Photo taken and publicized by Egyptian journalist Mona Iraqi, showing arrested victims of the 2014 Cairo bathhouse raid over which she presided
On June 16, I gave a Human Rights Lecture as part of the program of Toronto Pride, on the 2014 bathhouse raid in Cairo and the ongoing crackdown on suspected trans and gay people in Egypt. Several people asked for the text, and I’m publishing it here. I owe much gratitude to Nayrouz Abu Hatoum, who introduced the lecture and placed it in a regional context. Many thanks are also due to Mathieu Chantelois of Pride Toronto; the hardworking staff of both Pride Toronto and The 519; and Brenda Cossman, Director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, who together sponsored and organized the talk. I am also very much indebted to John Greyson and Stephen Andrews, artists and activists, who helped make the whole thing possible.
For any who perversely want not to read but to watch me dissect this sort of thing, here’s a talk — on similar but not identical themes — I gave at Princeton University this spring:
And here is the Toronto lecture:
I feel overwhelmed.
I am overwhelmed to see so many of you here. But I am also overwhelmed as so many of us feel overwhelmed right now: there is too much to talk about, and too little one can actually say.
I was asked here to describe the campaign against LGBT people, especially trans women and gay men, ongoing for three years in Egypt: particularly the now-infamous police raid on a bathhouse in Cairo in December 2014. I was asked partly in the context of the 35th anniversary of the bathhouse raids in Toronto in 1981 — “Operation Soap.”
The question was: how much consistency across time and space shapes the persecution and oppression that queer people face?
And here we are, in this moment, on this day, in this juncture: and I know that everyone in this room is thinking about Orlando.
In the US, now, you can witness a political contest over what that event means – over what frame we’re going to use to understand it. This battle is also over whether it’s a local event or a global one, how much it crosses those boundaries of time and space:
- the right wing – and Donald Trump – insisting this is “about” terrorism, about porous borders, about alien violence invading our spaces;
- the left insisting this is about our, American, indigenous violence, our own fundamentalism, our guns, our propensity to see difference as a question of firepower.
These either-ors imply that Orlando was easily understandable, and can be not just comprehended but owned. Yet this kind of debate also indicates how deeply an instability of space — this troubled relationship between here and there, the local and the remote — has become integral to our thinking, and to our selves, in this increasingly elastic world.
It’s a world in which images circulate rapidly and globally; in which certain events become global, resonate far beyond their origins, are part of how people understand themselves , so that in South Africa or the Philippines, Orlando morphs into a reference point. It’s right that it be a reference point. The enormity and the suddenness of the violence mean it instantly touches innumerable queer people’s deepest fears. Yet some other events don’t circulate at all.
Mona Iraqi, Egyptian informer journalist extraordinaire, celebrate’s love’s victory in the Obergefell case, summer 2015
I’ll cite a friend of mine, a feminist in Egypt, writing about Orlando. She also speaks of how images spread globally – in this case, the celebratory images of gay triumphs. The killing, my friend writes, is “an ugly reality check to the fakeness of celebrating love wins” — by which she means that ubiquitous social media jubilation after same-sex marriage was legalized in a single, powerful country, the US.
When love wins happened, the Egyptian authorities were having raids arresting gay men and trans here. We couldn’t unsee the relation between the escalation of risk for being queer here and the media discourse which was commenting on love wins and which was [making Egyptians] realize that there are people who are actually homosexuals.
And she adds: “I am afraid that contrast can escalate badly. Anywhere.”
So: connections, and contrast. I’ll start with a short video. It shows someone who was swept up in the crackdown that’s going on in Egypt: a trans woman, a leader in her community, named Malouka. Police arrested her in December 2014. The press vilified her as “the most dangerous homosexual in Egypt.” (Egyptian media recognize no meaningful distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity as comprehended in the West, just a collective and only vaguely differentiated category of “perversion”.) The video was obviously filmed in a police station. A website based in the UAE, one with close ties with Egyptian police, published it. It’s disturbing; I wouldn’t show it except that I want to disturb you. It shows Malouka traumatized, probably beaten, though it’s not clear what they have done to her. She keeps repeating, over and over: “My father never loved me.”
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t replay such images without permission of the person they show. Malouka, though, simply disappeared into the vast Egyptian gulag. A court sentenced her to six years. With her blood family rejecting her – legally recognized relations are almost the only people with even intermittent access to prisoners in Egypt – only the barest information emerged about what happened to her. A rumor six months ago said she had committed suicide in detention. I believe it was untrue; but we were not even able to confirm that.
Let me describe what has been happening in Egypt for the last five years.
In 2011 — you know this — there was a revolution and Mubarak was overthrown. The military took power, in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In 2011-2012, it held first parliamentary and then presidential elections, which were multiparty, competitive, and generally free. And both were won by the Muslim Brotherhood.
For a year, then, from mid-2012 till July 2013, Egypt had a conservative government, but a democratically elected one: the only democratically elected government in Egypt’s history. In fact, the one year of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency was probably, in certain senses, the freest in Egypt’s modern history. The relative freedoms to speak, to criticize, to demonstrate and to agitate came not because the government was liberal – it wasn’t – but because it was weak. Still, those freedoms were tangible.
Egyptian queers were also enjoying a degree of freedom, an ability to occupy social spaces from which they were previously debarred. Back in the three years from 2001 to 2004, there had been a massive crackdown on men having sex with men, by the Mubarak government. Probably thousands were arrested and given sentences of up to 5 years. The circus of raids and show trials served up a convenient distraction from political and economic problems. But in 2004 it stopped, and for the next nine years there were very few arrests under Egypt’s laws against homosexual conduct. Indeed, from 2008, police in Egypt focused more on repressing political dissent in the increasingly volatile public sphere, and less on day-to-day policing, including patrolling the frontiers of acceptable morality. And after the revolution, the police virtually disappeared from urban streets. They had been the most hated symbol of the old regime, and in the new conditions they were virtually were afraid to show their faces.
With their retreat, LGBT people became increasingly visible in the downtown scene in Cairo. They occupied the decrepit city center’s cheap cafes and bars; they used the Internet to make new kinds of virtual community.
In July 2013, a carefully plotted military coup overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government. The new junta, under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, quickly showed itself repressive in an unprecedented degree. The military’s ruling principle was that the old Mubarak regime had failed, was overthrown, because it was too weak. It had allowed bloggers, journalists, human rights activists, and other perverts too long a leash. The new state wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
In August 2013, Sisi massacred over a thousand demonstrators supporting the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. It was a message written in blood that the old rules didn’t apply, that the leash was now a chokehold. The military took over all the interstices of daily life: the country was kept under rigid curfew for months. And the police returned. Egypt saw a concerted attempt to resuscitate intensive social control.
Military checkpoint in Cairo during the 2013 post-coup curfew
In October 2013, a few months after the military coup, came the first arrests of LGBT people. First police in a very working-class district of eastern Cairo shut down a local gym allegedly patronized by men seeking sex with other men. They arrested and tortured 14 people. Next came a raid on a private party in a Cairo suburb. Police loaded ten victims into their wagons. The cops leaked both these cases to the press; favorable headlines acclaimed the constabulary for cleansing the capital of its immoral unwanted. Someone in the Ministry of Interior decided that arresting “perverts” made good publicity for the police.
The arrests continued, applauded by an increasingly docile media. There were raids on homes, on private parties; people who looked differently or dressed differently could be seized on the street. Hundreds were arrested. Two incidents were particularly central in the storm of publicity.
We do; they don’t. Still from 2014’s viral “same-sex wedding” video
First: at the very end of August 2014, a video leaked on YouTube and immediately went viral. Filmed by a cameraphone, it seemed to show two men staging a mock wedding on a boat on the Nile. The footage — I learned from men who were there — came from a floating party months before; no one knew how it had reached YouTube. There was speculation the police had somehow got their hands on it and leaked it themselves. Hundreds of thousands saw it on the web, even more when it reached TV. Police rounded up everyone they could find from the boat, and they got two years in prison. Meanwhile, though, the banned and exiled Muslim Brotherhood joined the universal indignation, tweeting from some of its accounts that Sisi’s regime was now bringing gay marriage to Egypt.
Those attacks made queers a political, not just a police, issue. The dictator, after violently overthrowing a religious government, fears criticism from his right and from the Brotherhood more than any other kind. The matter of homosexuality became both opportunity and an obligation for Sisi; he needed to prove his aptitude as moral defender of the nation.
Mona Iraqi, upper right, films her stripped victims being led to police wagons, December 7, 2014. Later that night she posted this photo on her Facebook page.
On December 7, 2014, police raided an historic bathhouse in central Cairo, allegedly a meeting place for men having sex with men. They arrested 26 men, stripped them, marched them naked in the cold night; at least one was raped by other prisoners in the Azbekeya jail that night, with the guards’ collusion. A TV journalist, Mona Iraqi, presided over the raid; she filmed it and publicized it. This was Sisi’s answer – meant to be a huge public show trial, proving the state’s will to suppress “perversion.”
It backfired. The government probably blackmailed Mona Iraqi into her repellent role in the raid: but for many Egyptians, including fellow reporters, she became a symbol of the “informer journalist,” selling her independence and soul to support the state’s agenda. (Since the trial ended, she has tried bizarrely to recuperate her reputation as a friend of queers, who emphatically don’t want her friendship. The “Love Wins” tweet I showed earlier was hers.) I was privileged to work with a few activists who fought to mobilize intellectual opinion, and the Egyptian media, against the raid. The outrage actually induced the government to back down. In an almost unheard-of event in Generalissimo Sisi’s Egypt, the men were acquitted. But their lives were ruined. One later tried to commit suicide by burning himself to death. And the arrests still go on.
Police use the Internet to entrap people: undercover agents infest apps like Grindr, pretending to be gay; or the cops enlist gay people as informers, blackmailed to help. Increasingly they target foreigners as well as Egyptians — sometimes Europeans, sometimes already-persecuted refugees: jailing them or deporting them.
At least 250-people in Egypt are now serving prison sentences of between 2 and 10 years for homosexual conduct; probably many more. Egypt now imprisons more people for their gender identity and sexual orientation than any other country in the world.
What happens to queers in Egypt can’t be separated from the general draconian repression. Journalists are carted to prison; so are activists, students, or people who simply happen to be living in the wrong neighborhood. People just disappear: into concentration camps, or — if they are abducted by the death squads that haunt the cities — their bodies turn up in ditches. Protests are punishable by three years in prison: or you can just be shot. NGOs face harassment and closure, including the very few that provide legal help to arrested LGBT people. And those downtown cafes I talked about? In late 2014 the government started harassing gathering spots in central Cairo, forcing them to shutter, because “undesirable people” – revolutionaries, atheists, perverts – gathered there. The spaces where ordinary solidarity can flourish are being strangled to death.
Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, poet, dissident, and mother, dying from police gunfire in central Cairo, January 24, 2015. She was shot for attempting to lay flowers in commemoration of the Revolution’s martyrs, on the Revolution’s fourth anniversary.
So let me ask: Why don’t you know more about this?
The general situation in Egypt, and the horrifying situation of LGBT people, are consigned to the back pages of the papers, the fag end of the news, unclicked and untold. Every queer schoolboy knows what’s gone on in Uganda or Russia in recent years. But Cairo or Alexandria? No.
One reason the LGBT arrests have gotten less attention? In a word: gender.
Screen shot of seven people arrested in February 2015 — mostly trans-identified, according to other trans activists — from a video published on the website of Youm7
The primary targets of these arrests haven’t been securely cis men who have sex with cis men. They’ve been trans women – or men who build their identities around not conforming to norms of masculinity. Egyptian society has no strong public recognition of gender identity as a category. There are, though, growing communities of people who identify as trans, and they’ve been more and visible — particularly in downtown Cairo. Indeed, “downtown,” wust el-balad, has turned into a term encompassing all kinds of deviance, from hash-smokers to atheists to revolutionary youth with long hair (government stooges regularly accuse former revolutionaries of gender and sexual perversion). Most of these fears focus on masculinity: “downtown” means men who aren’t men, and trans people symbolize the extremity of decadence. One word bandied about to summarize what the regime opposes is mokhanatheen: sissies. The need to enforce gendered norms, and in particular to make sure that men behave as men should, obey the behavioral rules for their assigned gender, is hard-wired into the military regime.
Yet this doesn’t interest international LGB activists the way arrests of gay men do. Which two cases in Egypt have had the most international attention? The wedding video arrests: where photos showed two bearded men, solid in their evident cisness. And the bathhouse raid: where images focused on photos of naked bodies in the cold December air – bodies that looked unequivocally male.
Most of the hundreds imprisoned in Egypt haven’t been like that. We claim to be having a “trans moment” in Europe and North America. Maybe. Has it gone from pop culture to politics — our politics, the politics of LGB-and-only-occasionally-T movements? No. It’s still painfully clear which bodies we prefer, even as passive victims. Masculinity infects our activism, as it pervades our media, our cultures, and our dreams.
There’s another reason for the silence: respectability.
The law that criminalizes homosexual conduct in Egypt is, in origin, a law against prostitution. It was passed in a moment of nationalist fervor in1951. The British occupying army had for decades maintained brothels for its soldiers, staffed by Egyptian women, and this was seen across the political spectrum as an enormous national shame. Parliament passed a law that criminalized sex work by women, and then in a sort of throw-the-kitchen-sink fit of moralistic enthusiasm they tossed in parallel punishments for something called fugur or “debauchery” — which wasn’t defined. The term, though, was gradually interpreted by courts to mean non-commercial sex between consenting adult men
In Egypt, then, you don’t need to prove that two men are exchanging money to arrest them for having sex. But a link between homosexual conduct and prostitution is — again — hard-wired into Egyptian law and attitudes. In this crackdown, the military has been at some pains to stress the connection. When Mona Iraqi was criticized for raiding the bathhouse, she defended herself by claiming it was a den of “human trafficking,” because she knew this was an appealing line: a useful excuse locally — and internationally.
Pro-Clinton meme: Offer does not apply to sex workers
The US government, which now positions itself as the world’s foremost defender of LGBT people’s rights, is also the world’s most powerful opponent of sex workers’ rights. It promotes ridiculous and regressive myths that all prostitution is “trafficking”; it demands that foreign groups receiving its (ever so queer-friendly) funding pledge never to discuss decriminalizing sex work, or sex workers’ persecution by laws and police. Hillary Clinton and the whole Obama administration have clung to the Bush administration’s failed moralism where suppressing commercial sex — and sex workers — is concerned.
Cover of a 1910 book on “white slavery” by Ernest Bell
And with US funding underpinning LGBT politics, many LGBT organizations have been happy to ditch sex workers’ rights and issues in pursuit of a respectable picture of LGBT communities. That’s less true of grassroots groups than of those operating in the international sphere: those that command media spaces like the New York Times, and set the agenda, and create images of what LGBT rights are.
Around the world, more LGBT people are arrested every day under laws targeting sex work than are arrested under so-called “sodomy laws” in a year. They aren’t just arrested because they may be doing sex work — but because those are the laws police use against cruising, soliciting, public displays of affection, walking while trans or butch.
Yet our international movement writes those people off. And that’s a disgrace. We congratulate ourselves when sodomy laws are repealed, as though that means full decriminalization of queer lives and bodies. We don’t notice laws that have even harsher impact on those lives.
Remember: The Toronto bathhouse raids in 1981 took place under a 19th-century law on “bawdy houses.” Respectable gay sex in bedrooms had been formally decriminalized in Canada. But if they hate you, they can still find laws to use against you. And anti-prostitution laws are always a ready tool.
In Egypt, too, the idea that the arrested people are not respectable, are not like us, has inhibited sympathy, stifled response. And not just within the country’s borders. What images roused the first international outcry against the Cairo crackdown? Those two cis men pursuing the most respectable of American-style gay activities: getting married.
But trans sex workers? Who cares?
Egyptian protesters point to the “Made in USA” tag on a tear gas canister used against them near Tahrir Square, November 20, 2011. Photo: Khaled Dessouki for AFP
A final reason for the silence: security.
The Egyptian military and its conceptions of manhood are paid for by the United States. The US gives $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt every year (along with a small, steadily diminishing amount of development aid, currently less than $250 million). Each year, Egypt receives the world’s second or third largest sum of US military aid, after Israel.
The aid has stayed at the same level since Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel in the early 1980s. In effect, we pay Egypt not to use its military on its neighbors: with the implicit proviso that it will use its military on its own people, when needed.
We — and I mean Americans like me, and our allies — pay for the abuses the military engages in. 40,000 political prisoners held, mostly without trial? We pay for the concentration camps that hold them. Tear gas used on demonstrators? We pay for it, it comes from US firms, it’s bought with money the US gives the government. We pay the generals’ salaries. We pay for the soldiers’ guns. We pay for the civilians the army slaughters in Sinai, or at least for their mass graves. The surveillance equipment Egypt’s government is buying up, to monitor the whole Internet – and they’ve specifically said LGBT people are a priority target— is bought from US firms, with no objection from the US government.
(Canada, so far as I know, has a limited direct relationship with the Egyptian military –except for its peacekeepers in Sinai, who protect an ever-more-imaginary peace, one devastated both by an armed insurgency and by Egypt’s brutal, Israeli-supported campaign to exterminate it. But Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia indirectly aid Egypt, by channeling resources to one of Sisi’s main backers. Saudi Arabia is the root of evil in the region; you’re handing wands to Voldemort, you’re hawking rings to Sauron. And the Saudis know they can use Canada’s equipment to prop up repressive regimes wherever they like.)
Egyptian activists — human rights activists, and LGBT activists among them — want the US and its allies to cut or stop military aid to Sisi. They want us to stop propping up the murder regime. This, the US and NATO refuse to do.
June 22, 2014: John Kerry meets Sisi in Cairo and hands him $572 million in military aid, days after police arrested and abused pro-democracy activists, including feminist Yara Sallam, for the heinous crime of marching down a street
John Kerry comes to Cairo once or twice a year, in his capacity as head imperialist tourist. I happen to know that dutiful State Department officers give him solid talking points for his meetings with Sisi; they say, “mention human rights violations” — sometimes even “mention the gays” (never the trans or the sex workers, of course.) But Kerry has a powerful mancrush on Sisi. He looks deep into those dark brown bloody eyes and throws his talking points out the window. He won’t mention the killings; he won’t mention the trans and gay arrests — I doubt he’s raised the issue once, even in a subordinate clause. Sisi is our ally. He safeguards security. The rest is silence.
In fact, none of Sisi’s measures increase security — not even the savage war against an Islamist insurgency in Sinai, and certainly not the torture of queers. They destroy security. Last summer, while I lived in Cairo, rebel bombings happened almost every week: they blew up consulates, subway stations, even the Prosecutor General. ISIS kidnapped foreign workers on the streets of Cairo suburbs where I did my shopping.
But the life or death of locals matters less to the Obama administration than the big picture, the preservation of American power. The US mancrush on military dictators in Egypt long precedes the war on terror. It is a product of the way that US imperialism has approached the region for decades, a technique of power quite consciously set in opposition to the strategies of the British and French colonialisms it superseded. Aspiring to regional dominance, the US since the 1950s has attempted indirect rule. We don’t want to control territory or govern populations; we want access to resources, and the ability to keep others away from them. American ambitions have been exercised through anchor states, core allies whose job is to police the region and ensure stability for us.
The US pays for militaries strong enough to keep societies in subjection. We also pay to see the values of those militaries – the reliance on violence, the suppression of difference, the repressive cult of masculinity, the patriarchal faith in state power – spread throughout those societies and distort their workings, destroy their solidarities, suppress their dissenters. We’ve created militarized states throughout the Middle East, and we’ve also created militarized masculinities. So the lives of queers in Egypt are necessarily tangled up with the war on terror.
Under the same flag: USAID joins Mona Iraqi in “advancing LGBTI-inclusive development”
Today, the US exercises enormous hegemony over the international LGBT movement. Most of the largest organizations doing international LGBT work in the US get funding for acting as instruments of US foreign policy. The Human Rights Campaign gets money from the US State Department; Outright Action International, which I used to work for, gets money from the US State Department. Many influential groups elsewhere in the global North are beneficiaries of American money. And even groups that don’t get funding rely on the US government for information, for access, for all the privileges that flow from proximity to power.
Increasingly, those groups are willing to play along with the US government and its priorities. You will hear no public criticism of US inaction on Egypt from these NGOs. You’ll hear very little criticism even of the Egyptian government for its crackdown. International LGBT politics comes to mirror US foreign policy, and exempts US allies from harsh scrutiny.
I fear we are creating a comprador LGBT movement, incapable of criticizing the misdeeds of governments that support it. This movement enjoys what it believes is power — though often that merely means taking cheerful selfies with the politicians who really possess it. But that movement is content to sacrifice its own, in the name of preserving its own access to power: to rest in silence, complicity and compliance.
Canada has a new government, after nine years of Harper, and is moving in a new direction. Your leadership is increasing its commitment to LGBT rights worldwide. It’s doing what the Obama administration and other Western states have done, putting LGBT rights firmly on its foreign policy agenda. And like those other governments it has two motives.
- Unquestionably some policymakers are sincerely committed to the ideal of universal human rights.
- But they also know there’s an active constituency at home who can be pleased – appeased — and persuaded to vote by these commitments. Political self-interest amplifies idealism, and in some cases dominates it.
In the spirit of United States citizens who like to tell other people what to do, I want to offer some unwanted advice. Because when the Trudeau government talks about LGBT rights abroad they’re not aiming at trans or gay Egyptians; they’re aiming at you, as citizens and voters. And how you conceive these issues and frame them, the strength and reach of your imagination, will determine how successful the initiatives are.
First: LGBT rights can’t be conceived in separation from other human rights issues and violations, or from the overall human rights situation in a country. They’re not a lonely silo on a prairie, standing on its own. Moreover: what your government does to defend them can’t be evaluated without a grasp, and a critique, of your government’s overall foreign policy priorities in a country or a region.
Think of how the United States has dealt with human rights in Uganda. Defending LGBT rights in Uganda — fighting the “Kill the gays” bill — has been an American priority ever since Hillary Clinton launched her gay-rights initiative in 2011. It hasn’t been entirely successful — the bill hasn’t passed, but it hasn’t gone away either. There is no question, though, that US efforts have bettered and bolstered Ugandan civil society, immensely strengthening its capacity to oppose the bill.
An American queer public outraged by Ugandan homophobia helped drive these initiatives. Yet it’s also convenient for the US government to confront Museveni’s dictatorship on this issue, rather than on its fraudulent elections or its ruthless repression of opposition — which aren’t, after all, abuses most American voters notice. The freedoms of LGBT people are vital, but don’t threaten the ultimate stability of the dictatorial regime. The Obama administration can keep its supporters happy and say it is addressing human rights in Uganda, while emitting only anodyne criticisms as Museveni quashes democracy. The US needs Museveni; he’s an ally in the little war-on-terror sideshow the US keeps going in East Africa. More importantly, he’s a useful stooge in the cold war the US wages with China for control of African natural resources, including the oil and gas that form a burgeoning part of Uganda’s own economy.
As in the Middle East, the US exerts its power in Africa through regional proxies. The Ugandan regime is one, and an exclusionary absorption with LGBT issues allows the US government to evade real condemnation of other Ugandan rights abuses. An American LGBT politics which lets Obama get away with this is partial, truncated, and blind. Queers need a critical stance on their countries’ foreign policies in general.
Ugandan policemen beat a supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change at a Kampala protest against interminable President Museveni’s 2011 re-re-re-re-inauguration. Photo: James Akena for Reuters
Second: Break out of the focus on monolithic identities that confine our understanding of sexuality and gender — as well as the conceptions of who “real” or “respectable” LGBT people are. Linkages and intersections constitute queer lives, not monosyllabic words with easy dictionary definitions.
The example of sex work I’ve cited before is essential. We can’t talk seriously about LGBT rights unless we talk about the legal and social regimes that regulate how sex and gender appear in the public sphere. We can’t talk seriously about LGBT rights unless we talk about how states police people’s bodies and behaviors; how they govern the sex-money nexus; and how they repress and brutalize sex workers.
Another example, quite different, is the Canadian government’s decision to admit Syrian refugees who identify as gay men — but deny protection to single men who don’t identify as gay.
I agree that LGBT refugee claimants should get accelerated recognition if — as many are —- they’re trapped in second countries where they are unsafe. A Syrian gay refugee in Egypt risks arrest and torture. He needs to get out of there fast. I do not agree that LGBT claimants should get recognition to the exclusion of others. That willfully discounts the complexities of identity in a culturally hybrid context. It wilfully ignores the dangers people face, in refugee camps and refugee communities, in taking on a despised identity publicly. It wilfully neglects the rivalries it will create among refugees, which may put LGBT people in further danger from fellow claimants whose support and help they need. And it wilfully overlooks the commonalities of disadvantage between expressly identified LGBT people, and others who live outside normative family structures.
We need to think broadly about the relationship between the body and its freedoms on the one hand, and society and the state on the other. We need to look critically at the identity constructs that confine our thinking, and blind us to wider realities.
Many LGBT activists across the Middle East have chosen to advocate not in terms of “LGBT rights” — a construct with little local meaning or cultural resonance — but in terms of universal rights to autonomy and personal liberty and to privacy and freedom from state interference. This is powerful language in the region, because it draws on experiences of state surveillance and control that LGBT people have in common with most of their fellow citizens.
Lisa Hajjar has argued that one powerful thread running through all the Arab Spring rebellions was resistance to torture. As a brute reality, torture threatened everybody. It also became a symbol of the broad power states claimed to watch, invade, and control individual bodies. Resisting it was a key symbolic way of negating the state’s politics and pretensions. Resisting torture asserted the body’s power — the latent strength in those individuals and in their sheer material presence, saying “no” to the vast machinery of repression.
Perhaps this way of thinking about bodies and power is something we all need to learn.
Bodies of nine men killed in a U.S. drone strike on December 12, 2013 are readied for burial near Radda, Yemen. Photo by Nasser Al-Sane for Reprieve.
I want to close by quoting something a friend of a friend said recently: a feminist in Yemen. She lives in the murderous midst of a Western-sponsored proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the sky, day and night, seen and unseen, are US drones and Saudi warplanes. Through streets trundle combat vehicles that say “Made in Canada” on their underbellies.
She wrote about Orlando: “I’m not sure why I feel it, but it is surprisingly easy to grieve for the grieveable even though I know most would not grieve for me.”
Nearly all my friends in the Middle East share a belief that’s widespread across the region: that their lives don’t matter here. That their lives don’t matter to you. That the murders, the torture, the massacres carried out with our weapons, practiced by our proxies, and continuing in consequence of our wars, are invisible on our TV screens, unmourned and unnoticed and unknown.
Certain images circulate. Others don’t.
Certain deaths are mentionable. Others aren’t.
Given that strong belief, I continue to be surprised, and moved, by the solidarity my friends and colleagues in Cairo, or Amman, or Basra feel for the catastrophes they see elsewhere; the sympathy they summon for our sorrows over Orlando, their willingness to take on this grieving — even while we, in New York or San Francisco or Toronto, glide swiftly past what we dismiss as just another bombing in Baghdad, another drone attack on an anonymous crowd in Yemen, another mutilated corpse in Cairo.
Grief is by definition an emotion that lies beyond the economy of reciprocation. Its objects are those who cannot return our sorrows, acknowledge them or feel them; we grieve precisely because those we grieve are unable to respond.
But we will move beyond grieving. Our sorrow will necessarily give way to choices. We must decide how we respond to living others, how we acknowledge their sorrows, how we answer their demands, how we act.
We will not be judged by the number of our tears or the intensity of our sorrow, but by what we do, by the reach and the consequences of our sympathies, by whether they encompass those who are unlike us, who do not share our identities or our beliefs, whom we cannot fully know. Will we turn our grief into solidarities? Will we look across boundaries?
The choice is ours.
A woman carries an image of Khaled Said, tortured to death by police, at a 2010 Egyptian protest against his murder