Written by: Musa Al Shadeedi
Art work by: Yasmine Diaz
Translated by M.L.
Sitting editor: Eliza Marks
My.Kali is a conceptual, MENA regionally-focused magazine, attentive to societal minorities including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual members of the society. It was established in 2007 as a journal for a 17 year old man to express himself and his opinions, and has since become a nexus of controversy.
From across the table, Khalid Abdel-Hadi, founder of My.Kali, said, “At its beginning, the magazine didn’t have the kind of positive engagement with the public whereby we’d be offered some critique, discussion, or the explanation of what is and isn’t correct or permissible.” He let out a sigh, and reflected that, “Maybe we did, but were too young to realize so. Either way, the magazine’s interaction with the mainstream was unfortunately not constructive, and rather than offer support, the mainstream sought to silence us and strip us of our legitimacy.”
In this article, I aim to study My.Kali’s experience as a self-commentary, putting this into conversation with postcolonial thinker, Joseph Massad, who conceptualized “The Gay International” as referring to the internationalization of the gay rights movement, and particularly the influence of westernization on the discourses of sexuality and desire in Arab societies. In his book, Desiring Arabs, as well as his 2002 article in the academic journal Public Culture titled, “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World,” Joseph Massad argues that The Gay International” acts as a macro-cultural missionary operation that imposes its own vision, aspirations, and organizational tools onto “othered” cultures via direct and indirect methods.
The Gay International takes on the task of defending and liberating LGBTI+ communities around the world, through advocating for gay rights wherever it deems lacking, and demanding respect wherever it deems missing. However, as Joseph Massad argues, the outcomes of these processes are far from the “liberation” it seeks to bring. Does The Gay International really hurt those whom it seeks to liberate? Could this be why My.Kali’s image had become so controversial? Were My.Kali’s means of activism affected by The Gay International, and if so, how?
International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia
My.Kali was largely unknown by many Jordanians before 2015, when mass media uncovered and ran a news story following an event to commemorate what the West refers to as the “International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia.” The story cited My.Kali’s website, the U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, Alice Wells’, participation in this event, and included a photograph showing Ambassador Wells giving a speech with My.Kali’s logo displayed behind her.
The media outlets reported ambassador Wells as quoting former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying “human rights are gay rights, and gay rights are human rights,” though Ambassador Wells did not mentioned Clinton’s stance against same-sex marriage in the US. And, though this might seem tangential, it is important to note that Wells also did not discuss Clinton’s position in favour of the war on Iraq, which led to the mass murder of thousands of Iraqi and American men and women both heteronormative and queer and sent the U.S. into further debt, nor the consequent emergence of terrorist organizations such as ISIS which is now famous of throwing queers from high roofs, the war in Syria, and the global refugee crisis which is yet to be resolved.
In response to the publication of the story, Jordanian lawyer Tareq Abu Al-Ragheb filed a case to the Jordanian judiciary against the U.S. Ambassador, Minister of Social Development, and ceremony organizers. The story triggered both fierceness and queerphobic aggression among the Jordanian public, and fear within its queer community.
Following this initial escalation, My.Kali issued a “Disclaimer” statement in an attempt to halt further intensification. In it, My.Kali confessed that it had cooperated with an advocacy group to organize the aforementioned event, and that it was local and individual efforts rather than the U.S. Embassy that sponsored for the event.
Unfortunately, My.Kali’s statement did not succeed in tempering the public backlash effectively, and situation continued to worsen. Jordanian media sources continued reporting on the arrests of queer persons by security forces aftermath the event, often without evidential details, but rather citing “the need to raise the stick against the face of homosexual people, and to campaign against sexual abnormality and the third sex,” a label for the sexually non-normative peoples.
This particular incident is reminiscent of Joseph Massad’s comment that “The Gay International” feeds upon the victimization of those whom it supposes to liberate (in Desiring Arabs, page 260). Such a loaded statement! Massad is not only implying that tools by which The Gay International operates endanger the respective local queer communities, continuously exposing them to potential violence, but also that such violence fosters a justification for a “liberationist” invasion, which in turn continues the cycle of violence.
It is important to note that “The Gay International” manifests in many places, including organizations, platforms, and magazines akin to ours. These media tools often inadvertently legitimize the above mentioned cycle of violence by justifying the very same liberationist campaigns against the violence that it had a hand in initiating. The internationalization of Western forms of advocacy, such as the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, the presence of the US ambassador herself, her speech on Western principles in one hand, and the aggressive backlash against the local Jordanian queer community caused thereby, is an exemplary living manifestation of Massad’s remark.
Khalid Abdel-Hadi responded to this by asserting that he had no intention to perpetrate harm, saying, “I was shocked; people viewed us as opposed to what we strive for. We had no intention of serving any Western agenda, at all.” This event actually catalyzed change within the magazine, and over the next year, My.Kali took on a more regional identity and stance, and launched its first Arabic language issue after eight years of publication in English. The latter development brought My.Kali into the headlines again, including one that read, “The queer community of Jordan publish their first Arabic magazine.” This resulted in another wave of hateful speech, though this was fortunately less hostile speech as compared to the previous incident.
Khalid Abdel-Hadi noted, “We gradually learned the importance of the language through which we communicate. We pursued an Arab identity in order to reach a wider base of readership. We realized that we had previously deprived our non-bilingual keen Arab readers from access to our contents, and, consequently, from communicating with us too. I somehow feel that our use of English was rather incentivized only by an egoistic combination of arrogance, urbanism, and elitism.”
I was caught off guard when Khalid Abdel-Hadi’s used the terms elitism and arrogance to describe My.Kali’s past. I asked him to explain, particularly, how he came to the conclusion that the publication was elitist, and the potential harm of their elitism.
He said, “I was realized these characteristics when I sought to better understand what goes on in the hearts of queer people whose core values differ from My.Kali’s, especially locally and regionally. They were intimidated by what they perceived as outside forces. The views we presented didn’t truly reflect the nature of our local queer communities, and were definitely marked by classism. We had to let go of it, because we weren’t truly living up to our hopes of being a platform that individuals could seek to voice their experiences. This tone didn’t serve our cause, and we were satisfying neither the queer nor the heteronormative local communities.”
This tone is an example of how The Gay International functions within these organizations: this elitist tone is inherent to it, as is evident in its presumed compatibility with and knowledge of all cultures. For example, the International Day against Homophobia – founded by French gay rights activist Louis-Georges Tin to mark the 17th of May as an annual commemoration of the de-classification of “homosexuality” off the International Classification of Diseases by World Health Organization in 1990 – was launched in 2005 by key organizations such as the ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association) and the IGLHRC (now known as OutRight Action International). Though this day claims to be “International” in scope, these organizations are run by Western white males and are essentially doing culturally-insensitive missionary work, essentially operating in the very same manner described by Massad as foundational to The Gay International.
The fact that a Western initiative is advancing an “International” day should be reason enough to reject it, because such claims are rooted in a presumption about fixed tools of activism. It claims an exclusive and all-encompassing practicality, and to be an unchallengeable mean of expression and achievement. It claims so across all cultures, in all places, at all times, and for all LGBTI+ persons around the globe. That very idea is arrogant, as Abdel-Hadi mentioned before, and it’s really sad that Arab queer rights activists associate with such initiatives.
In 2011, Haneen Maiki and Sami Shamali highlighted the same sentiment in their co-published Arabic article titled, “The International Day against Homophobia: Western Experience versus Reality of Queer Communities,” four years before the ambassador incident, which criticizes this particular “day” for its western liberal discourse, and its imposition on the Arab speaking queer communities. Unfortunately, however, none of the My.Kali team had come across it or found it convincing. For if they had, perhaps they would not have made some of the mistakes it speaks against.
In 2017, Dima Tahboub, a Jordanian parliamentarian and spokesperson for the Islamic Action Front (the political wing for the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan), was invited to speak on the Deutsche Welle talk show, “Conflict Zone,” hosted by British journalist and TV host Tim Sebastian. During it, Sebastian called Dima Tahboub an “armchair terrorist” after she roasted him –in my opinion– with answers to his questions on the Israeli occupation.
Sebastian then asked Dima Tahboub if “gay people are welcome in Jordan,” likely due to the then recent ban of music band “Mashrou’ Leila” from performing in Amman. The ban was apparently due to the professed openness of its lead singer about their sexuality, and was one that Dima Tahboub and others campaigned for.
Asking an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood this question is comical and absurd. Having this question also asked by a white Westerner is quite intimidating, as the question seeks to reinforce the orientalist narrative that paints the “orient” as a pit-hole of regressiveness that the West can permissibly gaze upon with disgust, and the “oriental” (either queer and cisgender) as one who is backwards and perhaps less-human. The formulation of this question is nothing more than thinly-veiled anti-Arab racism and islamophobia, the cost of which is felt daily by Muslim individuals, including queer Muslims, in the West. Though he might have tried to appear as campaigning for the rights of queer Jordanians, Tim’s approach reveals that his approach is one with The Gay International that wields violence against them.
“I have people [my voters] to represent” quickly responded Dima Tahboub. Tim then rephrased his question, perhaps in an attempt to re-frame her as the “terrorist” he labelled her as earlier, saying, “does being gay mean you don’t have any rights in your eyes?”
Interestingly, Dima Tahboub responded by saying, “we call him a homosexual; he’s not gay to us” (referring to the fore-mentioned lead singer). This line is a crucial element in understanding the regional view towards same-sex intimacy and the identity politics thereof. It suggests that “Gay” and “Homosexual” are not equivalent: “Gay” is more than just homosexuality and “Homosexual” doesn’t necessarily imply gayness, and that that “Homosexual” is a rather neutral and scientific term that best describes same-sex practice objectively more than anything else. “Gay,” on the other hand, describes a Western concept which rather defines a personal identity associated with the practice. Furthermore, Tahboub’s stress on “we” and “us” within her response solidifies the argument that “Gay” concerns only them, the West, whilst “Homosexual” concerns everybody. It is the very argument put forth by Joseph Massad against the enforcement of Western identities upon the Arab narrative of gender via The Gay International, which, by re-labelling native queerness as a “universal” but actually culturally-insensitive Western-founded identity, causes violence against those whom are sought to be liberated. Dima Tahboub, in this case, criticizes the West rather than the sexuality in question.
Social media was abuzz in the aftermath of the show, particularly on the subject of homosexuality, which showed Dima Tahboub’s concern for Tim’s leading questions that were meant to trap her against public opinion. During that time, My.Kali criticized the parliamentarian without also criticizing Tim Sebastian on the other side, and as a consequence, Tahboub aimed her fury at the magazine directly, and called the government to issue an official statement adjoining her views, which indeed materialized.
Ministries of Interior and Justice issued an official statement asserting that “Jordan is obliged to uphold the values of the Islamic religion,” that they “would not permit any activity, meeting, or arrangement by the sexually-outcaste; also known as the Meem society (an Arabic abbreviation for the gender non-normative),” and that “the narratives of the sexually-outcaste disturbs public order and derogates the virtuous religion.” The Ministry of Justice referred to “sexual outcastness” as something opposed to the societal decency, order, traditions, values, and legalities, as well as the constitution of Jordan. This, in turn, sparked publishers who found the term, “sexual outcastness,” to be a strong asset in expressing their favourite form of hate speech against marginalized groups of the society.
In 2017, My.Kali wrote an “Open Letter to Jordanian MP Dima Tahboub,” the language of which was notably more localised in nature than 2015’s “Disclaimer.” “The group includes a number of living, breathing Jordanian citizens!” The piece was not written in a Western language or form of coherence, but rather was rooted in Jordanian interests, and the “hope that this ongoing dialogue can result in a positive outcome for various segments of Jordanian society,” and it identified challenges to free speech in Jordan and took a pacifist rather than escalatory approach “against a vulnerable group of Jordanians.” And, although both Dima Tahboub and the My.Kali team speak Arabic, the article was published in both Arabic and English.
Hopefully, My.Kali will continue to learn from its honest mistakes, uphold the importance of good engagement with the native space, refrain from using culturally-odd tools of advocacy upon these spaces, use a common language to actualize this integration, and renounce classism and elitism. My.Kali has a long road of learning ahead.
This article does not in any way justify the language of incitement voiced by the authority and the media, both of which should be criticized and challenged towards improvement. Nor is it blaming the victim. Hopefully, by diagnosing the acts of hate which cause victimhood, this article will help open doors to constructive criticism, and set the precedent for promoting necessary change before it’s late.
Musa Al Shadeedi Born in 1992 in Baghdad, Musa Al Shadeedi experienced living under the reign of Saddam Hussein and the US invasion of Iraq which sought to overthrow the regime in the name of “liberation.” In 2012 they left Iraq to escape the rise of militant religious extremism and their restraining policies towards the body, sexuality, and gender. In 2016, they attained a degree in psychology from Al Ahliyya Amman University . Musa’s interest in voicing the marginalized, combined with his passion for arts and literature, empowered him in 2017 to found “Cinamji,” a cinematologic initiative that highlights issues surrounding the body, sexuality, and gender in Arab cinema. In 2018 they launched their book on “Non-normative Sexuality in Arab cinema [Arabic].”
With a focus on gender, third-culture identity, and family, Yasmine Diaz works with collage, drawing, and mixed media on paper, to question and assert her unique experiences as a Yemeni-American and feminist. Born in Chicago to parents who immigrated from the highlands of Yafa, the Los Angeles-based artist uses compelling found imagery to juxtapose the opposing cultures she was raised within. Her work has been featured in Kolaj Magazine, the Albuquerque Museum of Art, and in the collections of the UCLA School of Public Affairs. You check her instagram account: Click here