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Egyptian Gay-Rights Expert Reflects on the Mideast Revolutions

Tuesday Mar 1, 2011

by Abd-Al-Rahman Abdel-Razaq Abu-Bakr

From the distance of exile, I have watched the news from the Middle East on my laptop in Brooklyn. I have alternately felt inspiration, anxiety, and bewilderment. This is a different Middle East from the one I knew in my youth.

Years ago, in Egypt, on the smallest of scales, I had sought the kind of movement that we now see across the Middle East. I spoke out for gay rights and human rights, and tried to recruit others to my cause. I recall pleading with people to speak out against the dictatorship -- to speak truth to power. Instead, murmurs. Whispers. "But we cannot speak, he will round us up and kill me and my family," they would timidly say.

And so it was only a handful of us who protested for gay rights. We were arrested and imprisoned. I was beaten, continuously raped, and my life repeatedly threatened. Ultimately, I was exiled from my native Egypt.

After my exile, I became disillusioned. Were LGBT people going to ever going to be free? Were we doomed to perpetual tyranny?

While teaching in the United States, I reflected on my activism and envisioned a new strategy to advance gay rights without attracting the wrath of the government. I dubbed it "activism from the closet": activists meet and support one another in the underground while not "coming out" to the general public where they are more susceptible to attack.

I thought that activism from the closet was the most a gay rights activist could achieve. My hope was that the closet would expand from within, gradually encompassing more and more people, in turn increasing spaces for LGBT people to express themselves.

Currently, the peoples of the Middle East have arisen. Across the Middle East, people have stood up to brutal tyrants. They stood up to their fear. In Bahrain, troops openly fired into crowds of protesters. In Libya, the military has repeatedly shot mourners at the funerals of other victims, and military jets are dropping aerial bombs into public demonstrations. But the people do not return home cowering in fear as they did when I was young. Instead, trembling and anxiety-ridden, they rush back to the center squares, crying out their peaceful chants in defiance of their tyrants.

The Revolutions Will Help Enable Gay Rights
From New York, I look at the Middle East with renewed excitement, planning my return and imagining new futures for gay rights. With the right to deliberate freely, people across the Middle East will be able to debate and persuade one another in John Stuart Mill's fabled "free market of ideas." I believe the establishment of a democracy that enables the burgeoning of a free market of ideas will not only allow for the emergence of freedom from torture and freedom of expression -- freedoms sought openly by protesters -- but will pave the way for the rise of women's rights and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights. No more activism from the closet. Now begins an activism outside the closet.

These dictatorships have wielded their power not only by their iron fist, but by excluding the Arab world from educational opportunities, from literacy -- from knowledge itself. With deliberation, knowledge will be sought and debates about gay rights will enter the public discourse.

At the start of the demonstrations in the Middle East, many skeptics worried that an Islamist-fundamentalist takeover would likely replace the fading dictatorships. These new Taliban-styled governments would be likely to wipe away any progress for women, gays, lesbians, and transgender people.

The reality is the opposite. Islamist, fundamentalist rhetoric and ideas have tended to grow in the most repressive countries of the Middle East. As part of the dictators' attempt to shore up their legitimacy, they co-opt the rhetoric of Islam for their own ends. And if they can't do so successfully, they link violent extremism to Islamic fundamentalism so as to discredit Islam. This is reflected in how democratic Turkey's record on gay rights stands miles ahead of Saudi Arabia, where executions against LGBT people occur regularly.

The peoples of the Middle East are not only coming out to topple their decades-old dictatorships. But they are toppling any who speak on their own behalf without the legitimacy of representative constitutional democracy. Through decades of dictatorial rule, we have all become democrats.

Forging a Link With Pro-Democracy Groups
Having spoken and agitated for gay rights in different parts of the Middle East, I can attest to the curious listening ears of the public. They will be skeptical, but they will not wield an iron fist as their dictators have over them.

They do not fear words or gentle persuasion. Eventually, the peoples of the Middle East will debate gay rights as they do any other political issue on the televised programs of Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and in the region's exponentially growing newspapers.

Gay rights activists and their allies in the Middle East and abroad should prepare to unite with secular, liberal and religious groups demanding that the right to bodily integrity, right to be free from torture, the right to privacy and the right to equality and non-discrimination must be entrenched in the newly drafted democratic constitutions. After years of autocratic rule in which people have been persecuted on the basis of both sexuality and religion, it is time for secular liberal and religious groups to come together to support basic human rights protections for all.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood has openly rejected the inclusion of gay rights in a new Egyptian constitution, they support broad human rights protections, such as outlawing torture and the universal right to privacy, which are likely to benefit LGBT people in the long-term. This is particularly true if the judiciary is independent-another goal of the protesters whether they be secular or religious, liberal or conservative.

One can foresee a constitutional provision that requires that the state respect an individual's bodily integrity to ensure that parents and psychiatrists cannot force electric shock rehabilitation therapy on their children. The right to be free from torture will forbid state officials from deploying torture as a means to suppress LGBT people.

The right to privacy anticipates an eventual case adjudicating anti-sodomy laws, and the inclusion of a constitutional provision on equality anticipates eventual cases on LGBT discrimination in employment, spousal support, adoption laws, and marriage. By constitutionally entrenching the universally accepted language of human rights -- without the controversial discourse of homosexuality -- the path to gay rights and LGBT dignity will have been paved.

Eventually, Middle Eastern countries will have laws that punish those who commit honor crimes and hate crimes against gays and lesbians. There will be laws against those who commit their children to rehabilitation electric shock therapy at hospitals across the Middle East. There will be laws against employment discrimination and in fact, discrimination of all kinds. Ultimately, there will be laws for same-sex marriage, from Morocco to Iran.

Gay rights are coming to the Middle East. And like the democracy protests, they will come sooner rather than later.

Abd-Al-Rahman Abdel-Razaq Abu-Bakr has taught human rights and Islamic law.

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