Online communities provide support for marginalized LGBT youth in the Middle East
The blog WeGov is an attempt to report on groups and individuals who use technology in a variety of innovative ways - increasing government transparency, fighting corruption, opening data, and solving civic problems. WeGov blogger Anna Lekas Miller recently wrote a post where she describes new venues offering support for LGBT youth in the Middle East.
Lekas Miller notes the strong taboo surrounding homosexuality in the Middle East. Homophobia and homophobic stigma hang heavily in the air. Until recently, there was no Arabic word for “homosexual” — the terms used to describe homosexuality were the same words for “sexual deviant” and “pervert." Due to both laws and language, homosexuality is viewed as an unspeakably shameful disorder, curable only through suppressing and denying it until it “disappears.” In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, homosexuals can face years in prison — if they aren’t immediately sentenced to death. Even in Beirut, Lebanon, a relatively tolerant city, men suspected of being homosexuals have recently been arrested and forced to submit to an examination to “confirm” their sexual orientation. Understandably, many young gay Arabs only come out to a small handful of trusted people—and still others don’t come out at all.
Before writing her WeGov post, Lekas Miller contacted a young blogger in Lebanon known online as Lebanon Rebel, whose blog gained political prominence as more and more people use the Internet as a space to come out. Lebanon Rebel lives in rural Lebanon, far from the underground but still thriving gay scene of Beirut. Like many Arabs living away from urban oases, her first exposure to homosexuality — and LGBT social justice activism — was online. Before she started blogging, she thought that there were no other homosexuals in Lebanon. Now, Lebanon Rebel has been blogging for almost two years. At first, she was hesitant to reveal any details about her personal identity or her location. However, as time went on, she became more and more comfortable and even agreed to meet with local friends and followers in person.
There are many other bloggers like Lebanon Rebel — many are also anonymous or blogging under pseudonyms, though an increasing amount are beginning to use their real names and identities online. Blog posts, comment exchanges and the personal relationships that form through the cyber world are allowing LGBT Arabs to share information and empower each other in a way that would be impossible or dangerous in the offline Arab world.
Lekas Miller notes the importance of recognizing that the majority of the LGBT Arab blogosphere is in Lebanon, a country that is considered the exception rather than the rule for many progressive issues in the region. As far as homosexuality is concerned, though it is technically criminalized, the punishment is a year in prison — compared to ten years, or trial, torture and death often experienced in other countries. For this reason, Lebanese LGBT-oriented blogs, social media accounts and other online spaces are far less likely to be tracked and targeted by the government than they might be elsewhere.
Language is another privilege that separates the Lebanese LGBT community from the rest of the Arab world. In Lebanon, bloggers can communicate in English or French, languages that are spoken widely throughout the country. However, bloggers from other countries in the region who communicate predominantly in their native Arabic — making their writing more accessible to a wider Arab audience — are far more likely to be targeted and interrogated or detained and tortured by authorities.
Despite these threats, human rights organizations in the Middle East are still incorporating sexual minorities into their work. It is undeniable that the Internet is a mixed bag for LGBT minorities in the Middle East. For every thriving, increasingly open blog or online community there is another that is threatened and shutdown, often resulting in serious consequences for the participants. Still, for many young LGBT Arabs, the Internet for all of its risk, is an essential lifeline of self-expression and moral support. According to Lekas Miller, part of the Internet’s beauty is the duality of intimacy and anonymity — and in many instances, the anonymity that allows for intimacy. Though dangerous, dodging regimes and authorities through multiple pseudonyms and cryptic avatars is essential to breaking into this alternate cyber universe, where LGBT identity and Arab identity can intersect and co-exist. Without this unique space, LGBT Arabs would be living without the language or solidarity to combat the monolithic homophobic stigmas and stereotypes of the Arab World.
Please visit WeGov for the unedited version of this post and links for additional information.