The italicized names in this story are pseudonyms or nicknames, to protect those who requested anonymity.
The suffocatingly sweet scent of peach-flavored tobacco wafts through the Male Box, swirling around the disco lights that ricochet off mirrored walls. The smoldering aroma is rising from a series of hookah pipes perched on glitter-flecked tables a rather odd juxtaposition in a beer-and-shot gay bar that's located on a desolate stretch of Seven Mile Road in Detroit. It's Saturday night and the place is slowly filling up with men of a variety of ages and races but this isn't any ordinary evening. Tonight, the bar is playing host to Arabian Nights, a series of monthly events designed to validate and unite one of the most closeted communities in the area, and in the nation:
Gay and lesbian Arabs.
Arabian Nights is orchestrated by AL-GAMEA, a group formed in 2004 by three gay Arab men dedicated to creating a forum for support, socialization, education and awareness, in an area that's home to the largest and most visible Arab-American community in the country.
Christiano Ayoub Ramazzotti, 31, is a small man with big aspirations. The full-time HIV counselor and former high school gymnastics coach zips through the bar, hugging friends, shaking hands, making introductions.
Bashar Makhay, 21, mans the DJ booth; as cultures collide and mesh, so does the music traditional Arabic rhythms are layered over staccato electronic beats common in dance clubs.
Sebastian, 39, has just finished applying makeup to Haifa, an Arab female impersonator who'll be performing later tonight. Despite the darkened environ, Haifa sports rockstar shades on the tip of her nose. A sparkling rhinestone charm dangles and winks from her pierced navel as she works the room.
There's frolic and celebration in the air tonight, but the levity belies the challenges and difficult choices many of these people must face on a daily basis.
As immigrants, they must cope with melding two nationalities; as Arabs, they must deal with unbridled, post-9/11 racism in this country; and as gays, they must deal with jokes, harassment, discrimination, and sometimes, the threat of being attacked and beaten even by their own families.
Outing oneself as gay in this country can still lead to alienation of friends and family, pain, shame, humiliation and discrimination. But in the Middle East, where gender roles are extremely polarized, being gay can lead to imprisonment, flogging or death.
The 2004 Canadian TV documentary Gloriously Free chronicled the traumatic tale of one Middle Eastern man, the son of a powerful Jordan politician, who was thrown down a flight of stairs by his family when they discovered he was gay. As he recovered in the hospital, his younger brother shot him in the leg. The crime, considered "a family matter," was never prosecuted.
In November last year, the Associated Press reported a raid on a gay wedding in the United Arab Emirates, and that the two dozen men arrested faced a sentence of forced hormone treatments (the Interior Ministry later denied considering such a sentence after an international protest ensued). Just weeks ago, the UN confirmed that gay Iraqis are being targeted for kidnapping and murder by Shi'ite death squads in response to a death-to-gays fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
While the situation is less grim for Arab-Americans in this country, they still face personal, religious and familial hardships for their sexual orientation much like those tackled by the first wave of the gay rights movement in the '70s.
Eighteen-year-old Nick is originally from Syria. He's young, exuberant and impossibly pretty. His eyes are constantly roaming the Male Box, and he can't sit still for more than a moment.
Nick was kicked out of the house after informing his parents he was gay. With no stable job and nowhere to go, he had to lie to Mom and Dad assuring them his homosexuality was "a phase" in order to come back home. He even has a fake girlfriend now.
He says being openly gay is one of the "hardest things you can do as an Arab. It's extremely hard because of your culture, your parents. It's the biggest taboo. It's basically considered filth. Arabs don't understand that it's not a choice; they say, 'America made you that way.'"
"The Arabic community in Dearborn does not respect gay life," says Andy, 25, who was born in Lebanon and moved to the United States with his family when he was 5.
"They think you're a sick person, that you're not supposed to live. They think it's against God's rules.
"But God will always love me," he says. "I was born like this and it's nothing to be ashamed of."
These stories are far too common, and they're why Ramazzotti, Makhay and Sebastian decided to start AL-GAMEA (which means "the gathering"). The idea developed after a gay pride march in 2004, when the three men got together with friends to watch a documentary, I Exist, about gays and lesbians in the Middle East.
"We watched it and thought, 'we do exist' and we need something like that here," Sebastian says. "Let's create a group that will help us be social, a safe place for people who may not feel safe coming out in our culture and community."
They began networking with other organizations, and hosting the Arabian Nights dance parties at various gay clubs in metro Detroit. The Male Box party was their ninth event; it's also decidedly male.
"We don't have a lot of lesbians coming out to bars," Ramazzotti says. "I'm not sure why, but it's mostly men. Maybe it takes women longer to come out. I've never met a young Arab lesbian."
Sebastian suggests that perhaps Arab lesbians are more closeted than men, but doesn't know why. That's not to suggest they don't exist. Canadian Irshad Manji is an outspoken Muslim lesbian and author who's appeared on CNN, the BBC and FOX News; the Safra Project (safraproject.org) is a growing international support group of sorts for Muslim lesbian, bisexual and transgendered women; and ASWAT (aswat.org) is a support network for Palestinian gay women one of the group's goals is "to increase the presence of women's sexuality and lesbianism in the Arabic language and culture."
AL-GAMEA hopes to lure more men and women out of the closet. While they promote AIDS education (at each event they pass out HIV prevention literature printed in Arabic and distributed by ACCESS, although they're not officially affiliated with the group), their primary goal, for now, is social networking and increasing the visibility of gay Arabs.
"Our long-term goal is to be like a PFLAG-type group," Ramazzotti says, referring to the national organization called Parents Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays.
"Eventually we'd like to be a nonprofit with a board of directors, to be able to have more events and offer financial and medical assistance," Sebastian adds.
The group recently launched its own Web site, algamea.com, which includes forums and news bulletins. (Last week it was hacked, the content temporarily replaced with the words "I hope you fucking die.")
The site's recent unveiling was a critical step for the group like so many marginalized and secretive communities, gay Arabs found solace on the Internet, which allows them to interact, meet and converse while still retaining the crucial element of anonymity.
One of the most popular sites is gayarab.com, which was started by GLAS, the Gay and Lesbian Arabic Society. Its webmaster is Ramzi Zakharia, a GLAS founder who's originally from Beirut and now lives in New York City.
GLAS was founded in 1989, and its Web site (glas.org) began in the mid-'90s. While the site's main page is dedicated mostly to news articles, which are not necessarily on point with being either gay or Arab, there's a lighter side called "The Queer Arabs Blog: Rantings of Angry Sarcastic Bitchy Queer Arab Americans." (One post pointed out the eerie resemblance between New Zealand drag queen comic Dame Edna and female Syrian vice president Najah al-Attar.) There's also a personals section.
The site's traffic has died down in recent years, attributed in part, Zakharia says, to the development of more regional groups such as AL-GAMEA.
Zakharia adds that international news reports often draw huge attention to the plights of gay Arabs. In 2001, police raided a floating gay-friendly disco in Cairo ironically named the Queen Boat and arrested more than 50 men. Of those, 21 were sent to prison, convicted of "debauchery" and "sexual immorality." Many claimed they were beaten and tortured while awaiting trial. When the media tackled the story, the trial became international headline news.
"When you take a situation like [that one] in Egypt, there was almost an instant global network," Zakharia says. "We were the chic subject to be covered, and it put us on the map."
Levels of tolerance vary within the Middle East; Lebanon is known as its most liberal country, and has several gay bars. A thriving gay community reportedly exists in Tel Aviv. But Syria and Yemen are less tolerant. And Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have received much press lately for their stringent, sometimes brutal, crackdown on gay men.
"Now, people are arrested [for being gay] and there's almost instantly worldwide press," Zakharia continues.
"Some of these governments are being caught in a situation where they don't know what hit them. They were thinking 'nobody will give a shit if we arrest these queers' and suddenly they turn around and there's a global network of protest."
Bashar Makhay was born and raised in the Detroit area by his Chaldean Iraqi family. Motivated, social, good-looking, the 21-year-old attends Wayne State University and works as a sales rep for a mobile phone company (his ring-tone is a Blondie tune).
Coming out to his closely-knit family wasn't a decision Makhay made after careful consideration. He was outed a few years ago after someone approached his family and raised questions about his sexual orientation. When his mother confronted him, Makhay had to make a quick decision.
"Instead of lying, I just told her," he says. "But unfortunately she was very upset. She pretty much told me, 'If you're gay, leave your keys on the counter, get your stuff and I want you out by tomorrow morning.'"
Makhay went to his sister's house the next day. She was supportive, and acted as a sort of liaison between Makhay and his upset but worried mother.
"Basically, my mom didn't want me to leave the house. But she wanted me to live there as a straight person, and I couldn't do that."
As Makhay explains it, children in Chaldean families typically live with their parents until they're married, and the home dynamic is extremely important. When a child moves out at a young age, it causes disruption, worry ... and talk.
Makhay's sister thought of a compromise to at least keep up appearances, and suggested he move on campus. "That way if people wonder why I moved out, it's for my education," he says. "I'm Chaldean. We always worry about what people are going to say.
"My mom loves me but she also wants her pride," he continues. "When people are talking, that upsets her the most."
Makhay didn't talk with his mother for a few months. Though his sexuality isn't discussed in the family, he found tentative peace there. He says he relied on his brother and sister "and eventually it cooled down. To this day, my mom will go to my sister and ask, how is Bashar's 'situation'? She still thinks it's a phase. All I wanted was for my mom to accept me."
Makhay is unapologetically honest about his sexuality and finds it difficult to conceal. "When people ask me if I have a girlfriend, I'd rather just say I'm gay."
Nor does he think of himself as "aggressively out."
"Straight people don't walk up to me and say, 'Hey I'm straight!' So, I don't walk around and say, 'Hey, I'm gay.'"
Though his siblings have remained supportive, Makhay has seen friendships go south since his outing, particulary his closest friend who was homophobic.
"My best friend was my cousin. We hung out three, four times a week. Ever since I came out, my friendship with him has completely dwindled. I can't lie to myself and act straight around him."
It's a precarious balancing act.
Arabic community organizations often privately support gay Arab organizations, but are highly reticent to publicly express any ties.
Zakharia recalls his mid-'90s days, working in New York City with the ADC (American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee) as an intern trying to get GLAS off the ground.
"They were supportive of us, but their support wasn't terribly visible or vocal, because they were afraid to alienate their own supporters," Zakharia says. "But I totally understand where they're coming from. We know these guys are getting their checks from members that aren't necessarily that liberal or open-minded, so we understand why they wouldn't want to take such a position to alienate their members. It's not like we demand that you embrace us."
Mubarak Dahir is a journalist who's covered the gay Arab community for numerous publications, including The Advocate, and is editor of two gay publications from his home base of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He became friends with Zakharia in the early days of GLAS, and says AL-GAMEA marks a significant milestone for both Detroit and the Arab-American gay community in general.
"I know for years [GLAS] tried to get a chapter in Detroit but it was always hard there. In New York, people had left their homes to go to a big city so they could be anonymous and have more freedom. In a place like Detroit, most of the Arabs there, their families are right around the corner, and sometimes they're still in the same house. So they don't have the liberty of anonymity.
"Most gay and lesbian Arabs who come here, come here to be gay, because they can't have that in their home country," Dahir continues. "Especially for men they can have discreet sex, but they're required to get married and have children. So they come here to have the gay lifestyle."
One such person is 26-year-old Ahmad, who asks that his last name not be used for this story. Born in the Detroit area, he grew up in Lebanon and came back to the United States four years ago, mainly to pursue a degree in computer networking. He also wanted to live in a country where his lifestyle was more accepted and to actually develop a meaningful, committed relationship.
"Back in Lebanon, you could have sex partners, but not really a boyfriend," Ahmad says. "It's really hard to not have the intimate part, because you couldn't live together like you can here."
Ahmad and his current partner have been together for two and a half years. He adds that he's been exceedingly happy since returning to this country. But it's doubtful that his parents will ever meet the person he's in love with. He has no intention of coming out to them.
"My parents are more traditional, so I'm afraid I would lose them," he says. "I hope the Middle Eastern world will come to realize that being gay is not a choice."
Craig Covey is an openly gay Ferndale city councilmember and director of MAPP, the Midwest Aids Prevention Project. He's assisted AL-GAMEA on the first few Arabian Nights, and continues to offer his support and advice. As a veteran activist, he says the struggles facing gay Arabs are similar to the problems he faced as a white gay man 20 years ago.
But, he adds, "the problems, while similar, are more intense. It's probably easier for a WASP to come out. In some Arabic countries homosexuality is a capital crime and it's not unheard of for homosexuals to be executed and that's a little more intense than having someone call you a fag."
Dahir says the situation changed irrevocably for gay Arab Americans after 9/11, even in the traditionally permissive and accepting gay community.
"The dynamics for gay and lesbian Arabs shifted to a totally new paradigm," he says. "They weren't welcome in the Arabic community as gay people, or in the gay community as Arabs. Friends I know would always go to the bars and adopt Americanized nicknames; they wouldn't want to say they're from Arab country because they were afraid of discrimination from within the gay and lesbian community."
In light of post-9/11 discrimination, gay Arabs will sometimes decide it's more important to retain their sense of identity as an Arab-American than it is to come out of the closet because they simply can't have both.
"Typically someone will need to have a connection to the Arab community," Dahir says. "It's their language, their culture, their religion, their food. You don't want to give all that up. But they're not out in the Arabic community, because they're afraid if they're out they won't be able to be a part of it. And then they're not out as Arabs in the gay community, so there's this weird double closet."
And Dahir doesn't believe that's going to change.
"It will continue to be complicated by the political atmosphere for Arabs in America," he says. "If you don't feel safe in the general population for being Arab, then there's no way you're going to risk that safe space in your Arabic community by coming out. Being gay is going to take a back seat to being Arab, and until the political arena changes, it's going to stay that way."
But the founders of AL-GAMEA hope that heightened visibility and networking will ease that sense of double loss and abandonment. It's worked for Andy.
"I've made lots of Arabic friends through this group," Andy says. "My life has changed. I'm more self-confident being gay I'm not scared anymore."
"Our biggest thing is we want people to come out to themselves," Makhay says. "We have a lot of people on the down-low in our community, and we're trying to promote that being gay isn't something you have to hide, it's who you are and you should be proud."
And Makhay isn't using metaphors when he talks of giving people somewhere to go.
"I myself have taken people in because their parents kicked them out. People called me and said, 'My parents locked me out of the house.' And then they come and sleep on my couch for a day or a week, and then go along their way."
Though AL-GAMEA's goals are years, if not decades, away from full realization, there's been gradual positive development. And Zakharia is pleased with the movement's progression.
"In the past decade I've seen much, much more than I've anticipated," Zakharia says. "I would have never dreamed that in 10 years we'd have an official organization in an Arabic capital, or a magazine in Arabic. To see virtual groups setting up online, and religious groups for gay Muslims I probably never would have thought that would see the day. There are still a lot of situations where we're witnessing violence and backlash, but that's part of the turf."
A little bit of that progress is evident on this balmy night at the Male Box. Around midnight, things are hopping, as several dozen Arabic men are milling about in a crowd of about 100 or so. Craig Covey is in a corner, dressed sharply in a black blazer and Converse sneakers. He talks of the inner discovery and self-realization that happens when gay members of minority groups can finally celebrate their sexuality.
"I've seen so many communities black, Latino go through this, and for me it's a delight to watch. During the very first event two years ago, it was the neatest thing," Covey says. "For a lot of them, it was their first time ever going to a public place where there were openly gay men. A lot of them were crying."
Haifa takes the stage, adorned in strategically ripped jeans, a half shirt and blinking stripper heels. As she shimmies to traditional Arabic music peppered with a techno beat, Ramazzotti approaches the stage, laughing as he rises on tip-toes to stuff a bill in her faux cleavage.
As the music kicks up a notch, a dozen or so people suddenly converge on the dance floor, joining hands and dancing in a circle, much like traditional Arabic celebrations. A couple of white boys in sagging jeans and blond girls in filmy tops get caught up in the circle with the young Arabs; everyone is boisterously jumping along, heads thrown back in laughter, faces beaming.
No one is crying tonight.Sarah Klein is the culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org