I wish some Egyptian Joan Didion could visit El-Marg. She might turn this dry outcropping of Cairo into a fear-saturated landscape like the dismal suburbs of Los Angeles: “an alien place,” as the writer sketched those badlands in one essay,
a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.
I’ve been to El-Marg once or twice, out on the far northeast edges of the megacity, and I remember dust everywhere, enough to outdo Didion’s sallow, itchy ambience. The neighborhood is too close to the desert, and nothing keeps out the onslaught of sand that grinds itself fine against window and wall and skin. But there are no mountains and there’s little wind; none of Didion’s rattlesnakes crepitate in the drives – there are no rattlers in Egypt, just impudent mongeese that hurry hunchbacked along the streets like donked-up rats; and you come away impressed not by sullen, repressed California housewives dreaming of adultery and insurance money, but by the prevalence of men, particularly young ones, slouching and strutting and parading down the unswept streets. It’s a shaabi neighborhood, a word sometimes translated “popular” and sometimes “working class,” but carrying other, deeper connotations: down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth, the country transported to the city on migrants’ backs. The place has the resentful pride of poverty, but none of the thwarted aspirations that fester in Didion’s bourgeoises. Nobody aspires. The local dreams seem leaden, not golden. The main hope is simply to survive in an economy and country where that gets harder all the time. Fourteen or more men are in jail there tonight, for something connected, somehow, to this hurt and troubled manhood.
The story appeared on October 12 in Akhbar el-Youm, a state newspaper, describing arrests that probably happened the day before.
The niyaba [prosecutor] ordered the [continued] detention of the manager and specialists and workers at a health center that was open for perverts [shawazz] only, in El-Marg. He also ordered the detention of 14 men who were caught practicing immorality [fahesha] inside it, and the closure of the establishment.
Information had been received about the center’s illegal activity, and that it welcomed perverted men and boys to practice immorality in its rooms. The investigation has proved the information correct; the center was raided, and 14 men were caught, in positions that are against religious precepts.
Also, the management staff were caught along with a large quantity of pills and sexual stimulants. It emerged that the center only engages in this illegal activity in return for payments of between 50 and 200 pounds [$7-$28 US] for one encounter.
The defendants confessed in front of Mohammed Sayed Ahmed, the chief El-Marg prosecutor, that they had been frequenting the center to practice immorality [fahesha]. The niyaba ordered their detention and referral to the forensic medical authority, and ordered the center closed and the evidence preserved.
The “health center” turned into a “medical center” by the time this reached the English-language Egyptian press. It has remained so now that the story has started to enter the international LGBT media.
Actually, the establishment is — was — neither. I have at least one friend who has visited. It was a small gym and sauna, converted from a private apartment and operating as a business for years. It’s well known in the surrounding streets; when my friend went there about three years ago – before the Revolution – and asked directions, the neighbors said “Oh, the hammam!”, or baths, and pointed the way. The entry fee was 25 pounds back then. It’s unlikely the price has gone up eightfold in the interim, so the figures the police gave (with the strong suggestion of prostitution) are probably nonsense. There is a good chance that the “pills and sexual stimulants” the police found are vitamins, or even steroids.
The gym sounds, and perhaps was, a little upscale for a district like El-Marg: so poor and so insulated from so much of Western consumerism, with the exception of universal values like Marlboros and Pepsi. The arrests certainly call into question the celebrated thesis of Joseph Massad: that the “visible” people experiencing, indeed mischievously inciting, persecution for “homosexuality” in Egypt are “Westernized upper- and middle-class Egyptian men who identify as gay and consort with European and American tourists.” There aren’t too many people like that around El-Marg. On the other hand, a different kind of consumerized identity, built not around sexuality but around masculinity, has been creeping into places like El-Marg for well over a decade now. It comes from movies and magazine ads and it consists in a cult of the sculpted body, perfected from nature’s raw materials, designed to elicit admiration quite apart from anything it does, any useful work or wonders it performs. A longstanding fetish of health and exercise in Egypt dates from the colonial period – periodic pushups helped show that “natives” could be as strong and self-sufficient as their masters. Yet it was largely confined to the upwardly-pushing middle classes, as Wilson Chacko Jacob has demonstrated in an intriguing study. Only more recently has working out, and a fullblown Chelsea version of it at that, become a defining feature of shaabi manhood.
Something of the change can be sensed just with a glance at two Egyptian movie stars and their physiques. Farid Shawki (1920-1998), nicknamed the “King of the Cheap Seats,” was an idol to working-class audiences for decades, playing poor heroes who fought against injustices imposed by a rogues’ gallery of rich villains. He was an unwieldy lug with a rectangular body that made him resemble a walking refrigerator (a luxury item his characters certainly couldn’t afford). Mohammad Ramadan, a 20-something kid from Upper Egypt and now a major sex symbol, also plays noble prole roles, but by contrast has the kind of torso that – well, in every movie he misses no opportunity to take his shirt off: “Lunch, habibi?” “Yes, but it’s so hot in here …”
It’s like the transition between John Wayne and Channing Tatum: between a laconic masculinity that held its energies in reserve, lest they be harnessed or exploited, versus one that shows itself off compulsively and indeed exists to be seen. The way the poor devour this new image in Egypt may have something to do with how the shaabi classes are increasingly invisible to the privileged and powerful. The rich and even the middle class retreat into guarded shopping malls, gated towers, and remote desert developments with the poor safely locked out. The conspicuous development of delts and abs is also a defiant way to say, I’m here, if only as an object of desire. It also perhaps reflects the economy of underdevelopment: a feeling that muscles are no longer for labor – there are fewer and fewer jobs as the economy spirals downward – but for show. Maybe there’s an element of resistance to it (look at Mohammad Ramadan’s menacing weaponry, above), but mostly it seems to be resignation to a different kind of exploitation. It’s a grim admission that your existence is really only useful as a spectacle. This kind of masculinity-for-display inevitably carries homoeroticism with it, but a particularly unsettling kind: the pumped-up muscles make one an object, not an agent, and imply vulnerability along with the visibility, the paralyzed passivity of a pin-up photo. Mohammad Ramadan is not an action hero. He seems quite credible, in fact, playing a victim.
The consumerized body, its class implications, its cross-cultural incursions – have any of these drawn Joseph Massad’s indignant attention? I think not. I don’t know whether any of the arrested men in El-Marg are “gay” or not, or what they were doing when caught “in positions against religious precepts” (a remarkably inclusive phrase). I am inclined to guess, though, that the visibility of this suspect masculinity finally roused the antagonism of the neighborhood; and that is why the police were called, and how they ended up in jail.
Friends of friends of mine know some of the men. (Although “14” is the figure that’s made it into Western press reports, this is only the number of the clients arrested – it doesn’t seem to include the “manager, specialists, and workers.”) The prosecutor ordered them held for four days, but that may be renewed. They’ve been sent off for forensic anal examinations, which are intrusive, abusive, and inhuman treatment. They don’t yet have lawyers. Human rights organizations are overburdened with the arrested, the tortured, the disappeared since the military takeover. Some informal networks are trying to see what we can do.
Back in June, when three days of massive demonstrations gave the military the go-ahead to overthrow President Morsi, most of my gay friends in Cairo flocked to the streets, first in protest, then in celebration. But nothing had gotten worse for LGBT people under Muslim Brotherhood rule; nothing has got better since it ended. Same old, same old. It’s still true that the worst persecution LGBT people have faced in Egypt, possibly in the whole region – the three-year, continuous crackdown from 2001-2004, when police probably arrested and tortured thousands – was inflicted under Mubarak’s secular dictatorship. It had virtually nothing to do with religion. Indeed, the aged caudillo was arresting and torturing tens of thousands of Islamists at the same time.
What has been consistent since the Revolution, despite the several changes of government – military, Islamist, military again – is that the police want desperately to win their reputations back. Under Mubarak, the vast majority of Egyptians passionately loathed the police: they were the contact point where ordinary citizens faced, and felt, the corruption and arbitrary power and abusiveness of a regime that had lost its sense of limit. And after February 2011, the cops finally had to give a damn that they were hated. In fact they largely disappeared, fearing for their safety and even lives if they offended an empowered populace. Since then, they’ve looked for ways to recuperate credibility – mainly, by showily harassing anybody the man in the street might despise even more than a man in uniform. Since the coup, the police go after Syrians, Palestinians, and other foreigners, because the wave of State-fostered xenophobia makes them applause-inducing targets. But it never hurts to announce that you’ve picked up a few suspected homosexuals. What better paints you, corrupt and immoral though you may be, as a defender of the nation’s morals?
One night last February, I got a call at 4:30 AM. A small gaggle of gay men had been standing just after midnight in a square, in the tony Heliopolis neighborhood, that’s known as a cruising area. A police car pulled up to harass them; two of them, feeling their post-Revolutionary oats, argued with the officers. They got arrested, while the others ran. One other guy who bravely went to the police station an hour later to ask about their well-being also found himself arrested, though the cops quickly let him go. Before that, though, the badges threatened him that he’d join his shawazz pals in prison. The word spread fast, by phone and text message, across Cairo’s gay communities. There were fears the prosecutor would slap charges of “debauchery,” or homosexual conduct, on the two men; fears, too, that they’d be sent off for the dreaded anal examinations. By 6 AM Ramy Youssef, a young Egyptian human rights activist, was standing with me in the shivery egg-blue dawn in front of the police station. Under various pretexts, we argued our way in, and persuaded the commander to let us see the men. One had been severely beaten. They were set free a few hours later – largely, I think, because we let the abusers know somebody was watching; but before I left, I asked the commander, in my most oozily ingratiating manner, whether the police found it increasingly difficult to work since the Revolution. “Definitely,” he said, spreading his hands imploringly. “And I hope you will tell the world that, as these cases show, we are still trying to do our job.”
Will this change? Not until the police are changed – until Egypt’s security sector is reformed; and neither military nor civilian governments have shown the slightest interest in that. The current junta, led by Generalissmo Sisi, has even less incentive to embark on any reforms than Morsi, who should have mistrusted the police (after all, they persecuted the Muslim Brothers for decades) but imagined he could employ them against his enemies. And military rule is never friendly to alternate ideas of manhood (or womanhood, for that matter). It exalts its own proprietary version of gender: a thoroughly traditional one, the old Everyman style of patriarchal authority, impatient of any perversion or extravagance. “We’re all Sisi,” the propaganda tells the public, and anybody who doesn’t look safely, nondescriptly, heterosexually Sisiesque enough will be in trouble. The fourteen or more men now in jail are victims because they seemed, in some fashion, different. They’re among many victims of the pressure to both believe (in the secular cult of Sisi) and conform.
It is the eve of Eid el-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice in Islam. The holiday commemorates the faithful Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail – a story that ended, as Jews and Christians know from their own versions, with God’s merciful forbearance, permitting the prophet to spare the boy’s life. Tonight as I walked in downtown Cairo, all the alleys felt festive almost till the curfew impended. In a run-down street near the High Court, small kids played on the sidewalk around a prostrate and unhappy-looking goat, which in a few hours would play its part as the substitute sacrifice. Ibrahim offered up an animal in grateful exchange for the divine indulgence, the value God placed on human life. There are no substitutes in Cairo these days. It’s human life that’s sacrificed. The whole country looks more than ever like a scapegoat.
On the night of October 9 (17 Mehr 1392), the Nabi Akram (Prophet’s) Corps — part of the Revolutionary Guards – raided a birthday party at a community hall in Kermanshah, in western Iran. The website of the city’s basij (religious police) reported it the next day. It said a “network” of “several dozen” people engaged in homosexuality (the derogatory term used was hamjensbaz) and Satan-worshipping (Shaitan parasti) was broken up. The “network” had been “under surveillance of the security forces of the Revolutionary Guards for several months.” Eight people in the group were “homosexually married.”.
There were several foreign nationals from Iraq and some other countries in the region … Groups practicing Satan worship and homosexuality had sent support from abroad. For a long time these disgusting practices have sought to penetrate the country.
Some additional information on this has come from sources inside Iran, and with the permission of the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), which has been following this closely, I can share a few things they have been able to confirm.
- About 80 people were caught in the party. The Guards used pepper spray, beat many of them, and took the personal information (including mobile numbers) of everyone they found.
- 17 people were arrested (the rest were freed that night), taken first to a police station and then to an unknown location. They were beaten, threatened, and verbally and physically humiliated.
- Most of those have been released, but five remain imprisoned. There were reports they would face a court today — Saturday — but no one as yet knows the charges or the outcome.
- All reports suggest that straight as well as gay and lesbian and transgender people were at at the party.
The story has already made it to the international press, so it’s probably worthwhile offering a few cautions as well as reflections.
First, there’s almost nothing that can be done right now, at least until the outcome of the first hearing is known. Lawyers are on the case in Kermanshah. International interventions tend to polarize things; they can tip governments into pursuing prosecutions when they’re hesitating, or turn fluid situations into injustices set in concrete. This is particularly true when the conservatives responsible for the arrests are already pointing to the penetration of the nation by foreign (im)morals.
Second, we don’t know anything about the arrested people: either what they’re accused of, or whether they identify as heterosexual, gay, transgender, or something else. Don’t presume on their identities. It was in Kermanshah in 2007 that Iranian authorities executed Makwan Moulodzadeh, a young man who’d been convicted for the rape of three teenaged boys (while himself a teenager) in a nearby town. His case was not helped — in fact, his judicial murder was arguably facilitated — by Western activists who tried to defend him by claiming without any evidence that he was “gay” and had a gay “partner,” and hence was guilty of another capital crime. There’s no room for a repetition of those mistakes.
Predictably, if so far in a minor way, international politics have already entangled the story. Ben Weinthal, a propagandist working for the right-wing “Foundation for Defense of Democracies,” (which Glenn Greenwald called “a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country”) tweeted it:
Weinthal is paid to promote a war against Teheran, with Western LGBT communities as a swing constituency to convert (most ridiculously, he took to New York’s Gay City News some years back to opine that an “anti-gay genocide” was happening in Iran). His solicitude for Iranian gays is a bit hard to take seriously given that he wants to kill them, and plenty of other Iranians, in a military assault.
Nonetheless, it’s very possible this is part of a test for Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, even if not quite what the neocons imagine. Since taking office, Rouhani has struggled to establish the perimeters of his power in an inherently ambiguous system where the president is subordinate to the Supreme Leader. This has meant trying to rein in the other power centers in which authority is dispersed – most more loyal, and formally more responsible, to Ayatollah Khameini than to him. Majid Rafidzadeh describes them in Al-Arabiya as
solid institutions which have not only employed, educated, and ideologically trained millions of loyalists in the last few decades, but have also managed and controlled the nation’s economy and foreign policies. These institutions were created in order to secure an adequate and dependent social base in case of any revolt or opposition, as well as a stalwart against potential Western intervention.
The Revolutionary Guards are crucial to this network. They manage a large share of Iran’s military-industrial complex, and their tendrils reach deep into energy, construction, and other industries; some estimate they control a third of the Iranian economy. Crucial too are the basij, in theory under Revolutionary Guards command but in practice under the charge of a welter of local clerics and commanders. The basij can mobilize more than a million volunteer members for social policing and control (though it claims figures higher than 10 million), and since 2008 has had leeway to build its own empire of economic projects.
In a carefully calibrated speech just a month ago — immediately before leaving on his hectic UN visit — Rouhani tried to strike a bargain with the Revolutionary Guards. He offered to leave their economic interests untouched, even urging them to “take on important projects that the private sector is unable to take on,” if they would leave politics alone. The Guards seem unimpressed. Mohammad Ali Jafari, their commander, criticized Rouhani strongly in the state press after he returned from New York, for “prematurely” talking to Obama. Senior Revolutionary Guards leaders have stressed the organization’s important role in recent weeks, warning with renewed intensity that the West plans to “internally weaken” Iran in advance of any nuclear talks.
A well-publicized moral scandal serves the purpose, in a minor way, of emphasizing the Revolutionary Guards’ vigilance against both foreign and domestic foes, and stressing they can drum up public support. There are rumors in Kermanshah that the Guards have been under instruction, at least since Rouhani’s election, to look for gender dissidence — “men who appear like women” (mardan-e zannama) and “transvestites” (zanpoosh).
There may be more strictly local motives as well. Kermanshah lies at the heart of the Kurdish area of western Iran, increasingly a source of anxiety to Teheran as they face a spillover of Kurdish separatist sentiment from Iraq. (The day after the arrests, Kurdish guerrillas reportedly killed five Revolutionary Guards in a border town in the next province to the north.) I would bet the Iraqi guests mentioned in the basij report on the party were Kurds, whose presence — even if only rumored — may have attracted additional scrutiny to the event. The accusation of “Satan-worshipping” is also suggestive in this light. Many Iranian Kurds adhere to the Ahl-e Haqq (“People of Truth”) or Yârsânî faith, a syncretic religious order whose believers may make up as much as a third of Kermanshah’s population. Several Ahl-e Haqq believers are rumored to have been at the fateful party. Iranian authorities persecute the sect, on religious grounds coupled with fear of ethnic solidarities — in June two Kurds burned themselves to death in Hamadan, between Kermanshah and Teheran, to protest abuses suffered by their co-believers in prison. An ominous mix of religious heresy, political separatism, and sexual deviance may be what the Revolutionary Guards read into an innocent birthday celebration.
All this is speculation. What’s certain is that Rouhani so far has little control over anything the Revolutionary Guards do. The test of his presidency is not so much whether continuing human rights abuses belie his reputation as a “reformer” — that reputation is overblown, but largely irrelevant to the issue — as whether he can accumulate enough authority to curb the parastate, paramilitary institutions behind much of the abuse.
Maybe the most important point to make, though, is this. What’s at stake in this case is not so much “LGBT rights” or the status of any minority — it’s the right to privacy, and its profound contribution to human dignity. Thinking of it solely as an “LGBT” issue misses the larger point.
The people at the party were exercising their right to do as they liked, harmlessly, behind closed doors: in a rented hall, to be sure, but that partly reflects the porous nature of safety and opacity in even “private” homes, where overbearing families keep watch, and intrusive neighbors mean a basij raid may be only a phone call away. This right has a scope that extends beyond closed spaces. It’s also the claim that women are making when they defiantly wear “bad hijab,” or straight couples when they declare their intimacy with an over-the-top embrace on the street; they’re asserting they should carry an umbrella of autonomy around with them wherever they go, because they’re human beings, and their bodies or their hair or their hands are nobody’s business. The way the Iranian state treats this right with loathing and contempt, through a myriad micro-practices of meddling and surveillance, is one reason the religious police are perhaps its most popularly despised and resented symbol. It’s not because Iranians are all secular; it’s because they’re all human, and they want to be left alone. Iran’s LGBT-identified communities have made many strides in recent years in building alliances with opposition activism, partly because they affirm not just the specialized identity of a minority but a freedom from oversight and intrusion that should be a universal entitlement. Not everybody in Iran knows what it’s like to commit lavat, or “sodomy,” but millions of Iranians know what it’s like to be at a party sweating in anxiety lest the basij break in. That’s where sympathy and solidarity begin.
One often hears that privacy is a culturally specific concept. Certainly the forms of privacy and the things it can contain may vary; certainly the ability to experience it is stratified by class and power; but I’m persuaded by Barrington Moore’s researches, among others, that nearly every society traces distinctions between inside and outside, and lays down rules by which its members can control what other people see and know. In Iran these rules are perpetually changed and fought over, subject to the whims of a swollen state and a people’s capacity for resistance, and the conflict can be brutal.
The struggle for privacy ought to be critical for everybody — especially though far from exclusively for LGBT people around the world, whose earliest moral claims and legal successes partly hinged on the demand for a respected, protected private sphere. In the West, though, our sense of why privacy is vital seems to be eroding. Among LGBT movements, it’s a right either denigrated or confused with a privilege, and in either case hardly mentioned any more. This may hinder our ability to understand why events like this in Iran are not trivial but political and decisive. Frank Rich wrote a few months ago, about the US’s own surveillance scandals, that
The truth is that privacy jumped the shark in America long ago. Many of us not only don’t care about having our privacy invaded but surrender more and more of our personal data, family secrets, and intimate yearnings with open eyes and full hearts to anyone who asks and many who don’t, from the servers of Fortune 500 corporations to the casting directors of reality-television shows to our 1.1 billion potential friends on Facebook. Indeed, there’s a considerable constituency in this country — always present and now arguably larger than ever — that’s begging for its privacy to be invaded and, God willing, to be exposed in every gory detail before the largest audience possible. We don’t like the government to be watching as well—many Americans don’t like government, period—but most of us are willing to give such surveillance a pass rather than forsake the pleasures and rewards of self-exposure, convenience, and consumerism.
Try telling this to an Iranian. They’d be amazed, I suspect, that anyone would doubt how preserving and cultivating your sphere of privacy and autonomy is indispensable to your dignity. This is one reason the struggles in Iran continue to be important, not only as source of “inspiration” to the West –that generic and vapid tribute — but as something we should learn from.
“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?
The 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
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.
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 Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
A few good sources of information about Russia crossed my screen in the last week or so.
§ Just over two years ago, LGBT activists in Russia set up an e-mail list, Queerussia, to help to help Western activists and journalists understand their perspectives on the LGBT rights struggle. Now it’s gone online, as a news aggregator for lots of information about Russian events — mostly in English, with valuable material specially translated for the site. Check it out.
It won’t be Stonewall; it’ll be our own revolt. ..We need to create a systematic and solid movement for LGBT rights if we are to avoid a new backlash … We can take inspiration from other people’s successes. Not everything in that experience is universal and equally relevant everywhere, but its importance should not be underestimated.
In the 60s and 70s the American LGBT community couldn’t ask Brezhnev or Mao to lean on the USA government on their behalf, to introduce sanctions or refuse visas to American officials. But now some Russian activists are looking for ways to enlist help in putting pressure on the Kremlin from abroad, as they doubt their own strength and don’t believe they will find enough support among other Russians. But … the best way to fight homophobic laws and prejudice is to forget about Obama and develop our own grassroots protest campaign. … [T]he LGBT community shouldn’t be pawns in a new Cold War, but part of an international movement for real democracy and equal rights for all.
The best way for people abroad to help us is through empathy and genuine solidarity, and not isolation or a boycott. Lukashenka’s Belarus has been the object of sanctions for years, but ordinary people’s lives are none the better for it.
I’m certain that it is the new homophobic law itself that … has in fact worked both ways. On the one hand it has triggered a public witch hunt: a steep rise in cases of discrimination; people losing their jobs; attacks on LGBT activists; regional LGBT organizations being harassed and prosecuted under the law that bans NGOs from engaging in ‘political activity’. But on the other hand, this is happening precisely because people have suddenly started leaving their closets in a way that they never did before – a wave of ‘coming- outs’ is sweeping the country. LGBT activists have emerged in just about every city, and some of them have set up organizations that are making a real difference to people’s lives.
§ Sean Guillory’s article in The Nation is one of the few recent English-language pieces to recognize the large, loud, and vibrant LGBT movement that’s still agitating in Russia — and to point up the diversity of opinion it contains. He concludes with a paradox worth stressing:
Six months ago, few in Russia, let alone abroad, knew about Russia’s LGBT movement. Now it seems that gay rights in Russia are on everyone’s lips. The sudden incessant talk about homosexuality is the dialectical result of recent attempts to repress it. In his History of Sexuality, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that … the more a society seeks to repress sex, the more it has to talk about, identify and categorize it. Prohibition, he wrote, ensures “the proliferation of specific pleasures and the multiplication of disparate sexualities.” Russia is currently experiencing what Foucault called the repressive hypothesis. … The worst thing that could happen is that Russia’s current LGBT explosion is silenced. Or as Andrianova says, “It is very important to keep this pressure on because here in Russia the LGBT community is very mobilized and very much more open than before.”
§ Finally, in Counterpunch, Alexander Reid Ross places the anarchist artists of Pussy Riot in the heroic tradition of Soviet-era dissent. Check at the bottom of his article: he offers to translate and forward letters of support to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, the sacrificial leaders of the group who are imprisoned in Putin’s Gulag, if you’ll send them to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tolokonnikova started a hunger strike last month to protest conditions in the Mordovian labor camp where she’s being held. Her open letter has been widely circulated; it can be read here. I would also like to call attention to a moving statement Tolokonnikova wrote (but was not allowed to deliver) at a hearing this April, when a judge denied parole because she refused to admit her “guilt.”
I am absolutely convinced that the only correct road is one on which a person is honest with others and with herself. I have stayed on this road and will not stray from it wherever life takes me. I insisted on this road while I was still on the outside, and I didn’t retreat from it in the Moscow pretrial detention facility. Nothing, not even the camps of Mordovia, where the Soviet-era authorities liked to send political prisoners, can teach me to betray the principle of honesty. …
Recently, I got a letter containing a parable that has become important to me. What happens to things different in nature when they are placed in boiling water? Brittle things, like eggs, become hard. Hard things, like carrots, become soft. Coffee dissolves and permeates everything. The point of the parable was this: be like coffee. In prison, I am like that coffee.
I want the people who have put me and dozens of other political activists behind bars to understand one simple thing: there are no insurmountable obstacles for a person whose values consist, first, of her principles and, second, of work and creativity based on these principles. If you strongly believe in something, this faith will help you survive and remain a human being anywhere.
And then there’s other stuff. Notably, New York’s Gay City News headlines its current edition “The Russia Issue,” which is nothing if not a belated effort to clamber onto the news cycle. As issues go, it’s thin. There’s one article on the Queer Nation’s anti-Russia protest at the Metropolitan Opera, which happened two weeks ago. And, inevitably, there’s something by ace reporter Doug Ireland.
Ireland’s contribution is an interview, all done by e-mail, with Nikolai Baev — Nikolai Alekseev’s onetime deputy at (indeed, almost the only other member of) Moscow Pride. Baev is a brave man, and he’s been a leader in at least one important action: he and Irina Fet were arrested in Ryazan in 2009 for demonstrating against the local anti-gay-propaganda law, a precursor to the later Federal iteration. Fet took her case to the UN Human Rights Committee, which found against Russia; Baev appealed his conviction to the European Court of Human RIghts, where it’s still pending.
But there are a couple of issues with Doug’s mis-take on the “Russian issue.” First off, Baev broke with Alekseev back in late 2011 — partly because Baev wanted Moscow Pride to join in anti-Putin demonstrations, and Alekseev refused; but partly too because Alekseev briefly resigned as Generalissimo, putting Baev in charge, then rudely retracted it (not the only time this happened). Baev hasn’t had an organization since then. Singling him out as the sole voice of Russian activism shows Doug’s old identification with heroic Lone Rangers, and his distaste for people who build movements. It’s the same frustrated passion that led him to idealize Alekseev over seven years of hype. Indeed, maybe the most telling passage comes when Baev tells Doug that Nikolai Alekseev’s
reputation among Russian LGBT community was always very bad. He has been supported by a few number of radical activists, including me, who thought about him better than he indeed was. … In any case, it always has been a minority of activists, and originally he understood this himself, saying that he represented no one but himself and his supporters.
If that’s true, why didn’t ace reporter Ireland know it? If Doug knew it, why did he keep lauding Alekseev as “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers” — and so on?
More than that, though, it shows how little Doug has learned about Russia and its movements over the years. Presumably he was under some pressure from his usually pliant editors to show that he could interview somebody, anybody, other than Alekseev about Russian issues. But who does Doug find? Alekseev’s former right-hand man. Either Doug didn’t have any other Russian numbers in his Rolodex; or other activists, many of them angry over his years-long denial of their existence, refused to talk to him. Either way, it’s sad that Gay City News thinks this lazy, one-note, one-source writing actually gives a general picture of “the Russia issue.” One need only compare Sean Guillory’s analysis of the diversity of Russian LGBT activism with Ireland’s easy puff pieces to see the difference between reporting and typing.
Let me tell a story. During the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, Doug decided he wanted to write up the gay angle. He “found” a gay Egyptian blogger — actually, the discredited website Gay Middle East served up someone they knew — and asked him questions by e-mail. When Doug published the story in Gay City News, it contained major factual errors, mostly about the 2001-2004 crackdown on men suspected of same-sex sex. Doug misidentified and misunderstood the laws under which they were arrested. He misunderstood Egypt’s Emergency Law and the kinds of special Security Courts the country operated. He got the details of the famous Queen Boat raid wrong. And he utterly garbled the fact that police arrested hundreds, probably thousands, of men by entrapping them through gay personals and Internet chatrooms. In his version, this came out as “During the same crackdown, all gay websites were closed down, either by Internet censorship of the Internet or by the arrest of those who ran them.” Fact: there simply were no “gay websites” operating in Egypt in the pre-blog, pre-Facebook era. (People used Gaydar.com, Gay.com, and other sites hosted well outside the borders. None of those websites was “censored,” since the police needed them to entrap people). And no one was ever arrested for running one.
I pointed these errors out to Doug, and he exploded in shrill banshee wails of fury at my temerity. “Distortions”! ”Meritricious [sic] semantic quibbles”! His words were TRUE, he thundered back, because
Information on the use of the Emergency Law and the law on blasphemy to arrest and persecute gays came from Ice Queer, the gay Egyptian blogger I interviewed, as did the information on censorship and arrests relating to web sites which published gay-related content.
Now, I know “IceQueer,” who was Doug’s one and only source for the story, personally. He’s a nice guy. He blogs in English; this identifies him (or might if Doug knew anything about Egypt) as someone who stands at a slight angle to the mainstream of Egyptian life, gay or straight. He doesn’t write about politics at all. His blog is full of frank talk about sex; its main appeal is to an upscale Zamalek and Maadi crowd whose English is often better than their Arabic, who want to read about erotic lives like their own, but don’t give a damn about politics either. This is a very needed niche in Egypt, but it might have made Doug question whether the guy’s legal analysis didn’t need just a little fact-checking. Moreover, IceQueer was born in October 1988. When the Queen Boat case happened, he was twelve years old.
In other words, Doug Ireland relied on the memories of a single source who wasn’t even a teenager at the time to give him all the information about Egyptian law and history he needed. Having jotted down a mishmash of mistakes and turned facts to wet falafel, Doug rushed to print. Gay City News never printed a correction — they never do. Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom. Out of Doug Ireland, gibberish.
General Vo Nguyen Giap, who led North Vietnam’s armed forces to victory in its wars with France and the United States, died today in Hanoi, at the probable age of 102. I have little to say in praise of military men, or for that matter of the unfree Vietnamese regime he helped to build (and which sidelined him circumspectly in later life). But this man defeated two great powers — one of them the greatest power in the world at the time, at any time. No other people struggling for liberation from colonialism had to fight so many masters, so long, against such overwhelming odds. Whatever else can be said of Giap, he contributed to human freedom in his terrible century.
His death reminded me of his counterpart Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense during the war, perhaps his most brilliant yet somehow stunted opponent. McNamara resigned his office in 1968, announcing it even before the Tet debacle. He was in despair over the war, yet he could never bring himself to denounce it fully, or, over the wasteland of ensuing years, to evaluate his role in moral rather than technical terms. “We were wrong, terribly wrong,” he wrote, a quarter century after; even then no one quite knew whether he thought it wrong to lose the war or to lose all the other things we lost. In 1997, at 81, McNamara returned to Vietnam for a conference bringing together US and Vietnamese strategists from the conflict. (He met for an hour with Giap, who delivered a propaganda monologue and declined conversation.) The New York Times published a long article on his sojourn — his power walks through Hanoi at dawn, his persistent refusal to countenance certain questions:
Feelings were not on McNamara’s agenda. ”That’s not what I’m focusing on,” he declared before the trip. ”I may not tell you how I’m feeling.” And he never did, even when questioned about the thoughts that were running through his head as he walked around this city, among these people. ”I try to separate human emotions from the larger issues of human welfare,” he replied. ”Human welfare requires that we avoid conflict. I try not to let my human emotions interfere with efforts to resolve conflict.”
There’s one part of the article that’s stuck with me ever since. McNamara and several US colleagues
agreed that casualties did not seem to weigh heavily with North Vietnam, either in diplomacy or military planning. ”Was there any consideration of the human cost in Hanoi as they made these decisions?” McNamara asked. ”Is the loss of life ever a factor?” He noted that while 58,000 Americans had been killed, the most authoritative estimate — in a September 1995 article by General Uoc [Nguyen Dinh Uoc, head of the Institute of Military History] — put the number of Vietnamese deaths at 3.6 million. ”It’s equivalent to 27 million Americans!” McNamara exclaimed. …
”Were you influenced by that loss of life?” he asked [veteran Vietnamese leaders] in the conference. ”Did it move you to probe the negotiations?” Considering that a man responsible for so many casualties was accusing his enemies of caring less, the Vietnamese responded with exceeding courtesy. At first, when McNamara asked [former Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach] the question over lunch, “the answer was, They paid no attention whatever to the casualties,” McNamara reported triumphantly. ”What I thought was — and I was wrong — that a very high rate of casualties would lead them to be interested in trying to find a less costly way of achieving their objectives — i.e., negotiations.” But all he had got was the standard line that the cause was worth any sacrifice, based on the often-quoted mantra of Ho Chi Minh: ”There is nothing more precious than freedom and independence.”
McNamara found these values, this stubborn insistence, baffling. And this leads to the passage that despite all my efforts I can’t forget:
To explain this to himself, he remembered seeing, during World War II in China, a worker fall and get crushed by a huge roller flattening earth for an airfield. The Chinese laborers laughed. There were some people to whom life was not the same as to us, he reasoned as he stood one evening in the hotel lobby. ”We’d better understand that and write it down.”
This is the man who calculates that he killed more than three and a half million women, men, and children. He is surprised that others let him kill them. Those people don’t see life the same way he does. He doesn’t laugh, he just acts, and measures others’ morality by observing their reactions. We’d better understand that and write it down.
There’s thunder out there, and not just on the Right, telling us the Cold War is back. Tensions between the US and Russia have ascended, over Edward Snowden and Syria. A new poll shows that a bare majority of Americans thinks of Russia as “non-friendly/enemy,” the first time it’s fallen so low in this century. And of course there are the gays. Will “divisions over sexual orientation” be “the new Berlin Wall”? Indeed, by sponsoring a resolution on “traditional values” at the UN Human Rights Council, Putin seems to be bidding for leadership of an unwieldy coalition of conservative countries — the Islamic bloc, sub-Saharan African states, right-wing Catholic regimes in Latin America – that has opposed women’s rights and sexual rights for more than fifteen years, usually without great-power support.
A lot of people, particularly pundits, need a Cold War. It lends focus to their energies and cohesion to their loathings, without calling on their minuscule reserves of courage like a hot one would. The years since 1989 have been a nostalgic and leaderless lurch from enemy to enemy, searching for one with size and staying power enough to infuse meaning into the vacant days: first, Saddam Hussein, then radical Islam, then Saddam Hussein again briefly, then back to radical Islam, with occasional forays into demonizing Serbia (too small to be powerful and frightening) and China (too non-white for same). Only in the last few years has Russia re-emerged as Old Reliable, perhaps dating from John McCain’s history-making 2008 cry: “Today we are all Georgians.” True, nobody remembers the Georgians now, but the principle’s the same. Today we are all Russian gays. Crowded, this back room.
I don’t think there will be a new Cold War – Russia is big, but it’s not what it used to be – and I don’t think homosexuality will be a Checkpoint Charlie, though the analogies are tempting. (Will the gays organize a Berlin airlift to ferry sex to their starved brethren under repressive rule? What about the Bay of Bears invasion?) But with Moscow emerging as a patron, the side that’s been fighting a culture war against women and against sexuality has a bit more weight in international arenas than before; maybe that will translate into more boldness at home as well. (Russia, however, is not prone to backing up its verbal support for homophobic governments by ladling on bilaterial aid. China, which is comparatively indifferent to sex, is the big funder.) Similarly, there’s no question that the Obama administration’s loud support of LGBT rights abroad – with an eye to domestic voters — has given a don’t-tread-on-me, militaristic tone to the way US gays approach international issues. The big dog is barking for progressivism and freedom, and we can puff our chests out and piss on lampposts to assert our pride. So as one blogger puts it,
25 years ago a lot of countries got away with a lot of antigay crap because we weren’t powerful enough to stop the bigotry and the hatred that led so many of us to attempt suicide. That doesn’t give Russia the right to keep abusing us today – as if they somehow missed out their chance to dehumanize us somehow, and now want a shot at it. We finally have the power to stand up to bullies and we will.
Barry Goldwater couldn’t have said it better.
All the same, if this Cold War is being waged over cultural values, we need to remember that the old Cold War was too. It was, in fact, the first real culture war, not just between two countries but between two ideologies – capitalism and Communism – each measuring success not merely in military terms but in changing lifeways and attracting populations by their blandishments. (Fascism employed propaganda to cement loyalty in peoples under its direct rule, but it was never a universalist ideology, too absorbed in national and racial myths to refashion itself for transnational audiences.)
What’s interesting is that the cultural alignments in the 40-year US vs. Russia showdown were very different from those today: in fact, about 180 degrees so.
These days, Russia claims to speak for countries that see themselves on the cultural defensive, fighting a rear-guard effort to preserve “traditional values” like family, religion, and cohesive community. Back then, it was the capitalist countries, and the US in its capacity as Head Capitalist, who sold themselves that way. The values rhetoric, the defense of patriarchy, the invocations of moral absolutes that are used against so many human rights movements today – all these are pretty much what the US was saying at home and abroad half a century ago.
When I was a small-town boy at the height of the old Cold War, every pulpit, politician, and TV screen seemed to warn that Communism was after us, the way we lived here and now. It would dissolve the family, destroy religion, crush morality, and abolish traditional community: all the things that small-town boys in Gambia or Belarus nowadays hear are the goals of homosexuality and feminism and Hillary Clinton. The visions were terrifying; the thought that some commissar out there had Radford, Virginia (pop. 10,000, an All-American City) in his sights was extraordinarily vivid. Moreover, even comic books spread the dire message – and for a six-year-old in 1968, comic books were way more reliable than members of Congress. The iconic images of threats to a way of life say more than all the speeches I could quote.
Treasure Chest, a Catholic-oriented comic, was widely distributed for years in secular schools as well. It featured a running series series on the Red threat, “This Godless Communism.” (Catholic leaders were heirs to a long history of anti-Communist agitation in the name of social values – and they were also, most likely, familiar with Fascist propaganda, like the poster up at top.) This one, from 1961, featured an introduction and cameo by J. Edgar Hoover. After the Communists take over the US, the first thing we learn is that they’re feminists.
We need “to be on our guard, to re-affirm the truths we once learned and now teach, to keep our children free from Communism.” But Communism targets the transmission of tradition. Even in places without tradition, like Canada.
The result of this treason, of course, is a school like this (the pedagogue looked, even if she didn’t exactly sound, like my first-grade teacher):
Here, in a 1948 comic about Soviet America, a son tells the secret police about Mom’s hidden “religious junk.” When they raid the home in consequence, disappointed Dad is alarmingly happy to hand Biff over to them as well: “You’ve got his soul — now take his body too.” I could see my father saying the same thing.
And, of course, all this flows from a cosmopolitan conspiracy against American morals and values. Even in 1948, the Catholic comics were decrying a “culture of death” — in this one, Communists boasted about their success in spreading it:
It’s easy, maybe cheap, to laugh. I always find that, to us in the US, our Cold War propaganda is funny in a way that other endeavors in the field (even the trumped-up, hysterical atrocity stories of the First World War) aren’t. Mainly the reason is that it’s less about them than about us. Precisely because it’s a culture war, and because we believed we were losing, the focus is incessantly on the “way of life” we’re supposed to be defending. More than almost any other propaganda, it serves up images of our imagined everyday happiness as the object of the enemy’s resentful demolition urges. But that way of life, airbrushed to absurdity then, seems utterly unreal now. It isn’t even menacing in its repressive gender roles, its airtight whiteness. You can’t take it seriously – it’s all camp, and you can recuperate it for a nostalgic chuckle as easily as Leave it to Beaver.
This distance we feel is partly due to what happened, throughout the capitalist West, since 1960. The vast economic growth of the postwar years, the Trentes Glorieuses, created fullblown consumer societies in western Europe and in parts of the US that had never seen them before. People could spend their way into niches where they could express dissident identities publicly and safely. Affluence relaxed social norms and helped women push for liberation from traditional roles. Economic power brought burgeoning demands for political rights. Leave it to Beaver was left behind, a relic. It grew harder and harder for the West to represent itself to itself as securely on the side of conservative social practices.
But the Cold War’s cultural as well as political battlefield shifted in the 60s and 70s, away from the capitalist heartland to the Third World. Increasingly, the conflict fought itself out in counterinsurgency campaigns and ideological struggles in all corners of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. “Traditional values” became an export commodity, essential to Western propaganda and Western politics there.
US government experts explained the temptations of Communism in the developing world by “the personal uncertainty generated by the jarring social transitions from tradition to modernity.” The best way to ensure satisfactory citizens, and stable and dependable governments, was to entrust development to a trustworthy force – preferably, the military would preside over modernization in countries prepping for “take-off.” A stern dictatorship of generals would also make sure that free trade, marketization, and a capitalist economy left as much as possible of patriarchal, hierarchical morals and social relations intact. US propaganda tools and talents would be ready to assist. The US treated family and religion as universal values of conservatism, regardless of what particular God you worshipped or within what family form you beat your wife. The more they eroded in the homeland, the more vital they appeared in foreign policy. As President Eisenhower famously said, free government “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
The US’s pet dictatorships, from Lisbon to Saigon, all fostered bifurcated visions of the world: a rosy and pious traditional family at the center, requiring the exertion of appalling violence to protect it from corrosive horrors beyond. Jordán Bruno Genta, chief ideologue of military fascism in Argentina, urged the country to
Create a military state and a war policy to combat internal subversion; indoctrinate the military with a clear idea of its mission and with enthusiasm for this mission; mobilize the entire population for the counterrevolutionary war; free the nation from the power of international money; base everything in Christ, which means restore the natural hierarchies.
After the generals took power in Buenos Aires, school textbooks told kids that
for psychological and physical reasons, the male should be acknowledged as the authority … By her nature the woman represents kindness and love. Unless things are so, anarchy and dissatisfaction become a fact … To deny the father’s authority is to tear the family to pieces. The woman’s obedience to authority has a great educational influence on the family.
Abortion, free love, pornography, and divorce all exempified “the most recent Marxist strategy to conquer the West.” Propaganda, of course, had the police behind it; everything from feminism to Freudianism took on the look of leftist subversion. The regime murdered thousands who denied “the father’s authority,” or its own.
Similar propaganda sustained the Pinochet dictatorship in neighboring Chile.
This is a 1984 booklet on Marxism emitted by the junta. “Communism believes that the family has no reason to exist, so must be weakened to extinction.” The sad female on the right, dreaming of distraught infants, dreams in vain: “Woman is separated from family life, into work shifts in factories and militant political activity. It denies her duty as a mother and wife, and puts her children under the tutelage of the state.”
This was crude compared to other Pinochet productions. The Chilean dictatorship hewed to a comprehensive “cultural policy,” to promote “the defense, development and growth of the tradition and culture which is our own.” It also had excellent PR. It drew on the services not only of the CIA but of numerous American intellectuals and corporations who had the tyrant’s back. Its marketing emphasized continuity, stability, and belonging, with simple text and visuals and attractive typography. This 1979 promo is as warm and reassuring as an American ad for oatmeal.
“Chile’s glorious past is reborn with vigor in September” — the month of both Independence Day and the so-called Second Independence, when the thugs overthrew Allende. Family and continuity unite as cultural values, in a history represented by a list of safely right-wing national heroes. Then: “Chile Forever. All One.”
Those faux-kindly notes were struck in many places, even if fear was never far from the margins. Consider this collection of election posters for Italy’s Christian Democratic Party, which dominated the country for 50 years, and was a well-funded favorite of the CIA.
More overt are the oppositions in these posters from Thailand, which contrast misery and alienation in Communist China to traditional culture and the family.
“The Communist Party forcibly tears apart family members among the common people. The Kingdom of Thailand’s people live and work in peace and happiness.”
“The Communist Party fattens the public and deprives the private, not allowing the Chinese people enough property. The people of the Kingdom of Thailand live comfortably in abundance.” It’s like Norman Rockwell.
CIA propaganda invoked family and religion in counterinsurgency campaigns. A two-sided CIA leaflet from the Dominican Republic, invaded by the US in 1965, puts it succinctly:
The exact identity of the round object raining golden showers on the Virgin’s head remains, however, uncertain.
The CIA also drew heavily on imagery and rhetoric of family in South Vietnam. One of its key propaganda contributions to the war was the Chieu Hoi or “Open Arms” program, a multimillion-dollar fiasco designed to persuade Viet Cong guerrillas to surrender in exchange for amnesty. Nostalgia for the families they’d left behind was the main selling point, but it played into larger themes of traditionalism and security.
We cry for the dead
We are bitter because the Communists
Have destroyed our families.
When will mothers and children be reunited?
The leaflet’s obverse is less sentimental, though, promising deserters
200 (piasters) per month for errands. 15 piasters for each member of the family who stays at the government center. …
Two pairs of shirts and pants or 1000 piasters.
During the Chimurenga against white rule in Rhodesia, the racist government predictably allocated gender roles in the most traditional ways when appealing to the white community:
Its attempts to propagandize among blacks, however, showed “native” families the way whites wanted to see them, as unappealingly impotent. Men were absent, women defenseless, a vision perhaps unlikely to entrance the intended audience. Meanwhile, Communist bearers of deviant sex ravaged traditional ways of life, as not only rapists but carriers of venereal disease:
You have to wonder if this talk of infectious “mad dogs” had any influence on the later language of Robert Mugabe.
Perhaps the oddest artifact is this comic book, Grenada: Rescued from Rape and Slavery. A CIA front (“Victims of International Communist Emissaries,” or VOICE) distributed it on the island after the US invaded in 1983. In true Treasure Chest style, it shows Bill and Anna, a nuclear couple with the requisite two kids, who fear what the Communists will do to the Grenadan family: “Oh, Bill, I’m so afraid — afraid for ourselves and for our children. With more Cubans coming in more of our children will be forced into brainwashing!” The problem is, unlike the Treasure Chest clan, they’re black. Black families in the US had been suffering “benign neglect” for generations, so why do these guys expect you to drop everything? Bill and Anna seem virtuous, monogamous, and not part of the drug trade, though, so the helicopters come: “Yes, Anna, thank God! And thank God for President Reagan and our freedom-loving neighbors!”
What we see now is a remarkable reversal of all this old-time religion. It’s now consumerism that plays the role once taken by godless Communism, threatening all traditional ways of life. America is the great Satan; Obama stands in for Khrushchev in the imaginary comic book of our time; and the effectively neutered and de-radicalized Third World (now along with Russia) stands up for the good old values. In fact Putin sounds like, and with his taste for boorish nationalism and unapologetic intervention often acts like, Eisenhower or Reagan. How the whirligig of time brings round his revenges!
There was always a contradiction in the ideologies of capitalism, though, between the social values it dresses itself in – so often traditional, meant to hold society in place and ready for productive labor during rapid change — and the social processes it furthers, so often transformative. Everything solid melts into air; but we’re not supposed to notice, are meant to carry on with our assigned roles as always, the work, the weddings, the funerals. Marx knew how this happens, but most of the moderns don’t.
America and Europe in the last few decades have thrown away the sheep’s clothing. They’re not interested in tradition anymore, because it isn’t useful to them. They’re on the side of social transformation, as long as it’s in their favor: as long as it’s compatible with economic advantage, with keeping capital mobile and the workforce in the rest of the world low-wage. Meanwhile, the previously pliable regimes it helped establish around the planet, from Ben Bella’s jailers to Yeltsin’s heirs, are seizing the banner of tradition, as a symbolic way of defending themselves against — among other things — capital flows and forces that see their borders as irrelevant and their economies as fields for exploitation.
What hasn’t changed in sixty years (though the players’ slogans and some of their identities have) is that it’s about power. Caught in the middle, much as before, are ragtag, straggling bands of communities and social movements who reject the fake ideologies of tradition and belonging. They want more freedom; but they don’t want to buy another prefab ideology of being “freed,” or fight on somebody else’s side to get it — whether the somebody is Brezhnev or Obama. Third World feminists in the ’70s and Third World LGBT folk today are in approximately the same place, ground between visions of liberation or salvation that are unreal and oversimplified and exclude them. It’s not a comic book world, and the answers will not come easy.