The Consumption of Gay Others

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I wanted my critical engagement with unpacking the topic of gay tourism – a huge and complicated topic – for this issue of Bekhsoos to be a conversation with someone smarter and more articulate than myself. So I spoke to fellow activist and good friend, Natalie Kouri-Towe, who is half-Arab and lives in Toronto. Natalie has been an organizer for queer and women’s rights for over 10 years. She is a member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and a PhD student in the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. The texts in gray are my own questions / comments:

One of the 2010 IGLTA Symposium destinations is Beirut, a natural extension, it seems, to the glorification of Beirut gay life in Western press such as the now-famous NY Times piece. Lebanese queer communities have been divided in opinion over the event, some hailing it as a sign that gay rights in Lebanon have advanced significantly and others shunning it as heavily problematic for various reasons. What is your take?

I think there are a few problems that this symposium embodies. The first is Western imperialism. The second is global neo-liberalization. In the first sense, I think that, in many ways, gay organizations that are invested in having access to global spaces for tourism are part of the same kind of process of European colonialism and US imperialism today through war, open markets, and free trade.

So, I think that while the idea of supporting or connecting to spaces of sexual diversity internationally has some kind of good feeling attached to it, the reality is that these are people from Western countries, people who are economically prosperous, and who are traveling to consume what they are searching for in terms of the globalized capital markets.

Just like other forms of tourism, gay tourism profits from having locations in different parts of the world be accessible and open to it, and having markets that are shaped to appeal to gay tourist consumers. This then obligates, in some ways, the local economies to adapt to those demands.

So if Westerners imagine Lebanon to be a cosmopolitan place of luxury that has come out of a brutal civil war, then these are the images that the tourist promoters have to supply to lure travelers to the country. We morph ourselves to become the very images that the West has of us because we want their economy.

Yes. The most extreme example of this is Thailand and its international sex industry. It’s become almost impossible for the state of Thailand to do anything other than accommodate this touristic demand. On the second problem of neo-liberalization, many states in the Global South today – or certain groups of people within those states – are invested in the idea of entering into neo-liberalism. We have these ideas of freedom of trade and movement, increased privatization, and the adoption of certain types of morals or ethics that aren’t actually invested in questions of justice or equality. They are instead all about consumption. And so, this process is not focused on who gets treated how, but on who gets to enter into the market, who controls the market, who profits from it.

In 2009, an IGLTA Symposium was held in Tel Aviv despite the protest of many queer groups to the pinkwashing of Israeli crimes. Do you think the fact that the symposium was held in Israel in 2009 is enough for the Lebanese queer community to boycott IGLTA altogether and the Beirut IGLTA symposium in particular?

I remember that we wrote a letter to IGLTA protesting the decision to hold a symposium in Tel Aviv. It has become widespread knowledge now that the Israeli state is using and mobilizing the language of neo-liberal democracy as an appeal to invite people to support the state of Israel, to come and visit, to bring their dollars there. The Israeli state claims to be the only safe place for gays in the Middle East and this is one of its tactics to gain international credibility and hide its ongoing war crimes. The tourism campaigns (here is one example) that the Israeli state continues to launch and invest in are part of that. So, for example, when IGLTA goes to Tel Aviv, it’s not just going to the fun party beaches of Tel Aviv. It’s going to support the state’s portrayal of itself as the space that wants to be defended from the backwards primitive people. In a lot of ways, the push in Lebanon might be coming from a similar logic: groups of queer Lebanese want to distinguish themselves from the “regressive Arab countries” and present their city as more European, more cosmopolitan. There is no coherent Lebanese state that can do that, but there are people within the state who want to do that and who have economic access to do it.

The Israeli state claims to be the only safe place for gays in the Middle East and this is one of its tactics to gain international credibility and hide its ongoing war crimes.

What would have been useful for IGLTA to do is renounce its decision to go to Tel Aviv last year, recognizing in retrospect that in doing so, they were complicit in the apartheid state of Israel and its ongoing occupation of Palestine. Then, the decision to go to Beirut would be to engage in another space in which people have been mobilizing and organizing for sexual rights. That could have been interesting – even though IGLTA itself as a practice, as a space, is very troubling for the reasons I gave in the beginning. But I think the fact that IGLTA and its partners in Lebanon don’t see anything wrong with visiting gay spots in a Middle East that they have totally depoliticized is a big problem. That’s what it ends up becoming. Perhaps next year, they will visit Turkey.

So, yes, there’s a lot there that warrants boycott in order to raise awareness of the way these international tourist bodies are not neutral. It’s not just people going on vacation. It’s participating in certain kinds of nationalisms, supporting certain kinds of capitalist economies and states. You can’t say IGLTA doesn’t support the Israeli state when they celebrate Tel Aviv as a gay-tourist city.

Some Lebanese queers have claimed that promoting Beirut as a gay-friendly city is actually good strategically because it debunks the myth that Israel is the only gay-friendly place in the Middle East. They claim it gives Arabs a good, progressive reputation and that can only be good for the struggle against Israel’s occupation. What do you think of those claims?

First of all, making the claim that a certain city or country is friendly for gay people doesn’t make it safe from homophobic and gender-based violence. It doesn’t suddenly do away with state repression. I think that the desire to claim some kind of more liberated, more progressive space – especially by using gays and lesbians as the measuring unit – is almost always an elitist, upper class discourse. When you make these claims, you ignore and erase all the continued violence. When Israel makes the claim, it ignores the fact that it’s a very homophobic and patriarchal society towards its Jewish citizens and a racist society towards its Arab citizens and an occupier of the West Bank and Gaza . The difference with Lebanon is that these claims aren’t being made to justify occupation, but instead they’re being used to justify entry into more stable international economic relationships. They want Beirut to be part of global capitalism at the top of the hierarchy.

When you make claims [about a city being gay-friendly], you ignore and erase all the continued violence.

What about the claim that the IGLTA symposium is a great development for the LGBT rights movement in Lebanon because it brings international validity, money, and support to Lebanese LGBTs? A lot of young people feel a sense of pride and are very excited about it.

People tend to think that the strategy of drawing international attention to a country and sexuality sometimes makes the state anxious about perpetrating violence against people. That would be the only redeeming quality of international support – in the particular cases where it works. People in the state, bureaucrats and politicians, feel a little bit more uncomfortable about doing something that’s not very liberal-friendly or West-friendly. But we must remember that Western countries speak up against violence only when it suits their political interests (such as the claim to liberate Afghani women justifying the war on Afghanistan). We rarely hear the United States speak up against women’s oppression in Saudi Arabia or even within the US, for example.

The goal of gay tourism isn’t to try and work towards fighting homophobia. That’s not what tourism is about. The Beirut 2010 IGLTA campaign plays on stereotype, Orientalist images of Arabs, while emphasizing a boom in the gay scene: “Gay bars, cubs, restaurants, saunas  operate freely and a LGBT centre has been created to cater to the community’s needs.” At the same time, it appeals to all of these exotic desires that imagine us in this mysterious other place, a place that’s backwards and different but oh-so-charming. See the usage of camels and “Lawrence of Arabia” references here as an example.

The reality is that the countries these campaigns try to appeal to, like Canada and the US, are homophobic states, where violence against queers is perpetrated constantly and dismissed by the state. Homophobic and gender-based violence is ignored at exceptional rates. Tourism doesn’t bring increased services to the population. It doesn’t improve the lives of people. Tourism is an economic relationship where poor people don’t benefit. Rich people benefit, and internationals benefit the most.

Many from the queer women’s activist community in Lebanon have chosen not to attend or promote or give a talk at the symposium. They have also turned down the offer to invite the tourists into their spaces. As a result, we have come under criticism for being closed-minded and for keeping the queer movement in the closet, instead of coming out like many of the “brave men who have appeared in videos and risked their lives to promote the symposium and bring it to Lebanon.” What do you think about that?

That sounds like a capitalist argument that is really angry at you for not opening your market. It’s not paying attention to the needs of the people who are saying “no, we don’t want to have these international tourists coming to our spaces and consuming us as though we are some objects to be consumed.” It’s a very neo-liberal argument, this idea that internationals should have full and uncensored access to the reality and the “real truth” of the society they are visiting, so that they can fully consume and understand this foreign space.

…as though coming out (which is in itself a very Western way of validating your gay identity) is the only form of activism you can do.

On the other hand, the argument is also using the gay guilt complex of staying closeted – as though you’re going to damn all the gay people in the world for not coming out. It is as though coming out (which is in itself a very Western way of validating your gay identity) is the only form of activism you can do, as if by refusing to do so, you are cowardly and useless to the movement. It’s also plain bullying. By creating this Bekhsoos issue and allowing a space for others to voice their opinions about the symposium and gay tourism generally, you may have benefited your movement a lot more than throwing a party for the tourists or giving them a talk about the situation of lesbians in Lebanon.

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3 Responses to “The Consumption of Gay Others”

  1. Carol L. Frey

    Oct 12. 2010

    I think this speaks to very important issues, but it also presents a jaded viewpoint about the quality of people involved. So much of the news that comes to the U.S. is far from balanced. Without traveling, including to the Middle East, my knowledge of the world would be much more limited. Having a dialogue with local people is the best way to gain understanding about a culture, gay or straight. And while travel itself may not combat homophobia, I believe that informed travelers can. The underlying message here seems to be, “stay home.”

    Reply to this comment
  2. Aphrodite

    Oct 11. 2010

    Enough said. This should be wide spread. Amazing. The title is just perfect.

    Reply to this comment

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