Homosexuality in the Arab world is a topic so volatile that in some countries death is the penalty. Yet gradually and very cautiously gay Arabs are coming out of the closet with increasing confidence. Spanning across 22 countries with a combined population of 323 million, the Arab world is not only connected through its language but is also linked through numerous gay Arab websites, chat rooms, and blogs.
However, for gay Arab Americans, even though they live with much greater personal freedoms they often still find themselves conflicted between their sexual, religious, ethnic/cultural and national identities. Meet Issam Khoury of Washington, DC and Ramy Eletreby of Los Angeles. They both are gay Arab men but each with a totally different path and background. However both men have a remarkable clarity and an agreement on the crucial issues which impact them the most.
A refugee by birth and by war, Issam Khoury has seen and experienced a broad cross-section of the world. Both of his parents were born and raised in Palestine but because of the politics surrounding the Israeli occupation, Issam was forced to be born and raised in Kuwait until the age of 13. “I learned what it meant to be different in being in Kuwait because as a non Kuwait you are always perceived different” he explains.
But when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Issam’s family was forced to live in Cypress where Issam finished his schooling. Again he felt the unspoken words and perception of being different in another country.
As a youth Issam began to become more aware of his burgeoning homosexuality. “I always knew I was attracted to men. I knew from the days when I was living in Kuwait which to me debunks the myth that many Arabs would like to have that this does not exist in our part of the world because it does. When I moved to Cypress in 95′ I found myself becoming sexually active and that’s how I knew that this was here to stay” he reveals.
Issam later attended college in the US, first graduating from Virginia Tech, then onward to Ohio State to earn a masters degree and then forward to American University where he’s currently earning a doctorate in cultural studies.
He admits that it wasn’t until college that he started to become fully aware of his identity as an “outwardly gay man and not someone who engages in sex with other men” he explains. In many ways his college years helped him to adopt a holistic identity that was related to his sexual orientation, but this was only the first step.
He reveals that his journey still was “very difficult because I have no examples I don’t have any James Baldwin’s we don’t have any Gloria Anzaldua’s, we don’t have any of those in the Arab community. There are gay people out there and they’re out and they’re proud, but they do not write, they do not represent, they have not laid the foundation for a community in the same way that American ethnic communities have had on varying levels.”
As a result, Issam found nurturing support within the African American community adding that he was “adopted” by many black people and that “in the black community…I found my identity as a man of color.
I really found my identity as a gay man of color through reading E. Lynn Harris. I found it inspiring to read about men of color loving other men and color. I found my identity and what it could be to be in a relationship with another man of color and how beautiful that could be and how celebrated that could be without having to be ashamed of it.”
In terms of his Arab identity, Issam says that he found his Arabic-self through his masters degree program at Ohio State where he studied Arab literature. He openly admits that he had a “big aversion” to white people after being called a “sand nigger, camel jockey, and towel head” during his college years. So this new academic program gave him both affirmation and confirmation of who he really was, thus casting away all labels and stereotypes.
“It was in my masters program that I found myself as an Arab man” he proudly states. However, the reconciliation of being Arab, Gay and Christian was still a long, arduous and complicated process. After coming out to his parents, he we went back into the closet for six years.
“It took a lot of internal work for me to merge my Arabic and my gay identities. It took a lot of soul searching, it took a lot of research; delving into the issue of Arabic and gay but it’s very slow. We have a lot issues of pride in Arabic community and pride is related to family honor and if somebody is gay then you shame family honor and therefore these issues are not widely talked about but discussed in closed circles” he shares.
Because of his journey of transformation and reconciliation Issam decided to enroll in a cultural studies doctoral program because he recognized that he belonged to too many diverse groups to limit himself to just one identity or concentration. “The United States thrives on identity politics; it’s the capital of what I call the check box on the application because you always have to be something you always have to be categorized as something.”
Further, Issam’s own diversity and his desire to learn about the diversity of others led him out of his personal check box. He’s a member of a black fraternity and is currently learning to speak Spanish, all in an effort to broaden his exposure and understanding of culture and diversity.
Born and raised in sunny Southern California behind the conservative and affluent curtain of Orange County, Ramy Eletreby, who is of Egyptian descent, grew up the youngest of three children. While both of his parents were born and raised in Egypt, Ramy’s perspective has a distinct American flair. He says that he was raised “conservative and Muslim” and that his upbringing has helped shaped him to where he is today.
Ramy’s gay awakening actually began around the age of 15. He remembers attending a play in Los Angeles that centered around boxing. During a locker room scene, one of the boxers actually showered on stage. It was Ramy’s first time seeing a naked man.
“I was flustered and blushing and all that stuff and I just knew that if I had a reaction like that it must mean something. I never had such a strong reaction of anybody like that. I could not avert my eyes but deep down I knew I should not be enjoying it.”
Interestingly enough, Ramy did not act out sexually on his urges. Instead he went through a personal journey seeking to reconcile his sexuality with his Muslim beliefs. “I went through a lot of self exploration, a lot questions, and a lot of confusion” he explains.
Similar to the path of many other gays, Ramy eventually mustered up enough courage to start coming out to his friends. After an eight year period he had come out to just about everyone in his life with the exception of his own family, however that was about to change in a very public way in the summer of 2005.
A budding actor, Ramy decided to accept a role at a Hollywood theater portraying a gay Arab. However certain Arab community groups got wind of the play and its gay content and started to protest. Meanwhile the LA Times bloodhounds sniffed out the story and surrounded down playhouse to do what eventually became a major news story about the play, its gay content, the controversy, and the fact that its lead actor, Ramy was a gay man.
When the story hit, Ramy estimates it took four people reading it before the news was promptly delivered to his parents. Additional attention came when Advocate Magazine also did a spread on him. It was an extremely stressful and an emotionally raw time for him, but today he’s out to everyone and living his life authentically.
And after many years of wrestling with both his spirituality and his sexuality, Ramy has finally found the peace that he’s been searching for since he was 15. “I’ve just come to the conclusion that not everything is perfect. This religion that I was raised in is not perfect” he explains. He adds that people who subscribe to a religious belief system must “apply however much you can apply to your life and since I know I cannot change certain facts about who I am….if I choose to have a religion like Islam it needs to be as much as I can take of it.”
Today Ramy works for a gay publication in Los Angeles where he says it has helped him to find his gay identity. However, he sees no back and forth competing of his multiple identities of being gay, Arab, and Muslim. “I’ve never allowed it to be a fight; it’s just part of my daily reality. I’m an Arab American who happens to be raised Muslim who considers himself for the most part Muslim but I am an American who is of Arab descent.”
He adds that “your identity is who you are at any given moment. There’s never a day where I’m not Muslim or don’t not view myself as a product of Muslims. I’m able to go through every day and realize which parts of my identify are speaking up and how I can filter those to come to a focused stop process through any given situation.”
Advice to Young Gay Arabs
While Issam and Ramy were able to move above and beyond the conflicts of their multiple identities, there are many other young gay Arabs who are still baffled by it and struggle with it daily.
Issam gives this piece of advice to gay Arab youth. “You are not alone, you are not the only gay Arab person out there. You’re not the only young man or young woman who’s struggling with this. Find where the myth is; find the fact and where the two separate. Do your research. Dispel the myths for yourself.”
Ramy agrees adding that “the only person that you really need to listen to is yourself. You cannot allow people who have taught you as a child, or your parents, or family members, religious scholars, siblings, friends. You cannot allow people to make decisions about your life and what is right about you without you involved. So do not act outside of your best interest.”
To listen to a radio interview of Issam and Ramy go to www.gayradio.com/herndondavis/HDR_071806_GayArabs_35.mp3