PREVENT free speech: For governments, it’s easy

This letter appeared in the Independent (UK) today:

We, the undersigned, take issue with the government’s Prevent strategy and its statutory implementation through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 for the following reasons:

1. The latest addition to the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism framework comes in the form of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (CTS Act). The CTS Act has placed PREVENT on a statutory footing for public bodies to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism by tackling what is claimed to be ‘extremist ideology’. In practice, this will mean that individuals working within statutory organisations must report individuals suspected of being ‘potential terrorists’ to external bodies for ‘de-radicalisation’.

2. The way that PREVENT conceptualises ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism. Academic research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology. Indeed, ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy. Therefore, addressing these issues would lessen the appeal of ideology.

3. However, PREVENT remains fixated on ideology as the primary driver of terrorism. Inevitably, this has meant a focus on religious interaction and Islamic symbolism to assess radicalisation. For example, growing a beard, wearing a hijab or mixing with those who believe Islam has a comprehensive political philosophy are key markers used to identify ‘potential’ terrorism. This serves to reinforce a prejudicial worldview that perceives Islam to be a retrograde and oppressive religion that threatens the West. PREVENT reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world, divides communities, and sows mistrust of Muslims.

4. While much of the PREVENT policy is aimed at those suspected of ‘Islamist extremism’ and far-right activity, there is genuine concern that other groups will also be affected by such policies, such as anti-austerity and environmental campaigners – largely those engaged in political dissent.

5. Without due reconsideration of PREVENT’s poor reputation, the police and government have attempted to give the programme a veneer of legitimacy by expressing it in the language of ‘safeguarding’. Not only does this depoliticise the issue of radicalisation, it shifts attention away from grievances that drive individuals towards an ideology that legitimises political violence.

6. PREVENT will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent. It will create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly, and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces. Therefore, PREVENT will make us less safe.

7. We believe that PREVENT has failed not only as a strategy but also the very communities it seeks to protect. Instead of blindly attempting to strengthen this project, we call on the government to end its ineffective PREVENT policy and rather adopt an approach that is based on dialogue and openness.

The full list of signatories is here.

PREVENT (originally Preventing Violent Extremism) is the UK’s government’s flagship program for winning hearts and minds in Vietnam keeping people from going off and turning terrorist. Repeatedly revised and relaunched, it’s one of four prongs of the country’s post-9/11 domestic strategyThe prongs alliterate in a way suggesting bureaucrats with notepads and nothing else to do: “Prepare for attacks, Protect the public, Pursue the attackers and Prevent their radicalization.” (For attackers, the latter comes a bit too late.) The “P” that’s missing is Police. LIke the others, PREVENT is about police power. It works by surveilling marginal, distrusted, and brown communities. There’s no way of measuring how well it’s met its goals, because it has no concrete goals, no benchmarks. Its great success has been the one not mentioned in the glossy pamphlets: it’s contributed to alienating Muslims from society and state, one tenable definition of “radicalization.” A system of surveillance that publicly and legally singles out a minority inevitably makes that minority more marginal, less equal participants in public life: more subjects, less citizens. As in some shadow story by Paul Auster or Robbe-Grillet, the government seeks a criminal that is itself.

Diagram allegedly explaining PREVENT strategy, by the UK Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Aside from its resemblance to the secret Illuminati symbolism on the US dollar bill, I have no idea what any of this means.

Diagram allegedly explaining PREVENT strategy, by the UK Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Aside from its resemblance to the secret Illuminati symbolism on the US dollar bill, I have no idea what any of this means.

This March, Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, told the BBC he fully endorsed the two most widespread criticisms. First, PREVENT places itself beyond bureaucratic standards of success or failure. “A huge amount of money has been spent on this. At a time when we have limited resources we really need to make sure that we measure it.” Second, it stigmatizes  the people whose hearts and minds good will it’s supposed to be winning. It’s a “toxic brand” among Muslims; counter-extremist programs  “should not be putting Muslim community in a separate box when it comes to safeguarding vulnerable young people”:

He said there was a “spectacular lack of diversity” in local safeguarding services and police forces that meant many of those involved in Prevent did not understand the communities they serve, particularly in cities such as London and Birmingham.

PREVENT has, however, built up a constituency for itself, by ladling out money. And this is perhaps its real goal: not to combat terrorism, but to cultivate support for the metastasis of governmental power. Between 2005 and 2011 alone, Dominic Casciani writes, “almost £80m was spent on 1,000 schemes across 94 local authorities,” almost none of them properly evaluated. Rivers of largesse ran to dubious “anti-extremism” groups like the Quilliam Foundation, which claims to combat terrorist instincts among benighted Muslim immigrants, even though most Muslims in the UK seem to regard it with bafflement or disdain. The money keeps Quilliam’s founder, Maajid Nawaz, in an “immaculate and expensive suit,” upscale hotels, and the occasional strip club; whether it keeps Britain safer is a different proposition.

Trigger warning: Nicky Morgan, alarmed

Trigger warning: Nicky Morgan, alarmed by kids saying the darndest things

As with other insecure governments in repressive states, the UK regime’s response to failure has been to tighten the screws of repression. Rendering more people potential criminals makes their enemies your allies; with each opinion stamped Thoughtcrime, its opponents become your friends. The Cameron government is bidding for the gays’ support:

Children who speak out in class against homosexuality could be viewed as potential extremists under Government guidelines intended to prevent Islamist terrorism, Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, has suggested. Mrs Morgan said comments by children that they consider homosexuality to be “wrong” or “evil” could “trigger” concerns from teachers under guidance designed to help schools detect possible radicalisation.

They’ll have to put a playground in Gitmo before these people are through.

Quite a few prominent “free-speech advocates” in the UK are not signatories to the Independent letter. One wonders why.

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.41.49 PMCAGE, founded by former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg, mobilizes advocacy and activism in British Muslim communities against war-on-terror abuses. HT is the nonviolent pan-Islamic group Hizb ut Tahrir. You see the problem!  A letter complaining about repression of Muslim communities was signed by Muslims, the believing kind. If only it had been restricted to Church of England vicars, like a Barbara Pym novel! But once they’ve put their greasy fingerprints on the doc, the text goes straight to hell, like Tower Hamlets. Tom Holland, who is a sort of expert on why he dislikes Islam, agrees:

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.41.21 PMThe whole point of PREVENT is: Muslims must not speak for themselves.

But some non-signatories simply had better things to do. Nick Cohen, for instance — the hero columnist who defends to the deadline to the death a writer’s right to Cohen’s an opinion — spent today Tweeting about a couple of columnists fired by a provincial newspaper.

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.49.36 PM

Peter Tatchell, that free-speech martyr, ignored the Independent letter. He was fighting the brutal goons of Sainsbury’s for oppressing a gay magazine.

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 10.39.58 PM

These guys tread gingerly round Muslims when the UK government threatens their free speech, particularly if the excuse is “extremism.” What upsets them way, way more are infringements in their own little pigeonholes or professions — a journalist sacked, a newsrack missing a magazine that headlines them. Such misplaced priorities miss the point. True, states have have less power relatively in this globalizing age, and non-state actors more. But regime upon regime compensates for its impotence to superintend its economy or decide its budget by clamping down on what it can control: privacy or opinion, patrolling intimacies, gagging voices. Those are the spheres where state power rampages unmitigated and unharnessed, in London as much as Lahore. The police are the true menace to free expression around the world. The supermarkets aren’t even close. Ignoring the Ideal-Typus of evil and focusing on its marginal manifestations only abets the repression. (Conspicuously, such freedom paladins also paid no attention to the WikiLeaks release this week of horrifying documents from an EU-based Internet-surveillance company, showing its sinister dealings with dictatorships on several continents. This is where private enterprise really kicks in, selling technology to the censors and torturers. Governments’ power to monitor what you say and think grows faster than Moore’s Law, thanks to their corporate accomplices.)

For some advocates, the threat to free speech is governments jailing, silencing, torturing people. For other advocates, the threat is a student club no-platforming their friends.

I know where I stand. Do you?

IF YOU SEE THIS WORD IN THE DICTIONARY, CALL THE POLICE NOW: Staffordshire Police banner for PREVENT, at http://www.staffordshire.police.uk/

IF YOU SEE THIS WORD IN THE DICTIONARY, CALL US NOW: Staffordshire Police banner for PREVENT, at http://www.staffordshire.police.uk/

Icons

Madonna and fanboy, I

Madonna and fanboy, I

My friend Mauro Cabral, the great trans activist from Argentina, wrote this week on Facebook:

An American journalist wants to chat with me about Bruce Jenner’s story. She wants to know if I expect this new global leadership to help trans people in my country.

I told her that, to be honest, I am not following the story.

She asks me if I have good access to Internet.

Bruce Jenner has worn the two greenest laurels American life bestows, as sports hero and reality TV star. When he comes out as transgender, in an interview seen by one-twentieth of the country’s population, surely the world must be watching. The only holdouts are in the Stone Age caves of Buenos Aires, where people communicate by smoke signals.

For Mauro, this is the old American imperialism, sure that whatever happens in the 50 states shakes the planet. But it’s not just about foisting a new “global leader” on us. For me, an American, it also reveals a naïve confidence that the way we do politics is universal. Americans have given the globe a new kind of social transformation: change without action, progress without movements, transformation in the passive voice.

It used to be that when you dreamed of transforming society, you dreamed of deeds. Revolution was a name for that kind of action. Revolutions were compendia of great acts: manning barricades or withstanding massacres, the journées of bravery and danger, the assault on the Winter Palace, the confrontations with kings. Paintings or photographs preserve the figures of that age, in static and stylized tableaus; but even under those stiff cemented poses you can feel the taut muscles still pulsing, bursting through the flatness into our time and dimensions, like the withers of great horses straining to break free. They made oaths, which mortgaged their lives to future action; they pledged their fortunes and their sacred honor, or plighted an immortal solidarity on a disused tennis court. Of course, there was a lot of talking. They spoke and spoke. But when Patrick Henry cried out “Liberty or death,” or Trotsky shouted to the sweaty soviets about the dustbin of history, the words themselves became as hard as deeds. “The words fell like hammerstrokes,” people said. They meant that in the tension of transformation everything became an act. Each syllable forged a weapon. History was not what happened, but what you made: the energy of a common workman suddenly pounded time itself into shape as if it were molten steel.

Change: Communards in Paris, March 1871

Change: Communards in Paris, March 1871

Everybody knows revolutions are over. Their time is past. Now we have Social Change. Social Change is committed by NGOs, furtively, like masturbation. Progressive donors who fund progressive NGOs working on Social Change often have something called a Theory of Change, to help decide whose change is theoretical enough to get the money. If you talk to such a donor, they may ask what your Theory of Change is. Usually they don’t expect you to have taken time off to think of one. They want to know you’ve read their website, and come with something enough like their own Theory to pass. A plausible Theory of Change might go like this. People need empowerment. This doesn’t mean appropriating anybody else’s power (or money; donors can be sensitive on this point). It means making them feel better about themselves; which means talking about rights and giving them role models. The role models are vital; power flows from their fingertips. A few celebrities can charge the world with change like electric current purring through great powerlines. They stand alone like latticed steel towers, strung together by their own strength. They do the public work, while the NGOs wank in private. Change happens so seamlessly that it never even slipped into the active voice. You can imagine trying to sell something like this to the Parisian sans culottes, or the Communards. But they lived in an age of darkness, with resources infinitely inferior to our own. Our lives touch the stars; we have satellite TV. The Theory of Change is a theory of the celebrity interview.

Theory of Change; Model for improving supply chains for community case management of pneumonia and other common diseases of childhood (also known as helping people keep kids healthy), from http://sc4ccm.jsi.com/emerging-lessons/theory-of-change/

Theory of Change; Model for improving supply chains for community case management of pneumonia and other common diseases of childhood (also known as helping people keep kids healthy), from http://sc4ccm.jsi.com/emerging-lessons/theory-of-change/

Bruce Jenner is a decent person, who wants his life to mean something; but his image, now as before, is out of his hands. “We’re going to change the world,” he told the cameras (in all the discussion of his use of pronouns, no one asked if the “we” was royal or collective). And everybody agreed. He’ll change the world by being himself, and doing it in public. The word for such a sedentary world-changer is “icon.” An icon is, of course, a religious image; it’s necessarily inert. It answers prayers through the power of our faith in it, without lifting a painted finger.

Madonna and fanboy, II

Madonna and fanboy, II

And now he’s a transgender icon, an “icon of change.” “I couldn’t think of a stronger icon,” said one trans activist in Canada. “I’m team Bruce all the way.” In a New Zealand concert, Demi Lovato “dedicated her track Warrior to transgender icon Bruce Jenner,” “an American hero.” (“This whole fame thing starts taking over and people know your name and then all of a sudden – boom – you’re in rehab,” she warned him, apparently forgetting he went through that crucifixion before she was born.) There are no iconoclasts. Even people who don’t like him don’t dispute the icons’ power. “Trans people need an icon,” one op-ed read. “But Bruce Jenner is the worst possible choice.”

Madonna and fanboy, III

Madonna and fanboy, III

These aren’t metaphors. They’re manifestoes. They offer a strategy as clear as anything in Rules for Radicals or What Is To Be Done?  The panoply of ideas that icon-worship brings has become our essential jargon: the “teachable moment,” the “national conversation,” the importance of “awareness.” These goods are the intangible benefits celebrities can give us, just as healing radiates from the icon’s frame. The politics are magical and royalist. The “awareness” is entirely about the celebrities themselves, not of material facts that lie beyond their lives. Jenner took pains to emphasize in his interview, “I am not a spokesman for the community.” And he went on to list a lot of issues the community confronts: discrimination, health care, murder. But what sticks in the memory are the “simple goals” the cameras coaxed out of him: “To have my nail polish on long enough that it actually chips off.”

Under the nail polish, here are some figures about other transgender lives.

  • A 2011 survey of almost 6500 trans people in the US found they were four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 than the general population.
  • One-fifth said they had been homeless at some point. Those are roughly the same figures that a 1997 city investigation found in liberal, protective San Francisco.
  • Only one-fifth had been able to update all their IDs to match their lived gender, and one-third had no matching ID at all.
  • One-fifth had no health insurance (as opposed to roughly 16% for the general population at the time). 18% had been verbally harassed in a medical setting, and 19% had been denied care because of their gender identity or expression.
  • Trans people reported four times the national average for HIV infection — trans women, eight times. Trans African-Americans were ten times more likely to be HIV-positive than other African Americans.
  • 16% of trans people overall – 21% of trans women – reported they had been incarcerated; among African-American trans people, that crested to 47%. In 2014, the US government estimated that 40% of trans people in prison have suffered sexual assault or abuse. That’s ten times the numbers among other prisoners. In California, studies of state prisons found that 59% of transgender women held in men’s units had been sexually assaulted by other inmates. 14% had been sexually assaulted by staff.
  • Of the 6500 trans people surveyed, 41% said they had attempted suicide: almost thirty times the figures for the US population overall.

Bruce Jenner can put a face on some transgender lives. But after that? A comforting face can easily hide comfortless facts. What you’re left with is a trickle-down theory of consciousness: that fame rubs off; that visibility is contagious; that Jenner has the strength to change the “national conversation” because his image was on a Wheaties box once. What is this redemptive power of breakfast? In the South, where I grew up, generations of white folks started their day eating pancakes blessed by a happy black woman smiling generously from the label: Aunt Jemima, an icon of love. It didn’t stop them from getting up from the table and going off to join the Ku Klux Klan.

Crazed-looking white people worship an iconic African-American woman whom they’re perfectly capable of killing without a second thought

Crazed-looking white people worship an iconic African-American woman whom they’re perfectly capable of killing without a second thought

The politics of icons strikes me as one of the great gifts the gay movement proffered to America as a whole: so it’s natural that trans folk too should be expected to embrace it. (Remember, “transgender people need an icon,” even more than they do IDs.) “Gay Icon” actually has a Wikipedia entry; so do “Madonna As a Gay Icon” and “Cher As a Gay Icon.” Resilience, suffering, “triumph over adversity” nearly always figure in the definitions: “It is her perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that has earned [Judy, you idiot] Garland her status as a Gay Icon.” Drug addict! Fat girl! Multiple divorcée! Or as RuPaul says:

People always ask, ‘What makes a gay icon?’ People who have been ostracized or pushed outside of society relate to other people who have their exact same qualities and personality traits. The spiritual being having to dumb down to fit in.

I disagree, though. There’s a historical confusion here. When I was a kid back in the Middle Ages, learning to read by the light of burning witches, we had “divas,” not icons. Those indeed were famous women who had suffered and survived: Judy, Joan Crawford, Callas, Billie Holiday. Gay men identified with them because they offered a pushed-to-extremity version of what pop culture (or certain corners of high culture) promised to do: provide figures so immense, so superhuman, so intense in experience and emotion that they could contain all of us, like Whitman’s pan-American ego, and redeem our subjection to our grinding daily injustices by making it grandiose, gorgeous, unforgettable. Their sufferings were infinitely direr and more stylish. There was a tragic side, but this wasn’t catharsis: it was transfiguration.

Very few of these stars ever said anything in public about gay people. If they did, it was far from sure to be supportive. (Bette Midler was one of the only players before the 1980s who openly embraced a gay audience — and gay causes. That helped keep her more a cult figure than a major star. Meanwhile, Donna Summer, last of the disco divas, supposedly told a gay crowd that “AIDS is your sin … God loves you. But not the way you are now.”) But that was fine, because their usefulness wasn’t political but personal. They were tools to forge imaginary selves, means to endure the everyday by sublating it, the dialectic as redecorated by Douglas Sirk.

Madonna and fanboy, III

Madonna and fanboy, IV

The first top-rank, A-list star I remember who publicly exulted in her gay audience was Madonna. It’s hard to recapture how, as they say, transformational it was. She was the first real gay icon: somebody who promised not just inner triumph but the hope of everyone accepting you, loving you. There was no tragedy to her: neither in persona nor in person did she suggest suffering, being “pushed outside of society.” She did her own pushing. And she evoked not identification but adoration. Loving Madonna was an affair with the unattainable; fame was intrinsic to her being, and because she was famous she was radically different from you. There could be no question of her encompassing your problems. She was beyond all that.

Madonna-In-Bed-With-Madon-401853When I was in graduate school at Harvard, there was a young gay undergrad named Alek Keshishian, dying to be famous. I didn’t know him personally; his name showed up once on the student list for a section I was teaching, but he never appeared, and later he dropped the class. For student theater, he memorably staged a rock opera version of Wuthering Heights: Cathy and Heathcliff were rock stars, trying to deal with the pressures of fame. (Alek sent invites to reviewers from all the Boston papers, and got some favorable notices. This unheard-of self-advertising roused indignation in the dining halls: student theater was supposed to be for students.) Some of the songs he used in the opera were by Kate Bush and some were by Madonna, and when he contacted Madonna’s people to get the rights he managed, through sheer pushfulness, to speak to her. She took him on as fanboy and protégé, and after that he was in Fame Heaven. Straight out of college he started filming her tours and the backstage drama, and in 1991 he directed Truth or Dare  also known as In Bed With Madonna – which became the highest-grossing documentary of all time. Its fame was transoceanic. I was living in Budapest by then, and if I mumbled half-mendaciously to somebody in the city’s one gay club that “Madonna’s director was my student,” my chance of getting laid increased twelvefold. Fame does rub off, in a long-distance frottage.

Alek never really did anything outside Madonnaworld. The rest of his career comprised music videos and the like; most recently he co-wrote a film with her, about another couple dealing with the pressures of fame, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. If you Google him, he turns up on a page called “Today in Madonna History.” His story seems to me a parable of the period: not Wuthering Heights, but Great Expectations.                      

Madonna and fanboy, IV

Madonna and fanboy, V

You cathect to icons, but in a different way from divas. Divas once summed up your life; icons are imperial beings vastly above it, who bless it just by being there. Sorrow doesn’t touch them – Kylie MInogue said that divas “usually have some tragedy in their lives, but I’ve only had tragic haircuts and outfits.” The icons aren’t the drug addicts or the fat girls made good. They’re the rich kids who picked on the drug addicts and the fat girls. They’re emblems for an era where failure is the unforgivable sin. (B. J. Whiting, the great medievalist, used to ask his Harvard students at the beginning of every year to name the Seven Deadly Sins. A few always listed poverty, sickness, and unemployment.)

The fascination with celebrity is ingrained deep in Western gay life. Partly, I think, it comes from the debilitating experience of the closet, which despite the premature triumphalism of outness still shapes our lives. The wounds of self-concealment breed a fetish for completely public selves, all crevices open to the klieg lights.

Britney got her title in a 2011 poll by the Equality Project, and promptly reclaimed her virginity from the pawnshop.

Britney got her title in a 2011 poll by the Equality Project, and promptly reclaimed her virginity from the pawnshop.

These days, we justify this star-fucking by saying that young queer kids need role models. They do; but role models they can’t speak to and can never hope to be? No lonely trans or gay youth seriously thinks he’s going to become famous as Tom Cruise or rich as Tim Cook. Children dream, but they’re not delusional like adults. They know the destinies of the stars lie beyond their grasp. Most of the hyper-successful win through inheriting looks or money, or through pure random luck in the Babylon lottery we inhabit. Their triumphs aren’t imitable. Some have real prowess, as Jenner had. (There’s an argument that Americans indulge the immense salaries of sports heroes because it’s almost the only field of American life where you can’t fake success. You either make the touchdown or you don’t – unlike corporate CEOs, who can cook the books more ways than Julia Child.) But that prowess came as much from genes as from the gym; it isn’t readily replicable, any more than you can get Oum Kulthoum’s vocal range by practicing your scales. We all bought Wheaties with Jenner’s picture when I was a kid, but we didn’t buy the line that we’d become him. Icons don’t reveal possibility. They embody inequality. It’s no coincidence that celebrity politics flowered in the Reagan era, which didn’t just cement inequality but celebrated it as US society’s vital principle.

tony

I’m not gay, but if George W. asked me, how could I refuse?

But the icon appeals in a different way to the insecure and unwanted: it makes them feel accepted by the big guys, the in crowd, the Mean Girls or Heathers or the playground bullies. Icons are about how the powerless love power. (In the UK, Gay Times named Tony Blair, the warrior god, “top gay icon” of the last 30 years. No one would dare call you a fag if you could destroy a country.) My old friend Lisa Power, a distinguished British queer campaigner, is researching how activists identify their role models. The celebrity fixation, she wrote me, is “about approval and validation, proving that popular people want to hang with us.”

She added: “One of the longstanding activists that I interviewed said, ‘Icons? In my day we didn’t have icons, we had each other.’” And that rings true. The need for icons also suggests some terrifying loneliness that all this liberation we’ve undergone has yet to repair, has perhaps made worse. We hung together more when we knew we needed each other. Now, so full of borrowed hope, we’re hopelessly alone.

Madonna and Fanboy, V

Madonna and fanboy, VI

If the gays, adoring their celebrities, played a critical part in creating celebrity politics, it has spread beyond them. Oh, how it’s spread! True, no other social movement has succumbed quite so completely to the idea that celebrities in themselves can get you justice. Most movements simply use the famous for what they can extract. But the model’s seductive, corrupting. Women’s rights campaigns in America look increasingly like red-carpet photo ops: think of all those stars reading the Vagina Monologues. The more riddled with implausibilities the cause, the more likely it is to enlist celebrities for their power to blot out doubt. Nick Kristof’s neo-feminist “Half the Sky” brand  – a book, a film, and a PR package that calls itself a “movement” — relies on Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, and Eva Mendes to help him raid brothels, humiliate sex workers, and buy women “freedom.” The paradigm of this is Kristof’s protégé, the anti-trafficking icon and master brothel-raider Somaly Mam, whose vanity foundation collected stars’ endorsements like Pokémon cards: Susan Sarandon, the inevitable Oprah, Ashley Judd and Ashlee Simpson, Katie Couric and Bill Maher. Mam was a money pit  for “celebrity philanthropy.” Even after she was caught “publicizing her efforts with fabricated, lurid stories about herself and the girls in her shelters, which sex trafficking experts say dangerously misconstrued the problem at hand,” Marie Claire, the beauty magazine, took up the cudgel to defend her. Diane von Furstenburg stands by her. Image is all.

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I played a refugee once: Jolie at the UN

For all its US foundations, moreover, celebrity politics more and more goes global. The United Nations, since the 1950s, has called on “Goodwill Ambassadors,” famous people brought in to publicize its agencies’ work. But now the truculent stars insist on being more than spokesmen; they want credit for the work itself. The moon’s pale fire eclipses what used to be the sun. Angelia Jolie has graduated from “Goodwill Ambassador” to full-fledged “Special Envoy” on refugees; she speaks at UN meetings with a Method-acting look of expertise. Alain de Botton, a celebrity philosopher, defends the primacy of celebrity activism like hers: “Rather than try to suppress our love of celebrity, we ought to channel it in optimally intelligent and fruitful directions.” Jolie, he says, is one of these directions (along with Alain de Botton). She goes to Congo or Rwanda “to help people who are in great need. But more than anything, what she does is make Africa ‘sexy.'”

In 2012, on Human RIghts Day, the UN held a panel discussion on LGBT people’s human rights, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon himself attending. Three activists travelled to New York to speak: Olena Shevchenko, a feminist and queer rights defender in Ukraine, Blas Radi from Argentina who had helped draft the groundbreaking bill on gender identity there, and Gift Trapence, who had bravely defended imprisoned trans and gay people in Malawi. But the main speakers were two queer-friendly performers: Latino corazón-throb Ricky Martin, and the South African pop star Yvonne Chaka Chaka, both somewhat superannuated to say the least. (One nice thing about becoming a gay icon is that your healing power can bring your dead career back to life.) The officials there spent their time fawning over the stars. Ban praised Chaka Chaka as “the Queen of Equality.” The Dutch diplomat moderating the event called Ricky Martin “the King of Equality.” (Royalty and equality, of course, are not usually linked.) The people who had actually worked for human freedom were treated as second-class opening acts, their comments cut short and their accomplishments slighted in favor of a chanteuse and a former member of Menudo. The activists felt useless. The show said nothing substantial. The UN, stealing a bit of lunar light from the stellar celebrities, got the publicity it wanted. Everyone who mattered was happy.

Madonna and Fanboy, VI

Madonna and fanboy, VII

Puzzle as you like over why celebrities dabble in humanitarianism – principles or PR? It can’t be grasped on the level of personalities. A Marxist could tell you what “celebrity activism” is, how the whole game works. It’s not a way of transforming society. It’s a way of transforming needs felt at the base into the abstract language of the superstructure: of turning anger and desperation into safe and culturally acceptable representations. The concrete, material needs that people and communities experience – for health care, jobs, access to medicines, protection from violence – are surrendered for immaterial gains on the level of “culture”: for “awareness,” publicity, “public consciousness,” “teachable moments,” “conversations.” The scraps of those needs that survive the translation are there for celebrities to turn into entertainment; your rage becomes a show, your hunger a commodity for somebody else to consume. The gains for the poor are purely ghostly, a few flickers of light. Those who get something tangible out of the game aren’t the communities, it’s the celebrities – and, overridingly, the corporate system within which they work, the machinery of capital that makes them. Profits flow up and only representations trickle down. And the nature of the system is that we are all trained to feel good about this; even the activists and malcontents among us.

This is simply how things are in the late-capitalist United States; everything material evaporates into its own signification. Or as Nancy Fraser would say, people who want redistribution of resources quickly learn to settle for symbolic “recognition,” for genuflections and formal respect, for the small satisfaction of seeing themselves in a movie — because it’s all they’ll get. There’s a limit to how much any activist can fight back against this system of images and fictions. We’re all convinced now that the only way to get any material needs met at all is to play the “cultural” game, to translate them into symbolic terms. You act nice, you tamp down your anger and your desires, and you recruit celebrities to “raise some awareness.” But we have never calculated, and may in fact be structurally unable to calculate, what we lose for a pottage of allegorical and evanescent gains: how many demands are abandoned, how many needs left unrecognized and unmet, in the distortions of this mistranslation.

Madonna and fanboy, VIII

Madonna and fanboy, VIII

Sometimes the fabric of these fictions ruptures. Of course revolutions don’t happen any more; except they do. I drive each day in Cairo through Midan Tahrir. It’s a mound of earth. The military government is digging up the central traffic island for some unexplained project, like a bomb shelter; they’ve already planted a gratuitously gigantic flagpole there, plinthed on a grotesque sarcophagal stele. It’s all to keep it off-limits, keep you from gathering, fence the people away because they fear the people; the leaders live in the lightning-fringed apocalyptic dread that opens Pilgrim’s Progress; they fear the wrath to come. The people still want bread. What happened once can happen again. And then there’s Baltimore. In Baltimore the cops kill someone, and you know your own life has a use. In Baltimore they no longer wait or want to be spoken for, they don’t believe that change comes stacked in theories like eggs in cartons, they don’t believe that justice trickles down from absconded gods in the airwaves or the clouds. They know reality isn’t raw material for reality TV. Hunger and anger won’t submit to being translated. The pain that’s actual and unseen has more power than all the images some satellite, lost in the smear of stars, can absorb.

But the rest of us survive differently. Gay politics always talked of honesty, authenticity; but what’s left? To be queer now is to be caught trying to assert your own reality in a world that is more and more unreal. You are driving down a long straight highway in a desert, through bright sun flecked with strange-angled shadows, past painted yellow mesas flat as stage sets. A wind from the obverse of the sky blows over you, and hardens the beads of sweat on your face to diamonds. The towering props that mimic stone tremble in the air like aspens. You think, I could live like this: and the wind uncombs your hair.

Madonna and fanboy, IX

Madonna and fanboy, IX

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Note: at the time this piece was published, Caitlyn Jenner still asked to be called Bruce and to be described with masculine pronouns.

Deport me!

gallery_1238284997So they’re going to deport gay foreigners from Egypt. My phone started ringing a few mornings ago, reporters wanting comments: solicitous but always with a subtext of What’s going to happen to you?

I don’t know. The case involves a Libyan student whom police expelled from Egypt in 2008, after a complaint that he was gay. From back in Libya, he sued. This Tuesday, after seven years – the alacrity typifies Egyptian justice — an Adminstrative Court ruled that the Ministry of Interior did the right thing, under its power to”prevent the spread of immorality in society.” In fact, then, this isn’t a new policy. The court reaffirmed authority the state always had. Two years ago, for instance, a Polish citizen was vacationing on the North coast here with his Egyptian partner. The Pole grew seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. The nurses found their relationship suspicious and called the police. After several days under arrest, the Egyptian was freed; police deported the Pole, who was still in agonizing pain. I heard all about it at the time, but there was nothing we could do.

Things are much worse these days under Sisi. I sometimes seem insouciant about threats in Egypt, but I’m not. iI’s just that the atmosphere of threat is general here. It affects every corner of your personality, yet it’s hard to take it personally, so wide is the danger spread. Here’s a story. Yesterday, talking with a reporter in the usual seedy Cairo café — a place I’ve always considered safe — I saw a well-dressed man at the next table listening intently. Finally he interrupted. He gathered I was interested in human rights, he said. What did I do? Did I work for Freedom House? Freedom House is, of course, a banned organization, its local office raided and shuttered by the military regime back in 2011. I said no. He added, almost enticingly, that he himself had been tortured, and offered to show me his scars. I gave him my contact information and told him to call me. That was simple responsibility – you do not refuse a torture victim anything you can give; but afterwards I cringed inside. It’s how things are in Egypt. Other people, foreign passport-holders among them, have been arrested for “political” conversations in public places. You don’t know if the person who approaches you is victim or violator, survivor of torture or State Security agent; or both.

That suggests more clearly than any headline how Sisi’s regime is achieving totalitarianism – something Mubarak’s clumsy and inept authoritarian rule, his iron fist of five thumbs, never managed, perhaps never imagined or tried. I see now that totalitarianism is less comprised in how the state controls your private life than in how you do. Ordinary emotions such as sympathy or compassion cease to be modes of solidarity and become dangerous betrayals, self-revelations to be regulated with sleepless scrupulosity, as though they, and not the people you suspect, are the real informers. Mistrusting yourself comes first. Mistrusting others is merely the consequence. But the self-hatred self-suppression brings – and I hated myself for my fear – demands other objects, a wider field of play. To be foreign to yourself is to apprehend foreignness all around you, to fear the stranger in the land of Egypt.

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Still: this story, the deportation story, went viral abroad. It’s strange because LGBT Egypt has not been in the international news much for months. When you deal with the media, you get used to its collective movements, puzzling as tidal motions when it’s too cloudy to see the moon, or the startled shuddering of gazelles racing in unison through tall grass. But other terrible things happened here recently. A man acquitted on charges of homosexuality tried to burn himself to death in despair. Police arrested an accused “shemale,” splaying her photos on the Internet. Egypt’s government threatened to close a small HIV/AIDS NGO because it gave safer-sex info to gay men. None of these got such press. The contrast is striking.

I learn three things from all this. First: our attention span isn’t what it used to be.

The world is everything that is the case, said Wittgenstein. These days we can click instantly on every fact about the world. When everything is the case, nothing might as well be; the excess of fact turns fantastic, the surfeit of reality becomes unreal. The LGBT arrests in Egypt had their moment of fame late last year, but the spotlight moves on; nothing is ever serious enough to make it halt. I’m not complaining about the press. In fact, many reporters have written about LGBT Egyptians both repeatedly and well (Lester FederBel Trew, and Patrick Kingsley have helped keep pressure up, among many others). But the attention span of news consumers, and activists among them, shrivels; and that’s a problem.

I often think of the long international campaign throughout the 1990s to repeal Romania’s sodomy law. A few Romanian friends and I started researching the fates of people arrested under the law after I moved to the country in 1992 (it was some of the first human rights documentation ever on the persecution of LGBT people). Bucharest finally repealed the law in 2001. Over those nine years the Council of Europe and the EU exerted pressure; so did international groups like IGLHRC and Amnesty; and so did activist circles from Soho to Rome. The agitation was steady, so persistent that every time a Romanian politician visited Western Europe he was sure of facing a noisy protest somewhere. It would be simply impossible to keep a decade-long campaign like that going today. Nobody has patience. These days, if the law didn’t disappear after a single summer of sign-waving, the anger would evanesce like early frost.

Consider the transient 2013 furor against Putin’s homophobia: with its boycott calls and Stoli dumps, the campaign survived all of seven months. None of its self-proclaimed leaders even remember it anymore. Abstaining from vodka for a few weeks had absolutely zero chance of making the Russian state back down. Seasonal activist infatuations are doomed. Repression doesn’t cower before fads. Change takes work, and work means the long haul.

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Dec 2013

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia (while dabbling in transphobia) in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis, AP

There is of course the well-known malady of “compassion fatigue,” a multisyllabic way of saying boredom. There’s been so much news from Egypt since the 2011 Revolution, so many twists in the plot, that even the most rapt listener gets lost. And isn’t the Middle East mixed up anyway? Six months ago, the enemy was the demon ISIS in Iraq. Now it’s the demon Houthis (who?) in Yamland or somewhere. Even the demons can’t keep themselves straight.

In fact, the confusion of cable news feeds the wiles of statesmen. “Compassion fatigue” serves a political end. Empathy, souring into self-pity about how overstrained it is, ignores inconvenient crimes. Egypt, by publicly killing “terrorists,” has planted itself on the side of the West. It’s best for all concerned to have minimal publicity about Egyptian state terror. After all, ISIS is worse — though they may have slain fewer civilians than Sisi. The Houthis are worse — though don’t they sound like they’re from Dr. Seuss? (And the distinction between being killed in Tikrit and killed in Tahrir Square may well look like the narcissism of small differences if you’re the one dead.) You might possibly remember Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Activist, journalist, poet, mother, she was murdered by security forces in Tahrir in January, while trying to place flowers in honor of the now-expired Revolution’s martyrs. A photograph of her dying in a friend’s arms broke through the wall of indifference; the story briefly travelled worldwide.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Last month the state pressed criminal charges. No, not against her killers. Against the witnesses who testified to prosecutors about her killing — because they’d joined an “illegal demonstration.” They could face five years in prison, for being there when Shaimaa was shot. Did you know that? No. The story’s over; we’ve moved on. It’s better you don’t know, because after all, your compassion might get tired; wiser to tend your valetudinarian emotions than defend exhausted dissidents, or the memory of those already murdered and past help.

Another lesson is: some people don’t count. Sex workers, for instance. I hate to say this, because it seems to give the Egyptian government a pass – but the idea that governments can exert moral controls at the border is not a Middle Eastern peculiarity. The US still denies entry to anyone involved in sex work. The American immigration bar on “moral turpitude” uses almost the same language as the Egyptian exclusion. Most gay Americans have no idea of this: because the American gay movement couldn’t give a shit about sex workers.

And then there are trans people. Most of the Egyptians arrested in the crackdown since 2013 were transgender. The government explicitly says it’s going after “she-males,” sissies, mokhanatheen. Nonetheless, most coverage by Western media – or by Western NGOs – talks about an anti-“gay” crackdown, as though sex were everything, gender irrelevant, and trans folk distractions from the main event.

The Egyptian arrests that got the most publicity were ones that did involve cis men: working-class clients of a bathhouse, or respectable bearded types doing the gayest of gay things in Western eyes, getting wed. In Egypt, as a colleague of mine points out, these gained extra-large headlines because they showed “perversion” at its most dangerous, infecting people like us, not just the pre-emptively anomalous. But they became poster boys in the West for similar reasons, because these were people gay readers could identify with, muscular and married, “normal.” Trans people doing sex work are neither nice nor news. Who gives a damn? Getting arrested is simply their destiny, their job.

In 2013 the Western press started reporting that the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – were going to test and expel “gay” people at the border. There was a storm of stories about how dumb this was. Silly Arabs, setting up gay detectors in airports! Then it turned out the targets weren’t gay people (or Western visitors) at all. Kuwait had proposed chromosome tests for migrant workers, to determine if their genes and their IDs conformed. They meant to expel trans people coming from countries like Nepal (a major exporter of exploited labor to the Gulf) that now permitted them treacherously to change their passports. This wasn’t silly; it was scientific, and a much worse invasion of privacy than an imaginary gaydar machine.

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days.  From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days. From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

And with that, the stories stopped. Nobody cared about trans people – or poor Nepalis. The Human Rights Campaign, the US gay behemoth now going international, still claims in a recent report that the tests were meant to keep out only “gay” people. This isn’t a mere mistake; HRC knows better. But their members’ empathy, and donations, won’t get revved up for trans Nepali domestic workers. Purely hypothetical Western gay businessmen facing persecution, blond boys flying first class and unfairly driven from Abu Dhabi like Sarah Jessica Parker, are way more likely to stimulate the cash flow.

Bad migrants vs. good: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); Sex and the City 2 girls in Abu Dhabi (actually filmed in Morocco; bottom, if you didn't guess).

Bad migrants vs. good ones: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); the Sex and the City II girls in Abu Dhabi (bottom, if you didn’t guess).

And that shows a third lesson. Some people do matter. Some stories do break through. There are more important travelers than migrants or refugees. This story has legs because it implies that tourists, innocent people from the West, can be swept up in Egypt’s series of unfortunate events.

Sometimes tourists are victims of rights violations, and that must be condemned. But the most effective condemnations draw connections. What Westerners endure can bring attention to what others suffer.

In mid-2013, after the Egyptian coup, queer Canadian filmmaker John Greyson and his colleague Tarek Loubani were arrested in Cairo. They were “tourists” in a broad sense, passing through on their way to work in Palestine. The paranoiac regime, which treats all real or imaginary opponents as terrorists, accused them of conspiracy. The international campaign to free them, politically astute, brought into focus the violent repression Sisi also inflicted on many others, including massacres of Muslim Brotherhood adherents. (A mark of how successfully Greyson’s and Loubani’s case illuminated Egypt’s whole human rights record was how they pissed off Canada’s equally terrorist-obsessed right wing.) And Greyson has passionately kept on doing so since his release.

On the other extreme, I have miserable memories of the embattled gay pride in Moscow in 2007. A flock of foreigners came, European politicians and minor celebrities, many hoping to garner a little publicity for the cause and themselves: get arrested briefly, spend an afternoon in jail, give a press conference. It was no more intrinsically offensive than taking selfies at Bergen-Belsen. They inadvertently drew the media away, however, from the young Russian marchers arrested at the same time, sent to jail in the Moscow outskirts with no cameras attending. They also monopolized the lawyers; the young Russians had none. I’m afraid the Moscow Pride circus is more typical of what happens when Westerners get involved than was John Greyson.

Nicholas Kristof, white-savior-in-residence at the New York Times, has written how nobody cares when he just describes foreign brown folks and their strivings. It takes a “bridge character,” “some American who they can identify with,” to “get people to care”:

It hugely helps to have appealing and charismatic characters … Often the best way to draw readers in is to use an American or European as a vehicle to introduce the subject and build a connection.

But it never works. Read Kristof and see: all the sympathy goes to the span itself, to the charismatic white connecting hero. Nobody’s attention makes it to the other side. Whatever happens to me, in Egypt or anyplace else, God save me from being a bridge to nowhere.

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

And here’s the heart of the matter. The context for this latest case is twofold. Egypt’s government has been cracking down on gender and sexual dissent for a year and half. But it’s also been whipping up xenophobia, fear of foreign influences, hatred of foreigners themselves. Now it’s figured out how to make those two kinds of incitement meet.

Westerners have been targets of Egypt’s xenophobic campaign, painted as conspirators against the country. Michele Dunne, an American expert on Egypt, was turned away at Cairo airport in December in retaliation for her criticisms of Sisi. Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch was expelled last August. Last month the government announced it would stop granting visas on arrival to most Western visitors, requiring applications in advance instead. It was a move to keep unwanted critics out. But Egypt understands how vital its already-moribund tourist industry is, and how restricting visas might scare the last few pocketbooks away. The measure was “postponed.”

Although this deportation case dates back seven years, the way the government is publicizing it now – while it’s arresting alleged LGBT people on a massive scale – suggests they have new plans to put these powers to use. The truth is, though, that Western tourists won’t be the easiest targets. Those who’ll suffer most will be from poorer African or Arab counties, those who don’t spend dollars, whose embassies won’t lift a digit to defend them: or – still more defenseless — suspected trans or gay people from Egypt’s communities of refugees.

Some Middle Eastern states have been welcoming to refugees. Syria – though one of the poorest countries in the region – took in waves of displaced Palestinians from the nakba till now, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis after the Bush invasion. Egypt has not, on the whole, been on the hospitable side. The national identity inculcated since the 1950s is intolerant of ethnic difference and of influences from outside. The state has accommodated refugees – Sudanese since the 1990s, Iraqis and Syrians now – but reluctantly; it harasses them, denies them political rights or permanent status, and insists it’s only a transit point for loiterers who eventually must move along. And ever since Sisi took power, refugees have been vilified by state-promoted xenophobia. Syrians and Palestinians are especially singled out. But every refugee in Egypt lives in anxiety. There are plenty of LGBT folk among them. (Last fall a cohort of plainclothes security forces raided the apartment of a gay Syrian refugee I know. They searched his papers, computer, phone, and noted all the gay-related documents and photos. They didn’t arrest him. They just wanted him to know they were there.) This publicized decision will only sharpen their fear.

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

The fate of refugees in Egypt is not just abstract for me. It’s bound up with guilt. In 2003, working for Human Rights Watch, I lived in Cairo for several months. Two days after I arrived, police began arresting refugees, mostly African, in sweeping raids in neighborhoods where they clustered. Such harassment is recurrent; most were freed in days; but, covering the raids and talking to the victims, I got to know some of the community leaders. In the next months, they organized many meetings for me with refugees in Cairo, so I could hear their stories. I thought perhaps the documentation could push Human Rights Watch into reporting on the situation in detail.

Most of the people I talked to were South Sudanese, survivors of the civil war raging there for 20 years. We met in their cramped flats; in the dusty courtyard of All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek, an asylum where police rarely intruded; or in rundown Coptic churches in Shobra, where fellow Christians had afforded the South Sudanese some space.

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Cairo was and is one of the slowest in the world.  It could take UNHCR years — it still does — just to schedule an intake interview. Until the UN formally recognized them as refugees – three, five, seven years after their arrival – the displaced had no legal rights in Egypt at all; after that, they had to wait more years for the UN to resettle them in a third, safe country. Some had been in Egypt for well over a decade. Meanwhile, they endured constant harassment, joblessness, humiliation. Nobody outside the community had listened to them before. Women working for a pittance as maids told me about sexual harassment and rape. Some men sold their organs to survive. Police picked them up off the streets, beat them, ignored the UNHCR’s hapless interventions to protect them; there were stories that some refugees, randomly arrested, had been driven south and deported illegally back across the border, to Sudan and death. The waiting and fear drove some people mad. One courtly man of about fifty took me aside at a church meeting. He had been tortured in Sudan; he showed me a scar on his arm. He had many narratives of persecution, but most embarrassing now, he said was an unbearable rumor circulating all across Egypt that he had a tail. He showed me medical documents, testimonies elicited from doctors in English and Arabic, painfully certifying that he was tailless. He also gave me a typed personal statement, in English. “Among the many crosses I am compelled to Bear, in a long Journay and much Torture, the widespread libel that I am a Tail Wizard is completely Unfounded.” Others at the meeting treated him with deference, as if they envied the relief in his delusions.

I began to feel uneasy about these meetings. My presence was an implicit promise that I would do something, and there was nothing I could do. In February and March Egypt’s security state moved on to arresting and torturing hundreds of leftists opposing the Iraq war. I had to document that, and gradually my meetings with the Sudanese lapsed. Human Rights Watch, its refugee program stretched thin, never produced a report on these abuses (though in recent years they’ve documented, in harrowing detail, the monstrosities traffickers inflict on desperate African refugees in Sinai). I still think of my inability to provide some concrete assistance as one of the worst failures in my twenty-five year career, and I can’t remember it without shame.

Now there’s another basis, inscribed in law, for harassing some of them.

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Some refugees tried to speak up about their endless agonies. Two and a half years after I left, in September 2005, Sudanese started a sit-in before the Cairo UNHCR offices, demanding faster processing of their claims. The UN treated the protest with contempt; one staffer accused them of wanting “a ticket to go to dreamland.”

Three months passed; then UNHCR called in the authorities. On December 30, 4000 police surrounded and shot at the unarmed Sudanese. At least 27 died, including eight women and between seven and twelve children. Thousands were arrested; among those, hundreds who had not yet been given refugee cards by UNHCR faced deportation. The first dozen Cairo planned to deport included three women and a child. “Egypt has dealt with the sit-in of the refugees with wisdom and patience,” the country’s foreign minister said.

A Sudanese removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

A Sudanese man removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

Ten years later, this massacre is forgotten in Cairo. It never figures on the list of Mubarak’s crimes. Nobody bothers to remind UNHCR of its complicity in the killings. Refugees don’t matter.

The massacre did merit brief mention in a text that’s become a Bible for right-wingers warning about the Muslim peril. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West is a 2009 book by conservative American journalist Christopher Caldwell. Seemingly ignorant that the demonstrators were Christian, he uses the protest to press his case — distorting it, insulting the dead in the process:

3000 Sudanese camped in front of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo to seek refugee status. What was bizarre was that many of them already had refugee status in Egypt. So these were bogus petitioners in the sense that what they were really seeking was passage to some country more prosperous than Egypt. The sad ending to the story, though, shows that the line between “real” and “bogus” calls for help is not always easy to draw: in the last days of 2005, Egyptian riot police attacked the encampment, killing twenty-three [sic].

Bogus vs. real migrants: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

Bogus person vs. real one: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

That’s not true. Either Caldwell, who claims to be an immigration expert, doesn’t understand refugee law, or he’s just lying. I think he’s lying. Egypt doesn’t grant anybody “refugee status.” It has no national asylum procedures at all. It gives people whom the UN recognizes as refugees (the status most of the the protesters were still waiting for) a limited right to stay, but only temporarily, on the understanding they will eventually be resettled elsewhere. The dead Caldwell defames were not “really seeking” someplace “more prosperous.” They were asking the UN to do its mandated job, to find them a country that would give them the legal right to live.

Caldwell is a fool, but he’s right on one thing: this is all about the bogus and the real. It’s about belonging. Egypt’s government is now deciding who belongs or not, who’s a real or bogus person. The gays are fake people, void of the authenticity and weight that might entitle them to stay.

But isn’t that how we readers, sympathizers, citizens use these stories too, to separate the wheat from chaff? We winnow the fit objects of our concern from the unwanted ones, from those whose sufferings don’t ring true because we don’t recognize ourselves in them. Tourists count, not migrant workers. White travelers count, not brown refugees. Gay, yes; transgender, no. We each mistrust the incomprehensible stranger, you as much as I do. We were all strangers once in the land of Egypt. But we forgot.

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

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New arrests of alleged trans and gay people in Cairo

Seven innocent Snow Whites: From Youm7, February 27

Seven victims: Still from Youm7 video, February 27

Some of us hoped the acquittal of victims in Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid would resonate longer than a few days or weeks; maybe prosecutors and police, humiliated by the implosion of a showpiece case, would back off from their pursuit of illusory “perversion.” But that would be unlike this government. General Sisi, dizzy with his own powers, takes each failure as an opportunity to fail better.

On February 27, Al-Youm al-Sabbah (or Youm7), mouthpiece of the state’s morals campaign, headlined the arrest of seven “transsexuals” (motahawiloon genseyan) the night before. The vice squad, “under the administration of Major General Magdy Moussa,” found them “forming a network for practicing debauchery [fugur, the term of art for male homosexual conduct] in Cairo.” Youm7 included video interviews with the victims, chained together in the police station. It blurred their faces — usually, it flaunts them. But a photo the news organ posted on Facebook showed two of them, up close and clearly. I won’t reprint it here. The two seemed very young (one person with a little knowledge of the case told me some of the victims might be minors, but I’ve also heard that isn’t true). One of them looked utterly terrified.

And a grumpy dwarf: Major General Magdy Moussa, from El Methaz

And a grumpy dwarf: Major General Magdy Moussa. Photo from Vetogate.com

Youm7 says that, according to Moussa, police followed the victims

through their web pages on social media, and have proof that they publish naked photos. He also confirmed that the administration has created fake webpages to follow up the activities of perverts [shawazz], which led them in recent days to organize meetings with them in a nightclub on Al-Haram [Pyramids] Road, where [they were told that] at the end of the evening they would be taken to apartments to participate in debauchery.

The truth seems different.

Haram Road: Photo by Marwan Abdelhamed

Haram Road in the Giza district of Cairo: Photo by Marwan Abdelrahman

Al-Haram Road is one of those points where the Cairo people live in confronts and copulates with the Cairo tourists see. A long strip of street stretched west toward the mauve haze where the old Egyptians believed the dead went, it carries the city’s smog out to lap at the haunches of the Pyramids. It’s a smear of lights and shabbiness like a cut-rate Vegas, full of seedy nightclubs patronized by Westerners taking a break from the ruins, and Gulf Arabs taking a what-happens-in-Egypt-stays-in-Egypt break from home. The American scholar Paul Amar has documented some three decades of political battles over the entertainment sites along the road.  Louche venues where foreigners and Egyptians mingle, they unnerve authorities by implicitly posing an alternative to a “national culture that is embodied most essentially in gender norms.” Between threats to bulldoze them, the government watches and polices the clubs and streets. (No wonder Major General Hassan Abbas, head of the vice squad’s “International Activities” division, also led the arrests — according to Youm7.) The El-Leil Casino is one of the area’s most venerable, and respectable, bars. It offers dinner and dancing, and a cabaret where some of Egypt’s best-known bellydancers perform.

The El-Leil

The El-Leil

The police grabbed the defendants there. One version I heard is that six were sitting at a table together. A transgender woman who was a police informer pointed them out to an undercover cop, who seized them. Although some of the victims may identify as trans, apparently not all do, and all were wearing men’s clothing. In the video, most of them deny that they knew each other before that night. The seventh defendant is a cisgender woman who was near their table. Reportedly she asked police what was going on, and they took her too. (Her interview on the Youm7 video seems to confirm this.)

If this is true, the Internet entrapment story may not be. Yet the police do seem intensely anxious about the Internet and how “perverts” use it. The video is salted with shots of trans women, seemingly from social-media pages. One defendant, dazed, suggests the cops interrogated him heavily about his online presence: “They took me while we were sitting and I don’t have any [Web] pages and I don’t know how to read or write.”

The story shows police increasingly bent on using the Internet — as trap or evidence — against anyone they suspect of being transgender or gay. Fears of prostitution (and its attendant exchanges across bodies, classes, borders) also simmer. The authorities say each of the victims “got paid about 3000 LE to practice debauchery” — about $400 US, the kind of price only a foreigner would pay.

Rogue journalist Mona Iraqi, of course, tried hard to exploit just such fears, latent but potent in an increasingly resentful, xenophobic country. In her last, self-justifying TV program on her bathhouse case, a month after the acquittal, she tried to “prove” the working-class hammam was a homosexual haven by citing English-language Google searches. And she still claimed that “sex trafficking” was going on there, mouthing the ominous syllables without a rag of evidence that any client had been exploited, or transported, or even aroused.

Mona Iraqi’s latest broadcast about the bathhouse raid, February 4

Yet the only bit of good news I can point to is that Mona Iraqi failed. Egypt keeps sinking deeper into authoritarian paralysis, but at least her discrediting continues; and she’s had a terrible month. In mid-February, while she was trying to pursue some sort of story on a private school, the headmaster– apparently made suspicious by her reputation — called the police and had her arrested for filming on the grounds without permission. Tarek el-Awady, a defense lawyer from the bathhouse case who has doggedly pursued her since, gleefully released the police report to the press. And a week after that, el-Awady’s complaint against her for libelling the bathhouse defendants bore fruit. Prosecutors charged Iraqi and the owner of the host TV station, Tarek Nour, with bringing false accusations against their victims. They’ll stand trial beginning April 5.

Tarek Nour, receiving an award for best performance in a role supporting really evil people

Tarek Nour, receiving an award for best performance in a role supporting really evil people

Don’t rejoice yet, though. In addition to the problems with Egypt’s repressive law on libel (it’s a criminal as well as civil offense, incurring up to one year in prison) there’s something funny here. A scent of political scheming always hung round the bathhouse case. The fact that Iraqi’s boss Tarek Nour faces trial as well adds to the intangible suspicion. Nour is not just a broadcaster. He’s the “emperor of ads,” the immensely rich owner and founder of Tarek Nour Communications, one of the first and largest private advertising agencies in the Middle East. (His TV channel is a handy side business; he buys the ads he makes.) A slavish camp follower of the military-industrial establishment, Nour was Mubarak’s favorite media maven, doing the dictator’s ads for the one (farcially) contested election he ever permitted, as well as for the presidential campaign of Mubarak stooge Ahmed Shafik in 2012. Then he ran Sisi’s advertising for both the January 2014 referendum on a new constitution, and the presidential race later that year. So close was he to the Generalissimo that a rumor even spread last year that Sisi’s reclusive wife was Nour’s sister — apparently not true.

So why is he on trial in this comparatively trivial case? Just maybe, the tycoon disappointed the tyrant du jour. Since there was no imaginable way Sisi could lose either vote, Nour’s main job was to gin up enough enthusiasm for a legitimacy-lending turnout: and he failed. In the constitutional referendum, Nour publicly promised a 60% turnout; in fact, it was under 40%. And the presidential ballot so humiliated Sisi with its low attendance that he was obliged to keep the polls open an extra day, so that a seemly quantity of voters could be bought, bullied, or resurrected from the dead. I doubt Nour will ever serve a day in jail, but it’s just conceivable the collapse of the bathhouse case gave Sisi an excuse to remind him that poor performance carries consequences.

Not hidden from me: Mona Iraqi on TV

Not hidden from me: Mona Iraqi on TV

I stress: I have no idea whether that’s true. But the diversion the speculation provides, absent any real knowledge of what’s going on, itself indicates how a certain kind of authoritarianism works. Egypt today is obsessed by secrets. (Mona Iraqi’s program, after all, is called “The Hidden.”) Everybody’s searching out obscure motives, untold tales; even private life, in a surveillance state, is spectacle. Intimacies, unblurred photos, inward lives, the contents of keepsake chests and password-protected pages, are rooted up and splayed for everyone to see. But in the process everything — justice, politics, private experience — turns into entertainment, a soap opera of conspiracy stories. I’m as easily distracted as anyone. And under the show the mechanisms of power tick on undisturbed: even more deeply buried, hidden.

While we were calling people last night trying to find out what happened on Haram Road, an Arab satellite channel droned in my living room, rerunning Running Man. It’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the Reagan era, about a dystopian world that forces convicted criminals to fight to the death in a huge, televised, wildly popular game show. (The Hunger Games stole the idea.) Those days, nobody had dreamed of reality TV. We laughed when the evil game show host barked into the phone, “Get me the Justice Department — the Entertainment Division!” That was then. I’m in Cairo now. The joke’s here.

The open road; Haram Road under development, in a photo probably from the 1930s, from Fatakat.com

The open road: Haram Road under development, in a photo probably from the 1930s, at Fatakat.com

On death threats, trolls, and truth

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Violent transgender activists cooking up a juicy free speech stew

The center has shifted in the debate over last week’s Observer letter. What was once an argument about grave human rights abuses against trans people and sex workers has now become an argument about grave abuses against Peter Tatchell, mostly between him and him. I had no intention of writing another word on this; but then I read Peter’s self-defense. It’s headlined “Peter Tatchell: Twitter mob who vowed to kill me over transgender letter have it all wrong.”

Screen shot 2015-02-23 at 5.22.20 AMThis was strange. I’ve heard warnings of “killer trans people” from Turkish police trying to justify torture; never from a human rights activist before. So I spent a few hours searching on Twitter for Tweets containing Peter’s name plus any of a thesaurus of threats (“murder,” “kill,” “beat,” “stab,” etc.). I also searched for a variety of Anglo-Saxon terms of abuse.

First finding: this “Twitter storm” was maybe not so stormy. Peter laments that “I received 4,000 to 5,000 mostly hostile comments” on Twitter, “from Saturday [February 14] to Monday [February 16].” An advanced search on Twitter uncovers all the Tweets sent to and from @PeterTatchell during February 14 – 17 (that’s one extra day). By my count — my eyes are misty– there were only 2621, of which 174 were Peter’s own. Many of the rest had nothing to do with the Observer letter. Perhaps 2000 did, over the four days.

Second finding: this “Twitter mob” was no mob. So far as I see, Peter got one Tweet that contained threatening language; it’s the one he’s cited and retweeted everywhere.

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 5.37.35 AMThat Tweet is disturbing. I’d support Peter if he reported it to the police. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a clear threat — it’s riffing abusively off Peter’s use of the “MURDER of trans people” and his implication that trans activists didn’t care enough about their own, an assertion that infuriated many. The Tweeter seems to be a nasty kid (a self-described “Marxoteen”). Somebody else advised Peter:Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.50.19 AMWhat’s also important is that this Tweet was a complete outlier. I saw no other message that could be taken as threatening (nor has Tatchell cited any). (Again, all Tweets to and from Peter during the period are here; I encourage others to analyze them in detail.) Some Tweets tried to start a dialogue, some tried to explain why others were angry, some were critical, some raised questions of identity no doubt destined to discomfit Peter, but most were civil and none were menacing. These were typical:

Tatchell trans tweets 1

Only a few Tweets used language I might find abusive:

ab Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.29.11 AM

It’s disconcerting to find several hundred Tweets clogging your notifications, but volume isn’t the same thing as violence or abuse. I generally agree with trans activist Sarah Brown, who wrote Peter:

sb Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.55.33 AMI also feel for the trans member of the Green Party who wrote:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.31.46 AMThere was no trans “Twitter mob” threatening to kill Tatchell. What is clear is that Peter turned to the media to create the belief that there was. And mainly he went to the right-wing media, because they loathe trans people anyway. On Monday Milo Yiannopoulos at the far-right website Breitbart Tweeted:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 10.42.15 AM

(A commenter below notes that Yiannopolous was one of the wannabe-jock jerks who last year fanned up Gamergate and its misogynistic, anti-feminist vitriol. He wrote “column after column slamming feminists” and “sociopathic” women gamers — making him an odd partner for Tatchell, but a productive place to seek support.)  Later that day Breitbart published its article claiming Tatchell was being “persecuted” by the “vocal, and vicious,” “increasingly shrill and intolerant transgender lobby.” On Thursday Brendan O’Neill in the Spectator upped the transphobia, warning that the “grandfather of gay rights” was under assault from “vicious, narcissistic cowards,” “self-styled queers and gender-benders” who “went berserk,” a “petulant mob of moaners … hurling abuse.” And of course O’Neill, like Peter, said they were ungrateful. Tatchell’s

risk-taking and street-fighting over 40-odd years helped to secure their liberation, to create a society in which they could live and speak freely. And how do they repay him? By tweeting their fantasises [sic] about him being murdered for being a ‘fucking parasite’.

That’s characteristic of Tatchell: when a person or group offends his amour-propre, he turns to the media to make them sorry. Using a single Tweet to discredit trans activists in general, however, shreds the claim to be an “ally.” Instead, Tatchell consciously strengthened gendered prejudices against trans people as hysterical, shrill, and dangerous. Sara Ahmed, in a thoughtful post last week that I’ve cited earlier, predicted exactly what he did:

Those who are oppressed – who have to struggle to exist often by virtue of being a member of a group – are often judged as the oppressors. …  The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. … These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti­racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. …

Of course people protested against this letter. It is deeply offensive in so many ways. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But this will happen quickly …: those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.

And of course the opponents of trans people’s identities and rights took their cue:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 12.07.58 PMI’ve gotten a small but significant number of threats in my life. I’ve been a public voice on LGBT rights in a variety of places where the rights and their claimaints were violently despised — Romania in the early 90s, for instance, or Egypt now; threats go with the territory. Much more comparable to this kerfluffle was the flurry of opposing e-mails I got about a post on sex work a while back. Some of these raised important questions, most were no more angry than your average letter to the editor, a very few were abusive, and one — which stood out — said I should be “disemboweled”: “I want you to die in agony feeling the blood run down your thighs the way it runs between the thighs of a woman who has been raped by 27 johns in a single night …” There’s a certain kind of pseudo-human rights talk that imaginatively colonizes the experience of victimhood, like mystics meditating on the wounds of Christ. It’s distasteful, particularly when it’s used to tag you as a supposed abuser. But I didn’t assume this was representative of all sex work opponents, or radical feminists, or feminists in general, or people with Earthlink accounts, or Vermonters, or any other group identity I could have extracted from the e-mail. Now I see: I don’t dramatize myself enough. I should have run to the press with an op-ed saying, “I forgive the radical feminists who want to disembowel me.” I do forgive radical feminists who want to disembowel me. I just don’t think there are any.

One more thing. That phrase “fucking parasite” turned up amid my search results in one other place. A week before this controversy started, Tatchell Tweeted a complaint about why Muslims weren’t protesting the right things (not unlike his lament that trans people were ignoring murders of trans people). A Muslim woman responded to him. A nasty troll — prone to obscenity, misogyny, and racist browbeating — then intervened in Tatchell’s defense with a slew of Islamophobic messages. Tatchell was copied on all these; but he didn’t raise a keystroke on the woman’s behalf, neither to demur nor or to reproach the racist. He stayed indifferently silent, even at the culmination, when the guy shouted she was a “fucking parasite cunt”:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 7.45.50 AMI guess it all depends on who’s being abused.

NOTE: I’ve updated this post twice since it was published: once, to add information about a Breitbart editor to which I was directed by a commenter; and a second time to include, and explain, a link to the Twitter search results.

Egypt: Tweeting and blogging against informer journalists and homophobia

Stop informer journalists

Stop informer journalists

Tomorrow, December 21, is the first hearing in the trial of men arrested in Mona Iraqi’s December 7 bathhouse raid in Cairo. I will post updates here. Meanwhile: Protest this horrendous human rights abuse. Some very brave Egyptian activists are calling for a campaign on Twitter and social media — starting tomorrow, but continuing after. You can tweet using the hashtag #مخبر_اعلامي : in English, #StopInformerJournalists. You can also copy in @Mona_Iraqi and @MonaIraqiTV. The event page is here, and the call to action is below, in Arabic and then English:

يوم للتغريد و التدوين ضد اللإعلاميين المخبرين و الإعتقالات بناءاً على الهوية الجنسية

في هذا اليوم سيتم التدوين و التغريد من خلال كافة أدوات التواصل الإجتماعي كنوع من التظاهر ضد تعاون مني العراقي اللا أخلاقي مع جهاز الشرطة القمعي، و الذي أدى إلى أكبر حملة اقبض في التاريخ المصري لأشخاص بناءاً على على ما يعتقد أنه ميلهم الجنسي منذ حادثة كوين بوت في مطلع الألفينات. لم تكتف منى بإرشاد الشرطة إلى اعتقال ستة و عشرين — مع الوضع في الإعتبار أنه تم إبقائهم عراة بينما قامت هي بتصويرهم بهاتفها المحمول — بل روجت أيضا – بسوء نية- لفكرة أن الإعتقال سببه السيطرة على انتشار فيروس نقص المناعة البشرية و الدعارة! نحن نتظاهر ضد الانحطاط الحقيقي الذي تمارسه منى عراقي و أمثالها. نحن نتظاهر ضد الإعلاميين الذين أصبحوا مخبرين لصالح الشرطة بدلا من ان يكونوا ناقلين مهنيين للحقائق. نحن نتظاهر ضد عنف الدولة و انعدام العدالة ضد كل من يشتبه في كونه مثلي أو متحول جنسي

كيف يمكن أن أشارك؟

في هذا اليوم — غداً الأحد — دون\ي، إكتب\ي، غرد\ي على أي من مواقع التواصل الإجتماعي معبراً عن رأيك في هذه الأحداث المشينة مرفقة بالهاشتاج الآتي: #‏الاعلامي_المخبر

Tweeting and blogging against informer journalists and homophobia:

Contributions will be made through all social media to protest Mona Iraqi’s unethical cooperation with oppressive police forces, which led to the largest crackdown on people based on their assumed sexual orientations in recent Egyptian history. Not only did she lead the police in arresting 26 people — men kept naked while she filmed them using her camera phone like a bounty hunter – she covered her tracks with a media campaign spreading the idea that this is about HIV and prostitution. We protest the real perversion practiced by Mona Iraqi and her like. We protest the journalists who become informers rather than neutral transmitters of fact. We protest the state brutality and extreme injustice against people suspected of being gay or transgender in Egypt.

How can I contribute?

On that day, here’s what we will do. Go to any of your social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or your own blog. Write a post or share a picture that expresses your opinions on the matter. Attach it with this hashtag: #المخبرـالإعلامي

 

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

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

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

Günter Grass, “Folding Chairs”

Three stories about Egypt today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sally Mursi

Sally Mursi

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

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

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

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So everything was fine and up to expectations.

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

Günter Grass, “Food for Prophets”

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

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

Last word on Kuwait: Unfortunately

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the “third sex” to Kuwaiti ears?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, thoughtful Frenchman!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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