Nadi, an androgynous-looking Lebanese friend, was walking in a German underground station when he crossed the path of a Middle Eastern man and his German girlfriend. As the man winked to Nadi and blew him a kiss, the woman stuttered in shock: "But ... but it's a man!" For most people in wealthy, industrialised and over-rationalised societies, "gay" and "straight" are two separate worlds. A person can be either one or the other, or else they would have to fit the "bisexual" category. Bisexuality is often misunderstood by both gay and straight people and discussions abound about "real" and "fake" bisexuals.
As for the "T" in "LBGT", it represents transgendered persons, still too often associated with psychiatry. A "Q" has recently been tagged on the end of "LGBT", pertaining to the sophisticated "queer" concept elaborated by high-priests of American academia. The need to create boxes seems limitless.
Many forget that these appellations date back to the 1960s at the most and that other, more "traditional" forms of same-sex relationships pre-dated the "gay liberation" movement. In many cultures, for instance – and despite various taboos – having sex with someone of the same gender had often been seen as a light-hearted, inconsequential rite of passage for almost every teenager. There was also the central figure of the "sissy" or "fairy", whose worlds were beautifully described in George Chauncey's Gay New York. Many, such as Quentin Crisp, revelled in this role.
With the advent of compulsive sex consumerism dominated by heterosexual imagery – and decried by such intellectuals as Pier Paolo Pasolini – rites of passage became redundant. As for "fairies", the burgeoning gay movement decreed that they were a symbol of oppression and humiliation, that men who behaved like women only did so because they were coerced into it. With this faux-macho attitude that is still prevalent today, some gay advocates had more in common with their archenemies than they originally thought.
New categories and identities emerged. To fit the norm now meant to exclusively have sex with the opposite biological gender. On the other hand, if one was gay, one had to subscribe to a newly-crafted sphere, with its dress codes, its own institutions and dogmas, conformists and dissidents, its haves – beneficiaries of the "pink pound" – and its have-nots.
In reaction to this rise in power and visibility of the new gay scene, many heterosexual men felt threatened in their imagined masculinity. Some took refuge in anxious and desperate forms of virility, such as hooliganism, where insults and physical attacks on gays are ritualised. One response to a newly-organised more separate gay world was increasingly radicalised homophobia. Simultaneously, international gay rights organisations started pointing fingers at countries in the economic south and the Middle East, accusing them of being backward and homophobic while often ignoring their local homoerotic traditions and trying to impose ready-made gay rights concepts on them.
Western visitors to southern or Middle-Eastern countries are often perplexed, not only by open homosocial affection but also by the presence of a thriving homosexual "underworld". For if two men holding hands in public does not necessarily mean that they are romantically tied, it certainly opens the doors of possibility. In Pakistan, a popular drag queen hosts a TV show tackling serious current issues. Asked by a stunned French reporter whether she was advocating LGBTQ rights, she replied: "Darling, these categories do not apply in my culture." As much as it is hard to imagine a cross-dresser hosting a political show in France, it is easy to notice that for the reporter, visibility equals political statement. Categories are indeed different.
Since times immemorial, when assinnus served in temples of Ishtar, "ambivalent" men have been an integral part of social, religious and economic life in the Middle East. To this day, many of these "third sex" members can be seen in everyday Middle-Eastern life. Beyond "ladyboys", a certain form of bisexuality at large is considered as an essential component of human sexuality in many Middle-Eastern countries. Being exclusively "straight" or "gay" are exceptions. This "bisexuality" follows certain codes: between two men, one partner is necessarily "active" and the other "passive". However, this apparent rigidity, a handy concession to society, often hides an unsuspected flexibility in the private realm. Boundaries between what people in western societies would call "LG", "B" or "T" become quite thin and all labels tend to disappear.
This openness is often mirrored in public places. In the suburbs of Beirut lies a karaoke club connected to a football field which, along with the footballers, attracts many highly flamboyant men. Miming to the latest Arab divas' songs, these modern assinnus are immensely popular among the crowd of both men and women.
Some "analysts" put down this sexual flexibility in the Middle East to a supposed "unavailability" of women. Not only does this stem from prejudice, but it is also easily discarded by all the non-Muslim countries with similar attitudes. The simple fact is that all these cultures have remained true to their innermost inclinations, to principles of their original nature-religions – what some call "paganism" – despite all the efforts of religious institutions to impose their taboos and despite the endeavours of colonialists to "civilise" them by instating anti-homosexuality laws.
The aim here is not to portray a "corrupt" western society versus a "pure" one in the south and east. This "purity" illusion has long ago been shattered by anthropologists. As much as there is no black or white in matters of human sexuality, there is none in gay rights. The aim should be to abandon the west-versus-the-rest monologue where one side dictates to the other and engage instead in a real dialogue which embraces this unfathomable cultural diversity in the face of an ongoing "McDonaldisation" of sexual identities and practices.