I came out to almost everyone I know between the ages of 18 and 21. I don’t remember that time as being especially difficult or particularly freeing, though I am fully aware that it was a defining period for me. After the initial phase of coming out, I adapted a new rule to simplify my life: I would out myself in the very early moments of a new relationship and therefore avoid the annoyance of having to come out to someone once bonds had already been established.
15 years later, it has worked out nicely for me. If homophobes know you’re gay from the onset, then they will stay away, and if they don’t you’ve got the upper hand because you’re confident and you’ve got nothing to hide or lose.
So when, a couple months ago, on my second day of work, my new boss asked me if I had a girlfriend, I surprised myself when I answered, “Yes! Yes, I do.”
Some background info: earlier this year, I left Beirut to become a cliché and follow a childhood dream to become a pastry chef. I headed to Paris, a rolling pin in one hand and a rainbow flag in the other. Here, I would make cakes all days and delve into the joys and freedoms of living in a country that flaunted its love for Liberté, Egalité, and Beyoncé.
I dreamt of making out with random boys on the metro, on top of the Eiffel Tower, on the docks of the Seine, while eating an éclair, behind Notre Dame, and anywhere people could see me and smile at the glorious display of liberty, with an occasional clap or two.
My friends back home joined in creating this dream, all of them convinced that I would find true happiness in Gay Paris, and, more importantly, that I would find true love, the kind of love every heterosexual dreams of.
So off I went, leaving behind conservative, complicated, and constricting Beirut to start a new life in fabulous, free, and fattening Paris.
“Have you been together a long time?”
“Almost 3 years now. She used to live in Beirut with me, but we moved here together now. She’s French and wanted to be closer to her family. We’ll eventually get married, as soon as we figure a few things out.”
Over the next 2 months at work, I created an entire story about my heterosexual life. I couldn’t control it. From the moment I told my boss I had a girlfriend, I felt the need to create a new image, one that would fit their expectations. “My girlfriend and I went to a great concert last night.” “Sure we want kids, but she’s just starting a career, so maybe not right away.” “I’m sorry I won’t be able to join you for drinks after work. My girlfriend is not feeling too good.” I just couldn’t stop.
This bothered me immensely. How was it that I, a self-proclaimed queer activist, an out gay man, a once-active gay blogger, a vocal homosexual, blablabla, was suddenly unable to come out to complete strangers? I found myself uncomfortable with my sexuality, and I was certain that coming out to them would hurt me, not physically, but professionally and socially.
I would come home from work and try to understand what was it that made this environment different from all the other environments I had been in. Sure, it was an extremely macho environment where men talk about the size of their penises all day long and talk about who they want to sleep with, but big penises and casual sex was my comfort zone.
I needed to understand this, so I looked for clues all around me. Why did I have an easier time being completely out in Beirut than in Paris?
A few days ago, on what will probably be the last sunny Sunday of this year, my boyfriend and I took the metro to go have brunch with a good friend of mine visiting from London. As we were waiting for our train, I noticed a very cute young girl, 4 or 5 years old, standing on the opposite platform. She smiled at me, shyly, and I smiled back. Her father, a tall, handsome man, came and picked her up, just as, behind them, an elegant woman was holding the hand of another, younger daughter. As they stood there waiting for their train, they looked like the ideal French family, on their way to enjoy the beautiful weather on this lovely Sunday.
As they stood there, looking perfectly perfect, my boyfriend leaned in to me and said “Look at their t-shirts”. From across the rails, I noticed that Mr and Mrs France and their adorable children were all wearing pink t-shirts with a pictogram of a man, a woman, and 2 children holding hands; a representation of themselves on a shirt. “They’re on their way to the ‘Manif Pour Tous’”, my boyfriend explained, referring to the French anti-gay protests.
Suddenly, I zoomed out and realized that the entire platform on the other side was full of these clones: perfect, smiling, bourgeois, Christian, French families, on their way to publicly express their love for hate and anything anti-gay. The perfect French family was in front of me and they were bigots.
France has recently passed a law to allow gay marriage and gay adoption. Paris’ Marais is a gay mecca with cute boys holding hands, gay bookstores, rainbow flags, and penis-shaped cookies. France really should have been a place where I would have no problems being openly gay.
On the other hand, Lebanon still criminalizes “acts against nature”. Beirut has a thriving gay scene, but it is only accessible to the middle class, and it is, mostly, secret. There are no positive role models that are openly gay (except for Hamed Sinno, of course, but his reach is still insignificant in Lebanon, unfortunately). Societal pressures are great, and religion really likes to know what we put in our orifices.
But here’s the thing: In France, they have organized their hate towards gay people. The haters have leaders, money, slogans, and a pink flag! They are protected by the police when they want to meet and yell out how much they hate me, and they get decent media coverage where they can talk about the end of the traditional family and gay sex. They support each other in their hate. They feel completely safe in their hate. They define themselves and their friendships through their hate.
In Beirut, people might gossip about gays, they might judge gay people, they might even physically hurt them, but they won’t create websites calling for the death of all gay people. They won’t consider their hate part of a movement, and, in many cases, are solely responsible for their actions.
Of course, the reason for that is that there is no discussion on sexuality in public forums. It’s not a political talking point, and people don’t make careers out of being homophobes in the way that people in other places do (I’m looking at you conservative America!). This does not mean that I don’t think the rights of sexual minorities should not be discussed more openly in Lebanon. It just means that they aren’t.
In France and in the US, homophobia is a well-oiled, well-organized machine. In Lebanon, it’s scattered individuals here and there. In France and in the US, people go on the streets to protest gay marriage. In Lebanon, priorities are different. People go on the street to demand electricity, women’s rights, peace. People get riled up by things that should get them riled up.
And so, as it stands today, oddly, all of this makes Beirut an easier place to be gay, for me at least (I am fully aware that this is not the case for everyone in Lebanon). In dealing with homophobia in Lebanon, I am not faced with an organized hate machine. I have to deal with individuals, and that makes it much easier. In France, when I find myself face to face with dozens of people who have come together solely because they hate me, I lose my confidence, my strength, and my sense of safety. And I end up back in the closet, talking about my imaginary girlfriend and our next holiday plans.