On LGBT support (or not) in the middle east
Curiosity got the best of me the other day as I was thinking about all the sectors flourishing and booming in Jordan, Amman specifically. I was considering all the opportunities Amman is providing lately, but being one who sees the glass half empty I could not ignore the opportunities it did not provide.
I for one find Amman to be a well rounded 'teenage' city, one that wants to try everything before it judges it to be good or bad, one so eager and thirsty to learn and produce. I feel that Amman is a little like me - or maybe I am like Amman - and that is why I love it.
So Amman is providing art exhibitions, a good wide range of restaurants and cafes, movie screenings and a huge Internet oriented scene. You can attend concerts almost weekly, there are a couple of interesting events almost daily and the community based projects seem to spring out of nowhere. But as I mentioned, I was interested in what my teenage city did not provide.
Over the last few days I’ve been researching LGBT based organizations/communities/support groups in the Middle East. It is quite easy to find them as most are listed in each country’s Wikipedia page in the culture section.
For example, in Culture of Lebanon Wikipedia page you find: “..While gay sex is technically illegal, Beirut has a number of gay bars and nightclubs, in addition to the Arab world's only LGBT rights organizations, namely Helem, Meem, and Hurriyet Khasa.. “
First there was Helem. Helem presented its notification of association to the Lebanese Ministry of Interior in September 2004. Meaning it is a 6+ year old non-governmental non-profit organization focused on sexual orientation and gender identity issues. The word Helem is the Arabic acronym of "Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders”.
Helem has many online publications and regular posts on the website. It also launches many health, awareness and advocacy initiatives and campaigns. Things don’t stop there: Helem have a community center opening 6 days a week and a 24 hour help line making it a well rounded organization.
Meem is another support community but focuses only on lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer (LBTQ) Lebanese women. They picked the name Meem because it represents both the word lesbian in Arabic (Mithliya) and is derived from ‘Support group for lesbian women’ in Arabic (Majmo’at mou’azara lil mar’a al mithliya). The group has a blog which is also consistently updated and is also behind the weekly published queer Arab magazine Bekhsoos. Meem and Bekhsoos are 3 and 2 years old respectively.
Hurriyet Khasa, the third organization mentioned on the Wikipedia page was nowhere to be found online. But all the other communities were more than enough to represent and exhibit the richness that Lebanon has with its LGBT support communities.
I then found myself surfing through Palestinian and Palestine based support communities. Alqaws -for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society- captured my attention first because of their understanding of the changes happening in their community and the fact that they should attend to these changes even if they were still in their early stages.
Alqaws work ‘with’ the Palestinian LGBTQ community, promotingdialogue by providing a forum for its members as well as working on many social and cultural events and activities. They take into consideration the differences in background, religion as well as legal systems and rights and responsibilities that differ greatly within the community, especially between people in the West Bank or Gaza and those in the Occupied Territories.
Alqaws was formed in 2003 after existing in Yahoo virtual format for a year, making them the oldest organization in the region to speak with and in the name of the gay minority.
As for Syria, while it does have a network for gays, it fails to deliver when it comes to an online presence - the design of a website is still under construction, but well, it’s better than nothing.
As for Jordan I assumed there would be nothing until I stumbled upon Gay Middle East. Gay Middle East is a website that seems to cover gay news with links to different blogs and websites; it has sections for different countries, some seem active, even Saudi Arabia’s, while others –like the Jordan section- are completely inactive.
So why is it then that you can find all these support groups, communities and organizations yet none of them originate in, or target, the Jordanian population?
Is our tolerance for such minorities that low? Is it that we don’t have the numbers of gays that our neighboring countries do? Or is it simply that no one bothers to initiate a movement in support of his or her own community? I suspect the Jordanian gay community is around the same size as the Syrian or Palestinian – the difference being we like to pretend that they don’t exist. I asked around a bit, and only found a couple of blogs by individuals, and one magazine, but in general there is no space for the community here; to speak out or raise awareness on many issues that might make the existence of such groups accepted or even tolerated.
By ignoring gay people, by putting them on the sidelines and pretending they don’t exist we are only communicating a message of fear to people who need understanding the most.
While gay sex is illegal in the entire region, we still find such groups rising to the surface and being heard. But in Jordan, to this day they remain invisible. So when will Amman walk in the steps of its sister cities, and when will it provide this support?
By Dina Batshon