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The Delusions of Representing Male Homosexuality in Beirut

[Graffiti on the walls in Hamra neighborhood of Beirut, circa 2010-2011. Image by Mathew Gagne] [Graffiti on the walls in Hamra neighborhood of Beirut, circa 2010-2011. Image by Mathew Gagne]

Journalistic and popular accounts have often extolled Beirut as a haven for gay men. These accounts of male homosexuality in Beirut–like this NYT article, this NPR recording, as well as these articles in The Guardian and the Huffington Post–produce a particularly problematic model of queer[1] life in the city. This model uses several sets of binaries to make sense of sexual non-normativity (queerness) in the city without reflecting on who and what this narrow grid excludes. By doing so, the model ends up defining the types of social, sexual and political lives that are visible as queer. However, these binaries alone are never sufficient in theorizing or making sense of queer lives for they do not capture intimate moments, movements and negotiations of living between and outside their poles. Rather we must look at meanings, embodiments, and practices in relation to forms of policing, authority, and normalization that occur within, between, and around these binaries.

The Model: Binaries and Spaces

The model dominates depictions of queer life in Beirut based on the desires, interpersonal relationships and positionality of the constructed type of gay men with class privilege and normatively gendered bodies who can move easily through homophobic currents in the city. This model talks only about those sexual lives that unfold in specific semi-public spaces, often commercial, and popularly known to be queer or queer-friendly. Even articles critiquing this limited depiction reinforces this model arguing that Beirut is not a gay haven and that these same men are actually subjected to brutal and relentless legal and political homophobia and classism. For example, this piece identifies class exclusions as the major problematic of the model, while still privileging queer spaces as the prime sites of lived sexualities accessible only to an affluent gay male figure, thereby falsely isolating class as the defining line between who is included and excluded in this model. These accounts are two sides of the same coin: they write about queerness in the city through the binaries of rich versus poor, public versus private, male versus female, modern versus traditional, and urban versus rural. They use either end of the poles to explain representations of queer life in Beirut, and in doing so skip out on all the negotiations and experiences people live in between and across these poles.

This model underscores several misconceptions about homosexuality in Beirut. First, these accounts reproduce and celebrate a model of non-normative sexual cultures (in this case, the image of a well-off gay man) based on the experience of a particular group of individuals. These individuals are the ones who have the financial means, social connections, and bodily privileges to move within heteronormative spaces in the city. The image emerging is that of a male-centered, money driven, free-living queerness unfolding in commercial spaces. These include Beirut’s few gay bars, restaurants, clubs, regular parties, and a beach near Byblos.

Second, this model of queer life represents those with access to these spaces, to the exclusion of those who do not, often based on the affordability of getting into these bars and parties. Making non-normative sexualities representable based on the availability and accessibility of bars, beaches, parties, and gay-friendly neighborhoods like Hamra or Mar Mickael, is not sufficient for understanding the realities of queer life in the city, which actually mostly happens beyond these places. Nor is the presence and visibility of these spaces itself a measure of queerness.

Third, the model misuses low-income class status to explain why poor or rural men are not “free” to fully experience a gay life claiming it is due to being excluded from the privileged queer spaces this model extols. In actuality, their economic status only explains why they cannot afford to enter a gay party. Class status influences sexual identity formation in mixed and complex ways, yet the model never asks whether poor or rich men would want to go to these spaces in the first place, and simply assumes they do on the basis that they are men who have sex with men. Similarly, the model ignores trans*, lesbian and queer women’s experiences and justifies doing so through their absence in these usually male dominated spaces. Women’s minimal presence in these clubs and parties often located in Hamra, and Downtown, or in warehouses and unused commercial spaces in Sin El Fil and other parts of the city becomes translated as invisibility and oppression. This sustains a false illusion that women’s sexualities are confined to the private sphere (as if women do not live public lives), thereby effectively erasing their experiences and casting them as un-liberated, un-modern, or non-queer, and possibly all three. In this framework, affluence, urbanity, and modernity are the signs of the queer times while custom, poverty, and rural life are the place of oppression, homophobia, and backwardness. The model not only normalizes these individual experiences and particular forms of queer life, but they are also rendered representative of progress and modernity.

Take, for example, a recent article entitled The Rainbow Economy in Executive, a mainstream Lebanese business magazine targeting the country’s business elites. This article lauds the increasing visibility and confidence of a gay scene (conceived as a monolithic community) that centers on certain bars and social media technologies, ignoring the various public places where men cruise for sex with men or the houses where private gathering happen. Already, this scene only includes those individuals who frequent those spaces and who engage in social media technologies such as Manjam.com and Grindr. Given that mainstream marketing has been chasing the spending power of queer people, it is not surprising that the article then focuses on the economic potential of commercial revenues of gay men in their habits of consumption, leisure, and travel. Once again this article paints Beirut as a destination for gay travelers, and transnational circuits of the so-called pink dollar. The article ends by drawing on discourses of gay rights and sexual health based on the experiences of the same men who are part of this scene: “Their increasing visibility and activism has forced the legal system to be more lenient, the medical system to acknowledge that they are not ill and businesses to cater to their needs.” Thus, Executive magazine reproduces a certain type of queer subject with certain political, commercial and leisurely needs that the Lebanese market can respond to.

Towards Another Model for Queer Life

No person in this city can inhabit and survive at one single end of this model’s polemical representation of homosexuality. The model presents neatly divided opposing categories of rich versus poor, public versus private, male versus female, modern versus traditional, and urban versus rural. People constantly negotiate these binary categories, producing multiple realities of lived queerness in the city, and in effect constantly throwing into question their fixed meanings and challenging their totalizing representative power. Throughout our fieldwork, we have met plenty of men, and many women, who negotiate their movement across gender, class, sexuality, and other social markers, while still retaining a sense of their queerness. The popular notion that people here live a double life, one gay and one straight, one private and one public, one modern and one traditional (as in articles like this in NBC), is not true. They live lives that are dense, messy, negotiated, and contingent.

People live non-normative sexualities in every corner of the city and the country, on the streets, with those furtive or bold glances taking place while passing one another. They unfold at house parties, among friends. They happen with flirtation and touching between customers and shop owners in spots around the city, in blatant sexual joking with willing sarvees-drivers (a form of public transportation), public teasing of waiters, or exaggerated yet calculated bodily performances in restaurants. With the increasing presence of mobile phones in Beirut among men of all class-brackets (see McCormick’s recent piece describing this trend), queer dating and social networking through smartphone applications like Grindr and Scruff have quickly become popular ways for men to live same-sex attractions and sexualities beyond the physical spaces of the gay bars, and beyond the dividing line of class-based access to places. In contrast to the model, class among these apps is not a way of defining queerness based on access to queer spaces, but rather is produced through and within the ways that men use these mobile technologies. These more random, mobile, and shifting experiences of queerness in Beirut are non-representational forms of queer life in Beirut that are experienced through affects, emotions, and performances. These moments of lived sexuality are formative of queer lives, but are not captured or made political by the dominant representational model we are critiquing here.

Normative political schema and relations that influence the production of queer sexualities have emerged over the course of long histories of colonialism, imperialism, urbanization, modernization, post-civil war reconstruction, and neo-liberalization. These political technologies operate both in relation to and beyond the separation of queer life from broader heteronormative space. Shaping these processes is gender, nationality, the politics of (in)visibility and whether one wants to be seen and associated with these queer spaces and social networks. Representations of gendered and classed queer bodies, in addition to transnational flows of global queerness, including both discourses of identity politics and queer politics, take root in and shape the lived realities of queer sexualities in Beirut. What these dominant representations lack are the roles of emotions, affects, personal histories, memories, and traumas that go into producing queer life in the city. The currents that shape the realities of lived queer lives cannot be made into binaries, or blatant struggles between them. They are to a great extent the same currents that shape sexualities in Beirut as a whole. Queer life happens within the contingencies of affect, representation, policing, space. They happen within the space of life.


[1] By queer we mean sexually non-normative, therefore, we use queer as an umbrella term that encompasses “gay.”

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