When Clubfree was first created in the late 1990s, it was a secret group. In order to join, you needed to know at least one other member, and the initial meeting was always done in a public space. There was endless talk about how public the group should be, and whether or not the group should come out as a gay group. The issue was usually settled by the fact that no one was actually out, and therefore, no one was really ready to take such a public stand.
When Clubfree became Helem, part of the idea was that it would be an organization that was openly gay (though often, in the early days, it was presented as a Women’s Rights organization, strangely enough). This was made possible by a new member, Ralph, who was completely out, and who could serve as the public speaker for Helem.
In the early days though, this was very scary for most members, and the discussion continued for years to come. The natural course of things led to Helem being out, but discussions about the topic still took place quite frequently.
At the same time, there was a continuous (though perhaps not always genuine) effort to bring in more women into Helem. While women have been a part of every step of Clubfree and Helem, they were clearly an overwhelming minority. As hard as Helem tried to make a space that would welcome the full spectrum of the LGBTIQ label, it wasn’t being very successful.
The email below gives a good insight as to some of the discussions that were taking place regarding both the absence of women and Helem’s “outing”. It was written by Rasha Moumneh, a member of Helem, and was sent on May 12, 2005. The email was addressed to the Helem mailing list. It is being posted here with the full permission of the author.
While Helem struggled to deal with both issues, the approach has always been to create a space where people could at least discuss their thoughts and ideas on the matter. This often ended up in endless exchanges of emails, but it also meant that everyone could participate in the discussion.
It’s a big long, but very interesting.
Disclaimer: Longish email.
I’m sure what I have to say is going to generate waves of controversy, but it’s something I’m going to raise nonetheless. I’d like to call into question Helem’s strategy of combatting homophobia through visibility, a tactic I think we might have adopted without really thinking through.
This has become increasingly clear to me through experiencing the debacle that is the women’s committee, so I will start from that. I have talked to a lot of lesbian and bisexual women about Helem and about the women’s committee specifically in an effort to get them to participate. One theme kept cropping up over and over: it is precicely the invisibility of women’s sexuality and the invisibility of lesbian sexuality in particular that allows them the freedom to live as they choose, and they are simply not willing to sacrifice this in the name of a cause that ultimately they see as unbeneficial to them. I can see their point. The only time I was ever attacked in my life for being a lesbian was in London, while walking on the street holding a girl’s hand. Some disturbed individual threw beer bottles at us from his apartment window.
Something like this would never happen to me here. But over and above that, it isn’t just the fear of violence. Many women (myself included) cannot speak of having a boyfriend in family circles, which is to say that an unmarried female possessing any sexuality in general is something taboo, or at the very least, its proclamation is generally prohibited. And anyway, I wouldn’t be comfortable talking about a boyfriend in front of family. This is why women get away with being lesbians, because they are not required to physically prove their heterosexuality, it is automatically assumed, but the irony is that you’re actually in trouble if you decide you want to follow through with it. So in that respect, young women get away with a lot because anything they do, be it gay or straight, is required to be hidden anyway. Pushing for lesbian visibility would take away that freedom because it would put them in the spotlight. The more the word ‘lesbian’ is out there, the more I am suspect, the more I am vulnerable, and the more my lifestyle is threatened. Sexuality is a very personal thing for many women because it is simply not allowed to be made public. Once it is made public and politicized in an *unstudied* manner, the little control women have over their bodies will be taken away and we will ultimately be doing them a dis-service.
Which is not to say that the situation is all nice and rosy as is. It can be frustrating for some women, although some others seem satisfied with the status quo and do not feel the need to be seen or heard as ‘lesbians’. Both are valid points of view. With regards to having a safe space where they can be themselves, this is something that, for the most part, at least in Beirut, happens organically through the cultivation of queer friendships. Outside of Beirut, where the queers cannot be found as readily, this safe space might be needed to a larger degree, however, it remains to be seen how we, as Helem, can target this demographic without causing an uproar (read: backlash, ie. danger).
The question to be asking then is not why there aren’t any women in Helem, but why their non-participation suits them more, why their invisibility is a precondition for the type of freedom that they have. The problem needs to be identified before we can begin to come up with solutions. How can we begin to address queer women’s sexuality when we are dealing with a paradoxical situation where covert sexual freedom comes from the negation of all overt female sexuality? So I would like to rephrase the question from why there aren’t any queer women in Helem to wether Helem, as an LGBT organization, is in a position where it can actually address queer women in the first place.
Without a strong feminist movement that is working on issues of female sexuality, there can be no space for anyone to talk about queer female sexuality. Which brings me to my next point: that young women in Lebanon are extremely de-politicized when it comes to women’s rights, and this is also part of the problem. The general attitude is khalas, I’m fucking who I want, I’m living the life I want, I’m negotiating through the restrictions set on me because of my gender, so why rock the boat? I’m happy this way (not that there actually is a viable women’s movement here that offers any alternatives. Women’s orgs generally won’t touch sex with a ten foot pole).
So what I’m saying is that holding up the mantle of visibility, going at it full speed with GAY plastered on our foreheads might actually be harmful to our cause. This is also about the men, mind. In a society that, for the most part, does not admit the existence of homosexuals, throwing it in their faces and screaming I’M HERE AND I’M GAY LOOK AT ME might cause a huge backlash, an upsurge in gay-bashing, and a much more rigid and direct implementation of 534 (which is a black cloud perpetually hanging over our heads, but really, there aren’t THAT many cases of gay arrests, it’s used much more often for blackmail and intimidation).
Just so there is no misunderstanding, I am NOT saying that this is not a cause worth fighting for or that there isn’t a problem. I am just questioning the efficacy of our strategies and our perhaps too optimistic view about how much Helem can actually achieve as an LGBT organization. As opposed to say, an organization that defines itself as one fighting for sexual rights and freedoms for everyone.
What is it that we really want? Is visibility a means or an end? If it is only a means, then it is not set in stone and its merits and demerits can be up for discussion. We’re networking with a zillion groups in Europe. Before we pat ourselves on the backs, what has it actually done for us? What do we hope it’s going to do for us? What is this mythical ‘gay community’ we keep referring to that is supposed to be our target demographic? How do we get to those outside those parameters and those who wish to remain there?
So. That’s it, for now 🙂 Be nice and don’t yell at me.