By Hadeel Ghaddar
A special thanks to Tarek & Khawla
I never understood what queer means; I was always aware that “Lesbians” and “Gays” are somehow “forbidden” in our society. On a daily, I hear everyone around me criticizing people’s personal sexual preferences in the name of religion, social norms, cultures, and whatever other thing they can resort to instead of actively thinking and forming their own opinions. I used to be one of those people.
I would secretly judge members of the LGBTQ+ community for a long time, and I often found myself indirectly mocking them in friends’ gatherings. It was as if, no matter how much awareness was lightened upon them, I still somehow found ways to stick to a shallow mentality. Even when same-sex couples would appear in Netflix movies and despite identifying with their pain and emotions, I still complained of how the western media is trying to brainwash everyone. I compared raising awareness to brainwash as if knowledge about the LGBTQ+ community would hurt me or those around me. Despite the various documentaries, series, movies, and Instagram posts I have seen about the queer community, I never truly took a big turn and thought actively about my opinions. Rather, I always remained stuck or rather chose to stay in this squared dark box of mine: Squared because it was so strict and dark as I was so away from a bright consciousness of myself and my surrounding.
The first time I came out from this box was when I was given a chance to attend a workshop led by two queer people, Tarek, a Lebanese queer activist, and Khawla, a Tunisian activist who witnessed the birth of queer communities in her country. The workshop made so much sense; I suddenly viewed things from a neutral point of view. Saw the community as people who actively fight for their right. Witnessed the way their path to awareness is carved so precisely, on the daily. Heard about their history, the birth of their fight, their daily struggles. According to Tarek, systemic violence and discrimination allowed non-governmental organizations fighting for queer rights in Lebanon to come to life, but the true catalyst was the internet. It allowed members of the queer community to unite, share their struggles, and get over their isolation in a discrimination-free environment. By hearing about the Cairo 52, an incident where 52 men on a boat were arrested in Egypt and submitted to atrocious violence, I did not only learn about the importance of what I used to label “brainwashing.” However, I learn that there is so much more to queer communities. That activism and campaigns done about them are not only social media trends. That those people are not, as it is usually said about them, attention seekers. That this community does not crave something that others do not have: it is chasing a dream of living like any other human being—the dream of living freely without being in constant fear and violent positions.
Despite having grown in an environment that was not necessarily pro-queer, never have I ever thought that the Lebanese government had focused more on setting rules for people’s relationships – harmless to the greater public- rather than implementing regulations that, per example, allow a woman to pass her nationality to her kids. Tarek speaks of Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which forbids the so-called sexual relations against the laws of nature. It took me by surprise to know that choosing to sleep with whomever you want could put you in prison for up to a year. To criminalize sexual orientation or gender identity is purely ridiculous and only enhances absurd social constructs that go against human rights.
Khawla, on the other side, brings a similar yet different lens to the birth of queer activism in Tunisia. While I expected a similar article in the Tunisian penal code to exist, the shocking thing was to know that Article 230 that criminalizes homosexuality was put during the French colonization in 1913. This piece of information somehow allowed me to stop my generalization. I no longer saw queer communities as victims in the Arab world only, but I suddenly saw a bigger picture where they had to face discrimination regardless of their nationality. Khawla summarizes this homophobia that is somehow omnipresent by giving us the epitome of a hypocrite and prejudicial system that treats charges trans women based on women’s articles only to put them in men’s jail cells.
As both speakers teach me, it was not about changing the law. It is homophobia and transphobia that exist within communities, amongst the judge, the lawyer, the system: for that, it was rather about shifting mentalities, changing societies, creating an awareness.
Thanks to an hour and a half of the workshop, I learn what queer people are about, how I should treat them, and ways of supporting them. I learn that I should stand with the oppressed, regardless of their purpose. I learn about the history of LGBTQ+ communities and the injustice that exists within systems, whether in Lebanon, Tunisia, or anywhere worldwide. About the flaws that exist within languages, the Arabic language, to begin with, sexualizes every pronoun. Mostly, I feel safe. I sense a feeling of safety and security that exists in those communities—an environment where I could be whomever I want to be and feel whatever I want to feel without being judged. An environment free of discrimination. An environment that we as a society should be aiming for. And perhaps this queer awareness that is being put in place is not only improving the lives of a specific community but setting an example to an entire society—an example where lives are meant to be lived freely.
Cover picture taken from https://www.freepik.com/premium-vector/lgbt-community-gay-couples-lesbians-poster-pride-parade-bright-vector-illustration_11847658.htm