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In the Middle East, Marginalized LGBT Youth Find Supportive Communities Online

BY Anna Lekas Miller | Thursday, September 6 2012

Image from Shutterstock.

It is no secret that homosexuality is taboo in the Arab world.

In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, homosexuals can face years in prison — if they aren’t immediately sentenced to death. Even in Beirut, Lebanon — a city that has been dubbed the Provincetown of the Middle East by the New York Times travel section for its gay-friendly reputation — men suspected of being homosexuals have recently been arrested and forced to submit to an anal examination to “confirm” their sexual orientation.

Homophobia and homophobic stigma hang heavily in the air. Until recently, there was no Arabic word for “homosexual” — the terms used to describe homosexuality were the same words for “sexual deviant,” “pervert” and “Citizen of Lot.” Due to both laws and language, homosexuality is viewed as an unspeakably shameful disorder, curable only through suppressing and denying it until it “disappears.”

Understandably, many young gay Arabs only come out to a small handful of trusted people—and still others don’t come out at all.

But could this be changing?

I reached out to a young blogger in Lebanon known online as Lebanon Rebel. We have never met and I did not verify her identity independently, but we have communicated over e-mail, and I find her highly credible. Unlike the sensationalist fake blogger Gay Girl in Damascus, Lebanon Rebel's blog resembles a personal project that has gained political prominence as more and more people use the Internet as a space to come out.

“I didn’t know there was an LGBT movement in Lebanon,” Lebanon Rebel told me. Lebanon Rebel lives in rural Lebanon, far from the underground but still thriving gay scene of Beirut. Like many Arabs living away from urban oases, her first exposure to homosexuality — and LGBT social justice activism — was online.

Before she started blogging, she thought that there were no other homosexuals in Lebanon.

“Thankfully, I had a bunch of foreign friends over the Internet that made it easy to see that I was not an abomination. I started blogging to meet other activists, make friends and show other LGBT people that they are not alone.”

Now, Lebanon Rebel has been blogging for almost two years. At first, she was hesitant to reveal any details about her personal identity or her location. However, as time went on, she became more and more comfortable and even agreed to meet with local friends and followers in person.

“The Internet revolutionized our coming out, without it most of us would feel alone and helpless.”

There are many other bloggers like Lebanon Rebel — many are also anonymous or blogging under pseudonyms, though an increasing amount are beginning to use their real names and identities online. Raja Farah — who uses his real name and photograph — frequently blogs about the history of LGBT activism in Lebanon and also shares articles about current news and events in the Lebanese gay community. Gay in Beirut, another anonymous blog run by two friends, features reflective political pieces about the social effects of homophobia in Lebanon.

Blog posts, comment exchanges and the personal relationships that form through the cyber world are allowing LGBT Arabs to share information and empower each other in a way that would be impossible or dangerous in the offline Arab world.

Still, it is important to note that the majority of the LGBT Arab blogosphere is in Lebanon, a country that is considered the exception rather than the rule for many progressive issues in the region. As far as homosexuality is concerned, though it is technically criminalized, the punishment is a year in prison — compared to ten years, or trial, torture and death often experienced in other countries. For this reason, Lebanese LGBT-oriented blogs, social media accounts and other online spaces are far less likely to be tracked and targeted by the government than they might be elsewhere.

“While using the Internet has opened up possibilities for activists — LGBT and otherwise — it also means that these activists can be more easily traced and targeted by regimes,” said Michael Luongo, author of Gay Travels in the Muslim World.

As one attempts to navigate the LGBT Arab blogosphere, this dichotomy becomes apparent. The Syrian Same Sex Society Network, the first Arabic language website concerned with the LGBT community in Syria and the Arab World featuring non-porn articles such as gay news and health resources, is now a blank page. Enha, a recent attempt at an Egyptian LGBT online publication recently had to be shut down due to vague “security reasons” — even though the contributors were anonymous and their location was never disclosed. Though it could be purely coincidental that blogs from Lebanon are current while others are inactive, the severity of laws and stigma in the surrounding countries suggest otherwise.

Language is another privilege that separates the Lebanese LGBT community from the rest of the Arab world. In Lebanon, bloggers can communicate in English or French, languages that are spoken widely throughout the country. However, bloggers from other countries in the region who communicate predominantly in their native Arabic — making their writing more accessible to a wider Arab audience — are far more likely to be targeted and interrogated or detained and tortured by authorities.  

Despite these threats, human rights organizations in the Middle East are still incorporating sexual minorities into their work. Last year, Bahrain-based human rights umbrella organization MidEastYouth launched Ahwaa, a bilingual English-Arabic online forum specifically for LGBT youth in the Middle East.

“We knew that we were pushing the limits, but we have done Ahwaa in a very special way that protects the privacy of the users,” co-founder Ahmed Zidan told me. “It was important to us as a minority rights organization to support sexual minorities in the Middle East.”

Ahwaa, meaning “passions” in Arabic, operates several forums devoted to discussions about homophobia, religion, culture, family and identity. There are also message boards for conversations on transsexuality and gender-based violence.

Some of the topics are casual and light, such as discussions of homosexuality in popular culture. “I’ve recently watched interesting films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk — these films didn’t stereotype homosexuals like other mainstream media. Does anyone have experience with underground oriental documentaries/films that deal with these issues?” asks one young man in the culture section.

Another user muses about homosexuality in the context of religious dominance in the Arab World, “Why would God create gay people and then make Christianity and Islam into homophobic religions?”

“Is life better outside the closet?” one user asks, polling others on their experiences coming out to friends and family, and whether or not they think it is worth it.

As users respond to questions, their comments are carefully moderated to ensure that they are sincere and that their advice is informative and helpful. The more one responds to questions, the more “points” one earns — these points translate to levels of trust that are denoted through a colored heart next to the users’ screen name. New users have gray hearts while the most trusted users have green hearts.

Despite this quantification of trust, users are instructed to remain anonymous and not share any personal information. Ultimately, Ahwaa moderators have no way to ensure that users are who they say they are and users must be responsible for their own safety.

It is undeniable that the Internet is a mixed bag for LGBT minorities in the Middle East. For every thriving, increasingly open blog or online community there is another that is threatened and shutdown, often resulting in serious consequences for the participants. Still, for many young LGBT Arabs the Internet for all of its risk, is an essential lifeline of self-expression and moral support. Part of the Internet’s beauty is the duality of intimacy and anonymity — and in many instances, the anonymity that allows for intimacy. Though dangerous, dodging regimes and authorities through multiple pseudonyms and cryptic avatars is essential to breaking into this alternate cyber universe, where LGBT identity and Arab identity can intersect and co-exist. Without this unique space, LGBT Arabs would be living without the language or solidarity to combat the monolithic homophobic stigmas and stereotypes of the Arab World.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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