«I criticize Gay Internationalists, not gays»
Joseph Massad counter-replies to Ghassan Makarem 14 December 2009

Dear Reset Doc,

How can one begin to answer the litany of unfounded accusations and the ill-mannered ad hominem attacks that Mr. Makarem has leveled against me in response to my interview with Reset Doc? The sheer cumulative effect of his long letter and charges constitute a diatribe that is characteristic of those whose institutionally funded positions might be endangered by the kinds of criticisms and analysis I offer in my scholarship, some of which I summarized in the interview. I will respond to the most outrageous false quotations and imputations in order to clear the ground for a conversation.

Mr. Makarem claims that I “managed to squeeze in a number of lies and distortions [about Helem] that [I] ha[ve] been spreading for the past several years.” As this is the first time I have mentioned Helem in any forum or publication, I challenge Mr. Makarem to produce a single reference in my work to Helem before the Reset Doc interview. He further adds and puts in quotation marks words that I never uttered like “the ‘true’ Arab” or that I have investments in some “authentic” identities or desires. I have never used words like “true” or “authentic” in any reference to desire or sex or anything else for that matter. However, Western Gay Internationalists, from whom Mr. Makarem may be borrowing these misquotations, have leveled such accusations against me to delegitimize my position and legitimize theirs. Again, I challenge Mr. Makarem to produce a single quote in my work in which I argue for a “true” or “authentic” Arab desires, or sexuality. Then Mr. Makarem gears up to his most astounding charge: “The real problem with Massad’s interview is the lies, fabrications, and insinuations of being agents of the West against the people in Helem.”

This is an outright falsehood, as I never made such accusations against Helem or any of its members. The word “agent” appears nowhere in the interview nor is it implied by the few sentences in which I discuss Helem. I described Helem as “an organization founded by a tiny minority of individuals who want to assimilate into the Western gay movement,” a point Mr. Makarem readily concedes when he tells us that “We have the privilege of learning from the history of the [Western gay] movement.” Mr. Makarem’s silly issuance of an open call to the Gay International to come to his rescue and show solidarity with him and Helem (“The international LBGT community should not shun its brothers and sisters in Lebanon and Palestine”) comes a bit too late, as the group was funded and continues to be funded, as I will show below, by American and European organizations, including Gay Internationalist organizations, since 2005.

Makarem seems to also contradict Helem’s own official claims on its website which states unequivocally that the organization was “founded in 2004” (see the World Bank-funded report on Helem available on Helem’s website: HELEM A Case Study of the First Legal, Above-Ground LGBT Organization in the MENA Region) and Helem’s own claim on its website that it set itself up as a legal entity in “September 2004”. Makarem states that: “Helem’s first public outing was actually during the March 15, 2003 international day of mobilization against the war on Iraq,” i.e. before the organization was actually formed in September 2004! Indeed, the March 15th 2003 demonstration included six people, not all of them Lebanese, who raised the American gay rainbow flag (see “Mithliyyun Rafa‘u ‘Alamahum wa Sharaku” [Homosexuals Raised Their Flags and Participated], Al-Nahar, 16 March 2003. For an account by one of the foreign participants in the demonstration, a German-Algerian who lives in the United States, see Sofian Merabet, “Disavowed Homosexualities in Beirut,” Middle East Report, 230, Spring 2004). Moreover, Makarem presents us with an unwieldy long account of a conglomerate of organizations that produced Helem giving us the impression of some mass movement, but the World Bank report that he features on Helem’s website tells us in no uncertain terms that Helem had “five founders” (HELEM A Case Study…, page 10).

Mr. Makarem’s libelous claims are numerous. One of the most imaginative is the following: “Then how do we explain [Massad’s] mocking of the victims of torture during the Queen Boat case in Egypt a few years ago, thereby tacitly extending support to one of the worst violators of human rights in the region, because the victims happened to adopt an identity that Massad does not deem ‘authentic’?” I of course have never mocked the victims of state repression in Egypt, no matter who they were; on the contrary I am in solidarity with all victims of repression in Egypt and elsewhere. Again, I challenge Mr. Makarem to produce a single quote from my work that mocks or ridicules any such victims. The only ridiculous issue here is Mr. Makarem’s belief that he has a free license to defame, make up quotations that do not exist and attribute them to me, and to spew Gay Internationalist insults at anyone who deigns to question his political agenda and that of the Gay International. In response to my assertion that indeed Helem has the right to speak for and represent only its own members and not all Lebanese and Arabs who engage in same sex acts, Mr. Makarem feigns agreement with me momentarily only to reassert that “Helem…openly calls for LBGT rights in the Arab world.” Which is it Mr. Makarem? Do you only speak for Helem’s members or for the entire Arab World?

I mention in the interview that Helem has 40 members, 30 of whom identify as homosexual or gay and the other ten are (presumably) “heterosexual” supporters. I based these numbers on two sources. The first is the World Bank HELEM report I mentioned above which was released on October 21, 2008 and which states that “At present, Helem has about 40 active LGBT members” (Page 10 of the report), and on the more recent claims by Helem spokesperson Sharbil Mayda‘ who was quoted in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir on 23rd February 2009 saying that the number of Helem members “comes up to 40, 20 percent of whom are not homosexuals but believe in our rights.” It is fascinating to me that Mr. Makarem would declare in his response that “Helem’s formal membership is currently at 60.” In the four and a half years between September 2004 and February 2009 Helem acquired 30 members who identify as gay and 10 who do not, and in the last nine months only it has been able to increase its membership by 20 individuals (a whopping 50% increase)!

Aside from the deliberate false allegations and fabrications I have just enumerated, Mr. Makarem either misunderstands or deliberately misrepresents the arguments I make. Like many Zionist propagandists who often conflate Jews and Zionists and often want to claim that any attack on Zionists is an attack on Jews, Mr. Makarem thinks that any criticisms of Gay Internationalists is an attack on gays, or on homosexuals, or on people who have same-sex contact. But this is not borne out by anything I say in my interview or in my scholarship. I am clear in the interview that the object of my criticisms is Gay Internationalists and Gay Internationalism and not gays in the West or those who follow them in the Arab world, any more than it is an attack on homosexuality or same-sex contact. Indeed Desiring Arabs consistently exposes heterocentrism, heterosexism, and homophobia, as well as the espousal of Gay and Straight Internationalism. Mr. Makarem does not seem to understand that what I say (which is hardly even controversial in academic scholarship) is that homosexuality and heterosexuality were both produced in Western Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century.

My criticism of the Gay International since my first article on the subject in 2002 (“Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World,” Public Culture, Spring 2002), which is expanded and included as a chapter in Desiring Arabs, is that their internationalism (and that of the Straight International’s) will lead not to the creation of a queer planet “but rather a straight one” (Desiring Arabs, 190). It is the heterosexualization of the world that activities like Helem’s will lead to, and those sympathetic to their cause among Arab liberals and leftists whether in Al-Akhbar (where I also publish articles) or elsewhere have not questioned how their own presumed “heterosexuality” has also been produced by colonial laws and family restructuring, heterosexualized anti-colonial nationalist intellectuals who were shamed by the West’s Victorian horror at the sexual lives of Arabs, ideologies of romance and intimacy spread through the media, literature, poetry, educational institutions, and economic transformations, all of which have many Western governments, companies, organizations, intellectuals, and groups that market and sponsor them – in short the Western Straight International.

Mr. Makarem uses Islamist bashing against me by connecting my views to those of “salafists and chauvinists,” “the most bigoted religious currents in the region,” as well as to pro-Western Arab regimes “especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt” in an attempt to delegitimize my criticisms as falling outside Western liberal orthodoxy which he espouses. The irony however is that it is organizations like Helem who share the same sexual epistemology with “salafists and chauvinists” and “the most bigoted religious currents in the region,” and with pro-western regimes “especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt.” Like them, Helem wants to force those who practice same sex contact to “identify” themselves to the state and its apparatuses of repression and like them it wants the State to intervene in deciding what rights they can or cannot have. While these regimes and some “salafists and chauvinists” want the state to enact laws to withhold rights of those who practice same sex contact more generally by identifying them as homosexuals, Mr. Makarem wants the state to grant them such rights. Therefore he could not agree more with this outing strategy that he shares with “salafists and chauvinists;” he only differs with them in his political demands, the results of which will only be police repression, not only against those who choose to identify as gay, but against the majority of women and men who practice same sex contact and who refuse to assimilate into Western gayness.

Makarem’s unfounded allegation that I refuse “to recognize the agency of persons with non-conforming sexual orientations,” is even more ironic since not only do I insist in my writings that everyone must recognize the agency of all of those who practice same sex and different sex contact not to assimilate into gayness and straightness, but I also criticize those who rob them of agency and insist on speaking for them as Mr. Makarem presumes to do, when he insists on speaking for them around “the Arab World” as we saw above. Unlike Mr. Makarem, I do not seek to be a “spokesperson” for anyone, as he again alleges with his fabricated quotation marks around a word I never used. On the contrary, I stated rather clearly in my interview, that I only speak for myself and that “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.”

I am neither an exile nor someone who lives exclusively in the United States. I spend half my time in the Arab World and half in the United States where I teach. It is true though, as Mr. Makarem states, that I speak “From [my] privileged position as a university professor in the United States, at an institution that is formally Zionist and is funded by multinational corporations and government projects aimed (in part) to colonize our region.” Unless he has been living under a rock since 2002, Mr. Makarem should know of my much-publicized struggles with my own institution, Columbia University. Surely, he must know that if I get paid by my university, the only political positions I have always espoused were against Zionism, American imperialism, and colonialism, which is why forces that support these ideologies and practices spearheaded a major campaign to have me dismissed from my teaching position. The irony, however, is in Helem and Mr. Makarem who receive funds from the same American military industrial complex that funds the Ford Foundation, and the many Gay Internationalist organizations that in turn fund Helem’s projects and with whose policies Helem is in full agreement. The following two examples will suffice:

One of Helem’s funders according to HELEM A Case Study is The Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, a New York-based Gay-Internationalist organization that funds gay organizations separated from the US by “continents, language, and culture,” (See http://www.astraeafoundation.org/about/). The first project funded by Astraea in 2005, when Helem barely had ten members, was inter alia, for “conducting workshops and visiting schools and universities to raise awareness. The fund also allowed the organization to institute a community center,” presumably for the ten members. Astraea’s goals as stated on its own website are to “Expand the community of individuals and institutions that support lesbian and trans issues” (see http://www.astraeafoundation.org/about/missin/).

As for the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance which also funds Helem, they are committed to the following: “Develop a grassroots global network focused on protection of LGBT populations in danger; Build local capacity in regions where LGBT rights are hampered by political, social, and religious opposition; Establish several anchor institutions to build regional networks and serve as regional resource centers; Provide a forum for learning and capacity development to build LGBT civil society from the ground up” (see http://www.heartlandalliance.org/international/partners/global-equality-network.html). As for the project that the Heartland Alliance funded Helem to undertake, it is for “a regional coordination project that aims to study the diverse LGBT groups in the MENA region” (HELEM A Case Study, page 12). The Heartland Alliance only funds third world “gay” organizations, including in Sri Lanka, Guatemala, and Nigeria (http://www.heartlandalliance.org/international/partners/global-equality-network.html). So much for Helem wanting to speak for its own members only, or those it claims as “gay” among the Lebanese, or even across the “Arab World” as Mr. Makarem tells us in an imprudent slip. Helem clearly wants to coordinate with LGBT groups across a region where it admits there are no other LGBT groups in existence (unless it wants to coordinate with Israeli groups which Mr. Makarem tells us he opposes).

In sharp contrast to the views that I express against the interests of those who may fund the budget of my university and my salary and against the views expressed by the president of my university who is an ardent supporter of Israel, Mr. Makarem and Helem, express views that are fully consonant with their Western funders and do not contradict them one bit. Contrary to Mr. Makarem’s assertions, Helem does not consist of “activists working on the ground in the Middle East,” but rather members of a Western-funded NGO, whose funds presumably pay his salary and the salary of his staff or at least their projects. Helem’s website is entirely in English except for those Arabic-language newspaper articles that it posts in Arabic. Indeed the only picture available on the main page of its website of its Beirut headquarters shows a sign exclusively in English identifying the organization. This should give us an idea on who its projected audience and membership might be. When the US gay movement started in the late 1960s, it did not consist of NGOs funded by foreign or domestic sources, but was rather a spontaneous eruption of those already constituted as homosexuals by themselves and by society against police repression. Helem, in sharp contrast, is an NGO that wants both the State to identify individuals who practice same sex contact as gay and lesbian and wants to make sure these same sex practitioners also identify as such so that its raison d’être and its funding may continue. That it can and will destroy the lives of many in the process is immaterial to its narcissistic commitments of having found the truth in Gay Internationalism. While Helem is evidently committed to Gay Internationalism, which is its right, I also have the right to criticize them without having to be defamed and libeled by Mr. Makarem.

Mr. Makarem’s opinion that fear by those who oppose power is only extant in Lebanon is nothing short of a fantasy of infatuation with America: He states that “it is a fear that Massad…will never face in New York.” That New York is a safe place for those who oppose or may be thought to oppose US state policies should be checked against the last eight years of disappearances, arrests, deportations, harassment, and outright torture of people, citizens and non-citizens alike. As for fear of losing my job, my experience with the enemies of freedom at my own institution over the last five years can serve as an informative footnote to New York and American-style liberties.

Mr. Makarem’s accusations betray a wish that I would be all these horrible things he accuses me of so that it would be easier for him to attack me and do away with my criticisms. He and Helem would be happiest if indeed I were a homophobe who supported “salafist and chauvinist” repression and state-sponsored terrorism. They would be ecstatic if I were actually a liar and that I ridiculed or mocked victims of oppression. Not unlike many Zionists who wish that I actually hated Jews to make their job easier in attacking me and who hate it that I criticize Zionism for victimizing Jews and Palestinians, Helem and Mr. Makarem wish that I would support their oppression.

Now that we have cleared the table from all the falsehoods and fabrications, and that Mr. Makarem and his international supporters know that I am none of the things they wish I were, let us start the conversation.

Joseph Massad


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)