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Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Life and Society
IT Monday, 14 December 2009

The West and the Orientalism of sexuality

Joseph Massad (Columbia University) talks to Ernesto Pagano

Homosexuals in the Arab world? They have been “invented” by the West. In his book Desiring Arabs, Joseph Massad, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin and an associate professor at Columbia University, attempts to follow the process through which the gay movement, born in the USA, has resulted in and tried to impose a homosexual identity on those Arabs who entertain relations with people of their own sex. A process that according to Massad, follows the tracks of western imperialism.

Massad’s viewpoint has infuriated a number of gay organisations, which have accused him of homophobia. His ideas however go well-beyond ideological slogans and he takes into account the complexity of social and economic transformations that have taken place in the West and that, in turn, have influenced the East’s intellectual framework. A number of critics have seen in his work the continuation, in the field of sexuality, of the ideas expressed by Edward Said in his famous Orientalism. This is an Orientalism of sexuality.

Can one say that homosexuals did not exist in the Islamic Arab world before the creation of the gay movement?

We can say that homosexuals did not exist in Europe before the medical and juridical discourses of the second half of the nineteenth century invented them as subjects of medical and juridical intervention, and before capital created relations of production that made possible the development of new residential and migratory activities, and new kinship configurations within and without the biological family that led to the development of forms of sexual intimacy that would be linked to identity and community.

How does the gay movement fit into this process?

The mainly US gay movement (of which Western European movements were mere subsidiary copies), that sought the further institutionalization of gay and lesbian identities and rights, emerged as an outcome of a century during which sexuality more generally had become institutionalized as a major axis through which society can be normalized (as heterosexual), which in turn necessitated a deviant other (the homosexual).

What happened instead in other societies?

Outside the United States and Western Europe, no such developments occurred in medicine or law. While different societies had different forms of social (and sometime, juridical) sanctions to penalize sexual practices that fall outside the purview of the socially acceptable, they did not identify the practitioners of these forms of sex with the sexual act itself, nor did the practitioners form social groups that identified themselves on the basis of their sexual acts.

How do these two universes come into contact?

Colonial and globalized capital, while generating new forms of sexual intimacy and new sexual identities across the globe, have not always generated them in the same way as it did in the US or Western Europe.


Not in ways that are easily mappable onto the American and West European homo-hetero binary. Desiring Arabs charts the way through which social Darwinism, culturalism, civilizational thinking, Orientalism, western colonial medicine, and colonial law influenced Arab intellectuals since the nineteenth century on how they should think through sexual matters and their centrality to what Europe insisted were civilizational questions. This has led to major debates since the late nineteenth century on the links between sexual practices and civilizational attainments (something that continues to be especially prevalent today in Western debates on sexual rights), which would be transformed in the 1980s into stronger ideological and political positions that are invested in the question of sexual identity. The goal of the American and West European gay internationalists is to create a world in their own image. Their Leninist strategy is to be the vanguard party of the world masses who on their own cannot be trusted to bring about the institutionalization of the hetero-homo binary that would create gays and lesbians as well as straight men and women. This is why the Euro-American vanguard will lead “their” struggle to liberation.

In summary, what is the difference between “western” homosexuality and what in your book you describe as the practice and desire for the same sex?

Namely one is an identity that seeks social community and political rights, while the other is one of many forms of sexual intimacy that seeks corporeal pleasure.

Does this mean that Arab “homosexuals” have no need to define themselves with a specific identity?

Western anthropologists and Gay Internationalists are unhappy that according to their own “research”, they found out that most Arab (or Latin American, or Indian, or Iranian, et al.) men who engage in sex with men (and women who engage in sex with women, though there is less interest in the literature in the latter) do not identify or name themselves in accordance with these intimate practices anymore than those men who have sex with women identify themselves in accordance with their practices. While there is a small number of upper class and upper middle class westernized Arabs who are seduced by gayness and the American example of it, they are not representative of, nor can speak for the majority of men and women who engage in same sex practices and do not identify themselves in accordance with these practices.

What do you think of the gay organisations being formed directly in Arab countries, such as Helem in the Lebanon)?

Helem is an organization founded by a tiny minority of individuals who want to assimilate into the Western gay movement. They are often provided by Gay Internationalists as a local example of gayness. Aside from the influence and active participation of non-Lebanese in the founding of the organization, Helem represents only its own members and can only speak for them. According to Helem spokesman Sharbil Mayda’, the organization only has 40 members, only 30 of whom identify as homosexual in a country of four million people, in a region of 300 million Arabs. It is hardly a major development as far as changes in sexual conceptions of identity.

What is the effect of these gay organisations on Arab society?

As for international US and Europe-based organizations, their effect has been mainly to incite discourse on sexuality in Arab countries and claim that they are trying to push these societies to protect the rights of their homosexual populations, which these international organizations themselves are creating. What I mean is that in the name of international solidarity, these groups come to Arab countries (as they do in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, India, etc) insisting that they will represent the “local gay groups,” teach them, and lead their struggle for them. This is a strange form of solidarity. International solidarity with the Palestinian people, for example, does not impose a Palestinian identity on the Palestinians, rather the opposite, it is Palestinians who identify as Palestinian and international solidarity supports them in their chosen identity. Moreover, it is the Palestinians who invite and call on international groups to be in solidarity with them and not the opposite as is the case with the Gay International, which invited itself to speak on behalf of non-existing groups whose very identity it insists on defining and defending. Lastly, international solidarity with the Palestinians not only follows the Palestinian lead in how to defend their rights, but also learns from the Palestinians as to what forms of solidarity are most effective. The Gay International not only refuses to learn from the groups it claims to want to defend, but also, and instead, wants to TEACH them. This of course is not international solidarity but an imperialist project not unlike many others with which we are all familiar.

How did these gay organisations react to your critique?

Some spokespeople for the Gay International were/are horrified by my criticisms and want to claim that any criticisms of their efforts must be a sign of homophobia. They are not unlike racist white women who through US imperialism want to defend the women of Afghanistan or who want to define the nature of the difficulties faced by women in different non-US and non-European societies in accordance with the priorities of their segment of the white women’s movement. These white women’s groups would insist also that anyone who criticized them must be against women or anti-feminist. Third world feminists have attacked such racist approaches since the 1960s and continue to do so.

What about gay organisations?

The problem with white Gay Internationalist Organizations is that, unlike the White women’s movements who want to speak for women around the world, Gay Internationalist organizations do not have a natural constituency around the world of people who identify as they do, which is why they must create such a constituency by insisting that all same sex practitioners must be assimilated into gayness, which would then create for them the constituency they need for their universalizing project.

Are there Arab homosexuals who support your theories?

What I provide is a critique and not “theory” as such. Unlike the Gay International, I do not represent a movement, or a group, or an organization, or a culture, nor does my critique seek a constituency. While I oppose the approach of the Gay International because it claims to speak for and represent non-existing groups and movements, my problem with them is not over constituency but over the epistemic and physical violence they insist on inflicting on other peoples and societies in the name of liberation and in the name of reproducing a world in their own image.

Edward Said, author of Orientalism, was one of your teachers. What did he think of Desiring Arabs?

As I mention in Desiring Arabs, Edward liked the book a great deal and wanted to publish it in the series that he edited. He read three chapters of the book before he passed away in September 2003. The book was published in 2007.

The debate:
1) The West and the Orientalism of sexuality (Joseph Massd talks to Ernesto Pagano)
2) We are not agents of the West (Ghassan Makarem replies to Joseph Massad)
3) «I criticize Gay Internationalists, not gays» (Joseph Massad counter-replies to Ghassan Makarem)

Readers' comments

The only people who can defintively answer the question of whether Homosexuality is something adopted from the west is non-western homosexuals. It seems as tho it is just imported from the west bcoz there appear to be more gays here but the truth is there porbably are, and have been, just as many gays in Iran and the Middle East they just havent been afforded the freedom to come out as gay, or the role models or places of identification to develop an idenity as a homosexuals. A couple of years ago there appeared to be = fewer gays in the west as in the east and that proves it wasnt bcoz homosexuality was uncommon, but bcoz like in the east now, the west back then had a culture that led to us being unaware of homosexuals. Im gay born in the west but have eastern ancestory and I can say with certainty that my being gay has nothing to do with my environment, its hardwired into my phsyci and idenity the way heterosexuality is in straaight ppl and masculinity is in straight males. There were no role models or anything that could have influenced me this way at the age of 4

Friday, 9 July 2010

How can a population fight ANY cause without first defining the actors? Even in western gay populations, the fact that they have to define themselves by 'acts' ... or the relative gender of themselves and their partner ... is seen as unfortunate but a simple necessity at this time. If culture didn't care to set these minority couples aside and label them as such, one would find it difficult to find any 'gays' that would care to define themselves as such. PS: You are already seeing this in the youth of some western populations. If they find themselves more comparable with same-sex partners than opposite-sex, then they simply date that way and forgo the labels. They have their rights and acceptance, so they don't care to congregate and fight a cause.

Monday, 30 August 2010

I do not know the specific situation in the Arab world. But in other Eastern societies like India, the "western" type of gay identity becomes a political inevitability in the context of the canonization and social domination of the "western" type of (post-industrial revolution)patriarchal nuclear family. Since all these developments are mutually related, is there much point in singling out the 'western' gay identity alone for criticism?

Tuesday, 31 August 2010
edwin dave

I can`t believe it

Wednesday, 10 November 2010
Beryl Beller

Lawrence of Arabia (UK) was very popular with many of the Arabs, who were homosexual before they had even met Lawrence.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

One would have to open the book in order to be able to fully grasp the discourse it contains. However, based on this interview, the author's thoughts and theory (cuz tehre really is one, as there are premises here upon which his narrative is built) is not sufficiently differentiated I'd say. Indeed, freedom of expression is one thing, BUT academic research and works such as this book do not take place in a vacuum and may have an impact on certain segments of society. The author should make it clearer that the West brought a certain notion of identity to a certain category that is western. However, I do not see him (here) reflect upon why that category has not been created in the MENA region. Also, he mustn't ignore that the main attack to MSM and WSW in the region claims this "perversion" was brought by the west. Such a book if not cautiously written may be understood as a validation for that claim and further reinforce violent repression of the abovementioned categories and behaviors. The US version of gay ID is very ethnocentrist, however, I strongly disagree with his idea that in the MENA there are only people to whom their sexual activities are merely remotely related to their identitiy, especially in societies which are SO gendered. These people feel the oppression, and whether they have found a language to express it in their words and concepts or found a space where they can use that language, OR resorted to western categories for various likely reasons, I do believe there is an oppression of these people and that MSM and WSW are not just anyone who engage in a certain behaviour but do have further particularities, be only in terms of the sufferings through which they have to go in order to fit local societies' categories, concepts and social orders on a daily basis.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

I agree with what he's saying: Foucault argues that before the construction of homosexuality in the mid 1800s, people, even those who engaged in sodomy, did not define themselves through their sexuality. The terms 'gay' and 'homosexual' are only applicable if the person self identifies as such. In the middle east, people who engaged in sodomy did not consider themselves gay. People were not defined by their sexuality, it was something they did. The author is right, and he's not homophobic. What you're all talking about is anachronistic.

Friday, 27 April 2012

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