International Day Against Homophobia: Between the Western Experience and the Reality of Gay Communities

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The anti-homophobia discourse is being used for other oppressive ends too

Haneen Maikey and Sami Shamali

The 17th of May is the International Day against Homophobia, and it is being celebrated for the seventh consecutive year now. This initiative was started by a French gay activist in 2004: May 17 was chosen as a date after the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the international classification of diseases on the 17th of May 1993.

The word homophobia means the rational fear or hatred of homosexuality and homosexuals. The word comes from homo, meaning gay, and phobia, or fear, in Latin. This term also denotes prejudice and intolerance against homosexuals.

It is noticeable that, lately, there has been an increase in events and in queer groups celebrating this day around the world, including the Arab world. And even though homophobia and its psychological and social dangers are clear and common, there is also a disregard of the importance of discussing its limitations as a framework for change. We know these limitations through our experiences in Al-Qaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society in the ten years that we have been working with the homosexual community specifically and the Palestinian community generally.

The campaign for the international day against homophobia has come as a natural progression for LGBT movements in the west, where gay movements began organizing as movements in the late 1960s. From the womb of different revolutions of that time, from the struggles of Black people in America, and the protests against the war on Vietnam, emerged the radical LGBT movements that called for comprehensive social transformation. But like many other movements of that era, and for reasons that we will not be able to discuss in this article, LGBT movements were contained, filtered and mitigated. And thus they changed from radical movements to liberal ones that call for accepting gay people within society, instead of changing society; from movements that understand the relationship between the different struggles, to movements that are removed from their surroundings, contained inside identity politics, working on improving the situation of gays and lesbians within the existing system.

To achieve their goals, these movements have relied on publicity as a strategy and tactic for the past forty years, and have worked on spreading this experience through international institutions and initiatives. And along these lines came the birth of the initiative “International Day against Homophobia.” And so today, the western gay calendar includes two key events: International Gay Pride and International Day against Homophobia. The first calls for public pride in individual homosexuality, while the other calls for global events that demands respecting LGBT people around the world; the focus of International Day against Homophobia is that “… homophobia is the reason for shame and must be dismantled and fought publicly.” And we can see the duality here between showing pride in homosexuality and describing homophobia as a shame.

Calling an essentially western initiative an “international day” no doubt imposes a western vision and experience that is limited for other queer movements around the world. This initiative therefore is part of a tendency to generalize western experiences as the most correct and the sole experiences for others to be measured against. This ignores the particularities of different regions and the right of groups around the world to determine their own paths of struggle and progress, based on their local histories and experiences that are usually fundamentally different from western ones. For this initiative presumes that all gay and lesbian groups rely on publicity as their strategy, and that homophobia—like homosexuality, are obvious and are openly discussed issues everywhere, as it also presumes that it is possible to define and dismantle homophobia as a single phenomenon that is isolated from all other social phenomena.

Moreover, this initiative, which is part of a bigger framework of the struggle against homophobia, also ignores the larger political and social contexts of homophobia, and erases from the discourse the existence and the function of institutions that are the basis of repression and gender and sexual discrimination. And if we want to impose this initiative on our Palestinian Arab context, it would fail to connect homophobia to the heart of the problem, which is the fact that we are a society that does not talk about sexuality in the general sense, and the fact that ours is a patriarchal society, one that looks down upon women and all that is feminine. Using the discourse of homophobia ignores all the above-mentioned issues, just like it ignores our relationship and our existence, as a queer community, as part of these social institutions. Because we too, as gays and lesbians, are a “product” of the same social heteronormative upbringing, and we are homophobic like the rest of our society. We see that the mobilization of this ideological and strategic framework leads to reducing our role as individuals and groups, as it also whitewashes the image of the repressive institution that is at the heart of sexual and gender discrimination.

During the past ten years of our work, we have noticed that the dominant discourse around homophobia—be it a gay response to a homophobic charge or a homophobic discourse trying to publicly fight homosexuality, falls within the same cycle; this cycle reinforces the same power relations and determines what is “gay” and what is “backward”. This divides society into two groups only, the same dual polarized categorization that we are fighting in our larger discourse on sexuality (man/women, feminine/masculine). There is the homophobe, then, who is now the “backward” Palestinian society that persecutes homosexuality and that must feel shame, and on the other hand there are the gays and lesbians that must feel proud, supported by allies and friends with a progressive human rights discourse, which is, unfortunately, a liberal discourse most of the times. There is no space in this polarization for more complex and less public expressions and statements; more importantly, this discourse pushes back any attempt to analyze homophobia deeply enough for the sake of dismantling it.

And the worst thing is that this discourse prevents the gay and queer community from taking an effective role in the general social agenda, because of the claim that our oppression is different and particular. This is a part of the liberal discourse that ignores the analysis of power relations and prefers to look at every issue on its own. And thus it deals with the gay issue apart from all other social issues, turning a blind eye to the fact that the gender and sexual struggle, which includes the gay struggle, is an integral part of a wider resistance agenda that is not “particular” or “different”.

And on the international level, because of the superficiality of the anti-homophobia discourse, because of the absence of a clear naming of oppressive institutions, and because of the centrality of the duality between those who accept homosexuality (“the good”) and those who reject it (“the bad”), we see people and groups who are from these oppressive institutions, taking advantage of the discourse and riding the wave of “fighting homophobia” for other reasons that are usually oppressive as well. This is because the existing duality in their speech goes hand in hand with their liberal discourse that divides the world into either with us or against us. So we see the use of this discourse from the American Right to justify the occupation of Iraq, including institutions that are concerned about LGBT rights. Here the duality of the U.S, the west, and the civilized friends of gay people is being used against the Iraqi people and government (who are homophobic). And that gives the Americans the right to not respect the will of the Iraqi people or of the Iraqi gay community to determine their own paths of struggle. Instead the love of gayness and “democracy” is to be imposed on them, in a ready-made package, sent to them “from America with love.” Israel too uses this discourse in its attempt to whitewash its crimes in front of the whole world, to delegitimize the Palestinian cause and to diminish the support towards Palestinians. So this polarity is used between the open western Israel that is accepting of homosexuality and the Palestinian society that suffers from homophobia and that rejects and fights homosexuality in all its manifestations. And since Israel is “the only western country that is LGBT-friendly” (rhyming with “the only democratic country in the Middle East”) and that is surrounded by a sea of “homophobes”, then it has the right to break human laws and fight those “barbarians” that surround her. And so we see the apartheid wall pinkwashed and described as a wall to protect Israel from a “homophobic” attack. At the same time, calls are made for putting an end to the support of Palestinians, because they are not “LGBT-friendly”.

In the end, we emphasize the limitations of this discourse, and the danger of importing it without questioning, deconstructing and analyzing it. We see that fighting homophobia, despite its importance, cannot take place through dualities and dividing society into those who accept gay people and those who are homophobic. Similarly, this fight cannot take place through dissociating homophobia from violence against all other minorities and repressed groups. We believe in the interconnections among the struggles of all these groups, from the Palestinian struggle to the feminist struggle to the queer struggle. We believe that social change cannot happen through isolating ourselves from society and criticizing it from a gay bubble that does not mix with the rest of society. Instead, we believe in the cohesion of these struggles to break the foundations of oppressive economic patriarchal systems that do not accept diversity of any kind.

(Haneen Maikey is a queer activist and the director of Al-Qaws; Sami Shamali is a queer activist from Al-Qaws)

This article was originally featured in Arabic on as part of the online magazine’s special IDAHO folder and was later translated to English by Deems for

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10 Responses to “International Day Against Homophobia: Between the Western Experience and the Reality of Gay Communities”

  1. james

    Jul 08. 2011

    Homo does not mean “gay” in latin; it means “the same”.

    Reply to this comment
  2. John Roberts (UK)

    Jul 07. 2011

    Western discourse on human sexuality – which seems to have gained a hegemonic role in the world – also does not allow for sexualities that are not in keeping with elite interests. Note, for instance, how paedophiles are discriminated against in the western paradigm and that non-westerners, even as they advocate following their own path to sexual liberation, invariably adopt this paradigm.

    Why isn’t there an ‘International Day Against Pedophobia’ for instance?

    Reply to this comment
  3. Georges Azzi

    May 27. 2011


    i agree with many of the points, and the focus on the regional context is important , my reply was about the following points:
    ” Calling an essentially western initiative an “international day” no doubt imposes a western vision and experience that is limited for other queer movements around the world. This initiative therefore is part of a tendency to generalize western experiences as the most correct and the sole experiences for others to be measured against. This ignores the particularities of different regions and the right of groups around the world to determine their own paths”

    i don’t think that taking part of an international ( even if western initiated ) initiative exclused us from also being part of more regional speciific activities , especially that no agenda was imposed by the people who initiated IDAHO

    While i am completly opposed to the adaptation of westen models in our region, but at the same time we do not need to be paranoid about it .

    In Lebanon Visibility had its benefits especially in creating a strong non-LGBT network of allies, publicity and visibility did not contracted helem work in getting more involved in other social issues related to the lebanese context

    Reply to this comment
  4. Haneen

    May 27. 2011

    Thank you again bekhsoos for translating this article.
    George, not sure you got our point – no one spoke about using the words “gay” or “lesbian” or “homophobia” will make you westernized. We spoke mainly about two things:
    1) the limitation and the risk of using international campaigns (that based on a western experience) without any critical thinking; 2) the limitation of the “homophobia” discourse (i.e. dividing the society to black and white, ignoring the root of the problem etc.) – we think this framework is failing to address the real needs of the queer community and in a way make us focus on “what we see” and not “the root” of the problem.
    We didn’t say we are cancelling the western experience but we are saying it can’t fit our local politics – it is like Lebanon’s politics are by definition different from the Palestinian one and we can’t be ONE block despite the common goals. I know Arab groups, including Helem, signed the Arab queer groups statement on the IDAHO and i wonder what this achieved in terms of “real” change. It is nice to have occasions to promote what we believe in – and i am not saying organizing activities during IDAHO is by definition bad but it worth to think how we define homophobia and how we choose to tackle it.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Ammar

    May 26. 2011

    One of the best articles about the Arabic LGBT community movement, well done, simple, easy and direct to the point, even though its long, but it worth reading,

    Arabic society got its own social and political features, and its true, the Western model will not match our regional community needs as long as it focus on media , I agree with the above comment, that we have no idea of what our LGBT community will looks like in the future, somehow we will find a way and keep going, social change is an ongoing process and its not related only to the LGBT issue, our whole region is facing a major changes today, and the Arabic world will not looks like the same before for sure

    Thanks for sharing this great article with us,


    Reply to this comment
  6. Georges Azzi

    May 26. 2011

    intersting article however, we tend to see things in black and white only … and that there are 2 ways of being an activist, the local one and the western one and both are contradictory and dangerously opposed.

    Understanding our own context, does not mean that we need to reject all the terms and methods used in the west. This year “HELEM” managed to get several important local figures in Lebanon to speak against 534 from a private freedoms perspectives. Helem has always been engaged in different social issues, but that does not mean that we are not allowed anymore to use the word gay or lesbian or homophobia because this will make us a westernized movement.

    words might be the same but the approaches are different.

    Reply to this comment
  7. harleymc

    May 24. 2011

    This is an interesting and valuable article. Thank you for publishing it and thank you to the authors of the original.

    As someone who has been active in Australia around a range of issues to do with resistance to oppression, I’ve often felt the homophobia/pride discourse is extremely limiting.

    Early gay activist groupings such as Gay Solidarity Group saw the struggle for gay liberation as intimately connected with feminism, the labour/ union movement, Aboriginal land-rights, anti-racism and anti-colonialism. With time, the commercial/business gay sector expanded more and more ‘apolitical’ (conservative) gay people established a ‘community’ (as distinct from the liberation movement) that at times could be mobilised for a limited rights agenda. The activists and businesses concerned with identity and rights had no time for solidarity across activist groupings and the liberation ideology was eclipsed.
    The HIV/AIDS epidemic also certainly changed the dynamics around rights as access to healthcare, housing and anti-dscrimination legislation became very pressing almost in the blink of an eye. Our initial volunteer groups, careing for and supporting people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as lobbying for treatments were stretched to breaking point and became partially professionalised.
    The Queer liberation movement of the 1990′s revitalised solidarity and liberation and widened the presumed norm of the white, middle class, male Gay.

    I have no idea of what your future society will look like but I wish you all the best in your struggles and loves.

    Reply to this comment


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