How LGBT+ people are persecuted in an Arab country where same-sex relations are legal.
A century ago, British army officer T.E. Lawrence devised an incredible plan. He would lead an army of Arabs across Jordan’s crimson desert to its coastal town. All to charge an attack against the ruling Ottoman Empire. The extraordinary feat made Lawrence of Arabia a legend.
In his autobiography ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, he mentions how the Arab soldiers would engage in same-sex relations with each other.
The social inequality between men and women in the Mediterranean “made love, companionship and friendliness impossible” between the two, he wrote. Hence, men could be emotionally satisfied only by other men. He claimed that these partnerships were “more than the contact of flesh with flesh.”
Lawrence himself had been suspected of being in a same-sex relationship with an Arab boy, Selim Ahmed.
In 1951, when Jordan legalised same-sex sexual relations, it was still illegal in the United Kingdom. Hasan said in an interview, “When Jordan made its constitution in 1951, it was more progressive than the European ones, than the British one.” Hasan is an LGBT+ activist. He identifies as gay.
But just last month, a Lebanese rock band’s concert was banned in the country’s capital. Mashrou’ Leila explained the situation on their Facebook page. Unofficially, they were told, they would “never be allowed to play again anywhere in Jordan.” The reason being their political and religious beliefs, and endorsement of gender equality and sexual freedom.
The band’s lead singer Hamed Sinno is openly gay. It influences much of the politics in the band’s music.
The incident made a splash in news outlets around the world. BBC, Vice News and the Guardian reported the story headlined with variations of ‘Jordan bans Lebanese band with gay singer’. The Daily Mail reported that it spurred criticism of “the Western-allied kingdom, which portrays itself as an island of tolerance in a turbulent region.”
“It’s one of the only countries in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region that does not criminalise being LGBT+,” said Khalid in an interview. He is the founder of My Kali magazine, the first LGBT+ friendly webzine in Jordan, and one of the first in the MENA region. He identifies as gay. “Most of the countries in the MENA region want to reach that level. And it’s already given to us,” he added.
Yet, half-a-century since legalisation, LGBT+ rights in the country remain a gray area.
Madian Al Jazerah is an LGBT+ activist and the owner of Books@cafe, an LGBT+ friendly space. “Although there’s no law that criminalises, there is no law that protects the LGBT+ community,” he said in an interview. When there is physical abuse of the community, police treatment isn’t fair or equal, he said.
He mentioned several other legal peculiarities. There’s an elastic law according to which anything that tarnishes the values and morals of the community is illegal. So, meeting a woman alone and kissing her on her cheeks may be to totally acceptable in the capital Amman. The same may be unacceptable to the community elsewhere and so, illegal there. “This gets used a lot against the LGBT+ people,” he said.
Hasan had organised the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) events in Jordan, last year. Dubious by-laws were used by the government to condemn it. In the constitution, Islam is stated as the religion of the nation. So, the Interior Minister argued that recognising LGBT+ groups would be against the constitution, and so, illegal.
Hasan is well-known as an activist and as the organiser of IDAHOT in Amman. He still receives hateful messages on social media, and phone calls where people play recorded passages from the Quran.
An anonymous interviewee said, “LGBT+ people in general face discrimination on a social level, on a religious level, and if you’re trans, you also face discrimination on a medical level. So you can’t get access to potentially life-saving, gender-affirming surgery. And you can’t, in many cases, get access to hormones.”
“It is legal but it’s not culturally acceptable. Just like having sex,” said Alia in an interview. She is a young bisexual woman who is open about her sexual orientation. “If a brother finds out that his sister had sex, it is totally legal but she will be dead,” she said, referring to honour crimes. “It’s against the culture. And that’s what people fear. Not the legality.”
“The worst thing that could happen is being disowned by family or kicked out from home. Or being hunted by relatives to be murdered because one is dishonouring the family by being LGBT+,” said Khalid in his interview. But such type of honour crimes are not common, he said.
In Amman, bullying and alienation happens through people talking behind one’s back, said the anonymous interviewee. There isn’t a lot of direct confrontation.
Mr. Al Jazerah pointed out, “Majority of the queer community here is not out, so, you can’t gauge the tolerance level. It hasn’t even tried to announce itself.” He then compares it with Jordan’s neighbour. “In Lebanon, it has announced itself. And that’s why there’s more violence,” he said. “I would think if there was more announcement here, there’s a strong possibility there would be more violence.”
“If there is any violence, it is more targeted towards the transgender community,” he added.
Sarab Yasin is the most transparent transgender person in Jordan. An icon since the 90’s, she considers herself luckier than other trans women. “I had the support of my family which prevented me from ending up on the streets, selling my body. This is not the case for most trans people. These are things that they have to resort to,” she said in an interview.
She has faced harassment as a trans person. Once, she was even kidnapped and almost raped. But she says this isn’t any different from what most cisgender women experience.
She has not been able to change her sex or birth name on her official documents. This is because of a law that prevents trans people from doing so unless they have undergone gender affirming surgery. She does not blame Jordanian authorities for this. “As someone who has lived in Europe, that’s not just the case in Jordan. It’s the case internationally,” she said.
Similarly, Alia does not feel oppressed as a bisexual woman in Jordan. But she still has some disappointments. “Whenever I come out to a person, or to boyfriends, I expect a negative response. And all of them were positive. Then, I realised bisexual to them only means threesomes.”
Another anonymous interviewee, a young closeted lesbian, has other concerns. “When I hear my closest friends saying negative things about LGBT+ people, it makes me uncomfortable,” she said in an interview. “Our community is religious. They consider those who are different to be wrong.” She does not think that her family will accept her. “I am really not sure what my future holds for me,” she concluded.
However, Mr. Al Jazerah said, “If it’s a gay man, there’s more abuse. If it’s a gay woman, there’s much less abuse.”
He explains how this is a result of patriarchy. “A gay woman, to the general psyche is a woman who wants to be a man. Hence, she is trying to elevate herself in a male-dominated society.” Conversely, a gay man is sometimes referred to as a ‘traitor’ in Arabic. “A gay man is giving up his right to be up there and is going downwards to be on the level of women, if not sub-women,” he explained.
Despite that, Mr. Al Jazerah believes that traditional Arab societies were more accepting of LGBT+ communities. “Generally, in Arab society, sexuality is fluid,” he said.
He argues that the Western-imported labels are confusing the traditional understanding of it. “You would expect that the less Westernised side would be more homophobic. But it’s the total opposite. Those who have been educated abroad, those who have lived abroad – the homophobia is coming from that side.” He said that people in the more traditional Arab areas engage in same-sex relations but do not label themselves.
“At the time of my mother and my grandmother, they know, and have accommodated transgender men and transgender women, with no problems,” he elaborated. “A transgender man would be protected by the male community. A transgender woman would be protected within that female community.”
Mashrou’ Leila’s gay frontman Hamed Sinno seems to agree that Arab societies are growing more bigoted with time. In a Skype interview with Daily VICE, he said, “The political class is very quick to pander to the increasing religious fundamentalism around the region. I definitely don’t only mean Islam. There is also a rise in Christian fundamentalism in the Middle East.”
Originally published on Cardiff News Plus: http://jomec.co.uk/cjsnewsmaij/news/queers-of-jordan