By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Happy ending: Kamar has come out to his family, and after the usual disappointments and drama, they've drawn much closer.
Post-9/11, the U.S. government mandated that all immigrants must be registered—and the newly formed Department of Homeland Security was especially on the lookout for Arabs. Many people required legal counsel and turned to Assal and GLAS, which had always helped their members on matters involving immigration, health care, housing, and HIV.
The FBI even questioned GLAS founder Ramzi Zakharia, allegedly for dubious online postings, but the inquiry ended when agents learned that he was openly gay. Others weren't so lucky. Blue-collar workers and devoutly religious Arabs—men who wore beards and women who covered themselves—found themselves laid off and the victims of random violence. They turned to GLAS and Assal for help.
Within months after September 11, queer Arabs knew they had to show the world that they remained a proud part of New York City. In June 2002, GLAS joined the Pride March down Fifth Avenue for the first time. Viewed by hundreds of thousands and broadcast internationally, the event was a double coming-out— as Arab gays and as Arab-Americans. GLAS invited gay non-Arab Middle Easterners—Iranians, Turks, and Armenians—to join its members as they blasted Arab pop from boom boxes, waved banners, threw candy, and, yes, belly-danced.
They couldn't have been more visible— which is why many others opted to stay home. Ironically, openly participating in the Pride March was one way that asylum seekers could prove they were gay: The U.S. grants asylum based on the sexuality, but many immigrants missed the window (up to one year after first arriving) to apply.
Group meetings became safe havens from an America that equated Islam— and, by default, all Arabs—with terrorism. For Camper, being around other Arab lesbians meant "your shoulders come down, you relax, and you don't have to explain yourself." They could talk about an unaccepting family without having the comments taken as proof that all Arabs are rabidly homophobic.
Habibi and Assal—which translate to "Dear one" and "Honey"—still serve that function. Assal is especially important, because social and religious activities in Arab culture are often segregated by gender; women foster strong and intimate bonds away from men. At a recent Assal dinner, excitement swirled around a member's pregnancy and the discussion topic: "How to tell your Arabic parents you're having a baby—with your female roommate!"
Like their American counterparts, many queer Arab immigrants simply don't want to join gay social networks or activist groups; they're too busy working, playing, and just living day-to-day lives. For instance, Zakharia—a Palestinian- American who's been in the U.S. since 1982—works at an advertising agency, has been out to his family, and lives with a longtime partner. For immigrants like him, "being here makes it much easier," as Sami puts it. "There are so many things around you that make you feel welcome. You can do whatever you want—have a life, a job, whatever—and be gay." You can even dance to Arabic pop music in the arms of another gay man.