The West and the Orientalism of sexuality
Joseph Massad (Columbia University) talks to Ernesto Pagano 14 December 2009

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.

Hence?

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)