The word homophobia doesn’t exist in the Arabic language and so when certain actions - sometimes violent - take place they’re not considered homophobic, because, well there’s no such thing.
(This video interview is part of a news story that aired last week. The two men chose to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly about what it's like for them to be homosexual and Arab. For more information about the report go to www.wearefamilytoo.com.au)
Last week a report about homophobia in Arabic-speaking communities in NSW was released.
The findings, for anyone of Arab background, will probably come as no surprise: the gist, sexual minorities of Arab descent experience homophobia predominately within the home. I could have told you that but then I am of Arab background, Lebanese to be precise.
What I'm not however, is homosexual so I can't comment on what it feels like to be a target of rejection or (in some cases) violence – as the report pointed out - in your own home. I can only comment on the general cultural context that gives rise to this type of behaviour; a context that ought to be understood if one is serious about tackling homophobia.
The report collected data from 37 people, hardly a grand number, and yet it was an incredibly significant publication. It's the first time ever such an issue has not only been documented…but named!
It's very difficult to talk about something about which there are no words, literally. The word homophobia doesn't exist in the Arabic language and so certain behaviours and actions take place – sometimes violent actions - but they're not considered homophobic, because, well there's no such thing. So while the rest of Australia is at the point of debating gay marriage and adoption, the Arabic-speaking community is only just coming to terms with the idea that not only are we generally negative towards homosexuals but that – as a necessary antecedent - homosexuals exist.
To better understand attitudes towards homosexuality one must first understand the two biggest forces at play within Arabic-speaking communities in Australia or more specifically (given my personal background) the Lebanese community. They are family and religion. These are its greatest assets and greatest liabilities. They not only outline the kind of person you should be but how you dress, what you eat, where you live, who you marry and, in some cases, who you vote for.
There are several historical reasons why families play such a key role in our lives. I wont go into them here except to say that they're by no means unique to a particular culture, rather they stem from economic necessity. In the old country you would rely on an extended familial network to provide income and livelihood opportunities as well as social interaction (including a possible suitor) and retirement assistance, among other things. These patterns of reliance tend to be replicated within a diaspora, despite the absence or mitigation of those original factors that created them.
The point is we're very interconnected. Your identity becomes inextricably linked to those around you. People might refer to you (both colloquially and officially) as the father/mother of X or the son/daughter of Y. Surnames are traceable back to specific locations in the old country and are synonymous with the reputation of your family as a whole. Within this extended structure everyone knows everything about everyone else, thanks in large part to a network of people who make it their personal business to not only source what's generally considered private information but to widely disseminate it at the earliest possible opportunity. (In France, the game Chinese Whispers is referred to as Arab Telephone.)
Now, because as a community we're so big on family it would only make sense that we young folk are encouraged to one day have a family of our own. I say encouraged but I mean more coerced. My mother has been hording chinaware for the last decade based solely on the presumption that she will use it on my wedding day to serve bonbons. There's a general formula for all this too, at least in my family there is; nice girl meets nice boy from a good family (if he owns his own home it's a bonus, if he owns two he's a keeper); they date, all the while living at home (the presumption being that they're not doing the deed); family introductions happen after a few months or so; eventually the parents meet; then he proposes, life savings are spent on a wedding and voila you and your new husband are living in the house you bought down the road from his parents.
That was the abridged version but the point is there's little room to move in terms of gender roles and expectations so unfortunately for the homosexuals they don't quite fit into this neat little narrative that's key to the perpetuation of the family unit that Lebanese people hold so dear. So if you're attracted to the same sex you're very likely to keep that a secret for fear of not only disappointing your mother, whose chinaware collection is growing by the day, but of turning your mother, who by default is associated to you, into a target of pity.
But disappointing your mother is one thing; disappointing God is another. Religion has a profound influence on the community and is central to the way you identify yourself as a Lebanese person. You're (mainly) either a Muslim (Sunni/Shi'te) or a Christian (Maronite Catholic/Orthodox) and your zeal towards your faith either manifests itself in an awkward tattoo or a staunch rejection of anyone or anything that might compromise your fundamental beliefs.
For the purpose of this discussion, it doesn't really matter which religion you were born into, both Muslims and Christians believe homosexuality to be unnatural and against God, so if you're homosexual you're liable to hearing about how depraved your kind is not just from priests and imams during their designated Sunday/Friday hour but from those influenced by them…so that's everyone, including those closest to you.
This leaves you alone to deal with a tremendous amount of guilt and shame because any organisation designed to “help” probably has religious affiliations and will likely reinforce the idea that the minute you act on your deviant thoughts you'll be staring down the barrel of a lifetime spent sizzling in the fiery pits of hell. And even if you do eventually come out to your parents, that guilt will be subtly stoked by the wayward comments that only a Lebanese mother can so artfully muster. Do whatever you want, she'll say before casually letting slip the addendum, I'll just jump off this bridge.
These issues are typical of the Lebanese diaspora more so than they are of contemporary Lebanese society. I haven't been to Lebanon in years but from what I hear Beirut has a small but budding gay scene and the issue is spoken about on national television. With migration, attitudes tend to stagnate so if you left Lebanon for Australia in the 1970s, odds are you're living Lebanon in Australia in the 1970s and those attitudes are the ones you're likely to impart on your children. This not only makes it difficult to keep up with the seemingly rapid cultural changes taking place in wider Australia, it makes it difficult to keep up with the social changes taking place in Lebanon. You have – as one community leader eloquently put it – a culture freeze.
This paves the way for the perpetuation of the dangerous myth that 'our' fundamental values are at odds with those proliferated by the individualistic, sexually promiscuous, secular society we live in. This myth takes the ingredients of shame and guilt and blends them in with confusion and isolation, turning the festering mix into a poisonous cocktail that almost every young Lebanese-Australian person I know has sipped from at some point in their lifetime. Either you're the young Muslim who has a few sneaky drinks here and there or you're the young women who's let some guy feel her up in the back of a car and doesn't quite know whether the good Lord frowns upon that too (he never really specified) or, in this case, you're the gay guy at school who's told time and time again that your feelings are unnatural and that you should never tell anyone for fear of bringing your parent's previously flawless child-rearing record into disrepute.
Now some of you might have read this and thought, so what? Family and religion affect everyone in this country and you'd be right; both play a large part in non-Arabic speaking cultures, hell they play a large part in Anglo-Celtic cultures too. But it's far more concentrated in minority cultures in Australia because they are smaller, insular and tend to rely on themselves for support rather than seeking it from an outside organisation that they don't really understand and fear won't understand them. This presents some challenges in the way of service provision because there's a large gap in dealing with homosexuals from minority and sexually conservative cultures.
Having said all this, each family is different and, depending on which generation you're a part of, your experiences and attitudes towards the issue will differ. But that general context remains the same and family and religion will always play a significant role in your life (even if you may personally not adhere to the latter).
I do feel as though attitudes are slowly evolving, as they have over the decades in wider Australia, and I think that's due in part to the open dialogue we now have about the issue. That is why it's so important that we continue to have this dialogue. I had a phone conversation with a Lebanese-Australian man who after twenty years of being out is finally able to bring his partner to family occasions. Admittedly, if that happened in my family the old 'Arab Telephone' would ring off the hook. But perhaps, in time, those calls will lessen until one day we can get rid of the telephone all together.