Most people would assume that LGBTQ communities do not exist in the Middle East. I, however, had the pleasure of hearing Madian Jazeera speak to my study abroad program, who is an openly gay man and awesome human living his life in Amman. He owns a restaurant and bookshop on “Rainbow Street” called Books@Café. This has become a sort of unofficial haven for the LGBTQ community to meet and for women seeking refuge. There is no “official” LGBTQ organization in Jordan unfortunately, yet Madian is frequently asked for advice from doctors, the UN Council on AIDS, and the Ministry of Health in Jordan. But his life has not been easy. He has fled the country for fear of his life more than once and he has lost many friends in being who he is. “I’ve been arrested 83 times,” he remarks in a nonchalant way. He explains how conservative Jordan once was, which led many to become secretive. Now things are okay and continue to get better as Jordan is a liberal and welcoming country. Amman is no Beirut he reminds us, but things continue to grow and give hope for the next generation.
Jordan, unlike several other Arab nations, has no law against homosexuality. There are laws against public affection such as kissing and cultural norms frown upon physical contact in public spheres. There are ways around this as many same sex friends hold hands. This is very common in India where boys who are friends will be very close and may hold hands. In this case some gay men can mask their sexuality when holding hands with their partner. Acceptance is not necessarily about laws, rather personal beliefs and one’s inner tolerance. Madian found in his experiences that the people of East Amman were much more accepting of homosexuality, than West Amman. Amman is the capital of Jordan and the biggest city in the country. East Amman is the original Amman and West Amman is the expansion. In the East the people are of a lower socioeconomic class, usually not highly educated, and maybe a little more conservative. In contrast, residents of West Amman are from a higher socioeconomic class, highly educated, more likely to study and/or travel to the U.S. or Western countries, and more likely to listen/watch western media. With this in mind I would think that East Amman, the less educated sector, would be less understanding. However, Madian explained that in East Amman the labels for sexuality do not exist, whereas West Ammanis feel like they know it all and understand the labels, therefore shutting out the LGBTQ community. East Amman values trust and friendships. Without cultural conditioning and labels, sexuality is more fluid. You go with what you feel and no one can say otherwise because the label of “gay” or “fag” or whatever else doesn’t exist. Gay men may still be pushed into marriage for several reasons: they must carry on the family lineage, the tribe looks to them to lead, or they don’t want to be out or fear being out.
This leads me to the religious and cultural explanation of homosexuality. Many would say that the Qur’an states that homosexuality is punishable by death. Um yeah… that doesn’t exist. If people try to use Shari’a law as justification then this is wrong and you don’t really understand how Shari’a works. Maybe in some forged hadiths it says that the Prophet Muhammad condemned homosexuality. (For those that do not understand how Islamic law works: Juries look to the Qur’an first. If they can’t find an explanation, then they look to the Sunna, which is the example of Muhammad. Hadiths are the written records of the Sunna. They are long chains of credible sources/witnesses that say they saw Muhammad do this or heard Muhammad say this. Disclaimer: these are ancient so how reliable are they? You decide.) Others pull from the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah to explain sodomy. So basically back in the day, women were so attracted to angels that they would sleep with angels if they got the chance. In this story angels appear to Lot and stay in his house for the night. It is written:
“Now before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot and said to him, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them carnally’” (Genesis 19:4-5).
Carnally meaning sexually. Wait, what? Why would the men of the town want to sodomize the angels? When one sodomizes another man, he has effectively “lowered the man’s eyes,” meaning he has lowered the man’s status into that of a woman’s. The sodomizee, is no longer a man and he is disgraced. In the biblical story the men of Sodom wanted to sodomize the angels so that they can’t have sex with the townsmen’s women. This concept was actually practiced in the Near East. For example there were pirates or thieves that would rob from caravans crossing the Silk Road or other trade roads. In order for the thieves to ensure they wouldn’t face retaliation they would sodomize all the men. Therefore, they tarnished other men making them less than real men. I believe it is from these practices and teachings that lead to the stigmatization of homosexuality as sin and an offensive act. It is all about dominates and control. Think about in the U.S. how boys call each other “fags” to tarnish and degrade another’s “manhood.” There is this belief that being a man is all about strength, courage, muscle, control, maintaining respect, etc. A man is not just what he appears on the outside. There must be a balance between one’s inner and outer self. A real man understands responsibility, humility, respect for others, kindness, accountability, and so on. (For more info watch Tough Guise it’s an awesome film that goes more into detail about this concept). However, this misconception continues to skew things. For instance, the one who is on top is considered more of a man and it’s ok, but to be a bottom you are less than a man. Then there are lesbians, who are considered trying to elevate themselves to the stature of men so they have an easier time in a way. Women may face more honor problems though and this is one reason for honor killings. It is said that an honor of a man lies between the legs of a woman. Completely ludicrous! But this is the culture that surrounds the LGBTQ community and I think some of these ideas are present in American culture as well.
Madian and his colleagues have been working on several projects to promote change. First off, as I noted earlier there aren’t really any labels for sexuality in Arabic. The words previously used to describe gays included perverts, “fuckers”, sexual deviants, molesters, and on goes the list of horrible names. Therefore, they created a glossary of terms that have now been accepted by the UN Council on AIDS and by the Jordanian Ministry of Health. Many doctors and educators are starting to use the new, more appropriate language as well. I think language is the first step in implementing change as it is used in daily life. More recently, Madian is trying to address AIDS and STD/STI issues. It appears that there is little to no sex-education taking place in Arab countries. Talk about STDs is swept on the rug according to Madian. Madian and his colleagues have gotten brochures to be printed and accepted by the Ministry of Health. He says they have just been approved to do surveys and research on STDs in Amman. Sometimes they try to educate taxi drivers and others and give out condoms. I think it would be awesome if an NGO could be established to assist in these sorts of issues of sex education and the like. I believe when there aren’t open conversations about sex it is distorted into a shameful and guilty act, when it’s just a part of human nature. Also when there is a lack of education at home or at school youths will turn to media as a supplement. This often means young men are using porn as a form of sex education. This is not healthy and porn is not reality, man! This problem is definitely happening in the U.S. and I think people are just now attempting to address it. Madian also reported that they are trying to get transgender to be an option on official documents. This may take longer as bigger, more underlining issues still need to be addressed.
Culture and religion are so heavily intertwined here that it is hard to separate the two. One is so ingrained in the other it is as if they are one in the same. But change is still in the future and trailblazers like Madian are paving the way for future work in education and acceptance.
If you wish to contact Madian about issues or to find out ways to get involved here is his email: Madian@booksatcafe.com
For those that want to better understand the LGBTQ community, I’m no expert but I’ll give a brief background of information I’ve received and I encourage you to seek out more information.
Everyone has three identities. There is the biological identity, which is either male, female, or intersex. This identity is about what biological parts you’ve got. Intersex humans have both male and female genitals. Secondly, there is gender identity. This is what you as a human feel. One feels like a man or woman. Lastly is sexual identity, which is what kind of human you are attracted to. For example, I indentify as a female, who is a woman, who is heterosexual.
L = Lesbian — a woman attracted to women
G = Gay — a man attracted to men
B = Bisexual — man or woman attracted to both genders
T = Transman or Transwoman — can be attracted to men or women, depending on person
- Case A: you were born a male but identify as a woman and may dress, act, whatever like a woman = Transwoman
- Case B: you were born a female but identify as a man = Transman
- Often times look to get sex change
Q = Queer (or I’ve heard “Question” but queer is more popular I think)
- This is an umbrella term that covers all genders and sexual attraction classification
- Some people may find this term offensive because in the past this has been a degrading term. Thus, you might just see LGBT
I = Intersex — you are born with both male and female body parts and may choose one over the other to identify with and be attracted to a certain gender, depending on person.