign a marriage contact as a sign of love and commitment.

I have to doubt “many Arab LGBT organisations” said this, or were even asked. It also seems odd to mark this as a distinctive, slightly primitive custom among “Arabian Gulf gay couples,” when oodles of gay couples in Amsterdam and San Francisco are doing the same thing. Did the Dutch read about this ritual called “marriage” in some anthro textbook on exotic Arabia, and decide to mimic it? But what does this have to do with anything?

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

The idea of medical testing for sexual or gender deviance is not an Arab one. It came from the West. The forensic anal examinations I discuss above were – as I’ve written before – the brainchild of Auguste Ambroise Tardieu (1818-1879), a French scientist who largely invented the techniques for forensic examination of sexual crimes. The fact that his theories about how “abnormal” sex changed the bodies of its practitioners were idiotic and bizarre does not make them less French. The myths and modes of investigation he advocated remain powerful, and not just in the Middle East.  His theory that frequently-penetrated assholes turn “infundibuliform” or funnel-shaped even found its way into the avant-garde poetry of the Comte de Lautréamont:

Oh incomprehensible pederasts, I shall not heap insults upon your great degradation; I shall not pour scorn upon your infundibuliform anus.

Thanks, thoughtful Frenchman!

Our pundits also assume that any different understanding of gender and sexuality must be a deficient one: that the absence, for example, of a concept exactly like “homosexuality” in another culture implies a lack to be filled, rather than discursive space already occupied by another valid concept. So Arabs don’t know what “gay” means? We’ll teach them! But, if anything, the coverage here clearly shows how our English-language terminology and thinking are stunted and inadequate to other situations. In particular, although we do formal obeisances to the “inclusive” terminology of “LGBT,” we’ll throw out everything but the G given half a reason.  Why is this a “gay” story? Why does everybody translate “third sex” as “gay” alone? Why do they ignore Kuwait’s recent history on gender issues as irrelevant? Why do they describe it as “homophobia” when only a slight look below the surface shows how deeply it’s a question of gender?  Why, given that vicious persecution of transgender people in Kuwait has been documented for seven years, does nobody even think to raise the T word (much less the L word!) when a report like this arises? What fears, what phobias enforce that silence?

FINALLY: There is a history to Kuwait’s worries about its borders. This story is not just “about” gender or sexuality. It’s also about citizenship and belonging. 

From Nasra M. Shah, "Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?" at

From Nasra M. Shah, “Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?” at http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1055&context=intl

The other huge moral panic going on in the Gulf for years has been over migrant labor. And Kuwait lies at the heart of the vortex of arrests, abuses, deportations. The whole region survives on the sweat of foreign workers. Four-fifths of Kuwait’s labor force is non-Kuwaiti; two-thirds of the country’s residents are non-citizens. Qatar and the UAE have similarly high figures; but Kuwait is unique in that it endured the trauma of foreign invasion in 1991, and doesn’t forget. Back then, Kuwaitis perceived guest workers — many resentful over their exploitation — as a fifth column welcoming Saddam Hussein’s troops. After Bush the First drove out the Iraqis, Kuwait expelled Palestinians en masse, including tens of thousands who had lived there for decades. Other guest workers, however, quickly took their places. The last time Kuwaiti nationals made up a bare majority in the country was the year of its independence, 1961.

From Nasra M. Shah, "Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies," at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf. PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

From Nasra M. Shah, “Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies,” at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf.  PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

Most of these foreigners are from poor countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, many serving in demeaning domestic jobs. They’re needed but feared. Migrant Rights, a website on migration in the Middle East, notes that “demeaning spectacles” and “popular myths” surround guest workers in Kuwait. They’re promiscuous, they’re drug addicts, they’re criminals. The press “vilifies undocumented workers through vague, unfounded assertions of the miscellaneous ‘danger’ they pose to society at large.” In addition to moral menaces, medical fears also play a role. Just a casual search shows that much of Dr. Mindkar’s work at the Department of Public Health involves protecting the Kuwaiti public’s health from the strangers in its midst. He makes sure domestic servants get re-tested and re-vaccinated when they return from holidays! He visits Egypt to stiffen the standards of clinics that pre-screen migrants there!

The stigma leads to violence. Bosses don’t just exploit guest workers; they abuse and beat them. And the country recurrently tries to chase out undesirables — who could be anybody with the wrong passport.  Since early 2013, Kuwait has been carrying out a “fierce crackdown” on foreign workers, jailing and deporting thousands without appeal. The numbers keep mounting: one day sees 86 arrests, another day 491 across the country.

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

This is the context for the new, proposed test of foreign workers’ genitals and morals. It’s another excuse, founded in fears for national purity, to drive people out. It’s doubly ridiculous, then, to claim the proposal’s wrong because it somehow endangers the World Cup. Zillionaire football stars and tourist fans won’t suffer any hiccups at the border: it’s obscene to put their situation on a level with that of impoverished migrants who face torture and the loss of livelihood. It’s equally absurd to claim that “Banning gay people [sic] from entering the country will deter foreign investors and companies. They won’t want to subject their employees to such barbaric, medieval humiliations.” Executives for Exxon or Royal Dutch Shell will breeze through Kuwait’s medical tests, whatever they may be, because they’re wanted in the country; if they happen to have some ailment, their company just bribes them in. The exams are meant to intimidate poor Nepalis or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis, to exclude those who are too recalcitrantly different. Talking about the imaginary inconvenience to corporations and guys in Porsches completely misses the point.

I hate to play the game of equivalences, to measure any human rights violation against another. Kuwait’s proposal is appalling, part of a disgusting system of policing gender — and part of a repressive history of exploiting a non-citizen helot class. Fight it! But to treat it as some “barbaric” or “medieval” invention unprecedented in modern immigration law is a self-exculpating fantasy.

Consider the US, where the Atlantic magazine made fun of those stupid Arabs: “We wouldn’t want to be the ones to break it to Mindkar that gay people come from the loins of straight people, meaning any attempt to keep your country gay-free is all but impossible.” Yeah. The US still bars foreign sex workers and drug users from entering the country, a policy that banned thousands of people from participating in the last World AIDS Conference held in Washington, DC. See if that keeps America drug-free, or sex-work-free. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail excoriated the Kuwaiti policy. That’s in the United Kingdom, a country famous for welcoming immigrants with songs and sex and flowers, and for its particular friendliness to LGBT asylum-seekers, who get free chocolate cakes and feather beds upon arrival! The Daily Mail itself loves immigrants. It loves immigrants so much that it just accused the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition of being anti-British because his father was a Jewish refugee. Stupid, stupid, stupid Arabs.

Oh, yes, I mentioned the rich Quilliam Foundation, a favorite of Tony Blair and the terror-fighting crowd. (Peter Tatchell, after enunciating his version of the Qatar Kuwait story, went off to a fifth-anniversary event for the Quilliam Foundation, and tweeted “Bravo”!) Blogger Fagburn has asked where Quilliam gets its money, aside from British taxpayers. Here’s one answer. In 2008 Quilliam’s head told Susannah Tarbush, writing for Al-Hayat, that it received “private Kuwait funding.” Kuwait’s a small country, and “private funding” usually passes through pockets of the royal family. Kuwait is happy to fund organizations that oppose “extremists,” which to the royal family means anybody who dissents. They also torture foreigners, Islamists, students, transgender people … the possibilities are endless. Those concerned about Kuwaitis’ and non-Kuwaitis’ rights might stop going to the Quilliam Foundation’s parties, or ask it to stop laundering Kuwaiti money. But I won’t hold my breath.

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991: Palestinian refugees at Kuwaiti border waiting to be deported, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis

He’s our bigot. Leave him alone.

L: Bad but unboring Russian activist holds easily comprehensible sign, Moscow, September 25; R: Good but boring Russian activists hold signs nobody cares about, Moscow, September 24. Police equally unimpressed.

L: Bad but unboring Russian activist holds easily comprehensible sign, Moscow, September 25; R: Good but boring Russian activists hold signs nobody cares about, Moscow, September 24. Police equally unimpressed.

John Aravosis published an article about Nikolai Alekseev’s latest Moscow protest on his blog today. It’s interesting how he excuses doing this. He objects to other media covering Alekseev (“I’ve noticed some top gay ‘news’ sites continuing to go to the anti-Semite Alexeyev for comment”) but not to himself covering Alekseev. He squares the circle by pretending that Alekseev wasn’t behind the demonstration (“it’s unfortunate that the protesters included in their group known anti-Semite, Nikolai Alexeyev“) when of course Alekseev didn’t simply happen along for the ride, he organized the whole thing. It’s all a bit like: I didn’t want to show you Britney Spears’ privates on my blog, people, it’s just that they walked right onto my computer screen. 

The truth is, it’s much more sexy and clickworthy, from an American perspective, to run photos of Alekseev holding an catchy English-language sign (no Google Translate needed!) and getting chased by police, than photos of other Russians holding up Russian slogans about substantive things like the fate of Russia that only Russians care about. It would be nice if Aravosis would admit this — and admit there’s a symbiotic relation between the Alekseev lust for controversy and the Aravosis lust for blog hits. It would spare us all the denials.

Aravosis’ piece contains the following remarkable line:

When it comes down to it, no one would fraternize with a “human rights activist” who calls blacks the n-word, calls Latinos “wetbacks,” or calls gays “fags.”  There’s no excuse for the tolerance some in our community, and some on the left generally, show when the victims of bigotry are Jewish.

One reason this is remarkable is that a couple of hours later, Aravosis was Tweeting:

Aravosis FAG copy

I’m not even going to get into the question of whether it’s as OK for gay people to use the F-word (about non-Fs) as for black people to use the N-word. I don’t think the F-word is “like” the N-word, or homophobia is “like” racism, or so on. I just find this a curious coincidence.

Now, what Aravosis said on his blog about Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida, was this:

I was at my parents’ house last summer, watching the Republican convention … when I looked up at the TV to see who was speaking, saw some cherubic-faced yet-ageing man, and said to myself, “who’s that queen?” It was clear to me that whoever was at the dais must be gay …

Rubio and wife: Lose the beard, my alarm bells are ringing

Rubio and wife: Lose the beard, my alarm bells are ringing

That’s all the evidence. My own gaydar is sufficiently bad that I wouldn’t call somebody a “big fag,” in public, on its sole basis. Probably Aravosis’s gaydar is a precision instrument by contrast, capable of picking up distant quasars of queeniness, like the Hubble Telescope. I bet he was born with a super-keen eye for queens, that is, for men who aren’t quite manly. We’ve already seen this with Johnny Weir, whom he pegged instantaneously as one of those unreliable pseudo-guys bending like a fey reed in the wind. You might well ask, though: can this go too far? Should a human rights activist define his relationship to trans* people’s rights by asking what on earth he has “in common with a man who wants to cut off his penis, surgically construct a vagina, and become a woman”? Should a human rights activist call an effeminate man a “freak of nature“? Well, obviously it’s OK, because nobody says “sorry,” and we keep fraternizing.

But wait a minute. Another question.

What should John do about a “human rights activist” who says things like black people “are racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic” — “Why does everyone attack the Mormons, but they’ll never go after African-Americans?” What would you say about a “human rights activist” who calls the Koran “today’s Mein Kampf,” a book that “fatuously and ridiculously” claims to be a guide to “a Supreme Nincompoop called Allah”? Any thoughts on a “human rights activist” who claims Muslims “have not contributed to civilization in any way, in any field—political thought, science, music, architecture, nothing for century after century”? How would you respond to a “human rights activist” who alleges that a proposed Islamic cultural center in New York is actually a “monument to Muslim terrorism”? Is it OK for “human rights activists” to incite hate against whole communities? is John down with that? How about a a “human rights activist” who says that Arab immigration is leading to “a Europe where liberal institutions will be replaced with mosques and minarets, the glass of wine with a glass of camel milk, Speedos and miniskirts with jellabas and burkas, music with calls for prayer, and gay parades with public executions”? What would you do about a “human rights activist” who smears a whole people, those of Palestine, by saying their conflict with Israel is a choice

between civilization and barbarism; between freedom and oppression; between democracy and dictatorship; between human rights and violations of human rights; between those who treat gay people with respect and those who murder them, jail them, torture them, and dismember them; between those who treat women like equals and those who treat women like camels.

What would you say about a guy who uses that line about  “a woman is equal to a camel” over, and over, and over, as if part of the fun is that he gets to insult women and Arabs at the same time

Under the limelight: Lucas in his element

Under the limelight: Lucas in his element

This fellow, who has a long record of defaming whole groups based on their race or religion or immigrant status or nationhood, is porn intellectual Michael Lucas, of course. And I haven’t heard a word of objection from John Aravosis about him — about the fact that he sets himself up as a leader in the anti-Russia campaigning, and gets to use the Advocate and Newsweek as platforms for his bile, and writes about “freedom” and “equality” as if he knows what the words means,  and marches off to Queer Nation meetings to tell activists what to do. Any complaints that “the protesters included in their group known racist Michael Lucas”? None. Not from Aravosis, or Melanie Nathan, or most of the other people who feel or feign horror at Alekseev’s diatribes. Nathan even recommended Lucas’s opinions (“Michael Lucas wrote a very good article encapsulating the downfall of Nikolai Alekseev”), and Aravosis linked to him, without any hint that there might be a bit of irony about one open racist condemning another.

It’s all so inconsistent. I’m not entirely sure what Aravosis means by “the tolerance some in our community, and some on the left generally, show when the victims of bigotry are Jewish.” (Is there anybody relevant, except Peter Tatchell, who’s failed to voice loud anger over Alekseev’s attacks?)  I do know, though, about the tolerance some show when the purveyors of bigotry are rich, and famous, and have influential friends, and draw the hungry attention of the cameras: and when the victims they vilify are powerless, marginal, despised. Alekseev, in his minor way, lived off that syndrome for a long time. I’m waiting for John Aravosis to notice the fact that Michael Lucas keeps doing it.

Members of NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid stage a sit-in at the New York LGBT Center to protest a Michael Lucas-inspired ban on Palestine-related events, June 8, 2011

Members of NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid stage a sit-in at the New York LGBT Center to protest a Michael Lucas-inspired ban on Palestine-related events, June 8, 2011