A searing first-hand account of growing up gay in Syria; a journey from schoolyard bullying to deep religiosity to pseudo-scientific “therapy” to attempted suicide to, eventually, revolution.
To my mother, in spite of everything.
I lived my childhood with a feeling of total solitude that I lacked the luxury of even understanding. When I then became a young man, and understood the reason for this solitude, I became certain there was something loathsome inside of me; something exactly like the monstrous insect that Gregor becomes in Kafka’s famous novel. I was fully convinced that if this internal ugliness of mine took over me, and became visible to other people, it would suffice to see me meet the same fate as Gregor himself: my mother would be disgusted by me; my father would want to kill me; my sister would be ashamed of me in front of other people; and friends and loved ones would transform into predatory beasts seeking to tear me apart, or perhaps throw me “from height.”1
Of course, I didn’t come to know all this through self-examination in the philosophers’ or Sufis’ manner. First, before anything else, it came in daily doses—bruising but not deadly—of external rejection and ridicule; of something almost but not quite like hatred. Before I became aware of my entomological reality at the end of high school; the fact of my being a man “afflicted with the sickness of attraction to males;” I experienced the consequences of my failure to perform my social masculinity. I made a number of grievous mistakes between the ages of seven and ten that turned me at lightning speed from a shy or “sensitive” child in people’s eyes to a boy whose strangeness was blended with something of… effeminacy. I preferred feminine dolls to masculine cars, and sitting with the girls and the timid, weak boys in the yard of my mixed elementary school to running around with the strong, naughty boys. I imitated old Egyptian actresses, swinging my hips to dance like my aunt’s daughter more than once in front of the family. The response didn’t take long: my father tore off the heads of the poor dolls in the house after a fierce scolding, and the strong boys at school broke my nose on one occasion, and my teeth on another. I felt a suspicion creeping into the hearts of relatives, and a distress in the eyes of my family as they lauded other children: “How beautiful it is for a boy to be brash and daring!” After that, words like “girly-boy,” “faggot,” and “sissy” were thrown at me; words that make me feel anew as I write them now that they’re marks branded onto my skin. Even now, as I approach the age of 40, I still feel despite myself the shame of that moment, the shame of a boy being the effeminate “type,” and thus a legitimate target of torment.
It amazes me now to think I was only ten years old when I began to withdraw inside my mind. I was totally ostracized, unable to speak about the causes of my ostracization even to my mother, the closest person to me. Once, in sixth grade, I hinted to her that I was persecuted at school, and she replied firmly that I should be strong and not relish the role of the victim. From this, I didn’t understand, and nor did she intend, that I should defend my right to be different so long as I didn’t harm anyone. Nobody thought that way in my Syrian world in the early 1990s. No, what she meant was I had to work “on myself” rather than point fingers at society; that I had to be strong in line with the pre-existing power relations, not against them; that I had to “assimilate” and behave by the rules, and not find myself a victim of them. In short, I had to be a boy like the other boys. Thus, before I knew anything about sex, intimacy, attraction, love, and all that, I began to become aware of myself through the hatred of a deep and fixed part of it, and through long hours spent by myself in the house of an average family, in which I planned and dreamed of my new self: strong; athletic; well-liked; totally and utterly masculine. From that time on, my conscious mind was detached from my unconscious nature, which it began to look upon with the eye of a killer fully aware of the outcomes of his actions. That nature had to be broken down and rearranged anew; nothing less than that would meet the requirements of “assimilation.”
I imagine now an actor starting to play a role clumsily, causing the audience to assail him with leather whips. The torment pushes him to improve, so he starts watching other successful actors and trying hard to copy them. He doesn’t possess their natural talent, but with time he masters many things; rectifying his movement and voice, and controlling his emotions. At some point, he begins to think he’s achieved some success.
Something similar to that started happening to me in junior high school. I met children on our house’s street and forced myself to play soccer with them. I began to win a certain amount of respect at school thanks to a combination of hard work studying and the ability to get close to strong boys and adopt their characteristics. I picture them now in front of me with their audacious smiles and fleeting affection. I remember how, for example, in the depths of my fevered attempts at consummate masculinity, I decided the refinement of my daily speech suggested weakness and femininity. I tore a page out of one of my notebooks and set out a laughable list of all the offensive words I would hear around me, resolving to start peppering my speech with obscenity as evidence of my maturity and virility. On another occasion, I found myself with the powerful bullies practicing the rites of ridicule, rejection, and psychological torment against another weak boy, for nothing better expresses one’s success at assimilation than the rejection and disparagement of one’s “previous” fellows. The whips didn’t disappear altogether, but they were encouragingly lightened. And from that point on, I didn’t stop trying to improve my “performance” for one second.
Yet, with time, and great bitterness, it would become clear to me that my social masculinity wasn’t the largest of my problems, and that the decent actor I’d become wouldn’t be able to celebrate his success before feeling as though the stage floor had opened under his feet, sending him tumbling down alone to a dark, dreary basement filled with cockroaches and nightmares. Things began from the one place my conscious mind had no control over; from the dreams that started enticing me at that time, in which I saw nothing except the strong, badly-behaved boys themselves. I didn’t understand the meaning of these dreams whatsoever at the start. I didn’t link them to the sexual facts I would come to know of through novels and whispered conversations with the neighbors’ sons. At the time, I didn’t have any idea about homosexuality anyway, and I didn’t feel I was lying or acting when I declared with pride around the same time that I loved a girl named Alia. I truly loved her! She was beautiful, and kind, and made me feel clever and special when we spoke. But I never once saw her in my dreams. Nor did I ever feel a desire to touch her, or find out what lay beneath her clothes. My love for her was platonic; mental; and a part of my latent desire to be like all the other people. As for my true attraction, I would learn later that it was for others: for Rami, and Ziad, and another boy of whom I can remember nothing now except his handsome face and wicked laugh.
I say “later” because in truth I buried most of the details of my sexual desire from that period in the darkest depths of my inner mind, leaving them there for many years. Now, as I write these lines, I feel like I’m walking in an old abandoned house full of fog. My discovery and practice of masturbation, for example, struck me with sparks. I remember I did it in that first period to scenes combining men and women together; hot pages of literary novels at first, and then racy pictures and films became available after the satellite dish came to our house in 1996 or 1997. I think further, and realize I was interested in the bodies of the men, not the women, but without fully admitting it to myself at the time. I don’t know how to explain this, nor do I think most heterosexuals are anyway able to understand this alternation between desire and its repudiation. It wasn’t a conscious disavowal, but more like an erasure of volition.
Later, I would also discover that human nature was freer in other Syrian worlds; in what our wretched language calls the “backward” provinces and densely-populated neighborhoods; and that the authority of “shame” and “haram”2 was noisier there because it was in truth less effective, less able to curb a man’s desire for another man, or a woman’s for another woman. As for the years of the first bloom of my consciousness in the educated, middle-class worlds, I knew only a single, supreme dichotomy, underpinned by religion and education together, held sacred by the conservative and the emancipated alike: on the one hand, a "natural” society, in which men desire women (and women desire men, if more quietly), and the values of love, stability, and virtue revolve around the family, and its rites of marriage, procreation, raising children, piety, and goodwill; and, on the other hand, the “abnormal” individuals, who were a mix of the mentally ill, the morally depraved, and those of criminal intentions, posing a threat to the youth. Here, there was nothing except good versus evil.
Just one stumble sufficed for me to understand this good-evil dichotomy. When did that fateful incident occur? Was it in the summer between eighth and ninth grade? Or the one after it? I can’t be certain. What I remember is that a passing conversation about sex with one of the neighbors’ sons once developed into a game of “You show me and I’ll show you.” We did no more than that, and I don’t think we even knew what could be done more than that, but we repeated the game several times throughout the summer, until the grown-ups found out, and all hell was raised. I learned that the neighbor’s son had tried to play the same game with another boy, after telling him he and I had done it, and he went along with it for a while, only to then inform the parents, including about the part concerning me. In my whole life, I don’t think I’ve ever felt guilt like I did then; guilt and panic and shame and haram and every comparable feeling and concept. The adults deemed me and the other boy victims of the neighbor’s son, since he was implicated twice in the case, and I managed to convince myself that that was indeed what had happened. Despite that, I was given to understand with grave seriousness that my actions had brought me to the edge of the abyss, and that nothing—not my polite manners, nor my hard work at school, nor anything else—would save me if I fell into it. For the first time in my life, I heard about the People of Lot, and how God rained stones upon them to annihilate them entirely; and how the Throne of the Merciful3 trembles at the “abnormal” act, so furious is God; and how we had to ostracize and cast out the neighbor’s son completely, in order for him to grasp the consequences of his disgraceful act.
And that’s what we did.
I don’t deny I feel a mix of anger and ridicule while recounting this story now: anger at how much I was made to feel frightened and terrified over an incident that now seems to me so silly; and ridicule when I think that, given the numbers of LGBTQ people spread all over the world, the Throne of the Merciful must since Ancient Greek times have transformed into a rocking chair. But this is all now. At the time, and for more than twelve years afterward, I felt only my self-hatred deepening and expanding, and my fevered endeavor to kill the insect inside me growing more difficult and violent, until I eventually reached the true edge of the abyss: the edge of death.
The most feeble-minded homophobes—those whose hetero privilege shows in their feeling no compulsion to think about the issue before expressing Nazi-like judgments—believe that we came from nothing: that we don’t have families we love and fear for; nor a society which is theirs too, many of whose values and ideas we’ve absorbed, consciously and unconsciously; nor a diverse and extremely old history. They believe we aren’t divided, as all humans are, been rich and poor, men and women, globalized and local, believers and atheists, courageous radicals and timid conservatives: instead we’re a uniform bloc, a passing fad, a fleeting joke, fiends who’ve “chosen” to express their sexual desires in ways incompatible with God, “nature,” and society, for their own wicked aims.
In fact, per the counter-logic to which I subscribe now, I’d find it very appealing to flip this picture on its head. I would feel a revolutionary fervor were I to reply: Yes, we lesbians, gays, and queers, in being open about our different sexual proclivities, are without doubt part of a great conspiracy against ideas old and modern; religious and secular; local and universal; so long as human morals and virtue are tied to the particulars of copulation. Yes, we are the deviants and wimps of this world, its aliens and rejects. When we affirm our difference, on the one hand, and our right to life, dignity, and equality on the other, we revolt necessarily against this “copulation morals” system, not only for being unjust against us, but for being both corrupt and corrupting, building an entire society on continual lies; a society that deep down knows the conflagration of its sexual desires, and their diversity, and at the same time removes this diversity to a black market based on deceit, secrecy, and misery. A society in which people are ashamed of a love that harms nobody, one that doesn’t kill, or steal, or do violence, while those who hate this love are not ashamed of stating their wish to kill its devotees. A society that prefers to turn a blind eye to truths in the name of “concealment,” thus legitimizing blindness as a way of life, and accepts to strip people of their humanity in the name of God, religion, and “nature,” thus legitimizing barbarism as a logic by which everyone may treat everyone else: Yes, we wish to overthrow all this.
And yet, after the revolutionary fervor, I go back to thinking that the logic of radical confrontation speaks for only a very small part of my reality, and that of the LGBTQ people I know in our joyous Arab region. Today, in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and even Iran and the Gulf states, any man can download a dating app on his phone and meet thousands of gay men: doctors, engineers, academics, employees, rose-sellers, journalists, hairdressers, artists, website designers, DJs, personal trainers, truck drivers, sex workers; an enormous mix of all ages, shapes, and backgrounds. Only a very small minority of them are open about their sexual orientation in front of their heterosexual world, in the manner first defended by the German activist Karl Ulrichs in the 1860s, which became widespread a century later in the midst of the gay rights movement in the United States: some living a totally heterosexual life from which they escaped only secretly for fleeting moments of pleasure with anonymous people; some living a totally homosexual life, filled with friends and lovers and visits to LGBTQ-friendly places, public and private, while keeping their families and hetero acquaintances outside that life entirely; others coming out to some but not to others. A singular and varying blend of adjustment and disguise, of coexistence with structures of fear and shame (and even the reproduction thereof), and escaping from them in search of a life less lonely and cruel.
In reality, contrary to the stupid misconceptions, before LGBTQs “assail” their societies with their “wicked schemes,” they assail themselves first, and may spend a lifetime doing so. Before we disturb the lives of “normal” people happy in their beautiful, sacred heterosexuality, we exert internal efforts to understand that our desire, which chose us rather than us choosing it, doesn’t make us wicked reprobates or repulsive deviants, but is simply one of the varieties of human nature found since the dawn of time. In spite of the Abrahamic religions’ demonization of it, this variety has inspired love, nobility, and goodwill from the age of Gilgamesh to that of James Baldwin. If it’s been categorized as a mental or hormonal sickness for some ninety dark years now, this has been a result of nothing more than prejudice and phobia. It’s not us who descended upon chauvinist, heterosexual society from “nothing,” but rather the latter that sat on our chests and flowed into our pores and took over our minds and made self-hatred the major foundation in the flowering of the consciousness of the vast majority of us. Therefore, before we confront this society, we must first disengage from it. In this disengagement lie the meanings of birth and liberation, though it also involves terrible pain.
I spent all my high school years trying to escape my dreams, but they didn’t stop. I threw myself at everything in which I found a source of welfare, success, and respect. I began observing Friday prayers and Qur’an recitation. I redoubled my efforts at school, and substituted my failed efforts at team sports with reading every book that came within reach. I began to sculpt for myself the persona of a serious young man who looked down on “vulgar” conversations about sex, and became good friends at school with decent, hard-working boys who never spoke much about their inner natures. From time to time, bullies would challenge my masculinity, and I would feel I’d returned to the starting point, but I never despaired. I was fully convinced that if I just tried hard enough, and took sufficient control of myself, and changed myself enough, there was no way I wouldn’t assimilate in the end, and be accepted into the club of great, virile men.
Yet the dreams didn’t stop. On the contrary, they became clearer and more brazen. The boys from school disappeared from them, and were replaced by the stars of foreign TV series that were aired first on Channel 2, then on the satellite channels. I would wake up in the morning, and remember the events of the dream, and feel as if the entire world was exploding in laughter at my wretched efforts, only to then persuade myself that what was happening to me was a test from God that would soon pass, or that this was a temporary psychological phase that would surely be followed by the “normal” one.
I remember that night, in which I was unable to sleep due to anxiety and confusion about my strange sexual dreams. I had finished the terrifying Syrian baccalaureate exams, and done well, but instead of being happy I felt time was catching up with me, and that something like a noose was slowly being wound around my neck. Why had this cruel divine test not ended yet? Why did I still feel a total isolation as soon as my friends would start speaking about girls and their bodies? Why did Fate wish me to be “this way”?
I remember how I went to the living room and happened upon a translated American film about a group of high school students and their problems. I hadn’t fully understood what was going on when the film suddenly moved to a scene in which a young man with curly red hair was sitting on a small staircase, and began speaking directly to the camera: “In the past, the word ‘gay’ meant someone happy, whereas now it means someone abnormal [this was per the Arabic translation]. How ironic! I’m certainly abnormal, but of course I’m not happy.”
Those words were enough to make me feel true panic. I immediately switched off the television, as though avoiding a scene in a horror film. I realized, for the first time, without haziness or evasion, the real meaning of my dreams. I understood that “abnormality” wasn’t the choice of demons and child-rapists as I’d been told, but rather a condition that “afflicts” decent young men like the distant American one in the film. This may seem strange; dramatic and far-removed from reality as we live it, slowly and indolently for most of the time, but I grasped straight away that that youth with the curly red hair thousands of miles away was me, and that immense misfortune such as his own awaited me. From that night on, my sexual dreams started competing in their recurrence with one, unchanging nightmare: a family gathering filled with relatives and friends which a phone call or unknown person suddenly interrupts to inform everyone, “Raif is queer! Raif is a homo! Raif is a monstrous insect!”
I try, now, to recall some of the features of my past entomological consciousness. I slowly examine the structure of that existential panic that accompanied me for so many years. I was like someone banished from paradise before sinning, or even living; like someone made to wear a straitjacket while silently screaming that they’re mentally sound. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to be gay. It was more than that; I didn’t understand to begin with how a person could be good and gay at the same time. I made no distinction between a person’s integrity, probity, decency, and goodwill, on the one hand, and their sexuality on the other. I thought, like the rest of my society, that sexuality was the center of morals, that sexuality was morals.
Beneath all this lay a religious root, without doubt. I was someone of great faith at the time, imagining God to be a giant old man in the sky, closely following the smallest details of my life. Yet I remember well that my fear at that time didn’t revolve around God per se at all, nor His Throne and wrath and rains of stone. Rather, it may have been the complete opposite: I believed God was omnipotent, and thus what was happening to me couldn’t be happening without His consent. I knew with certainty that I hadn’t chosen my dreams and desires, that I wasn’t consciously defying an attraction for women latent within me, and that I wasn’t going like the People of Lot to the houses of the Prophets asking to have sex with handsome men against their will. (How bizarre and contradictory this Pentateuchal-Qur’anic story is!) Does it stand to reason that God would create me, and create my woeful eternal punishment with me from the start? What’s this cruelty and absurdity? And what did I do, while still only eighteen years old, to deserve all this? No! It has to be a temporary test, a trial of my forbearance and faith, the wisdom of which will be revealed to me in the end. Until then, God surely stands by my side! He cannot but be my savior and hope! Indeed, from the start of university onward I began beseeching God with prayers and entreaties that now seem foolish in their details. For years, I would recite them every night before sleeping, that God might turn to me and realize the importance and urgency of my ordeal. “O God, make me blind to bulging muscles, and thick beards, and beautiful manly eyes. Plant within me a lust for big breasts, for fleshy buttocks, and high feminine cheeks. Make me a man like all the others. Make me a stallion! Make me male, O God!”
God never answered my prayers, but I kept talking to Him. This was easier for me than talking to His servants. After my stumble with the curly-red-haired American, I recall I became more sensitive to everything said around me about “queers” and “sissies” and “lesbians” and “tomboys,” and any tendency or disposition at odds with the sacred templates of manhood and womanhood. Eighteen years ago, the Arabic language didn’t have the word mithlī (“homosexual”) in its dictionary. My generation didn’t have a word with which to try and understand itself and speak about this without disparagement or distortion. Bigotry was the universal norm, to the extent that it was difficult to distinguish it as bigotry; it wasn’t confined only to the devout, or the bullies, the nasty, the violent, and the visibly unpleasant, like the bad guys in children’s TV shows or mediocre films.
I was surrounded by people generally far away from bigotry, fanaticism, and absolutism; unlike those who hate the strange, scorn the weak, justify injustice, or glorify traditions for their own sake. And yet, despite that, they were all ferociously hostile to men whose masculinity was mixed with a bit of femininity, even though they knew good and decent men of that “type.” My grandmother, for example, was someone of immense pleasantness, affability, and tenderness, who nonetheless wouldn’t hesitate to show her disgust, pretending to vomit, every time she interacted with a slightly “soft” man in a grocery, taxi, or street. At the same time she ignored the fact she had an unmarried neighbor in his fifties with clear, unmistakable “softness,” who did wonderful things for her every day, like pay bills, buy goods, and fetch repairers for all kinds of household appliances.
At university, the subject of same-sex proclivities would come up in passing within the group of friends I’d quickly formed in the first year. These weren’t conservatives, or testosterone-pumped dolts, they were decent, mild-mannered, respectful, even “secular” people. Yet I remember very well how one of them said, calmly and composed, that “queers should all be killed, as they’re a danger to society,” to which another replied with equal composure that they should be put into sanatoria until they recover, or forever if their recovery proves impossible.
Who needs devout people, and divine punishment, in a kind, compassionate, secular world like that?
In a world like that, in which homosexuality seems half-illness and half-crime, the image of the psychiatrist blends with that of the executioner who decides whether you live or die. For you to go to a psychiatrist in Syria in the early 2000s to inform him that you “suffer” from gay tendencies meant, first, handing yourself, your safety, and your power over yourself to a stranger capable of leading you into danger by countless means. What if he betrays your confidence and tells others about you? What if he decides you’re not trying your best to recover? What if he concludes after a few sessions that your case is “incurable,” and you’ll remain gay for life? What if he decides to subject you to brutal experimental treatments, such as electric shocks, or hormonal injections, that leave you damaged or disabled for the rest of your days?
In truth, no one has experienced the dark side of psychiatry like the LGBTQ community of the twentieth century. In my opinion, it’s no coincidence that a gay man named Michel Foucault was the first to look into this “scientific” field as a tool of control and domination. You sit in front of the man—he was a man in his fifties in my case, at least—and he informs you in all seriousness that your problem is dangerous, and that you must exert great effort to overcome it. He speaks with a calm firmness, giving the impression of scientific objectivity and an authority weightier and mightier than the mockery of the bullies, and the reproach of family members, and the howls of religious clerics. Out of the corner of your eye, you spot his picture with his wife and children, without it occurring to you that he’s a heterosexual man who’s never lived your experience, or that he’s a repressed man desperate to release his repression, or at least that he’s a product of his society and age, saturated with homophobia like everyone else. None of this occurs to you because you assume that science protects against prejudice, emotions, and personal convictions.
Yet this “science,” from its birth in the late nineteenth century till the 1970s, never ceased saying two mutually contradictory things about homosexuality. In its particulars and details of research, and its flashes of depth, psychological analysis never ceased declaring its inability or “agnosticism” about homosexual tendencies; its inability to determine their causes, or to “reverse” or “eradicate” them. Yet in its public discourse, its institutions and daily practice, throughout those decades it continuously regarded homosexuality a “deviation” or “abnormality” or sickness that modern science could surely understand and eliminate. Naturally, the psychiatrist in Syria in the early 2000s didn’t tell you about this contradiction, because he couldn’t tell you that psychiatry had no scientific basis for considering homosexuality an illness, rather than considering it something akin to being left-handed, for example. He didn’t tell you it was an orientation that had existed since the dawn of time among humans, as among all types of animals, one that has coexisted perfectly smoothly with sound minds, healthy bodies, and noble morals; with the courage of Alexander the Great, the eminence of Eleanor Roosevelt, the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, the creativity of Frida Kahlo, the literary ribaldry of Abu Nuwas, and the faith of the Ottoman Sufi turuq. Nor did he tell you that after the 1970s it was no longer considered a sickness by the major psychological institutions around the world. He didn’t tell you all this because he may not have known it, and may have had no interest in knowing it. He didn’t tell you because “science” has never been fully separated from its time and place.
Despite all that, I was fortunate to some extent with my “doctor.” He never stunned me with electricity, or gave me pills or injections to play around with my hormones. He didn’t phone up my parents or recommend that I go to a sheikh or priest to exorcize the evil from within me. All of this happened to friends of mine, with horrible results. Most of the time I was just sitting and talking about my childhood, about my relationship with my mother and father, and about my understanding of sexual relations. This wasn’t bad per se, but it didn’t appear linked in any way to a plan to “convert” or “cure” me. After that, he told me to desist entirely from masturbation, and to wear wide clothing, and stay away from anything that might arouse me. He then advised me to start writing out my dreams, telling me that at some point women would start appearing therein, naked and alluring. A month passed, then a second, and he began getting disgruntled at the lack of change in my dreams, asking me if I was really doing all the additional exercises required (he had given me photos of attractive women, telling me to look at them before I went to sleep). His disquiet worried me. I felt misgiving and impatience creeping into him, turning him from a psychiatrist into a prison warden yet to obtain the required confessions. After three full months, I went to the session and told him I’d dreamt of a naked woman, and he rose to his feet in joy, congratulating me, and asking me no further questions. Perhaps if he had asked, he’d have realized I was lying. I suspect he just wanted to get rid of me, as I did of him.
That was in the summer of 2001. I was at university, and my “external” life as known to everyone around me was full of happiness and success. I was well-liked, excelling, and ambitious. I’d grown a manly beard, and a tough body, and had mastered the act of strong, confident masculinity to a considerable extent, and believed with conceit, naivety, and insistence that, even if I’d failed with the psychiatrist, I would surely succeed one way or another in killing the insect within me.
Seven years later, in a cold winter I spent in a faraway Western country in 2008, I swallowed thirty-seven Ambien sleeping pills, after becoming convinced I had no alternative. For seven minutes I waited for death, until I phoned the local clinic and told them I didn’t want to die. The ambulance found me unconscious outside the house, with a decelerated heart rate and irregular breathing.
I didn’t die, and the insect didn’t perish, but that was the pit of the abyss.
The seven years prior to that moment hadn’t been a period of dark gloom; perhaps the very opposite. During that time, I read every new book and magazine I could get my hands on about homosexuality, and human sexuality in general. I took advantage of the speed-up in Syria’s Internet service to search about the topic on all kinds of websites, and started going to Beirut, occupying myself with strenuous efforts to improve my English, in order to buy books that might help me understand myself.
I remember the day I happened upon a thick book in English about the life of Oscar Wilde. I didn’t know anything about the man at the time, but the cover mentioned something about “re-considering the homosexuality of Wilde in his personal biography.” I bought it immediately. He was the first gay person I knew of who’d achieved considerable success in their field. After him, in the same pages, I encountered others from that time and place, such as the French writer André Gide, the British Prime Minister Archibald Primrose, the young aristocrat Francis Douglas, and others from Victorian London’s working class known only by their forenames—John, Paul, Bill, and others who passed through Wilde’s plentiful sexual and emotional lives. I was aware of the historical and geographical gaps between me and these people, and yet I felt at the same time an innate and universal connection between us traversing those gaps. After that, I kept reading, with a frequency that depended mainly on my skill at obtaining books, whole or in part, electronically, until I arrived at what was without doubt the greatest moment of my enlightenment at the time: Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book, Before Homosexuality in the Arabic-Islamic World, 1500-1800.
Yet who said intellectual enlightenment leads by necessity to psychological happiness and contentment? What if the “disenchantment” of the world means confronting it in entirety? What if this confrontation requires something more meaty and intimate than mere theoretical ideas and distant historical details? I would read, and feel my mind filling up with rich and valuable information, and then I’d put the book aside and feel my heart sinking, besieged by questions affiliated not with the logic of understanding but the logic of existence; the logic of being or “identity” in most of its manifestations adhering to the human heart and the ability to respect and love itself. Why must I fight in order to be who I am? Why must I speak publicly about the details of my life in order to be left alone? Why must I break my mother’s heart and bow my father’s head and feel the hatred of good and bad people alike? To hell with all this. Yes, I came to understand fully that I wasn’t sick, nor was I undergoing a short-term test. I am, in all simplicity, a gay man like millions of others in this world. I realized completely that I wasn’t an insect, that it was heterosexual civilization that wanted me to be an insect. But what difference does it make, when the price of coming out is exorbitant, or rather impossible? No, I won’t live my gayness then. I’ll carry it on my back as a heavy cross without allowing it to impede me in my fevered attempt to assimilate among the throngs of heteros and be successful, liked, and powerful. I’ll live without sex, or sexuality, or any of that nonsense. I’ll gag my nature until it chokes and dies.
I was naïve, of course, or most likely influenced by the heterosexual society in which I grew up, not only in its homophobic bigotry but in its understanding of sex and sexuality in general. I used to think sex was a limited sensual act that began with desire and ended with elation and could be separated easily from the rest of life’s aspects. Throughout those seven years, I discovered—psychologically rather than intellectually, through my gradual descent toward suicidal depression—that it was in reality at the root of everything in life. Before the instinctive, sensual desire, and during it, and after it, there is also that innate need for the spirit of the person to combine with that of the other, for the person to find themselves beautiful and attractive in the eyes of others, and to feel attracted and joyful in turn when seeing one of them. It might happen in a fleeting moment during a glance exchanged between the two, or it could take the form of a love that lasts for years, but the endeavor for intimacy remains the same in all cases. Around this endeavor the human being doesn’t only weave their emotional and sexual lives, but their deepest friendships too. Are the closest friends not those with whom we share our emotional stories and defeats, those from whom we ask advice and to whom we complain? In that phase, I would consciously and very cruelly keep a distance from any friend pestering me with personal questions, or I’d resort to inventing stories about imaginary girls and passing flings. Either way I ended up alone. Nothing stabs at the heart of friendship, turning it into a merely tiring social ritual like lying; nothing deepens one’s sense of absolute solitude and loneliness like it.
This went on, until everything began losing its meaning: lying wore me out; I was overcome by nightmares of loneliness, and would wake up in the morning wishing I’d died in my sleep, until I ended up with thirty-seven Ambien sleeping pills, swallowing them before they were vanquished by my fear of death, and the image of my mother hearing her only son had killed himself in a faraway country at the age of 26.
I returned to Syria a few months after that terrifying night, and without much thought or examination (or perhaps after a lifetime’s thought and examination) I seized the first opportunity to go to Beirut and look for a young Palestinian man I’d met there once, whom I was later told was openly gay. I found him, and “told him about myself” in a few very slow sentences, with drawn-out and somewhat cryptic articulation, and felt as though boulders weighing tons had been lifted for the first time off my chest and back.
Amer—that was his name—introduced me to his friends, who introduced me to their friends, and I began going with them to new middle-class gay and lesbian bars. Recalling them now, these bars seem to me ordinary, decorous, and even simple, but at the time they were unprecedented in their liberation and distinction. Lebanese from all areas and religious backgrounds; usually from similar social circles but not always on the more crowded, clamorous nights; Syrians and Palestinians, gay and straight, working in the bar alongside their Lebanese counterparts; with a wealthy or middle-class clientele frequenting the place regularly—Jordanian, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Gulf Arab lovers of Beirut, and international tourists from all corners of the globe. Everyone did their best to look beautiful and elegant. The ambience was playful and entertaining, but not “vulgar,” at least by globalized bourgeois standards. Between your chance encounter with two young women on their third date, and your meeting two men who’d been lovers for fifteen years, you felt for a few moments you were truly in a different Arab world, one not governed by wretched sexual morals, and that the issue of homosexuality was no longer an issue at all, and that what consenting adults did among themselves without harming others was no longer anyone else’s concern. You felt, for those moments, that you were capable of being yourself. You breathed.
I didn’t reveal my sexuality in front of any straight people until years after that, and if it were said to me at the time that I’d one day speak publicly about it in detail, I’d have thought it a joke or hallucination. Until very recently, I never wanted anything other than to be left alone. I wanted only my small space devoid of lying and pretense, in which my hidden gay worlds could intertwine with no more than a handful of hetero friends, through which I could obtain my necessary supply of friendship, love, and meaning. In exchange, I accepted to live “by the rules” outside this space. My liberation was of the bare-minimum kind, and strictly individual; I took no interest whatsoever in LGBTQ people other than myself, nor in LGBTQ issues as a “cause” in the first place.
Contemplating that stance of mine now, I realize that behind it lay, firstly, a huge amount of pessimism. After all, for a person to struggle for any given cause, putting their life and reputation and the happiness of those closest to them at risk, they must first of all believe at least slightly in the usefulness of the struggle. They have to feel deep down that the risk will surely lead to a better state of affairs; to a more dignified life and a freer and more just society. I had none of this at that time. Entirely to the contrary, I was convinced those Lebanese bars were the absolute utmost that could be obtained on this patch of earth, and that it was better to leave things here as they’d been for millennia, behind deaf walls and under silent roofs, without foolish illusions about revealing the truth, and equality, and the language of legal rights. Just as the Earth rotates around the brilliant, colossal Sun, so my pessimism revolved around what I regarded as the condensation of authority, arrogance, violence, privilege, and bigotry pressing down on my neck always and forever: that is, the honorable and glorious straight male. In truth I didn’t reveal my sexuality to any straight Syrian man until just a few months before writing this essay. I was sure that if I did, I’d face a vicious hyena taking pride in hating me, or a fox substituting hate with mockery and scorn.
“There are only two kinds of straight men,” says Brian Kinney, protagonist of the American show Queer as Folk, which depicts the lives of five gay men in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s. “Those who hate you to your face, and those who hate you behind your back.”
Alongside this pessimism of mine, there was something else: a latent desire to assimilate; an involuntary instinct pushing me to behave by the rules so as to win the affections and approval of others. Thinking carefully about the first years of my acceptance of being gay, I realize I still felt a mix of shame and deficiency as a result of it. I was like one who’d accepted a disability, starting to work hard on lessening its burden on their daily life. I wasn’t able to be straight, so I wanted to be the next-closest thing: a gay man whose gayness is almost imperceptible to straight society; a gay man who doesn’t irritate straight society by talking about his gayness; a gay man who doesn’t turn his gayness into a “cause” but rather tries, on the contrary, to prove to society that he’s good “despite” his gayness.
At the heart of all this lay the issue of masculinity. I had spent a lifetime trying to escape my early failure to perform my social masculinity, and I didn’t realize I had actually succeeded in this except, ironically, concerning my acceptance of my sexuality. In the bars of Beirut, and the parties of Damascus, and over the dating apps that have since become hugely popular, I was welcomed by men fiercely attached to their “masculinity” as one of them, and I discovered with joy and a kind of vain pride that I was categorized as a “masculine” man according to the numerous divisions and “camps” of the gay world. Not many dim-witted homophobes could ever understand this, because their conception of the gay man is of someone “effeminate” by definition. The reality is there’s a vast number of gay people of whom it might be said in one context or another that they “don’t seem gay,” which is an attribute many of them welcome themselves. “Manly,” “acts hetero,” “butch,” “discreet,” “it doesn’t show on him:” these are terms used by many gay men as positive descriptors they emulate and look for in their partners. Perhaps they’re driven to this by a combination of factors: a social preference created by history tying male beauty and attractiveness to “strength” and “virility;” deep psychological bruises carried since childhood and adolescence prompting them to focus on, even obsess over, their manliness; or a clear pragmatic effort to avoid incurring the anger and persecution of society. I don’t fully know; I only have my personal impressions. Yet what’s certain is that this combination re-produces the same masculine-feminine power dichotomy within the LGBTQ community, creating for many members who class themselves as “manly” something varying between unease, coldness, disregard, superiority, and even open bigotry against those of their own kind they consider “effeminate,” “sissies,” “wimps,” or simply “women.” And instead of joining an openly-declared struggle placing them in the same camp as those people, many of these vainglorious “manly” men think they can avoid persecution through their stereotypical lifestyle, and may in some extreme cases believe the problem lies not in hetero society to begin with, but in the “sissies” who give the gay community a bad name, and obstruct heterosexuals’ acceptance thereof.
I never consciously adopted such opinions, but I was nonetheless deeply attached to my masculinity, and preferred to stay away from anyone who might draw attention. When I think honestly to myself now, I see there was an element of dissimulation4 in this stance, and a certain kind of.. collaboration.
I wasn’t aware of my pessimism, nor my assimilationist inclination, during the years of their complete hegemony over me; it was only afterward, when looking back. I was, however, fully aware of a third logic driving me that was also distant from interest in homosexuality and the reality of LGBTQ people as a social and political cause. Let us call it the logic of “postponement in the name of priorities.” Since my first visits to the Beirut bars and their “alternative” worlds, I had come to know a specific group of gay people: courageous young men and women who were open about themselves in front of everyone, and who were active in associations and demonstrations drawing attention to the cause of freedom and equality on the bases of gender, sexuality, and identity. I was in awe of them, and at the same time unconvinced about the priority of their struggle in our Arab context. I would ask them half-jokingly and half-seriously about the meaning of someone fighting for gay rights in a region without rights for anybody; not women, not straight men; neither the minorities nor the majorities! Was it not more logical for us to struggle for the rights of all humans, and postpone the sexual battle for a later stage? Did the queer struggle not attain its most important victories in countries where democracy, the rule of law, and the language of civil and political rights were already firmly rooted? Was it not preferable, then, to focus our efforts on attaining those general gains before embarking on a specific, factional struggle in which we had almost no allies?
When I would think of LGBTQ people in Syria and the region at the time, I would only have in mind people similar to me and my acquaintances: young, urban, university-educated men and women, who might speak a bit of English, and be familiar with international culture in terms of films, TV shows, and music. The “globalized” youth, in other words, capable of interacting with and drawing inspiration from the stories of the global struggle for gay rights, because they were anyway victims of the same “Victorian” sexual culture, against which that struggle was set. I was aware, of course, that homosexuality as an orientation and practice had existed everywhere outside this social segment, among women as among men, poor as among less poor, in the old quarters of Damascus and Aleppo as in the rest of the cities, regions, and villages. But I would always wonder if the people practicing homosexuality in those worlds were concerned about their “rights” as LGBTQs, or if they defined themselves as such, or if they knew of the word mithlī at all. I was convinced that to talk about gay rights was something deeply elitist, of no concern even to gays among the “common people.” This reinforced my belief that highlighting the issue wasn’t only premature, but could even harm the general gay population by drawing the attention of conservative forces that would otherwise remain heedless of them.
That was my conviction, until very recently.
Those ideas and inclinations never fully left me, but rather stayed in one form or another in my inner depths, wrestling me as I wrestled them, sneaking in surreptitiously in a passing word or rapid action or involuntary response, engaging in calm and obstinate dialogue with me at quiet times.
There’s still a solid core of pessimism inside me, or perhaps more precisely one of instinctive caution. I still feel uneasy, despite myself, when I’m somewhere public with a group of gay men “on whom it shows,” and I get annoyed—again, despite myself—if I hear a recording of my voice and it doesn’t feel gruff or “manly” enough. My caution blends with my assimilationist tendency such that I often can’t distinguish between the two. I hear about positive steps toward freedom, dignity, and equality for my counterparts in other parts of the world without permitting myself to feel much reassurance, always mindful of how gays in Germany in the 1920s had associations, bars, and a large degree of freedom and ability to go out in public, and yet were led to the gas chambers only a few years later. I meet a new straight man and automatically assume he’s a potential source of harm; trying to protect myself, I hold fast to my masculinity and act according to “the rules.” I encounter some activist friends, and argue that the gay cause mustn’t be separated from the causes of humanity as a whole, and wonder with persistence (and perhaps also annoyance) if their emancipatory discourse tries to speak fully for the reality of all those they presume to represent.
And yet, despite all that, I’ve changed. I was changed by that human earthquake that struck Syria in 2011, when the barriers of my small world were smashed and I was pushed step-by-step toward new, different worlds. I discovered, first of all, Syrian heterosexuals who understood the truth of the LGBTQ issue, and defended that truth in front of one and all. They were, in most cases, noble women activists, but there were also men among them rebelling against repressive masculinity. I would follow some of their discussions and feel a surprising optimism growing within me, one resembling that general optimism that accompanied the demonstrations in Syria. I understood then that the pessimism of the subjugated becomes, after a certain point, a lethal weapon in the hands of the subjugator. I realized we had allies prepared to raise their voices in our defense, and felt embarrassed comparing my caution and silence with their loud boldness.
After that, without premeditation, I began getting to know another kind of Syrian: people like Zaki, Khaled, Muhammad, Wissam, Abdallah, Nuha, Hanan, Lina, and many others. I wonder now if it’s accurate to describe them as LGBTQ; they were indeed so, but like all other humans they were also many other things besides their sexuality. They were people of all different origins and circumstances, dispersed all over the place: in Homs, in al-Ghouta, in al-Yarmouk, in Raqqa, in Aleppo, and among the millions of refugees and exiles in Lebanon, Turkey, and Europe. I met most of them through a link that had nothing to do with our shared sexuality: our unanimous support for the revolution and our involvement, one way or another, in its struggles. Only after that, in the manner of one deciphering a secret code slowly and with great precision, did we discover that last common denominator shared between us. They included courageous people openly gay in front of a relatively wide circle of people, and wary ones sufficing with a very small space in which to be themselves, but they were all fully conscious of their differences, and reconciled to them, and concerned with defending their right to exist. In contrast to those I used to know in Beirut’s bars, they were for the most part immersed in their localities, and the issues of their regions, neighborhoods, and villages, speaking about their dreams and adventures and relationships in purely colloquial dialects. As a result, they weren’t much troubled by questions about the extent of the legitimacy or “representativeness” of their desire as gays for freedom, dignity, and equality; for them, this wasn’t a complex theoretical question, but rather mere common sense. They were, in other words, local in focus and universal in aspiration, without abstractions or affectations, and without feeling the need to explain the subject, or regard it as thorny, or indeed anything other than self-evident.
I lived my childhood with a feeling of total solitude that I lacked the luxury of even understanding. Only when I got to know those young men and women did I begin to feel, for the first time, that I wasn’t alone. I began taking an interest in LGBTQ issues principally because I loved those friends. With them, I created a bond built on our shared disclosures; on our existential dread that had accompanied us so long it was a part of us; on the lashes of childhood and adolescence that left piercing wounds and deep bruises on our skins; on our discovery that the dearest people are capable of transforming into the cruelest and most abusive. And when my friendship with some of them moved from the virtual world to the real one, in Beirut and then Turkey followed by Germany, my circle of acquaintances broadened through them to incorporate people whom, had I met them previously, I would have recoiled and fled from immediately on the grounds that they were “stereotypically” gay. I realized these people were the strongest and most courageous of all of us; I understood the meaning of one of them living at risk of killing, or assault, or arrest, or humiliation just for going out to the street; I saw how they fought all of these dangers, and in many cases turned them into an inexhaustible wellspring of mockery—mockery of life, of authority, of the scowling adherents to austere pieties; mockery also of themselves—and I felt envious when I discovered that they, unlike me, hadn’t feverishly destroyed their unconscious natures since childhood, and thus were capable at one and the same moment to be free, and to forget.. and to dance!
In the end, I determined to write this text as a message to those friends, first and foremost, as well as to others among the LGBTQ community who might read it in our joyous Arab region. I came to understand fully how mutual disclosure, among friends as among strangers, generates an amazing power of steadfastness and continuity. I wanted to speak about the monstrous insect that was inside me, in order that doing so might help someone else overcome their loneliness, or fear, or self-loathing, or obsession with masculinity, or desire to take sleeping pills to end their life. We’re not insects; we’re not demons. We’re not sick; we’re not child-rapists. Nor are we agents of the West, or Zionism, or Freemasonry, or the Blue Goblins. If God exists, He’s without doubt the one who created us this way; let us dispense with any and all doctrines saying otherwise. If He doesn’t exist, then in any case we harm no one by our consensual actions. When we’re murdered in the street, or thrown from high buildings, or arrested with our bodies violated in police stations, we won’t say, “But we’re humans despite our sexuality,” but rather, “Yes, we’re gay, and we have our rights.” And when we struggle to remain as and where we are, we struggle by necessity for the sake of all the general priorities; for freedom, justice, and human rights as a whole; because those who violate us legitimize violation per se through us, practicing on us before setting upon others. I wanted to write all this not to persuade the dolts and brutes who hate us—from them I expect no more than a torrent of invective and religious excommunication and proscription—but rather to speak with it and through it to those of my own kind.
Having divulged the most private details of my life, and arrived at the end of this long essay, it remains only for me to confess that my forename isn’t Raif, nor is my surname al-Chalabi. I have a father who sees the world in the light of my eyes, who today is on the cusp of 80. Every time I remembered him while writing this, I would feel fangs and talons emerging from the table and chair, sinking into my heart and insides. I won’t break the heart of my father, who devoted his life in the cause of my happiness. I won’t inform him of my truth, and risk his health, and love, and pride in me. I’ll weep on the day he dies with double the anguish; the anguish of losing him, and the anguish of his long oblivion to the most important story of my life; but I won’t take the risk of seeing him broken and stunned with sadness, or furious with cruel, tyrannical rage. With him and for him alone I’ll coexist with that strange mix of secrecy and dishonesty that the Arabs of old called taqiyya. But after him, and with everyone other than him, there’s no alternative for me to the truth. There’s no alternative for any of us.
- 1. A reference to certain Islamic texts which mandate this as a form of capital punishment for male same-sex relations. The Islamic State (ISIS) organization has inflicted this punishment on several occasions.
- 2. That which is forbidden under Islamic law.
- 3. That is, God's throne.
- 4. Arabic taqiyya, an Islamic term referring to the historic practice by some religious minorities—largely, though not exclusively, associated with Shia Muslims—of disguising their theological convictions to avoid persecution.