It’s Saturday night, and Sami is feeling the Middle Eastern dance tracks of DJ I.Z.’s set at Habibi. Upstairs at the Stonewall Inn for the monthly roaming party, he pushes through a thicket of men and hits the makeshift dance floor, where he and an Egyptian friend break into freestyle belly dancing. A gay Muslim Moroccan, Sami loves Arabic pop music but rarely gets to dance to it.
But Sami (like most of the people in this article, he requested that his real name be withheld) does go dancing often. Sure, he frequents Splash, Therapy, and other homo hot spots, where the Habibi devotees blend into the city’s multicultural stew pot. Yes, they arrive from diverse—and sometimes harrowing—backgrounds. And yes, they’ve experienced various degrees of anti-Arab fallout from September 11—but most remain closeted to some degree, and once in a while, they just want to hang with their homies.
Finding other gay Arabs wasn’t always so easy. In the early ’90s, Jennifer Camper, a first-generation Lebanese-American, sought out other lesbian Arabs. The first she met ominously whispered: “I have a list of seven names.” At that time, few Arab immigrants self-identified as gay; finding them in the pre-Internet age posed a challenge, since there was no official lesbian social group, like Assal for women, or places like Habibi.
What did exist was a local branch of the national Gay & Lesbian Arab Society (GLAS). The group met twice monthly at the LGBT Community Center. Immigrants were terrified to attend their first GLAS meetings, lest someone see them and tell their family. Even today, Arab families—the primary, all-important social unit—place immense pressure on their children to marry. It’s still common for gay Arabs to do so, then take an out-of-town job while sending money back home. Those who are able to attend college abroad enjoy a reprieve—but once back home, they face an arranged marriage.
Politics and religion exert more pressure to stay in the closet. In most Arab countries, homosexuality is not only illegal, but the penalties for it are also harsh—including torture and death. The infamous “Cairo 52” were arrested by police who broke up a boat party on the Nile River in 2001; the men were beaten, exposed, publicly humiliated, and imprisoned for up to five years. In Islamic-fundamentalist nations like Iran, gay men are allegedly hanged.
Although Islam remains the dominant religion in the Middle East, it accounts for only half of our Arab immigrants. Most others are Christian, with a smattering of Jews. “A lot of people not from the Arab community don’t understand the large role religion and ethnicity play in the typical Middle Easterner,” says current GLAS president Nadeem, himself an Iraqi immigrant. That’s why the group employs a rule: No religious or political discussions. For GLAS members struggling to reconcile their religion and sexuality and requiring additional guidance from their peers, the organization directs them to specialized support networks like the gay Muslim group Al-Fatiha and the gay Catholic group Dignity.
Even within those very strict boundaries, the meetings could become unexpectedly emotional and therapeutic. Nadeem recounts leading a gay discussion group a few years back. Thinking it’d be a neat icebreaker, he asked the guys to describe—without going into graphic detail—their first same-sex encounter and what made it special. “About 10 people were in the discussion,” he recalls, “and for three of them, their first experience was being raped. I was like: ‘Whoa, OK—I guess we’ll have to talk about this.’ “
In 2005, GLAS discontinued its meetings. By then, the women had splintered into Assal, and most men socialized at Habibi. But another demographic was making itself known in the gay Arab-American world: “hummus queens”— gay men attracted to Arabs. Not that all hummus queens were on the make: One attended to seek advice on how to help his closeted Arab partners come out.
The real death knell for GLAS meetings was the Internet, which offered anonymity, safety, and thousands of friends. A local LGBT Arab online forum thrives on Yahoo (subscribers can join at glas.org); discussions range from the struggles of coming out and the newbies in town to relevant entertainment—such as the first gay Arab film, Toul Omri (All My Life).
Even in the Internet age, a savvier new breed of immigrants must deal with violence from the old country and family pressures.
Kamar, a Lebanese immigrant from a liberal family, effortlessly assimilated into American culture. When he settled in New York, he didn’t care to cultivate friendships with other Arabs—yet he recalls being afraid to come out to his parents because of a childhood incident in his native Beirut. He, a brother, and his mom were walking outside when gunfire erupted: “She threw us into a corner and shielded us with her body, so if a bullet came it would hit her instead of us,” he recalls. “I can remember every detail of that day—her dress, everything. My mom was willing to die for me. I couldn’t come out to her. I didn’t want to upset her. How could I?”
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.