In June 2011, 15 Arab sexual rights and human rights organizations, and more than a dozen individual activists, signed a statement condemning the website Gaymiddleeast.com for lying about itself, its origins, and its politics. It’s unusual to see so many groups and activists getting together on anything in a fractured region, so this unanimity was something of an event. It’s been six months since the statement, which “Gay Middle East” never answered. But the website has started creeping back to life. It’s time, I think, to remind ourselves exactly what its lies were, and why they were and are so dangerous.
This statement wasn’t the first time the activists had to tried to ask “Gay Middle East” to clarify basic facts, including where it was founded and based. The website’s editor, Dan Littauer, earlier responded to criticisms (in a press release written for him by British activist Peter Tatchell) simply by dismissing the questions as “smears.” “Gay Middle East” had denied that it had any links to Israel. The activists responded that GME “presents lies so blatant that a simple Google search is enough uncover the truth.” And they offered the evidence and the truth they had uncovered.
In summary, they found:
- GME’s claim that it was “not owned or run by an Israeli” was completely untrue: the site had been founded in Israel, registered to an Israeli, and owned by an Israeli.
- As late as 2009, in fact, it was still registered to an Israeli address.
- Littauer, its “executive editor,” who when confronted in 2011 claimed he was “a German citizen (with only a German passport),” had in fact repeatedly identified himself as an Israeli in the past.
This isn’t a light or abstract threat. It is particularly dangerous for members of groups that are already despised. When the lead defendant in Egypt’s famous Queen Boat case was put on trial, prosecutors claimed he had learned all about homosexuality in Israel. The press carried, and people believed, ludicrously doctored photos of him sitting before an Israeli flag, wearing an Israeli army helmet. In 2007, a Cairo court sentenced Mohammed al-Attar to fifteen years, for recruiting gay Arabs in Canada to spy for Israel. Prosecutors alleged he was “a gay Zionist, who turned his back on Islam and worked to undermine the security of his homeland.” He later said that police electroshocked him to extract a confession, and forced him to drink his own urine. There are plenty of other stories.
Many odd things about GME were already on the public record before the Arab activists’ statement. Ben Doherty used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to survey content produced by GME from 2003 through 2008. He found it started as a tourism site for non-Middle Easterners, with a seeming emphasis on sex tourism:
Some of the people currently or previously associated with the site – namely Dan Littauer, Avi Ozeri, and Scott Piro [the latter two also Israelis], –have a background in the tourism industry and public relations, and until 2009, GME tried to be a tourism resource. Before 2009, their site had a section about tourism to Arab countries with cruising tips. The site offered up coming out stories that were both implausible and prurient. They noted sodomy law and age of consent information for each country.
A key moment came in April 2011, when “Gay Middle East” boasted of how Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office had invited Littauer to contribute information on LGBT issues in the region, for its regular human rights reports. Littauer was setting himself up to speak for Arab LGBT activism –without speaking to the activists. He seemed indifferent to their opinions on whether, or what, they wanted to contribute to the rights representations of an former imperial (and currently invading) power. The activists’ statement observes:
GBT organizations and activists in the Arab region have always approached requesting foreign intervention very carefully, and it has been the topic of much debate both within activist communities and between them and international organizations that have come to understand the complexities involved and possible backlash that such action would entail.
Meanwhile, GayMiddleEast.com seems to have an open door with the UK Foreign Office and do not think twice about asking them to intervene at any given opportunity. These issues were raised with GayMiddleEast.com by several people, but they refused to engage.
When I visited the region in June 2011, several people voiced increasing fear of “Gay Middle East.” Some were afraid of being blackmailed: Littauer had extracted information about their groups or movements, including names of activists working undercover. They were uncertain how he would use the information, or where it might go. As these issues were raised with GME, its answer was to turn to Tatchell; the response Tatchell wrote for Littauer’s website contains his signature move of interpreting any criticism as a “smear.” As the activists’ statement says,
GayMiddleEast.com’s disingenuous response to what it sees as a “smear campaign” against it …. obfuscates the legitimate reasons many queer Arab activists take issue with its work.
“We invite Gay Middle East to respond,” the activists wrote. An answer never came. Neither Tatchell nor “Gay Middle East” have ever understood that there are criticisms that demand response and dialogue, not just “smears” that deserve dismissal and rejection. That inability to answer, to be accountable, to speak to rather than for, leaves them in the end without any credible claim to being activists: just self-promoters, gardeners of their reputations, driven by the passion for publicity.
So six months later, the question still stands: Has “Gay Middle East” got anything to say for itself?
Littauer, at least, has been busily tweeting about those who “smeared” him. His tweets reveal a bit more about GME’s vision. He recently wrote that my old colleague Rasha Moumneh, of Human Rights Watch, is “well known for her loony left militancy – she has a good mentor one shamed ex-HRW…”
The last bit of gibberish I think may refer to me; and, as a Virginia boy, I didn’t know that the German-British-Israeli Littauer, so presumptuously protean, also spoke Southern. But to adopt his demotic Alabaman, I’d just note that I’m ‘shamed, deeply ‘shamed, to be thought Moumneh’s mentor. I’m still young enough to be learning from other people, not mentoring them.
The more interesting point, though, is what Littauer thinks is “loony left militancy.” He’s referring to a quote Moumneh gave to an article in IPS News. It reads, in its entirety:
“Repression of Arab LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) individuals under previous regimes no doubt existed. Having a non-Islamist government is no guarantee against the persecution of individuals for sexual and gender non-conformity,” Middle East and North Africa researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) Rasha Moumneh tells IPS. “However, the fear over what is being called an Islamist ‘takeover’ completely ignores what is actually happening on the ground. The Tunisians had free and fair elections for the first time in decades. In Egypt, the primary concern is the abhorrent behaviour of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and not the Islamists.”
Now, both these points are true. The crackdown on homosexual conduct in Egypt from 2001-2004 — when hundreds, probably thousands, were arrested, almost certainly the worst such campaign in the region in modern times — took place under a secular government, enforcing a secular law that was a product of a secular-nationalist revolution. You don’t need the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists to start a moral panic and target despised groups. All you need is a vulnerable government looking for a distraction.
On the second point: the new Tunisian government is democratically elected (which should make it less vulnerable, rather than more). If Tunisia is to become a normal democracy, its citizens and its self-appointed friends have to stop being paranoid about the passage of power. The election of a party may anger or disappoint its opponents, but it shouldn’t create fear for the system itself, any more than a Tory victory in Littauer’s adopted homeland entitles Labour to claim democratic process is collapsing. When Littauer indicates that, he’s expressing his contempt for the revolution, and his fear of democracy. Meanwhile, in Egypt, it’s the armed forces and not the Islamists who are busily violating the population’s human rights, subjecting 12,000 people to miltary trial, and shooting unarmed civilians on the streets. To pretend that they are not the most urgent threat to freedom (as well as life) is wilfully to disregard the reality.
So what defines the “loony left,” for “Gay Middle East”? They tell the truth, and they respect democracy and democratic process.
And what defines the “reasonable right,” for “Gay Middle East”? I shudder to imagine.
That seems to say it all.