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In 2012 I decided to come out of the closet and uncover my sexual identity to my mother. It was the annoying noise in my head that was trying to pull me out of the closet, inside which I felt suffocated. So, I approached her saying: “I want to tell you a secret; I do not like girls. I like boys.” To be surprised then by her serene reply: “what is new about your secret? I already know.”
Does this mean that the closet was only in my head? Does this mean that the closet was not really a global concept, or that the way of coming out was not the same for all LGBT as I thought then?
Is ‘Coming Out’ a Western concept?
In a discussion on the concept of coming out of the closet, in which some Arab activists and myself took part in, the opinions on coming out varied. Khalid, a Jordanian-Palestinian, explained that participation and sharing are both human needs, he said, “I think coming out of the closet as a way of sharing your sexual identity with those surrounding you like your family and friends is a human need that cannot be linked to geography – East or West” and that it is in the nature of human beings to love talking about themselves. In her turn, a local activist, responded to Khalid saying that “But I think coming out of the closet is a western product” because, in her opinion, it is centred on the identity of the individual, like in the west, rather than on the group or collective identity, like in the Arab world. She continued explaining that coming out of the closet asks the individual to celebrate their individual identity at the expense of the whole group and compels the group to accept the different identity of the individual I was once asked by a white person “why would not you tell your family that you’re lesbian, if they like you, they will accept you” she said “for me it is quite the opposite, if I like them, then I should not force them to accept something they do not want.”
At the same time, some people wonder how can the person’s actual self-incarnation be westernised? Objecting through this question to those claiming that the closet is a Western product. But, does coming out really represent an embodiment of the true self for all those of non-normative or non-conforming sexualities around the world?
Another group of Arab LGBTQI activists thinks that coming out per se is not a western concept; however, when it becomes involuntary for the individual to come out or not, in this situation it turns into a western representation; this is associated with the concept of confession, which is very popular in the west “You should confess who you are”, a ritual that drives the sinner to confess even the most intimate desires and lusts. This is what the French philosopher Michel Foucault had emphasised in his book, The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge; he confirmed that such concept is western in origin and does not exist in other cultures as it is unnecessary.
During the course of writing this article, several interviews were conducted with members of the Arab LGBTQI community; many of whom did not even understand the meaning of the term ‘Coming Out of the Closet’ or heard of it before. Aswat, which is a Palestinian Gay Women group defines the term as part of their basic terminology of sexual identity as follows:
A description of the process through which the identity of the sexual person crystallises until reaching the stage of self-acceptance of their identity, and the uncovering of this sexual identity for the family, friends and sometimes for the whole society. In many cases, coming out happens partially, as the individual specifies the people for who, the identity shall be uncovered.
On the 11th of October each year, the International Coming Out Day takes place in a world event in the US. In this event, the LGBTQI communities around the world are being moulded along with their values, demands, needs and cultures in a western mould, ignoring any cultural differences between the different LGBTQI communities. To name such a western initiative after a non-western concept will definitely result in generalising the western experiences as the only right experiences and in ignoring the other LGBTQI communities, their choices, privacies, cultural contexts and their right to choose their own ways of strife or struggle.
This event creates a bilateral between those outside the closet and those still detained inside the closet. In other words, such an event will place responsibility on those detained in the closet. Thus, instead of blaming the executioner, the victim is the one to be blamed. In this situation, choosing not to come out of the closet becomes a charge directed against the detainee, the thing that makes it compulsory for them to exit.
However, even if ‘coming out of the closet’ is a western concept, it will only be similar to many other concepts in our society– since cultures have always intertwined, overlapped, and caused several changes in each other. In fact, some of these concepts, like Human Rights that we imported from other cultures, have become indispensable. So, why should we now renounce ‘coming out of the closet’ if it fulfils an essential need for the individual Arab gay?
The closet model assumes that the individual gay is often ashamed, isolated and faces bad assumptions about their sexuality, in addition to contemplating issues such as marriage, an idea that is imposed on any individual at a certain age, and how to deal with others refusing ‘No’ as an answer to their marriage offer. At that moment, coming out becomes a necessity to answer and react to that objection. At such a moment, we need to ‘come out’.
One of my gay friends leaves his house and escorts me in my car with a bag in his hand. After he sits next to me, I discover that what in the bag are some clothes. He then takes them out of the bag and starts wearing them piece by piece. According to his family’s standards, these clothes are less manly and less decent, so, if he wears them in front of his family, he will raise doubts about his sexual identity. These clothes are bound by a specific gender expression, tone of voice, behaviour, and a way of sitting and walking that accompany these clothes. This hypocrisy imposed on this person may end up by coming out of the closet, ending the constant fear of the fact that his family might know. Coming out of the closet means the end of that constant fear while being or playing two opposite personalities or characters that differ in their ways of expression, identities, stories, and even names sometimes.
At the same time, I do not know how far coming out of the closet is useful. How can a principle that is based on the assumption that only the homosexual should justify themselves be useful to homosexuals? Even in the West, if the homosexual status is equal to that of the heterosexual, there should be no need then to come out, otherwise, the heterosexual should be expected to come out of the closet as well. In other words, if there is equality in the West, then why is not everyone expected to come out of the closet? This means that coming out of the closet, in itself, preserves some kind of inequality and is useless even in western cultures.
What if the society is not ready for this ‘coming out’ yet? Coming out in our society means that we are exposing ourselves to the danger of rejection and its repercussions of being ostracised or detained, or even punishment and maltreatment and being taken forcefully to a psychotherapist who may exercise a kind of ‘conversion therapy’ in case this doctor is not committed to protect his/her clients. In fact, I have witnessed such cases myself when people I know in this region, have been forced into such therapy. In this case, by promoting ‘coming out of the closet’ as a successful model, we might end up harming the gay community. This closet seems to be unfavourable to our culture, not only because it is Western, but also because it is putting our lives and the lives of those we love at risk and under intense pressure.
However, at the same time, coming out may be a very important experience in the formulation of one’s identity and his/her mental and psychological health and comfort through uncovering that identity. Such a decision is personal, and I recommend studying it very well and take precautions before making it, to avoid putting oneself at risk. Of course, we do not believe that coming out of the closet is not good but promoting it as the only proper path is not helpful, so we believe that having an alternative that stems from our own culture and our authentic need and suits both sides will not harm anyone.
We are not trying to find an alternative by creating an equivalent for coming out only to mimic or reproduce the Western culture, but rather, we are trying to meet the needs that have been suppressed by the Western model of coming out. As such a model has imposed itself as a ready model, suppressed our culture as gay Arabs, and restrained us from pursuing our own way that can meet our needs.
Some believe that dealing with identity as a reality may play an important role in the relationship between the gay person and their parents and will ultimately meet their needs in various ways. An Egyptian gay activist suggests that the model of Siwa Oasis (Wahat Siwa) in Egypt is a more appropriate model than coming out of the closet because same-sex relationships are private relationship, which are not discussed in public, and are being dealt with the same as the heterosexual relationships.
Similarly, Noor, a Palestinian activist, suggests that “to take your boy”friend” home is an implicit statement, and it is different from uncovering your identity for your family, an action that will end up with a violent reaction.” However, through such an implicit statement, individuals can protect themselves from harsh reactions towards coming out of the closet while fulfilling their emotional needs that are associated with their homosexual identity.
The closet as a criterion for modernity
Over the time, the concept of the closet has become more than just a personal decision, or an individual process of discovering one’s identity, but rather a standard according to which LGBTQI rights are measured in various cultures. It determines whether this culture is civilized, modern or backward and intolerant of homosexuality. Such a dualism has become quite obvious; in a report issued in 2014 by OutRight, an international LGBT non-profit organization based in New York, whose title read as When Coming Out is a Death Sentence: Persecution of LGBT Iraqis, it was argued that “Currently, [LGBT Iraqis] should live undercover because now, there’s no hope, and no solution.” This report introduces – in its title at least – coming out of the closet as the only hope and solution, instead of focusing on protecting individuals from persecution as the solution and not impose models on them such as the ‘Closet’. In fact, I wonder if the LGBTQI community in Iraq knows the meaning of the term ‘closet’ in the first place. Surely, this phrase – coming out of the closet – expresses a whole pattern of Western media that begins to discuss coming out of the closet as a sort of pity for the LGBTQI community in the Arab world and concludes by proving that this barbaric world is lagging behind because there are no homosexuals outside the closet. This has resulted in generating more racism against immigrants, and more islamophobia even against Arab and Muslim LGBTQI in the West. Something proven by what we have already begun to see in some American gay groups’ support for President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, and in campaigns by other groups like Gays against Islam. The article that was published in 2014 by the online newspaper, the International Business Times, entitled Tortured in the Closet: Gay People in the Middle East Tell Their Story, maintains that every LGBTQI person in the Middle East is imprisoned in their own closet and tortured; and the only solution for them is to come out of it and from their countries if possible. The writer continues by quoting stories narrated by four individuals about themselves from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the UAE. All the stories revolve around these individuals’ act of coming out of the closet and how three of them were forced to flee outside their home countries, the Arab world, which was described in the article as the ‘big closet’. Gareth Platt, who wrote this article, continues his argument trying to prove that the closet concept has become a link between the persecution of homosexuals and the Middle East and North Africa; this alleged link has further contributed to employing the International Closet concept when discussing homosexuality in the Middle East and North Africa.
Furthermore, in The Kingdom in the Closet, an article published in the American magazine, The Atlantic, the writer says “Sodomy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, but gay life flourishes there. Why it is ‘easier to be gay than straight’ in a society where everyone, homosexual or otherwise lives in the closet.” Although that emphasizes the fact that the concept of the closet varies across cultures, unfortunately, this concept is still used as a dark lens to see reality in our region, especially when the writer asserts that in the Middle East “The closet is not an option but is the only way to survive,” As the concept of the closet is frequently discussed ignoring the sensitivities and peculiarities of each culture, this has produced an image of the Arab Muslim person, in which s/he is portrayed as the barbaric, the anti-gay other, stripping him/her from their humanity, as well as justifying acts of racism and Islamophobia against them. This does not mean, of course, that there are no anti-gay Arab Muslim, but not by making the ‘closet’ an international standard, which ignores the fact that Arab homosexuals themselves will fall victim not only in their home countries but will also fall victim to racism and islamophobia that has been produced in the West by such a model.
Brian Whitaker who wrote Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, and had it published in English in 2006, wrote an article on the same topic and was published in the The Guardian in 2016. In his article, entitled Everything you need to know about being gay in Muslim countries, he acknowledges that getting out of the closet may expose individuals to bad reactions such as ostracism, physical abuse, or forced ‘treatment’ through religion or psychology. However, in the middle of the article Whitaker decides that the problem affects the lives of all gays at some point is coming out of the closet, but for Muslims, this may be an extraordinarily difficult decision.
Now, let’s go back to discussing the globalised ‘closet’ and how it has been imposed on cultures and homosexuals everywhere. Once again, the concept of the closet is used by the writer as a global standard without verifying whether such a use is culturally possible. This is the basic issue due to which this article has emerged as to fulfil the need to discuss it.
Actually, discussing the various ways of fighting and the suitability to our identity before promoting and adopting them is of a vital importance now, and this is the purpose of this article at hand because this debate is the only way to find out whether the writing on this topic is nothing more than an elitist nonsense, or a real expression of a problem that has exposed many people, especially those who live in the Middle East and North Africa to danger.