The term ‘Middle East’ was devised by the West to refer to a large number of countries, each with a multitude of cultures, religions, languages, and traditions. While Islam and Arabic are prevalent, the Middle East is not a homogeneous space, landscape, or people.
It also plays down people’s complex make-ups. Each individual and family makes their own decisions based on their personal agency, as informed by their life experiences, social interactions, and faith.
For a considerable number of people, living in Qatar or elsewhere, religion matters. Not all those who believe hold bigoted views, and many non-heterosexual people pray with ardent faith.
This doesn’t mean that believers have developed Stockholm syndrome in the practice of their faith. No scripture in Islam that attacks LGBT people enjoys honourable religious authority. The narrative that Islam is fundamentally opposed to LGBT people is a political decision only. Insulting beliefs and traditions does a great disservice to people we claim to support.
All LGBT individuals are born into a particular society, one we grow up in, one we love, and one we fight within to uphold our dignity. We understand our societies best; we serve as their first critics, and we are best placed to engage in the intricate socio-political dynamics of our environments to make sustainable change. We live in our countries, we own the narrative, we set its tempo, and we take the lead.
LGBT Qataris, for example, have been on the front lines of their fight for many years now. They have made progress at considerable personal risk, long before performative politics by tourists who showed up at museums, wore armbands, and covered their mouths with their hands, to name a few recent examples.
Done in the name of visibility, these latter actions primarily benefit their performers, who disregard the local groups already active in their own country.
Caught off guard and aghast, the locals now have to face the dire consequences of unsanctioned actions that are not adapted to the spaces they take place in. Perceived as foreign intervention, these actions push the narrative that LGBT people are trendy imports from the West, from whom society must be cleansed.
The polarising public discourse, the spread of myths, lies, and prejudice, and the mobilisation of state, religious, media, and popular figures all create an atmosphere that affects the wellbeing of LGBT people in the country. The tempo of action to improve LGBT rights should remain the prerogative of the locals, and only the locals.
The same media outlets that celebrate the narcissistic stunts and their performers publicly victimise the betrayed locals, and depict them as hopeless and helpless people, in need of a foreign saviour, while those who carry out the stunts are more likely to be seen as agents of other governments than anything else. This is another blatant and dangerous political disservice to local people.
People of good will are always welcome to exist in each other’s spaces, but only with the agreement that we demonstrate respect, humility, and an open mind.
That means respect for our culture and society. We know how to be active participants in our own societies, which are built on common geography, history, habits, and prospects for a shared future. We are born into our societies, we are a part of them, and we inform their progress.
Humility is recognising that we carry our own personal baggage, bias, and collective memory when we enter a space. While historical events cannot be undone, we understand that we are the progeny of our elders, and we commit to being sensibly informed, aware, and conscious of our interactions, so we do no harm. This starts with listening to locals, not hijacking their voices. Don’t act as if you were invited into somebody’s space to do it your way, as has happened so many times before in history with damaging consequences.
An open mind acknowledges that each one of us leads a different life in a different, changing context. This means that our priorities may differ, that our engagement on a certain topic may not be what you are used to, and that we will use different languages and reference points.
Accept that everybody’s reality is legitimate, as is their real, lived life. Don’t reduce people to the stereotypes you think are true. Don’t dismiss ideas, or put people into hierarchies and dehumanise them. Don’t humiliate a country’s leaders, institutions, traditions, and cultures. Again and again, this is a disservice.
Our global experiences offer an abundance of knowledge that should be leveraged in service of LGBT dignity, beyond ideologies and political partisanship. Fighting for LGBT dignity benefits society at large, and LGBT people in particular, all LGBT people, including individuals we disagree with. We study the balance of power, and we leverage our social, political, financial, and intellectual capital to get our work done in the service of decriminalising LGBT status.
I’ve had the pleasure of corresponding with non-heterosexual people from Qatar and its neighbouring countries for a while now. Strong, dignified, and superbly well-informed, they have what it takes to lead sustainable change by themselves, and to ask for, and consent to, outreach and support if and when it’s needed. They are winning their fight, and it is only a matter of time before it becomes apparent.
Hadi Damien is the founder of Beirut Pride. This piece was written with feedback from Qatari and other Arab nationals.