Words by Tamim
Design by Lina A
A Brutal rape. I can only accurately describe the sum of my life’s worth of experiences as a queer Qatari as that: protracted violence and degradation of my personhood and dignity by the trifecta of the police state, paternalistic society, and religious establishment. It has turned me into a shell of a person unable to function on the most basic of levels due to sustained trauma and psychological injury at the hand of systemic and institutionalized abuse. These traumas and injuries have annihilated my character, cost me everything, and left me in a precarious position that has brought me to the verge of suicide. However, I speak for myself and would never claim it is the experience of all queer Qataris foist it on the queer; the factors that impact our experience are far more complex than an issue of mere orientation.
That said, the Western mainstream media racket prior to and during the World Cup, arguably the most politicized World Cup ever, surrounding issues pertaining to our lived experiences and circumstances have been reductionist and downright insulting; devolving into gestural and performative activism produced by the West, for the West. Far from being represented, I (alongside many other queer Qataris) felt caricatured and violated as Western journalists and activists who had wormed their way into our ranks broadcasted personal and intimate information they had extracted in a way that pandered to largely xenophobic and ignorant Western audiences. This engendered both derision and consternation among our families and friends who felt we were being dehumanized and further isolated from our kin and kind.
This media content emerged as predominantly Western audiences intensified their belligerent proselytism of moral values, providing a picture that Western audiences preyed on to legitimize their cause: queer people in the Middle East being persecuted with torches and pitchforks, assaulted or killed for just existing, by brutish Arab killers. In fact, many Westerners were surprised when they arrived in Qatar and saw the reality was more nuanced than these distorted representations. Though abuses are common when power is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful elites, and though these abuses often target vulnerable identities in an arbitrary way, these representations that project a collective existence of “persecuted queerness” do more harm than good.
Many of these activists and journalists do not recognize the insincerity of their work… in the same breath that [they] speak of liberation, representation, and transparency, they also expose the communities they claim to serve.
This could be perceived none clearer than in interviews with Dr. Nasser Mohammed. Though lauded in the West, for queer Khaleejis and Arabs still living in the region, Dr. Nasser is not the messiah his followers deem him to be. We do not need a queer (former) Qatari who chose to leave Qatar of his own accord to speak on our behalf, and we are cognizant of the fact that much of his authority and legitimacy (in the eyes of Western audiences) depend on rejecting or condemning other aspects of our identities. This is apparent each time he exposes the (very condemnable threats) of “retrograde hard-headed homophobes” on social media. I cannot blame him, entirely, as I am also well-acquainted with imperialist Western moralizing efforts of activists and journalists who have approached (and reproached) me. I’ve seen countless (mostly white) Western activists become enraged on my behalf and beset with self-righteous indignation when I do not echo their views and opinions about my alleged victim status, when I am unwilling to speak against my country or seek refuge elsewhere, or when I do not conform with their thinking on “the Arab world.” To quote a friend of mine, “representation is not liberation. We don’t need rainbow imperialism.”
What is worse, many of these activists and journalists do not recognize the insincerity of their work. They offer me and my network an opportunity for representation, persuade us to do on-the-record interviews, and feign solidarity to gain insights into our lives. When they fail to do so, they settle off-the-record conversations offered by some in good faith to correct the misconceptions that guide these journalists’ and activists’ work. It has become concerningly common for these journalists and activists to misuse the information they extract from us to push the same old monolithic, orientalist narrative. Ironically, in the same breath that these journalists and activists speak of liberation, representation, and transparency, they also expose the communities they claim to serve. When confronted, they tend to become defensive, centering themselves and their “activism,” and prove unable to think critically or impartially about the ways their work violates consent and further marginalizes us from our native society.
It seems like the West dictates how advocacy for queer folks can look: a public parade of scantily clad white men surrounded by gratuitous images of sexuality and Western queer iconography. Queer Qataris (and, by extension, queer Khaleejis) are reduced to “self-hating queers” with internalized homophobia when we try to make space for our own heritage, value, or belief systems, or to find symbols, slogans, and acronyms within our own experience of queerness. We are, instead, spoken for and subsumed into the LGBTQ+ acronym that is not part of our native vernacular. What these Western pundits fail to realize is that our rejection of the oppression we face for our queerness does not mean we necessarily hate our countries, our national or cultural identities, or our religion. And, it certainly doesn’t mean we are willing to become conduits for advancing their fundamentally racist and Islamophobic ideology under a banner of “inclusion.”
If anything, this bombardment of Western-led activism makes us feel more othered and alienated, because it has prompted homophobic and reactionary responses from our native communities, particularly from repressed, homophobic, hetero-acting Qatari homosexuals. The repercussions for actions like those of Peter Tatchell and his disastrous one-man protest in Qatar befall us and use alone because they essentially erase our own native queer identities and histories to preserve their white savior rhetoric. A friend put it, “the world is not the white man’s burden; the white man IS our burden.”
Queer Qataris (and, by extension, queer Khaleejis) are reduced to “self-hating queers” with internalized homophobia when we try to make space for our own heritage, value, or belief systems, or to find symbols, slogans, and acronyms within our own experience of queerness. We are… spoken for and subsumed into the LGBTQ+ acronym that is not part of our native vernacular.
Our call to action does not exist within the hypocrisy and self-centeredness of Western actors. Rather, it aims to find ways in which queerness can work for us and in a language that articulates with our society, such as by re-contextualizing Islamic texts to make space for our histories, culture, and traditions. At present, we are far less concerned with legal recognition than with access to spaces and resources where we can get tangible benefits. This includes access to medical check-ups for STIs and STDs, basic sexual education, public mental health care services that do not perpetuate the harmful cycle of trauma (as is often the case when provided by unethical religious dogmatist practitioners), the termination of conversion therapy operated by state-funded behavioral centers, the scaling back of state surveillance on our personal spaces, and the end arbitrary forms of intimidation and persecution by members of the state security apparatus. We could take the route of civic unrest to achieve these aims, much like Lebanon has in times of desperation, or we can use capillary power and the influence we have accrued from being successfully integrated within our communities and negotiate with them to gain greater space.
The capillary approach takes time, but this is not because we are afraid we will face the gallows if we mobilize. Admittedly, I suspect my position is more the exception than the rule, but many fellow queer Qataris are more privileged than disadvantaged and degraded, and many do not want to risk losing opportunities or being forced to leave home or to fight uphill against the status quo. Individuals like Dr. Nasser are part of, in fact, a small minority. Many do not want to and should not be forced to reduce their identities to their queerness, and, in a complex way, many still feel grateful for what our tyrannical Gulf monarchs do for them. Personally, queerness is only part of my identity and does not define my entire existence, even if I was persecuted for it for most of my life. And, despite the barrage of Western media’s scrutiny of Qatar, I don’t think that my country is any more corrupt than any country that has previously hosted the World Cup or that my people are any more uncivilized than any collective; we just lack the freedom to mobilize and express our afflictions in a safe manner due to our repressive and autocratic regime.
Representing us as mere “victims of the system” is not only patronizing but also strips us of our agency to work in such a delicate and distinct ecosystem, one that we have learned to exist and some even thrive in.
There are particularly fundamentalist factions of Qatar’s religious society who persecute queerness and queer people (including some in my immediate and extended family network), particularly towards those who do not fit into the heteronormative mold. Many even wish us dead. But, it is also true that our country is progressing organically through local actors like myself who know how to work effectively within the system to get things done. Representing us as mere “victims of the system” is not only patronizing but also strips us of our agency to work in such a delicate and distinct ecosystem, one that we have learned to exist and some even thrive in. Deracinating us from our societies to serve foreign agendas – while also ignoring the large segments of Western societies that would throw slurs at us, label us as terrorists, or make us feel like unwelcome guests – shows how disconnected Western activist perceptions of our realities can be.
Now that the World Cup is over, I’m no longer awash with intrusive messages from Western mainstream media journalists (many of whom received my number from other journalists without my consent) asking me to expose myself and berate my country at my own risk. Now that the World Cup is over, Peter Tatchell and his ilk have gone to a new destination to expand his portfolio of activist arrests, and fewer media outlets are fishing for stories on the queer communities in the GCC as they realize that “representation” has become worthless beyond the context of the tournament.
As the support of real allies lingers, we have more space to think of the future, reflect on lessons learned, and build platforms on our own terms. Though exhausting and retraumatizing, this experience has brought together communities of like-minded individuals who seek to stand with each other and strive for a greater sense of agency devoid of messianic Western saviorism.