Oh, the fun we'll have! Selling (out) gay Beirut

In an article in the New York Times on August 2, 2009, entitled "Beirut, Provincetown of the Middle East," Patrick Healy details his personal encounters and experiences during a trip to Beirut. In this travel-style article, Healy not only narrates his endeavors in what he baptized the "party-capital of the Middle East," but also makes conclusions that incensed gays and gay rights activists in Beirut. Misconceptions of this city and country are at large in politics, with some saying the Times fell into the conventional trap of mistaking the superficial for the core, and the appearance for the real thing. Menassat looks at the article and the responses.
Lebanon NYT Gays
An anti-homophobia demonstration in Beirut, February 2009

BEIRUT, Aug 19, 2009 (MENASSAT) — In a nutshell, the article is the story of one person’s night-out on the town. Patrick hung out with some, as his writing betrays, seriously well-off, upper-middle class Lebanese and foreign gay men partying in Beirut, on the occasion of a fun event held at a seriously expensive beach resort to which most gay people I know could never afford the entrance fee. His article opens with the pre-party scene, and closes with an Iraqi gay man stating, “Beirut is freedom …”

The problem is not with travel-writing about Beirut which has boasted a flourishing touristic season this year. Nor with the lavish surroundings that Healy chose to depict as the essence of being gay in contemporary Lebanon. The problem lies with attempting to draw “culturally” meaningful conclusions on a topic so complex from every angle, that a night out in the city, and the accompanying crowd of white holiday-goers and rich Arab tourists, is hardly enough for an informed insight into gay life in Lebanon.

Early on in his portrait, Healy paints this image: “While homosexual activity (technically, sexual relations that officials deem “unnatural”) is illegal in Lebanon, as in most of the Arab world, Beirut’s vitality as a Mediterranean capital of night life has fueled a flourishing gay scene — albeit one where men can be nervous about public displays of affection and where security guards at clubs can intercede if the good times turn too frisky on the dance floor. But even more than the partying, Beirut represents a different Middle East for some gay and lesbian Arabs: the only place in the region where they can openly enjoy a social life denied them at home.”

The assumption here is based solely on the possibility of holding a “bear” theme party for tourists and locals who can afford it, organized by a foreign tour operator based in Lebanon. The entire setting for Healy’s article is hotel rooms and lounges, beach resorts and fancy nightclubs–– gay friendly or not. The point is, these people Healy keeps quoting can afford the high price tag for such places; most of them flew into the country especially for the occasion. As Healy says, they “were coming from across Lebanon and the Arab world, as well as Argentina, Italy, Mexico, the United States and elsewhere.”
How can this be representative of a minority’s condition, in a country so intensely classist, where 5 percent of the population is in control of more than 80 percent of the country’s money, while the other 95 percent scavenge for the remaining 20 percent? This is the lens through which one can understand Patrick’s fascination with “Beirut’s vitality as a Mediterranean capital of night life” which––a fact that apparently eludes many a gay rights activists in Lebanon––“ has fueled a flourishing gay scene.”

Reacting to Healy’s New York Times piece, and to this exact point, with an excellent critique published on Globalgayz, Richard Ammon writes, “’Inching out’ is far more an apt description for Beirut than ‘Provincetown.’ The majority of gays here only show themselves at night and are not out to their families. There certainly is nothing that resembles a ‘gay neighborhood.’”

Understandably, for those who live with the daily fear and troubles of being gay in Lebanon–– be it discretely or out–– the truth is different. I wonder how many have even heard of the “Bear Arabia competition.” Understandable also is their rejection of how the Times portrays them.  Ammon continues in his article: “There is a cultural vacuum in the story. Where is our substance, our meaning as a community? What core efforts and awareness are we instilling into our own community? [...] What’s missing in this and stories like this is the connection between the late night titillation of sounds and lights and daytime private lives and the activism behind the scenes or in the halls of parliament. That is, between the colorful sweaty nights and the ‘realpolitik’ of persecuted LGBT individuals in the Middle East.”

Perhaps the New York Times is more comfortable talking openly about gay matters. But it fails terribly in recognizing what’s at stake when they send a reporter to write about gay life from Beirut. The Times falls into the trendy/sexy/ hip trap that infects most western coverage of the country’s issues. Again, depoliticizing the gay issue in the Middle East, and elsewhere for that matter, leaves us, and those who struggle for a better life, and protection for queer people in the Middle East, highly disappointed. We are admired for our ability to party and dance, but never for our abilities to fight our rightful battles, on this, and in other arenas as well.

Ghassan Makarem is one of those who has been fighting for gay rights in Lebanon for quite some time now, and he is one of the founders of Helem. Talking to MENASSAT, Makarem said there’s more than one problem with this article. First, it presents itself as a tourism/travel article, but in fact does something more than that––wittingly or unwittingly. Talking about a rally for gay rights in Beirut back in February, Healy inserts: “That rally — as well as Lebanon’s elections in June, won by moderate political parties — has buoyed the spirits of gay men and lesbians in Beirut.” Makarem argues that this is not the first time the election results have been portrayed as a victory for modern moderates that will undoubtedly reflect on gays rights, among other issues. The fact is that no one in the last elections supported gay and lesbian rights in the country, and the so-called pro-western alliance, if anything, is hostile towards the gay community in the country. Makarem does not rule out a few sympathizers in parliament, but from a legislative point of view, there are no allies in the “pro-western” alliance. This is a deceptive image-- as if any real change on this issue, or other issues that concern ordinary Lebanese, may result from the electoral victory of the March 14th pro-western coalition.

Healy would have been better off limiting the article to a commercial travel piece. But even in that, there is harm, says Makarem. Helem has been receiving complaints that “outing” certain places publicly in the media, makes it harder and harder for people to frequent them, for many reasons. The tourism frenzy–– one can talk about a certain tolerance for sexual tourism that benefits foreigners only ––draws attention to these places, making them a destination for foreigners who push prices up, and locals out. Most of these clubs and bars do not advertise themselves as gay hangouts; people rather go there because they can relax, in a country where they have to hide their identity all the time. High exposure annuls this possibility for people wishing to remain anonymous when it comes to their sexual orientation. Besides, this approach is commercially-motivated, and having a few places that do business for tourists does not mean that this results in any real change or tangible improvement for the gay community, no matter who won the elections. 

Presenting gay life as a tourist attraction in the country is counterproductive when the larger picture is examined. The result of such portrayals on gay rights in Lebanon is null, not to say disruptive. The average gay or lesbian person in Lebanon is still criminalized, after the summer fun is finished and tourists looking for sex have returned home.

This article also raised a few questions about the media’s role. For example, how useful is it, even when it’s common knowledge, to out gay-friendly places? What is our responsibility as media when writing about issues that can endanger others in a homophobic society? More so, does it not alienate the media from people’s struggles, all struggles, when we sensationalize an issue, perhaps just to sell more?

In Beirut, people are talking more and more about responsible reporting, both for the local and international press or media. An article in the local press recently initiated a discussion about being gay, as well as supportive of the resistance in Lebanon, with the majority of commentators arguing that there is no contradiction between fighting for both. Helem, for example, has been part of anti-war demonstrations in Lebanon since its founding.

Finally, I would like to join my voice to Richard Ammon’s in asking Mr. Healy to “turn his journalistic hawk-eye in this direction and offer his readers a more authentic 'full-frontal view' of homosexuality in this country” –– a piece of advice that might go a long way with western media reporting on the Middle East.