Back when I researched the massive crackdown on homosexual conduct in Egypt from 2001 to 2004, I learned the police believed in an infallible proof of sin: men who had sex with men, they supposed, wore colored underwear. Cops would strip down suspects to check whether they were were clothed in the virtuous, white, baggy cotton underpants of the fellaheen, or some decadent, dyed, tight foreign thing that meant instant incrimination. Presumably the police also dressed their own agile hips in those pale, limp, traditional garments, as a matter of moral duty.
This kind of mythology wasn’t restricted to Egypt. In Turkey, police imagined that all male homosexuals wore red thong briefs, or tanga. I interviewed one gay man, the victim of a hate crime, who was stabbed almost to death in his apartment. He described shouting at the police, “That man tried to kill me! And no, I wasn’t wearing a tanga!”
I remember all this because the excellent Egyptian blogger Rebel without a Cause recounts a recent controversy there. Ramadan, as you may know, is the big TV-viewing season, largely because there’s nothing else to do from sunup to sundown. Companies save up their best ads for the month. This year, Cottonil, the textile giant, ran a commercial for men’s boxers.
It’s a little paean to male friendship, which, like your shorts, can be too tight, too sticky, or a little worn; it shows three guys getting kind of gropy with one another, and wearing Cottonil boxers under their low-slung jeans. Rebel describes the result:
Some people saw the advertisement as a sign of media irresponsibility saying that the ad is inappropriate and rude especially in Ramadan and that it offends families watching TV together. Part of this argument is about appropriate dress; i.e. what is considered decent clothes and what’s not! … A lot of people are concerned about what “message” their children would get from seeing young people with low hanging jeans!The other part of this argument is about the fact that people are seeing Egyptian boxers ads for the first time in their lives. Something about the fact that it’s an ad about underwear seem to irrationally provoke many people. The humorous innuendos did not sit well with a certain mindset that is uncomfortable with the human body and especially because underwear are somehow linked to… genital organs!! … Interestingly though, some of the young people reacted to the ad saying it’s “a gay ad”! I wonder why such comment was made. Is it because it’s an advertisement for male underwear? Or is it because it portrays male friendship and intimacy? Does seeing males touching each other amount to being gay?
The commercial contributed to debate about all these things. The English edition of Al Masry Al Youm, for instance, carried an article on all that handholding and touchy-feelyness among boys, “Physical contact between men: An Egyptian phenomenon or an acceptance of homosexuality?”(They concluded basically that it’s not the latter, but a deliberate Egyptian attempt to confuse foreigners, and middle-class reporters.)
How does homosexuality get conflated with underwear? — is what I want to know. There’s a Foucauldian way of seeing this. When homosexuality meant simply a set of acts, it could be sought out and enjoyed or punished as such, in comparative simplicity, without worrying too much about the interior dispositions of the people involved. But when it became a defining form of desire and the mark of a special kind of person, suddenly it ceased to be simple and material: now it was a hidden inclination within the soul, the intenal sign of difference. If you wanted to extirpate it, you could no longer just concentrate on punishing the acts; you needed to distinguish the kind of person who experienced the want and yearning. You needed to investigate the desire, not just the deeds.
It was tempting, then, to imagine that instead of endlessly interrogating interiority, you could actually find some external signs that marked off that kind of person: Somewhere out there, on the skin or inside the jeans, there lurked the Five Unmistakable Marks that would render hunting this particular Snark easier.
But there’s something else at work here, too. Imagining that the mark of homosexuality is a particular consumer good means identifying it with money, with the cash economy, with the ability to buy. It’s not natural by definition; it is a literally acquired taste, paid for at the counter. It comes with the privilege of having a few extra pounds in your pocket. The police and the workers, wearing their stained white shorts, can’t afford these rainbow indicators of decadence and power.
It’s foreign, too. Never mind that Cottonil is an Egyptian company; the style, after all, comes from outside. Never mind, moreover, that in the US sagging jeans mean no-homo manhood (the best explanation for the fashion is that it’s a sign of solidarity with brothers in prison, where your belts are taken away). They can easily be refigured to signify a corrupting, elite effeminacy, an unwanted and infectious import.
Egypt is going through rapid changes, not just political but economic. Information, trends, fashions and attitudes and facts are flowing in. But money and power are, in most ordinary folks’ experience, flowing out of their hands, out of the country. It’s a fine time for hopes but also for fears to flourish: an hour to imagine new freedoms, to flirt with the previously unutterable, but also to fantasize scapegoats and look for forces to blame. Already the military rulers have successfully dallied with blaming “Israeli spies” for a renewable list of ills. In the foreseeable future, there could be a steady upsurge of public debate and understanding about forbidden topics. There could equally be a mass moral panic targeting some unpopular group, like the one that underpinned the earlier crackdown. I am packing both styles of underwear in my next suitcase.