Report from Jordan: ’It Gets Better’ for LGBT Arabs, Too
Many only know the Middle East by what is portrayed through various news media outlets. The same can be said the other way around. Middle Easterners only know us through their own (often hardly reliable) media. As far as gay issues go, the region (outside of Israel, a geographical anomaly in most ways) is painted as a hotbed of violent, government-sanctioned intolerance.
With revolution spreading rapidly across the region, I recently decided to travel to Jordan to see for myself what the Middle East was really like. I'm please to say that I was pleasantly surprised at the openness and friendliness all around. Over 2 million people live in the capital, Amman. It's spread out over seven hills, with most of the social scene happening in West Amman, itself. separated into circled sections.
As in the rest of the cities of the region, in Amman, people don't stay cooped up inside the way we Americans do. There is an active and constant street life. People roam the streets, hang out at town squares and art galleries, or just mingle over coffee at a local dive or at one of several trendy cafes that have recently sprung up.
Look beyond the obvious historical aspects of the region, and you will find an eclectic mix of trendy, hip, and creative types quietly creating change in their own ways. The Darat-al-Funn is a good example of the societal changes taking place in Jordan.
This complex of traditional 1920s buildings is located alongside the archaeological remains of a sixth century Byzantine church built over a Roman Temple. It has been converted into a roving gallery for artists to display varied works that include multimedia, photography and live performances.
Most of this influx of creativity is coming from the younger generation Jordanians, men and women who have travelled abroad for education and returned with a different perspective. "Our views used to be very narrow and distorted, but after the revolutions that are being embraced in the Arab world, things have changed for us," a young man named Khalid explained to me. "We are more about embracing values, a mix of decency and luxury."
Coming Out in Public
Khalid became a poster boy for the local LGBT community when a local newspaper publicly announced his queerness in writing and photographs. "It was quite stressful at first, as my family wasn't aware of my sexuality and there I was with my face on the front page at every newsstand," he recalled. "Soon word was out and friends were calling asking if I knew, and if my parents had seen the paper."
Fortunately things went well for him. His family and friends proved to be supportive. Today, he is working in fashion design and as an aspiring model. He's also the founder of My Kali, an online lifestyle publication with a strong queer component. He tends to focus on individuality rather than just sexuality, including politics, profiles, and the thriving Arab art scene.
The publication's motto could stand as a manifesto for the young people who are trying to transform the entire region. "We speak up for all those who're quiet; we give you the voice of your silence," it says. "We're the magazine your mom can't find under your bed, we're the magazine to keep, and we're the magazine that you can reach anywhere you are. We like to be your pillow of comfort, your best friend and your new wing-man/woman."
Issues of Sexuality Not (As) Taboo
"In the Middle East, the idea of 'don't ask don't tell' somehow applies," Khalid remarks. He attributes the widespread dissemination of information unfiltered by government or religion via the Internet as opening up the minds of his countrymen. Social media has grown along with that as well.
"Discussing issues of sexuality isn't as taboo as it used to be, and tolerance is increasing all over," according to Khalid. He remembers when he was younger and used to sneak out of math class to run to the lab rooms where he could email a local magazine columnist with questions. "She kept my issues private," he said, "and helped me with the process of accepting myself, and dealing with social and religious pressures when I felt there was no one else."
Although Khalid hasn't experienced any homophobia or taunting in his adult life, many of his friends still do. "My best friend faces such situations daily at his university, where he gets harassed by students, and shockingly by professors too."
Does that mean that teens are quietly killing themselves because of torment about their sexuality in Jordan -- as the spate of such suicides has raised the specter of homophobia in our own country? Khalid doesn't see it as an area of particular concern: "You can't deny the fact that it does happen, but not as high as some might think." A Facebook group, LGBT Jordanian Support, now exists that acts as a resource for anyone needing support.
Khalid enjoys his time socializing with friends, and says there is no shortage of places to party in Amman. "It's always changing, always evolving. Nightlife is embraced by the city lovers," he said. "Everybody socializes with everybody. People here make friends easily, but it's more the LGBT people that are very protective of their social groups."
Clubs like 7 Heaven and Cube are very gay-friendly, and there are plenty of one-off parties as well. He also enjoys private social events such as dinner parties in private homes. His circle of friends is a mix of gay and straight, which is how he likes it. "No one has problems with my sexuality, and I don't have a problem with theirs", he laughs. He jokes that with the metrosexual trend having finally hit Amman, one could mistake half the city as being gay.