Disavowed Homosexualities in Beirut

by Sofian Merabet
published in MER230

Beirut can be perceived as a social body, with all the complexities of such an organism. Lebanon's capital provides, in fact, the stage for a panoply of moods and dispositions which are a dynamic result of particular histories and larger socio-cultural circumstances. As a body, Beirut is, of course, no monolithic entity; it competes with individual bodies over the appropriation of niches in relation to which any city dweller perpetually undergoes the difficult task of constructing various kinds of identities, among which homosexuality is a consequential one. Based on a tangled politics of disavowal, the complicated and often contradictory process of homosexual identity construction in Beirut is always subjected to multiple factors located within what one might call the "homosexual sphere." In Lebanon, these factors not only transcend the limits of the individual body, but they are often predicated on the coercion exercised by social norms as well as the mechanisms of state suppression.

As an urban microcosm, Beirut seems to embrace all the paradoxes and incongruities that characterize any city. Yet assessing the vicissitudes of homosexual identities, along with their disavowal, requires using a microscope and a telescope at the same time. Both magnifying glasses are necessary in order to disentangle the intricate techniques of individual identity constructions, ranging from various displays of "conspicuous" behavior to the widespread discriminatory politics of homophobia. Moreover, both allow for a general understanding of post-civil war consumerism in Lebanon and the ways in which certain spaces become contested and appropriated as "queer" by different individuals, but always in accordance with the usually defiant character of their respective social environments. The formation of homosexual identities in Beirut is dependent upon the individual's circumstances as well as the pressures -- both subtle and, sometimes, overt -- of society at large. To understand the issue, one has to engage in what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls a "para-doxical" thinking that challenges common sense and common sentiments. [1] One has to defy the idea, for example, of an uncontested Middle Eastern masculinity and assess the particular case, as well as the techniques of contention with which the world and the individual body give meaning to each other.

Drowning Homosexual Identities

"See you at Dunkin' on Saturday night!" This exclamation has become commonplace in Beirut ever since the donut-selling franchise became, almost overnight, the aspired public stage for young boys wearing I-shirts, tight jeans and sometimes circumspect makeup. The great attraction exercised by the otherwise bland Dunkin' Donuts chain, and specifically its downtown Beirut division, on Lebanese homosexuals may in some aspects be trivial but it is still worth examining within the larger context of post-civil war consumerism in Lebanon. For one thing, the chain's older branches in the northern suburb of Zalka and on East Beirut's Sassine Square have a history of drawing relatively large queer-identified crowds. On the other hand, the fact of sipping cheap, even if totally tasteless, coffee and at the same time being voluntarily exposed to the gaze of others is all the more relevant when it comes to understanding the unbroken popularity of the locale. Finally, how is it possible that Dunkin' Donuts has remained popular among queer-identified individuals in Lebanon despite the widely disclosed homophobic incidents that perpetually occur on the premises? [2]

Over and over, local management has justified the donut shop's ejection policies by claiming that those who were asked to leave the establishment displayed a "conspicuous behavior" not in tune with the intended atmosphere of the cafe. In every instance, the targets were young men characterized by the management as "overtly feminine." Yet even though its various locations have repeatedly been the theater for banning queer-identified customers, to this day Dunkin' Donuts remains a popular hangout for Lebanese homosexuals. What lies behind these directed and ongoing practices of removing undesired customers according to their gendered behavior? More importantly, why do other homosexuals, seemingly undisturbed, continue to frequent the place and gobble up quantities of noxious nosh?

The general lack of solidarity among those queer-identified individuals still sitting at Dunkin' Donuts results in part from the fear of becoming socially ostracized. Moreover, this prevalent disengagement often has to do with the consequences of resisting self-identification. "Ana mesh heek" ("I'm not like that"), numerous gay men in Beirut will say, ambiguously, as they reject an "overtly feminine" customer. Hence, the frequent disavowal of any kind of homosexual identity on their part.

Asserting a male homosexual identity in Beirut is a difficult and at times impossible task for the concerned individual. The result of such difficulty is often outright frustration, if not chronic schizophrenia, leading to what Bourdieu has termed in The Misery of the World "the tragic [element] that is born out of the confrontation without concession or possible compromise of incompatible points of view." [3] In Beirut, the struggle over one's sexual identity translates not only into bodily practices and performances that vary according to space and circumstance, but also into the rejection of others whose own set of attitudes reminds the homosexual individual of those aspects of his identity that society tells him to repudiate.

Parading a Social Ideal

Part of the answer as to why queer-identified customers continue to be banned from certain places in and around Beirut, and this without experiencing any sort of substantial support from other homosexuals, seems to lie within a prevalent and socially generalized difficulty of accepting difference in Lebanon. Confronted with what it considers "conspicuous," that is to say "inappropriate," behavior by young men who are far from embodying the traditional power attributes in a society dominated by the ideal of strong and virile males, the management of Dunkin' Donuts in its stated straightforward argumentation does nothing more than reconfirm this very ideal. [4] In fact, this reconfirmation is a perfect example of how homophobia gets enacted and internalized in Beirut, where "conspicuous" behavior tends to be understood as some kind of threat to the social ideal. The challenge of any sort of non-conformism is being withstood at any cost and without any remote concession whatsoever in order to protect and reinforce the phallic image of the potent male.

Therefore, it is hardly rare in Beirut to overhear complaints within the "homosexual sphere" about the "inappropriate" behavior, mostly characterized as effeminate, of those who do not fit the social norm. These accusations focus on those individuals who are viewed as a source of gendered embarrassment and who manage to endanger the social image of an uncontested masculinity that generally fails to be questioned, let alone refuted, by large parts of the homosexual sphere in Lebanon. These recurring complaints tend ultimately to develop into an internalized homophobia that reenacts all the biases and mechanisms of rejection entertained by society at large. It is further an indignation that silently sanctions the various means of state suppression legitimized by Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code that outlaws all "sexual activity that is contrary to nature." [5]

This generalized attitude of hostility often leads to a collective display of arrogance, indifference and pretense towards those who are not in tune with the exigencies of social conformity. It is a collective display of haughtiness whose most pliant proponents are those homosexuals who have internalized a heightened sense of disavowal which is itself built on the larger repudiation of sexual difference. Ironically, however, before he can repudiate the "inappropriate behavior" of others through a composite process of projection of one's own repressed desires and fantasies, the homosexual individual has to register those bodily expressions that entice him about the other in the first place. This insidious kind of registration is frequently linked to specific spaces in Beirut, for instance, oddly enough, such social venues as Dunkin' Donuts, that facilitate the peculiar convolutions of the queer encounter.

Queer Space

What makes a place in and around Beirut gay or queer-identified? This is not an easy question, for arguably there are no spaces in Lebanon that clearly demarcate activities of a community which socially identifies itself with its homosexual orientation. Indeed, one might contend there is no such thing as a "gay community" in Lebanon at all, providing, of course, one defines a community as a coherent and encompassing group of people sharing similar, even if competing, positions and aspirations and where the sexual preference becomes a cardinal point of identity construction.

There are, of course, some local gay interest groups that have formed since the beginning of the decade. For instance, in a Beirut demonstration against the war on Iraq in March 2003, the press covered a half dozen individuals marching underneath rainbow flags. [6] Notwithstanding this arguably cautious "coming out," the visibility of local gay advocates within a larger public who would actually recognize the symbolic meaning of the rainbow flag remains limited. This limitation is partly due to the peculiarities of the Lebanese law that classifies homosexuality as a "sexual activity that is contrary to nature" and therefore must be suppressed. Moreover, the various demure attempts by some members of these interest groups to reach out tend to be confined within the boundaries of their own -- generally affluent -- social backgrounds. [7] That being said, one should not drop the adjective "gay" altogether when talking about homosexuality in Lebanon, for it is this word that is generally used in English as a qualifier by the concerned individuals themselves, regardless of the language they actually speak.

The Homosexual Sphere

The distinctive combination between the lack of a comprehensive community that identifies itself socially with its homosexual orientation and the persistent idiomatic usage of the English word "gay" helps in part to explain the conflicting politics of disavowing sexual difference in Beirut. Within the "homosexual sphere," individuals obviously engage in homosexual practices where sex itself becomes an elicited desire existing in social relationships. At the same time, however, these individuals persist in their reluctance to accept the ramifications of an equivalent social identity, in spite of an extensive habit of subscribing to the word "gay." As a consequence, it becomes critical to look out for the spaces that still manage to accommodate homosexual practices as well as the necessary conditions for a larger queer-identified encounter to happen.

What characterizes the homosexual sphere in Beirut? That indubitably depends on exactly what one is looking for. If it is instantaneous sexual gratification, then many spots could be the places of departure towards possible fulfillment. Strolling on certain stretches of Beirut's Corniche at certain times may confront the informed observer with suggestive gazes and evocative bodily postures, making it indirectly clear to him that the seemingly nonchalant person leaning on the railing is "concerned," or, as it is common to say in local parlance, khasso. As convincingly illustrated by the beginning of Nabil Kaakoush's photo montage entitled "Hey Handsome," the visual registration of the one who is concerned, khasso that is, is often followed by an apparently innocent, but highly encoded, verbal interaction intended to clarify the protagonists' respective motives. [8] Subsequent to the never failing questions about the time or about sneaking a cigarette, there ensues a rehearsed yet only supposedly disinterested dialogue about the contrived coincidence of being in the same place at the same time. [9] At any rate, casual open spaces like the Corniche or some street corners around certain stretches of the city are by no means alone in providing the setting for a contemplated homosexual jouissance. For those homosexual Beirutis having some money to spend, there is probably no better place from where to see and be seen than a social venue like the outdoor cafe.

Appropriating Down Town

Since opening three summers ago, the plastic and pompous area of Beirut called "Down Town" (with equal stress on both beginning consonants) in all local vernaculars has managed to captivate the attention of more than one wannabe bourgeois residing on its wide periphery, and it is no wonder that some restorative hangouts became favorites among young, and not so young, male homosexuals. Right on the centrally located Maarad Street, two establishments started in 2001 to attract a particular clientele. Whereas Dunkin' Donuts tended, right after its launching, to bring in customers mostly in their teens and twenties, immediately next to it, a cafe gingerly called Scoozi has become the playground for slightly more mature patrons, presumably sporting heavier wallets.

Even if both closely connected places function as focal points for thorough visual checkups within the homosexual sphere in Beirut, there are differences. At Dunkin' Donuts, a younger crowd takes advantage of the locale's relatively affordable prices while enjoying at the same time the full vista of downtown Beirut's main promenade. Scoozi, on the other hand, is not a fast food cafe; it has waiters, and thus it is more expensive than its showy pink and orange neighbor. Being more exclusive, Scoozi has become a magnet for those who can afford it and who are generally senior to the coffee drinkers at Dunkin' Donuts. At the same time, it is a place where ejection policies are less likely to be reinforced. This qualitative difference points to another structural inconsistency when it comes to understanding homosexuality in Lebanon.

What makes it treacherously "safe" for a gay customer in Beirut to sit at Scoozi is the probability he will not exhibit a behavior deemed "inappropriate" by those sitting immediately around him. Regardless of what he genuinely does, the older and financially potent male is more likely to embody the social ideal of masculinity than his younger counterparts at Dunkin' Donuts. He actually ends up fitting the overall norm perfectly. Even if he indulges in "effeminate" behavior, this demeanor will be projected onto others and repudiated simultaneously. Moreover, its alleged "inappropriate" character will be gladly overlooked by those manifesting the strongest homophobic biases. Generally, what is actually practiced sexually by these individuals is located behind complex exercises of disavowal where the talk drifts away dramatically from the walk.

The Talk and the Walk

In resisting self-identification as homosexual, some individuals project an image of self-hatred onto the registered "conspicuous" male other, and thus repudiate him altogether. This repudiation functions as the foundation of defense and is part of an individual protection mechanism that Freudian psychoanalysis calls "disavowal of difference." [10] Sigmund Freud, in his later work on fetishism, interpreted this type of contradiction as "disavowal." [11] As a defense mechanism, disavowal fosters a split in the ego leading it at the same time to both acknowledge and reject what it perceives to be reality.

As Alan Bass remarks in his psychoanalytic study on fetishism, "Conceptually, a mechanism like disavowal is intrinsic to the idea that defensive substitutes are created to avoid a registered reality. While the operation of defense always implies an attempt to convince oneself that something disturbing has not been registered, the defense itself always implies that the disturbance has been registered." [12] Hence, many a homosexual in Lebanon has to confront a conflict between the registration of the reality of one's own sexual orientation on the one hand and the social objection to that reality on the other. By proclaiming that "I'm not like that," many homosexuals in Beirut repudiate the "inappropriate" behavior of others and, by the same token, disavow their own sexual inclinations. They register the particularities of their sexual identity, yet not without peering through the normative lenses of a largely hostile society.

In the case of homophobia within the homosexual sphere in Beirut, the vindictiveness of the former becomes the defensive substitute which actively reacts to the general "disturbance" of the latter. Thus the social reality of sexual difference in Lebanon translates into a reality that is disavowed by the subject because its acknowledgement is believed to provoke traumatic levels of anxiety sanctioned by the dominant forces in society. Subsequently, the contested premises of a donut franchise in Beirut become a space where the paramount power of society is not only affirmed, but also applied.

The most subtle and trenchant form of this coercion is one of symbolic violence projected through collective cockiness and disregard for others. Even if it generally remains of symbolic nature, this social violence is appropriated, often enough, by the state in the form of razzias and other means of suppression. [13] In other words, the consequence of such a widespread "homosexual homophobia" in Lebanon is part of complicated struggles for the appropriation and contestation of space in and around the capital city of Beirut, a space that is at the same time physical, social and mental. Being constantly redefined along with other social realities in the country, homophobia in fact becomes a socio-cultural product of registration and repudiation of sexual difference that develops into a shared trauma fostered by social exclusion where (to paraphrase Bourdieu [14]) the small misery of the homosexual position conflates with the larger misery of general social conditions.

Endnotes

[1] Pierre Bourdieu, "Effets de lieu" in La misere du monde (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1993), p. 250.
[2] For details, see Executive Magazine (Beirut) (July 2002) and the Daily Star (Beirut), July 25, 2003.
[3] Pierre Bourdieu, "L'espace des points de vue" in op. cit., p. 13.
[4] Mai Ghoussoub and Emma Sinclair-Webb, Imagined Masculinities: Male Identity and Culture in the Modern Middle East (London: Saqi Books, 2000).
[5] Daily Star (Beirut), January 20, 2003.
[6] Al-Nahar, March 16, 2003 and al-Safir, March 19, 2003.
[7] For instance, through a mostly unsuccessful boycott action against Dunkin' Donuts.
[8] Nabil Kaakoush, "Hey Handsome" in Malu Halasa and Roseanne Saad Khalaf, Transit Beirut: New Writing and Images (London: Saqi Books, 2004), pp. 166-173.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Alan Bass, Difference and Disavowal: The Trauma of Eros (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).
[11] Sigmund Freud, "Fetischismus" in Das Ich und das Es: Metapsychologische Schriften (Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2000), pp. 329-334. Translated into English in "Fetishism" in J. Strachey, ed. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XXI (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1961), pp. 152-157.
[12] Bass, p. 29.
[13] Al-Nahar, January 9, 2004.
[14] Bourdieu, "L'espace," p. 16.

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