Westhampton, MA – August 5, 2009
Richard Ammon – GlobalGayz.com
My reaction is mixed. It’s affirming to see the nation’s leading ‘paper of record’ giving so much ink to the ‘homosexual lifestyle’. It wasn’t always so, even as recently as a decade ago. Today, the Times even prints announcements for same-gender marriages and commitment ceremonies.
Sunday’s story was a major spread about Beirut (and it environs) and the gay party-makers, local and foreign, who gathered for a theme party. True, there are some gay-friendly bars and discos scattered in and around the city where people can let their hair down, but that is a far cry from the pervasive gay life that infuses Provincetown. Healy’s theme story is about a Bear Arabia Mega Party – a half hour drive from Beirut – and his verbal portrait is some distance from the day-to-day truth.
“Inching out” is far more an apt description for Beirut than “Provincetown.” The majority of gays here only show themselves at night and are not out to their families. There certainly is nothing that resembles a “gay neighborhood”. The popular Acid Nightclub is safely away from downtown. The original pre-war gay ‘community’ here was not from Lebanon, but Europe, from which people came for the beaches and winter relief.
The story mentions gays (mostly Arab) who like Beirut for the freedom of the nightlife, where they can remove for a few hours the mask of Islam they live behind for most of their lives. Lebanon is more tolerant than anywhere else in the Middle East except Israel. (Nevertheless, a visitor cannot travel directly from Israel to Lebanon; rather one must go through Jordan or another country, and cannot show an Israeli passport stamp.)
The story, earnestly written by Patrick Healy, a gay reporter on the Times staff, based on talks (and partying) with people from the gay unfriendly countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq as well as (slightly) more tolerant Turkey and Italy (moderately) to find friendship, sex and like-minded support.
Healy offered some comments about the human rights efforts of the gay group Helem in Beirut. But this was not the focus of the piece. It was about the party scene, meeting up and going out to dance and drink and hooking up at the chic and trendy watering holes in that city, and voting for Mr. Bear Arabia.
For most of the expansive three-full-pages (in a 12-page travel section of the Times) “gay” meant “party”; it meant “scene”; it meant looking good and hoping for Mr. Right Now.
To quote a song, ‘Is that all there is?’ What’s missing for me is substance.
There is a cultural vacuum in the story. Where is our substance, our meaning as a community? What core efforts and awareness are we instilling into our own community? If the New York Times readers and the Beirut party-goers finish reading and/or dancing without knowing about a single queer activist, or signing a petition, or donating money to help keep a gay rights organization such as Helem or Meem (a lesbian NGO) vital as a lobbying force against discrimination, then what real good has it done?
What’s missing in this and stories like this (i.e. Passport and OutTraveler magazines) is the connection between the late night titillation of sounds and lights and daytime private lives and the activism behind the scenes or in the halls of parliament. That is, between the colorful sweaty nights and the ‘realpolitik’ of persecuted LGBT individuals in the Middle East.
The Media has a responsibility to change stereotypes, to deepen understanding, to integrate different truths. Yes, there is a visually vibrant party scene, but not all gays participate, and many are also suffering isolation and live in fear of rejection or abuse.
The Times story was exclusively male, and predominantly middle class. But that is not who most LGBT people are. It is not how people identify, and to focus predominantly on that part of our community is not authentic. Where are the lesbians and bisexuals and trans people as the gay men dance the night away?
Such party-scene stories depoliticizes gender and sexuality in the name of journalistic simplicity and ‘fun’. It is dishonest and disingenuous because the homosexual presence in any culture is unavoidably political. Homosexuality in any society is a major litmus test of how it treats its minorities and in turn is a significant measure of how safe a culture is.
I think it is incumbent upon LGBT writers to create inclusive reports that raise awareness among ourselves (gay men, lesbians, trans and bisexuals) as well as the larger society. Mr. Healy is a skilled and politically aware writer who has written HALF of the story about gay Beirut. The other half, or the other three-fourths, about the uncomfortable reality of daylight homosexuality in Lebanon is still wanting.
One ‘real’ view of gay Beirut is through the eyes and work of Helem or Meem, which received scant or no mention in Healy’s story. Helem’s ‘invisible’ (non-partying) work is behind the scenes, contacting police, religious leaders, employers, even parents to resolve an endless stream of discrimination, abuse and rejection. “It’s a delicate process, given the deep-seated taboo in Arab countries,” Helem says. The organization is also an award-winning Human Rights organization whose activists struggle against oppression and ignorance in Lebanon. (For more, see Gay Lebanon News and Reports on this site.) Meem is a support community in Lebanon for lesbian, gay and trans persons that has just published the first book of lesbian voices in the country: Bareed Mista3jil
As Rasha Moumneh of Human Rights Watch eloquently said at the recent OutGames Human Rights Conference in Copenhagen, “it is incumbent upon us, as LGBT activists, to know, to seek out information about the world we build our activism around, to understand its complexities and intersections and to create a progressive and inclusive politics of justice, because the lies we are fed come in so thick and so heavy that it takes energy and commitment to sift through them to get to our truths. And if we don’t, we do harm, to ourselves, to our communities, to the people we are standing in solidarity with, and to our movements for social justice. That, to me, is energy worth spending.”
This story also raises the controversial journalistic problem of publishing the names and locations of gay-friendly venues in essentially unsafe societies. At a recent OutGames Human Rights Conference in Copenhagen this issue was discussed by journalists (including one from Helem) regarding responsible reporting of potentially risky material that puts people and places at risk. Even in relatively progressive societies, as the recent tragic killings at a gay youth center in Tel Aviv attest, ‘safe havens’ are only safe when they are not publicized in international media.
Beirut is not happy Provincetown; it is risky Beirut, in essentially homophobic Lebanon.
I would like to see Mr. Healy turn his journalistic hawk-eye in this direction and offer his readers a more authentic ‘full-frontal view’ of homosexuality in this country.
For further reading about homosexuality in a Muslim context:
GlobalGayz News & Reports
Bareed Mista3jil: A book of true-life lesbian stories (2009)
Desiring Arabs by Joseph Massad
Gay Travels in the Muslim World edited by Michael Luongo
Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East by Brian Whitaker
Sexuality and Eroticism Among Males in Moslem Societies by Arno Schmitt