Visibility and Representation

A while ago I came across a comment on a page that featured an interview that LBCI did with me during the IDAHOT2014 event. The comment was made from an anonymous profile and the person was basically telling me how brave I am to go on TV without blurring my face and so on. I usually get that feedback from several people and I always find it very hard to come up with a reply to these comments. I do understand the good intentions that these people have so I’m writing this post to clarify my position on this matter.

Simply put, I do not believe that it is brave for me or anyone in my position to go on TV or any news outlet and talk openly about queer issues. I will explain a little more about positionality in this post but let me first start with the reason why actions of visibility like this are not courageous.

It would be brave for people to speak out against violations or matters of injustice when their actions would most likely result in a negative reaction to them personally. So it would be brave for a woman to report domestic violence or an assault and to talk about it publically since we live in a society that still largely subordinates women and views their actions as an assault in itself on the institution of marriage and family. Similarly a migrant worker who speaks out about racism would be considered brave since our society still denies that its laws in themselves are racist (Kafala system, class segregation…). Now when it come to queer speaking up about alternative sexualities, things are not as simple and this comes back to positionality.

Positionality is basically the circumstances that defines your status in society, your worldview and how the world/society views you. It is determined by circumstances that are related to class, race, social status, what you do for work, where you live, etc.

So let’s put those two concepts together; positionality and victimhood/marginalization. When we add the position of the person to his/her marginal status (queers, migrant workers, survivors of gender based violence, etc…) we end up with a spectrum or a gradient of marginalization. Your status in society will influence how far away or close you are to the margins set in society. Obsviously, the closer you are to the margins of society then the more likely that you will experience violations, policing of your body and so on.

Now let’s go back to me and look at my positionality a bit closer. I identify as a queer person which automatically throws me off to the margins of society. But I have some privileges working for me that I was socially ascribed to from birth. These privileges of being male, cis-gendered, coming from a middle class family and later on able to afford a higher education and getting a skilled job, end up pulling me closer to the mainstream/centers of power.  In short this is my positionality in society.

This positinality affords me several advantages. I am able to be speak out about my sexuality within my family settings, at work, at university and so on without any actual loss of status. So when I end up doing an interview somewhere, I know that I will not have to face any problems from anyone because of it. My family is not going to kick me out, the police station is not going to give me a call for questioning and I can still go down to the mini market at the bottom of my building and get whatever I need without the any remark or a smirk from the cashier. As a matter of fact, the only time that I got a remark after an interview was from the guy working at the bakery in my neighborhood. He just smiled and said that he saw me on TV and that was it.

So what is the problem with queer people going speaking out publically about queerness or about their own sexuality or about being “out”?! It is actually more about how they are perceived via these news outlets and how they are portrayed.

Queer Beirut (and the “arab” world and the MENA region) are the wet dream of media outlets looking at “Gay Arabs”. It is a question of representation. Most media will not go through the trouble of looking closely at who says what as long as they hear what they want to hear and the message is really simple; that it is really hard to be gay in the Arab world. They want us to show them how much discrimination we face and how backward out society is for not accepting us. In a recent article in queerty, they warned gay people from coming to Lebanon because it is so homophobic since we do not allow gay marriage, lack any anti-discrimination law and don’t allow queers to serve in the military. This is a very in-your-face example about the global LGBT movement trying to push notions of what gay people should be doing and what it is to be queer. 

At this point, I would like to stress that I am not trying to deny people their victimhood or their suffering. But I want us to be able to look critically about how we are represented and how we end up representing other queers. So these media outlets will come, interview those couple of people who fit into the messages that they want to send out and edit the parts that do not fit it.

Other than my queerness, I am to most extent very normative[1] and most people who are out in the region are also quite normative. I can never and should never claim that I can represent other queers and this applies to everyone else. Some people out there knows their politics and do not make any claims like this but sadly there are a lot of people who claim this representation. Normative queerness does not advance the movement much. It really does not do anything to make things better.

We can not take at face value the criminalization of same-sex relations by the Lebanese law. The police are only interested in the people who falls at the intersections of the different layers of class, race, sex etc… We clearly see this by examining the reports who usually gets arrested; non-Lebanese, trans* (even though there is nothing criminalized trans* bodies), refugees, etc… The people who we see on the TV and in interviews usually do not fit into these categories or have a certain positionality that enables them to transcend the interest of policing. In other words, the police are not really interested to go after employed, middle class gay guys as they would to poor, refugee, Syrian, trans* (etc…) queers.

 

Again, I am not denying anyone’s suffering or victimhood but if I see one more news article about a brave gay man being out in Lebanon I will literally throw up. It is important for queers who are “out” to speak about homophobia and transphobia (as well as other nasty phobias and –ists) but we all need to remember that they are not able in most cases to represent the queers of Lebanon. The real heroes are those queers who have to actually negotiate their positions in society over and over every single day.


[1] By normative, I mean being able to negotiate and pass through the social checkpoints easily and without social/legal penality.

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