Saturday, November 19, 2005

Open Letter (In Response: Palestine and Gays)

Hey James -

I just read a recent article of yours "Palestinian anti-gay atrocities need attention" ( in InNewsweekly and its off-spring "Gay Rights Before Palestinian Statehood" ( However, I'm concerned about your reporting and the argument you're advancing.

One early claim made in the article is that "[i]n the disputed territories run by the Palestinian Authority, gays are routinely harassed, tortured and murdered." Unfortunately, there is insufficient accountable information to make this claim. The reports you use and quote throughout the article are the few that exist (and their authenticity has not been corroborated). I routinely research reports and have been looking into accounts/research on homosexuality in the region for a while. I could appreciate an attempt to such a claim for Egypt or Saudi Arabia - however, there is no reliable evidence for us to make such a claim about Palestine. (I would like to note, however, that there are other reports you could have cited. The majority of the "literature" you can find about gay Palestinians is in the press and is based on the testimony of gay Palestinians in Israel. Palestinian abuse of homosexuals is usually mentioned in conjunction and with equal emphasis to how these homosexuals are now facing persecution for being Palestinian in Israel. I, therefore, dispute your claim that "Tel Aviv, Israel's flourishing gay hub, has become for Palestinian gays what Miami is for Cubans." Many Jewish gay-rights activists are actually trying to highlight this double persecution of gay Palestinians.)

The first article you cite is one written in The New Republic by Yossi Klein Halevi. The article has been used in reports by Israeli-based gay-rights organizations. I, unfortunately, have not been able to get the article. (If you happen to have it, I would really appreciate it if you could possibly send it to me - I'll owe you one.) I cannot verify or dispute the claims made by Halevi's article. I do think that more research and information about homosexuality in Palestine is needed.

You go on to cite "Hamas' man in Gaza... Mahmoud Zahar" comments "on the question of gay rights." You use a quotation made by Zahar in the Times of London. However, in Times of London Zahar was responding specifically to the question of gay marriage, not gay rights more generally. I hardly think it is fair to characterize the entire discussion on gay rights only with reference to responses to gay marriage. Furthermore, I believe the translation of Zahar's words is problematic. Zahar supposedly discusses "homosexuals and... lesbians, a minority of perverts" - Arabic words that distinguish between homosexuals and lesbians are very recent and rarely employed by anyone outside of gay Arab community. The most common Arabic words for homosexuals could be translated as "perverts." (I'm not trying to make the argument that Zahar was trying to same something particularly nice about gays, but I don't think we get very far by responding to comments when we don't really know what he said or why he said it.)

In a subsequent paragraph you decide to address Yasser Arafat's death. Again, there is insufficient evidence to make the claim you are making. And I realize that you are not the first one to advance this argument but the claim remains speculation at best, even if it is based on others' speculation. No report has been able to cite reliable evidence concerning Arafat's possible sexual activities or an HIV-related death. I have written the following in response to recent questions about these speculations about Arafat:

"The best I can characterize these allusions and references to AIDS and homosexuality is as rumors. They surfaced around the time of Arafat's death. I read the articles that initiated the dialogue - mostly in the Israeli press - and they provide no actual evidence and rely on visual symptoms that are interpreted by "medical professionals". I highly doubt there is any evidence to actually be uncovered. (Although I did pay attention to the fact that Arafat's cause of death remains inconclusive.)

"I think that the more worthwhile question is why these references came up at all. (Janet Afary and Afsaneh Najmabadi have argued that in Iran public narratives of homosexuality were deliberately used as political tools leading up to the 1979 Revolution.)"

I would be happy to provide a more detailed rebuttal to your assessment that Arafat "most certainly was" a homosexual, if you would like to discuss it further - although I don't feel particularly inclined to discuss a dead man's sexual activities.

Having discussed the majority of the evidence and references to Palestinian homosexuality, I would like to address your major argument: Advocating that human rights, and specifically gay rights, be conditional upon the creation of a Palestinian state is one step gay groups can take. Although I do not necessarily agree with many of the arguments being advanced that gay-rights are Western impositions (and I really hope we can move beyond such Western vs. non-Western arguments), I nonetheless think it would be irresponsible for us to ignore the how arguments against homosexuality are framed by many Arab states and officials. You could look back specifically at the news reports that surfaced around the time of the Queen Boat case in Egypt, or more generally across numerous articles and reports from the Middle East and find links made between homosexuality in the Arab world and Western imperialism, Western decadence or moral corruption, as well as Israeli spies. Using US political and diplomatic force to push gay-rights legislation is indisputably problematic. There are already more than enough arguments being made by religious and political leaders to insure that such moves will be greeted with serious resistance. And, more importantly, at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been seeing significant advancement I think it is particularly dangerous to jeopardize a possible resolution and the creation of the state of Palestine for a mere written agreement to protect homosexuals. (Even if you were to get the Palestinians to be forced into an agreement where they recognize gay rights in order to get a state, there are no possible enforcement mechanisms through which this could be verified. The majority of human rights initiatives, and especially those concerning gay-rights, have been moot in the Middle East - even with countries that have a well-established relationship with the US.)

I hope that you found some of this material useful - and I hope you continue engaging the question of gay-rights in the Middle East and the Arab world.

Good luck tomorrow,


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