Sexting Like a State
Two important new books on sexual difference, sectarianism, and the Lebanese state
Maya Mikdashi, Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism, and the State In Lebanon (Stanford University Press, 2022)
John Nagle and Tamirace Fakhoury, Resisting Sectarianism: Queer Activism in Postwar Lebanon (Bloomsbury, 2021)
Photo: Beirut Pride (@beirutpride on Instagram)
Global Pride Month this year makes for a grim time to take stock of the struggles of LBGTQ activism. In the United States, trans rights are under unprecedented assault by right wing forces which have cynically seized upon the issue across the country to push through horrifying bans on medical care, psychological support, and education for transgender children (follow Parker Molloy’s newsletter for regular, impassioned reporting on the topic). In the Middle East, it’s just as grim. Armed groups in Iraq have been targeting LBGTQ individuals with impunity, as painfully documented by a recent Human Rights Watch report. Police forces across the region continue to use digital surveillance - checking phones for apps like Grindr, photos, or revealing contact lists - to identify and punish LBGTQ activities (follow Rasha Younes of Human Rights Watch for more on this practice).
In Lebanon, some (but not all) of the victorious “change” candidates who won Parliamentary seats in this year’s election are now pushing to decriminalize homosexuality by repealing the notorious article 534 of the penal code — a demand of queer activists and LBGTQ civil society organizations for decades. Lebanon has never been as LBGTQ-friendly as portrayed in some Western media (trans women face particularly harsh discrimination, denial of medical care, and state and societal violence, which the current wave of right wing US politicians seem keen to imitate). As is so often the case, increased LBGTQ visibility has at times triggered a backlash, with the community presented as a security threat by hostile state and societal actors and confronted by the very real homophobia rampant across much of society and the media. Lebanon has a rich and fascinating history of LBGTQ activism, though, with a wide and diverse range of thinkers and activists seeking new political formations while navigating a hostile and dangerous environment. Two important new books allow us to learn from their experiences and struggles.
Let’s start with John Nagle and Tamirace Fakhoury’s Resisting Sectarianism, which focuses on LBGTQ activism over a period of decades. In line with LBGTQ activism globally, Lebanese activists have challenged the restrictions on visibility, argued over respectibility politics, and sought ways to form intersectional political alliances. But they have also focused on the very specific challenges of their local context, including the criminalization of homosexuality and historically specific conceptions of sexual identity. LBGTQ activists have done so at great personal risk, from conservative societies, from a repressive state which criminalizes their very identities (such as by article 534) and where armed groups can target them with impunity. Those risks are especially intense for transgendered woman, and for those who lack class status, wealth, social capital, or even citizenship.
Nagle and Fakhoury’s detailed narrative of LBGTQ activism traces its multiple origins in all its contradictions, from the lifestyle activism of upper class Beirutis to the creation of service NGOs offering medical care and counseling to brutalized poor populations. Generously quoting the many brilliant activists and academics involved in these campaigns and communities, their narrative begins with the creation of Helem, believed to be the first LBGTQ organization in Lebanon or the Arab World, in the late 1990s, and a successful activism campaign against a proposed 2002 revision of the penal code to criminalize ‘unnatural sexual relations.’ But those activists found a hostile reception from both camps in the 2005 Cedar Revolution. In subsequent years, efforts at LBGTQ activism struggled both with homophobic rejection of their participation in protest events and with the very real dangers of physical violence and legal repression. They follow the story all the way through the 2019 popular uprisings, highlighting the “double-edged sword” of activists who wanted to visibly support the revolution but often faced skepticism from within their own protest camps and risked being weaponized by the state and the sectarian system as a cudgel to undermine the revolution in the eyes of conservative society.
Nagle and Fakhoury especially highlight class divides in the LBGTQ experience in Lebanon. Upper and middle class gay men, they argue, are able to “carve out a degree of protected space in their private lives.” The genteel gay bars and sexually open nightclubs that many Westerners have enjoyed visiting in a sense represent a class-based carve-out from the legal and social regime governing sexual behavior. It is, in their words, “the queer unwanted, individuals from the working class, trans or refugee backgrounds who are typically arrested, detained and tortured by the security forces.” Those class differences cut across sectarianism, informing different models of activism and public engagement.
The book’s detailed narrative of the various strands of LBGTQ activism will reward readers keen to understand the political thought, social relations, and broader context of those movements. Here, I would like to shift attention to a different set of questions which the book raises. Why, given the overwhelming societal, political, physical and legal obstacles faced by Lebanese LBGTQ communities, do Nagle and Fakhoury then title their book Resisting Sectarianism rather than something more specific to the LBGTQ experience?
That’s where Maya Mikdashi’s brilliant new book Sextarianism comes in. Her legal and institutional analysis shows that LBGTQ Lebanese face more than a repressive state: they have had to theorize and to confront a particular institutional configuration, though: a state organized along sectarian lines in which personal status laws - defined in terms of the heterosexual reproductive family - is the only category of recognizable existence. Lebanon’s sectarian state was from its conception rooted in a highly gendered personal status law which relied on religious sects to govern inheritance, family status, and even citizenship.
Lebanon’s personal status system looks far more like Israel’s than like any other Muslim-majority state, she notes, with every individual citizen required to navigate a religious establishment over issues such as marriage and divorce. The different inheritance laws and requirements for divorce across these different sects incentivized strategic conversion as a bureaucratic processm not one of faith or conviction. For instance, a family may convert to Shi’ism in order to ensure their daughters receive their inheritance, or a woman to Christianity to secure a divorce. That ease of conversion for inheritance purposes compares rather graphically with the impossibility of transgender conversion. And none of the sects will recognize same-sex marriage, much less facilitate inheritance rights through such a non-heterosexual coupling. The implications of her analysis are clear: the system she so sharply dissects, as Nagle and Fakhoury put it, “does everything in its power to ensure the state’s LBGTQ population experiences their lack of rights and representation at all registers of state and society.”
The LBGTQ population only comes into full view towards the end of Mikdashi’s book, after she has well established the terrain of Lebanon’s ‘sextarian’ state. Chapter four focuses briefly on ‘evangelical secularism’, where the Laique Pride march organized mostly by queer activists struggled to disassociate the event from queer politics and personalities. But it is chapter five most directly centers LBGTQ experiences of state violence, such as hymen tests for women suspected of extramarital sexual activity and anal examinations for men suspected of homosexual activity. She emphasizes here the securitization of sexual difference, with state violence used not only to police homosexuality but also to crack down on refugees and the poor. Mikdashki persuasively draws the connections between the state’s enforcement of “public order” and “public morality”, establishing the always present context for the state’s criminalization or decriminalization of homosexuality and its uneven enforcement. “Queer and straight sexualities are not separate spheres of regulation,” Mikdashi argues. “Instead, they are constituted and regulated in relation to each other.”
Mikdashi’s careful reconstruction of the intersection between personal status, sectarianism and gender offers a quite different vantage point on the nature of Lebanon’s state. She delivers on her conclusion that “we have much to learn about state power and sovereignty from thinking about the regulation of sexuality and gender holistically.” The two books collectively offer a different way of thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of Lebanon’s state. It may outsource all personal status regulation to the religious sects, but as Mikdashi demonstrates, it maintains detailed central records of the status of every single citizen in its national archives. The pervasive bureaucratic presence of the state in its placing of every citizen within a specific sectarian place defined by birth, gender, and legal status sits uneasily with the popular image of Lebanon’s state as weak, absent or incompetent. And, where it may lack a monopoly on the means of vioence, as her final chapter details it very much exercises violence against sexual difference, with “hymen and anal exams… perform[ing] a truth of state power.” As Nagle and Fakhoury also observe, Lebanon’s state may be seen from the outside as crumbling to the point of nonexistence, but it always seemed to have the means to pursue and repress LBGTQ citizens. State weakness or absence is filled up by the strong sectarian informal institutions which govern everyday life, their writ often enforced by non-state armed militias.
The two books, when read together, offer new insights on the themes of legibility and visibility, concepts central to certain theories of state capacity which I’m currently engaged in my own research. The paradoxes abound. Even as every citizen’s personal status is carefully recorded in the central archive and encoded on national documents, there is no place for those who do not fall into the categories defined by heterosexual marriage and reproduction. How can queer Lebanese be rendered legible to a state in which all personal status is regulated through religious communities and defined by heterosexual marriage and reproduction? Queer Lebanese are not visible as such to the state, which can only see through the categories of heterosexual marriage for everything from citizenship to inheritance. That’s a challenge in its own right.
At the same time, LBGTQ Lebanese are all too visible to repressive state security agencies and armed societal actors determined to punish and control their perceived transgressions. Nagle and Fakhoury, as noted above, emphasize the very different class experiences of the repressive arm of the state. But public demonstrations such as the Beirut Pride marches, or openly LBGTQ coded participation in broader political protests such as the 2019 protests, force a visibility which could be dangerous even to those whose class identities had allowed them some zone of safety. Visibility, one of the key aspirations of Pride, comes with real physical and legal dangers in a country where article 534 continues to criminalize LBGTQ sexual behavior and armed societal actors take it upon themselves to police sexual difference in their communities.
Resisting Secularism and Sextarianism are very different books in style, substance, and theoretical ambition. I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Nagle and Fakhoury engage with the structuring effects of the sectarian state, but are more interested in the societal activism which emerges within its confines. Mikdashi goes deeply into those structuring effects, recoding the core functions and institutions of the Lebanese state as fundamentally about the policing of sexual difference through the models of sectarianism. Each offers richly detailed empirical depictions and theoretical digressions which will reward multiple, careful readings. Reading them against and through each other really brings out the unique contributions of each — and may change the way you think about the urgency of theorizing the state, sectarianism and activism alike through the lens of sexuality and gender.
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