LGBTI people from Arabic-speaking communities often fear being outcast or mocked by their families if they come out. Elias Jahshan shares his own story.
Elias Jahshan

3 Nov 2015 - 9:40 AM  UPDATED 3 Nov 2015 - 9:40 AM

My Mum didn’t take the revelation that I was gay very well.

I have no regrets - much of who I am today boils down to that intense, emotional conversation on October 25, 2010. It was a turning point in my life.

My mother is Lebanese, and because of her cultural upbringing it was hard for her to accept the news. She has come a long way in five years. The journey to full acceptance continues.

As for my Dad, a proud Palestinian, I never had the chance. I was at an early phase of my coming out journey when he died in 2009 and I just wasn’t ready at the time. I’ll never know how he would’ve reacted. That’s not a regret – it’s just something I have to live with.

I first came out to my siblings when I was 20. Even then I was still looking over my shoulder – both literally and figuratively – as I began to visit gay bars and date men. Now 30, I no longer look over my shoulder, but my coming out journey is still not over. I still can’t envision being able to bring a partner to a cousin’s wedding anytime soon.

While my immediate family and a handful of close relatives know, I’ve never actually come out to my extended family. I wouldn’t be surprised if they knew, especially since my job as Star Observer editor is rather public. Nonetheless, I no longer hide the fact I’m gay.

Unless you are, or know a person with Arab cultural background, there’s a chance you may not fully understand why being LGBTI in our families has its challenges. With the support of Arab Council Australia, the pioneering We’re Family Too report by Ghassan Kassisieh in 2012 sheds light this. (The report is soon to be translated to Arabic for the first time.)

In Arab families across the Middle East, North Africa and the immigrant diaspora, personal success is often measured by marriage and children before career success. From a young age, the family unit is drummed into our psyches as an extremely important part of our life. This may be a good thing, but in Arab culture it’s entrenched with no room for sexual or gender diversity.

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There is also a sentiment in Arab culture that views being gay or trans as a choice, or a mental illness. It’s sometimes viewed as a “western import”, effectively denying that LGBTI Arabs exist – even within western countries. Regardless of whether it’s coming from a Muslim, Christian or secular Arab, this prevalent taboo is a cultural one – although religion is often used to justify homophobic views.

It also doesn’t help when Arab nations have laws that criminalise homosexuality, some of which were imposed during British of French colonisation. In Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan and the ISIS-controlled parts of Syria, Iraq and Libya – it’s punishable by death.

But there are glimmers of hope. Same-sex sexual activity is legal in Jordan, Bahrain, Iraq and the West Bank. In Lebanon, a 2014 court case struck down a penal code criminalising sexual activities “contradicting the laws of nature”, but there has not been another case to test its precedence, nor any legislative changes. In the same year, the Lebanese Psychiatric Society affirmed that homosexuality was not a mental illness and could not be "cured" – the first Arab nation to do so.

Beirut also has a thriving gay scene, alongside other cities like Amman and Cairo, where it’s underground. Since its inception in 2007, Jordanian LGBTI magazine My Kali has inspired similar publications to emerge in the region. NGOs like Al Qaws for Palestinians, IraQueer for Iraq, and Lebanon’s Helem have also advocated on behalf of the LGBTI community.

However, there’s still a long way to go in the Arab world. Sexual health awareness is extremely limited, long-term same-sex couples are not recognised, state-sanctioned discrimination and persecution are rife, and homophobia-fueled attacks still occur.

"There’s also a fear of bringing parents a form of shame, especially when many things in Arab culture are linked to the parents first."

These external factors all play a part in why LGBTI Arabs often fear being outcast or mocked by their families if they come out or “get caught”. There’s also a fear of bringing parents a form of “shame”, especially when many things in Arab culture are linked to the parents first (for example, it’s not “Nadia is a lesbian”, it’s “Fadi and Hiba’s daughter is a lesbian”). Many choose to never come out, while some choose to live in a marriage of convenience – where the husband and wife are secretly gay and lesbian, but it’s only a front to keep their families happy.

Nonetheless, there are a growing number of Arabs finding the courage to come out. The media has a tendency to convey their stories in a one-size-fits-all approach – like how they all supposedly “suffer” afterwards. This example of white cultural relativism ignores the diversity of unique coming out experiences from LGBTI Arabs – from the positive to the traumatic, and everything in between.

There are several prominent Arab-Australians, but only a few have actually shown solidarity with the LGBTI community. They include former NSW Governor Marie Bashir, Queensland deputy premier Jackie Trad, Arab Council Australia CEO Randa Kattan and Michael Ebeid, the openly-gay CEO of SBS.

In the Arab world, openly gay role models are scarce. There’s Hamed Sinno, the singer of Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou Leila, Moroccan writer/director Abdellah Taïa, and Omar Sharif Jr, the grandson of the late Egyptian Hollywood icon. There are several vocal LGBTI allies as well, and in recent years a few films and TV shows – usually from Egypt or Lebanon – have featured gay characters or themes that sometimes caused controversy.

"Should more high-profile Arabs come out of the closet, the impact on LGBTI visibility and acceptance across the Arab world would be immense."

Should more high-profile Arabs come out of the closet, the impact on LGBTI visibility and acceptance across the Arab world would be immense. At the very least, their needs to be more prominent, vocal allies. Through them, dialogue about LGBTI people would increase. This would in turn help combat the invisibility LGBTI Arabs face and slowly bring about acceptance – plus legislative change across the Arab world.

I’m well aware that I’m privileged to be able to navigate my cultural and sexual identities with ease as a gay Arab-Australian, but this doesn’t stop me from living in hope for many of my LGBTI Arab peers worldwide.

I yearn for a day when the fear of reprisal for coming out is diminished. For a day when we can just be ourselves and proudly live our culture without hiding an intrinsic part of who we are. And more than anything, I yearn for a day when all of our families would embrace us without question.

Elias Jahshan is the editor of Star Observer, and an Arab Council Australia board member.