In May, 2013, I was in Istanbul.
I was eighteen and travelling alone for the first time, and despite my super cool, worldly-backpacker exterior, I was shitting it. Istanbul is a scary place for a first-time traveller. It’s vast and chaotic, with a street map that looks like a tangled ball of string.
About a week into my stay, I decided to spend an afternoon exploring Istiklal Caddesi, the broad, busy shopping street that stretches over a kilometre through the centre of the city. I was finally feeling a bit more comfortable with my surroundings, and I was planning to spend the day just wandering, enjoying the atmosphere, chilling out.
By sunset, I’d been tear-gassed three times.
Being in Istanbul during the protests that engulfed the city that month was electrifying. I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t, and I’m not going to minimise how significantly the experiences I had and the people I met during those weeks affected me. But even as I found myself sprinting down alleyways and rinsing chemicals from my eyes, I was uncomfortably aware that those protests were not my struggle – I just happened to be there.
I am not Turkish. I’m western, and I’m white, and I have never experienced the oppression that people in Istanbul were protesting against. And as a white, western person, I had to take a long, hard look at myself and what role it was right for me to play in those protests before joining in. After all, just because I’ve learnt the slogans doesn’t mean they’re mine to shout.
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time learning more about Turkey and the countries that surround it. And the thing is, the more engaged I become with the history, politics and cultures of the Middle East, the more people question why I’m even interested. Western media is full of horrors perpetrated against LGBTQ people living in the Middle East – why would I, as a queer person, want to immerse myself in a culture that rejects me?
The thing is, engaging with Middle Eastern culture as a queer person is complicated – but as a queer white person it is even more so. Denial of white privilege is, I find, absolutely endemic in many queer communities. Many of us seem to think that the privileges we lack cancel out the ones we enjoy, and all too often, serious discussion of LGBTQ rights in the Middle East is abandoned in favour of thinly veiled racism. Historically, western powers have played a significant role in exploiting the Middle East, in installing repressive regimes, funding war, and in creating the systems of oppression that exist there today. In fact, over the past few hundred years, the West’s actions have been so uniformly violent and exploitative that I often feel as if my queerness is secondary to my westernness.
I am not an apologist. Regimes that persecute LGBTQ citizens should be condemned. But the way the western media discusses Middle Eastern queerphobia is, on the whole, ignorant and counterproductive – and it is this collective ignorance that I would like to address.
So what exactly are the issues with how we discuss the oppression of LGBTQ people in the Middle East?
The answer is, I would argue, simple; ignorance, insularity, and insincerity.
Let’s tackle these in reverse order.
Firstly, sincerity, and lack thereof. Western politicians and journalists – many of whom usually care very little about the lives of LGBTQ and Middle Eastern people – unfailingly become passionate human rights advocates when their own activities in the Middle East start to look a little shady. Barack Obama condemns extrajudicial killings in Iran, but is less concerned about Pakistan and Yemen. Notoriously conservative publications like, for example, the Daily Mail, are suddenly horrified by Gulf states’ archaic attitudes to homosexuality. And David Cameron – with his decidedly patchy voting record on LGBTQ issues, and his arms deals with the world’s most repressive states – becomes a staunch supporter of international rights organisations and a steadfast defender of oppressed minorities.
Secondly, our media is insular. To western politicians and journalists, the only acceptable model of progress is apparently a western one. Our politicians interfere in other countries’ affairs with all the finesse of, well, western politicians, using economic sanctions, threats and arbitrary violence to force Middle Eastern states to act in a manner acceptable to the West. In the process, Britain, the US and their allies have done a wonderful job of cementing the old colonial idea that “modernisation” and “westernisation” are synonymous – whether the rest of the world agrees is, apparently, irrelevant.
This, of course, leads us to the third flaw in the western media’s dealings with the Middle East – ignorance. It is very rare, both in queer circles and in other media, to find a discussion of oppression in the Middle East which acknowledges the causes of that oppression and the role western powers have played in its creation. Our media consistently ignores the long history of western-backed tyranny in favour of slyly pointing the finger at people who aren’t white – and, more specifically, at Middle Eastern Muslims.
In recent years, Islamophobia has loomed ever larger in western discussions of Middle Eastern issues. Of course, Islam can be an oppressive force, and frequently is; but all too often, the western media ignores the fact that in the Middle East, secularism has also often played an oppressive role, rather than a liberating one (we might note, for example, Turkey’s ban on headscarves, which made it significantly more difficult for religious women to attend university) . So too do we ignore the fact that many radical Islamic movements developed as a reaction against corrupt, secular, western-backed regimes.
The secular and atheist community has a lot of work to do when it comes to intersectionality and inclusion, and LGBTQ atheists are not exempt from this. We cannot effectively support LGBTQ people living under repressive regimes without understanding the roots of their oppression.
You might remember Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s assertion that in Iran, “we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country”. Ridiculous as it seems at face value, I would argue that Ahmadinejad’s comment demonstrates a wider lack of understanding between the Middle East and the West. Western politicians have interfered in Middle Eastern affairs for years, often in a massively ignorant and damaging manner. In this context, it is easy to see how Middle Eastern politicians might interpret calls for LGBTQ rights as an offshoot of western imperialism, and homosexuality as a western disease.
How, then, should westerners go about discussing LGBTQ rights in the Middle East? How can we offer support in a manner that is constructive, rather than harmful?
I’m going to take a step back here and point out again that I’m white and western. I’ve written this post with the benefit of experience, conversation and extensive reading, but I still have that privilege. The last thing I want to do is speak over the people I’m meant to be standing in solidarity with. So the following ideas are just that – ideas.
As with any discussion of privilege, one of the most important things to do is listen to less privileged voices, and attempt to amplify them, when you can. Queer Middle Eastern writers can be hard to find, but they are there, and on the whole I think they have far more relevant things to say about their own position than any western source.
As ever, money is an easy resource to throw around, if you’re lucky enough to have it. On the off-chance that you do, grassroots organisations like the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees do more than anyone else to combat the harm done by oppressive regimes, and they could use your support.
Finally, get informed. The politics, history and cultures of the Middle East are things that the western media likes to massively oversimplify, if not simply ignore. There are a lot of good resources out there, some of them available online, but above all else, if you have the opportunity to sit down with someone and listen to their lived experiences, you should take it.
During those protests in Istanbul, I remember spending an evening in a bar chatting to a friend of mine, who’d fled Cairo in the wake of the revolution. We sat, looking down into streets strewn with Turkish flags and ringing with noise, the shop shutters crumpled, the windows broken, the walls graffitied.
“I think we’re lucky to be here, seeing this,” she said.
I agreed with her then, and I still agree with her now, almost two years later. Those protests were not my struggle, but that does not mean that it was wrong of me to be there, to see the flares in Gezi Park and listen to the slogans that echoed up and down Istiklal Caddesi.
It was not my struggle and they were not my slogans, but I can still tell you who shouted them and what they meant.
Both the feature image and the second in-text image used in this post are photographs that I took in Istanbul in May, 2013.