Closet Activism: The Importance of Grassroots Gay Activism in the Middle East

When it comes to the possibility of a gay rights movement in the Middle East, some of you might be thinking

  • No, it can never happen
  • Of course! The Gay Rights Movement is so powerful and loud, there’s no way it can’t breach the customs of the Middle East
  • I know so little about the Middle East, I frankly don’t know how social justice is approached, respective of Middle Eastern culture
This IID series talk was hosted by Ryerson’s very own Kamal Al-Solaylee, Journalism professor, author, and journalist. He is also gay-identifying and of Yemeni descent.
This IID series talk was hosted by Ryerson’s very own Kamal Al-Solaylee: Journalism professor & previous Director of the Undergraduate Journalism Program at Ryerson, author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes that won the 2013 Toronto Book Award and 2012 Hilary West Writer’s Trust Prize for Nonfiction. He was a distinguished Globe and Mail writer and theatre critic, and contributed to the Toronto Star, The Walrus, National Post, and Toronto Life. He is gay-identifying and of Yemeni descent.

I identified with the last statement when I heard there was going to be a lecture held at Ryerson addressing Gay Rights in the Middle East. Organized by International Issues Discussion (IID), the event was called Is a Gay Rights Movement Possible in the Arab World? IID is a student-led forum that organizes discussions for universities that focuses on contemporary global issues.

Kamal had always known he was different. He was popular in school, had many girlfriends, and a family to come home to. But he had a secret: He fantasized about men. He didn’t understand that he was gay, so he felt guilty and wrong. Kamal grew up in Yemen, then moved to Beirut. He had no one to disclose his thoughts with, and knew from the start that he couldn’t. If he did, his whole life would be turned upside down. Eventually, Kamal left the Middle East for England to pursue English studies.

When I sat in on the lecture and listened to him speak from his own personal experiences in the Middle East, I felt a sense of worry for what I was about to discover. But Kamal’s main message was: “Expectations for the Arab Spring were unrealistic from the Western and Global world”.

The Arab Spring was a series of uprisings occurring throughout the Middle East back in 2010. There were revolutions, protests, and demonstrations, all fighting against oppressive regimes and structures. People had finally had enough; the Arab Spring was a sign of hope for the future. It led to the removal of rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The entire world watched as civil uprisings erupted across the Middle East.

One of the many demonstrations that took place during the Arab Spring. This photo was taken from a demonstration in Egypt.

As Kamal explained, many people in North America had hopes and aspirations for what was to come following the uprising. Human rights would change, women’s rights would be brought to the forefront, and oppressive regimes would collapse. Many of us who shared such ideas were wrong.  As Kamal puts it, the people of the western world were wishful thinkers and had the wrong expectations.

The mistake comes from the fact that three facets of Middle Eastern culture were ignored:
1) Family structures.
2) Gender roles and expectations assigned to women and men.
3) What is allowed to occur in public and private spaces.

Kamal pointed out that many people might think that religion in the Middle East forces social inequalities.  However, it is the above three pillars that make up Middle Eastern society that Kamal says influences gay rights. These divisions occur because of a culture that has existed for generations. Because gender norms are so vastly ascribed to that, it could be social suicide for people to challenge the norm.

During the lecture, I learned a few interesting things about the Middle East that highlighted why gender roles and their attached expectations are the main reason why gay rights are so contentious.  Masculinity is attached to strength and dominance, whereas femininity is attached to delicateness. Kamal explained that in the Middle East, sex is often used solely for procreation, and not recreation. Two men having sex is then seen as acting out in pleasure, something which is looked down upon. Furthermore, the saying holds that “the fucker is in no danger of being perceived as queer”. This is because the receiver during intercourse is associated to femininity. This is not very different to Western countries that ascribe to gender roles and then proceed to implicate the LGBTQ2S+ community based on these gender expectations.

Now, how does this tie in with the Arab Spring?

One of the most surprising things Kamal said was “The Arab Spring never really cared for gay rights”. According to him, the Gay Rights Movement is seen as a form of western colonialism within the Middle East. It’s seen to be like an imported franchise, when it actually just wanted to disrupt particular Middle Eastern issues. When the world watched as the Arab Spring unfolded, they watched through a pair of western glasses. The West thought issues that were important to their way of living would be similarly important in the Middle East. This was the West’s mistake.

Instead, Kamal pointed out that there are other ways to understand and promote Gay rights in the Middle East. Prior to the 19th century, Gay rights in the Middle East existed in fluidity, with no real lines between Gay, Straight and Bi. But, as Kamal explained, things changed over time as rulers shifted. With massive negative media attention on certain countries, many people focused on protecting their culture and fighting Westernization in the Arab World. I see it as a push and pull situation: as ideals are pushed onto Middle Eastern countries, they pull back in defense, a natural reflex, which intensifies and affects cultural norms. That’s when Kamal pointed out something known as Activism from the Closet. In countries where homosexuality is being cracked down upon by government and police, loud, in-your-face activism that is typical in North America will do more harm than good in the Middle East. Activism from the closet refers to natively developed strategies and supports for gay communities.


Kamal said being gay in the Middle East was like, “being in exile”. Many gay folk will leave their home for Westernized countries. But this leads to two issues:

1) Not everyone has the resources to leave. They might not have the money, or know any other languages
2) Leaving your home country to pursue emancipation doesn’t solve the issues of your native land.

That is why activism from the closet is so important.

What I absorbed most from this lecture was that my social location inclines me to view the Middle East through a Western lens.. When I think of a Gay Rights Movement in the Middle East, I’m thinking of a Westernized Gay Rights Movement. That’s why I’m not seeing any gay rights being implemented at all. The final question shouldn’t be is it possible, but rather, what does a Middle Eastern gay rights movement look like?  Kamal finished by stating that gay rights can exist anywhere, even in the Middle East. But they have to be developed indigenously, they can’t just be imported.

Find Kamal’s book here:

Quill & Quire literary Review of Intolerable:

Simone Olshansky is a third year social work student who loves learning about challenging and complex issues. In her program, she has taken a keen interest in public administration. She aspires to be a civil servant or educator one day. On her free time she reads fiction novels and takes care of her mind, body, and soul through self care. She loves to talk and explore the world.


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