'To show them we're not a zoo'



 
Beirut-based Bekhsoos is being billed as the first online magazine for lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer (LBTQ) women in the Arab world. MENASSAT sat down with the editors of the new quarterly publication.
 
By ALEXANDRA SANDELS
 
bekhsous
Bekhsoos wants to offer a platform for lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer women in the Arab world. R.R.

BEIRUT, September 17, 2008 (MENASSAT) – "You have now laid your eyes upon the first few introductory words of a pioneer movement in the Arab world: an Arab LBTQ women's magazine," reads the introduction to a new online magazine out of Lebanon, Bekhsoos.

"Bekhsoos" is Arabic for "concerning," and LBTQ is short for Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgenders and Queer.

Launching an LBTQ magazine in the Arab world – even online – is a bold move, and it should come as no surprise that Bekhsoos is based in Lebanon, where homosexuality is somewhat more accepted than in most Arab countries (even though it is still illegal here.)

"Yes, we decided to create a magazine to show ourselves, to show we exist as more than pornographic creatures, to show that we are beings who lead lives just like those of any of the purportedly 'normal' others within our societies and communities, but most of all, to spread awareness, to reach out to members of our own community, to create networks of support, to make it known that every LBTQ individual out there is NOT alone," the manifesto continues.

Divided into six different sections, Bekhsoos represents a journey into uncharted waters.

Anonymous

The magazine's content – a wide-ranging content profile which deals with LGBTQ news from the Arab world and beyond to special reports, film reviews and opinion pieces – is by its very nature original.

And the word is spreading.

By word of mouth alone, the first issue of Bekhsoos got more than 6,000 hits from countries as far away as Australia, the United States and Great Britain; and as close as Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The first opinion piece, Transsexuals on TV, was one of the more popular articles of the first edition, and as the author Nadz writes, “Lebanese TV stations feature shows on the life of transsexuals in which they depict them as freaks of nature only to up their ratings and attract viewers.”

Bekhsoos has an editorial team of 13, including graphic designers, translators, columnists, and writers.

For privacy and security reasons, the majority of Bekhsoos staff and contributors chooses to publish anonymously, using pseudonyms or only a first name.

"We are fortunate to have outside contributors who write for each issue, and we welcome writers from all over the Arab world to submit content to us. We have one writer, for example, who talks about the situation in Kuwait," Bekhsoos editor "Jen" told MENASSAT.

Jen says she can recall "only one or perhaps two writers who actually use their full names."

The magazine is available online in both English and in Arabic with the Arabic content getting the most clicks.

A personal outlet

Apart from features and news reports, a significant part of Bekhsoos is dedicated to "personal stories and creative submissions," a section where Arab LBTQ women can share writing, poems and thoughts on life.

"Basically anything that's on their mind," as Jen puts it.

One writer, for example, felt inclined to share her experiences as a first year student at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Writing under the pseudonym Smurf, she describes the homophobic environment she encountered at school and how in the end she was actually able to change the viewpoints of some of her classmates through awareness.

"As a freshman at AUB, I had the absurd notion that university life was going to be the place where I could truly be myself in front of everyone," she said. "But, just like a dead fish flushed down a toilet, my beautiful dream seemed to disappear when I took a sociology course during this year's fall semester. When we reached the topic of homosexuality, the whole class went berserk."

She then embarked on a school project about gay rights for her English class.

She presented the work of Lebanese LGBTQ organizations such as Helem. (The term LGBTQ includes males.) And she discovered that more of her classmates began to understand the importance of these organizations.

As she said in her last column, "Step by step, I believe that one day the majority of people in Lebanon, and hopefully around the world will open their arms to others without question of personal sexual preferences or inborn characteristics."

Religion

Another writer, Ran chose to speak about her personal struggle between her religion and her sexual orientation.

"Ever since I was little, I was taught what I should and should not do, the way I should behave as a woman and as a Christian," she wrote in the first issue.

"I get asked a lot: 'How can you be a Christian and a lesbian at the same time?' And for many people, being both is somewhat contradictory, but I certainly don't agree with that. I learned to reconcile between my faith and my sexual orientation because I was not ready to give up on either of the two. I was taught that religion is about freedom and love; it's about respecting our differences and never judging one another."

So where did the name Bekhsoos come from?

"It's a word that sort of originated with the LGBTQ community and was then adopted by others. We would say, 'Bekhsoos this' and 'Bekhsoos that,' 'Concerning this' and 'Concerting that...' And given that each of our issues has a different topic, Bekhsoos is a word that goes nicely with it. Plus we wanted the name to come from Arabic," Jen explained.

The topic for Bekhsoos' first issue, homophobia, illustrates the point well: on the homepage, a sign saying "homophobia" is hooked on the Bekhsoos logo, making it read "Beksoos il homophobia,' or "Concerning Homophobia."

For the upcoming issue, due out on October 31, the sign will read "Pride."

Don't expect a rundown of this summer's gay pride parades though.

"We want to know what Pride means on a more personal level to our readers and writers," Jen said. "So we're asking them to contribute their thoughts on what Pride means to them."

Hate mail

The Bekhsoos project originated with an existing LBTQ support group in Lebanon, MEEM, which saw the light a year ago.

MEEM is short for "majmouaat mou'azara lil-mar'a al-mithliya" (support group for lesbian women), and it is also the name for the Arabic letter 'M,' which comines with the international symbol for female to make up MEEM's logo.

"To create a safe space in Lebanon where women can meet, talk, discuss issues, share experiences, and work on improving their lives and themselves," reads MEEM's charter

A year after its establishment, MEEM is a growing group with 243 members on its mailing list. It remains a closed community though where new comers have to pass special screening procedures before they are granted membership.

"We do it not out of fear, but because we work hard on guarding the safety and security of our members," says the group.

That is perhaps a good idea, at least for the moment, given some of the threatening messages the group receives from time to time

"You are so disgusting. Stay in the goddamn closet and lock yourself in it until you rot and die. The most disgusting part of it all is the fact you want to get married to each other and adopt children. YOU MAKE NATURE PUKE….." reads one message posted on MEEM's website.

"We don't usually reply to them," Jen told MENASSAT. "This clearly demonstrates why we need a magazine like Bekhsoos. We need to show people and make them understand that we’re not a zoo."
 
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The Bekhsoos website is available here. MEEM's website is here.