Ryerson professor Kamal Al-Solaylee speaks on gay rights in the Arab world


Staff Reporter

Kamal Al-Solaylee author
Journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee. Photo by Peter Bregg.

The warning was ominous.

“Egypt is arresting LGBT people, and police may be posing as LGBT on social media to entrap you. Please be careful about arranging meetings with people you don’t know, and be careful about posting anything that might reveal your identity.”

The alert, which appeared last September in a widely circulated photo from Grindr, the networking app for gay men, illustrates the extent of Egypt’s increased crackdown on members of the LGBT community, says Ryerson journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee.

“Sadly, this is where we are at,” he told about 100 people attending his Oct. 1 presentation entitled “Is a Gay Rights Movement Possible in the Arab World?” “Technology that’s helping the LGBT community get together and strike an activist note is the same technology being used by the state to suppress it.”

Al-Solaylee is no stranger to gay rights. During his formative years in Yemen, Beirut and Cairo, he discovered he was gay. When he moved to Toronto from England in 1996, he started writing for the gay news magazine Xtra. His 2012 book, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, which detailed his struggles with being gay in a society that did not condone it, was released to critical acclaim and won the 2013 Toronto Book Award.

In his 90-minute presentation, which was part of Ryerson’s International Issues Discussion Series, Al-Solaylee touched on the different views of homosexuality, the current political climate and Western-influenced gay rights movements in the largely Islamic Middle East.

Al-Solaylee said there is a widely held view that the intolerance to homosexuality in the region is a direct result of religious beliefs. He noted, however, that there are actually few references to homosexuality in the Qur’an – the only direct reference is from the story of the prophet Lot and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. The main Islamic argument against homosexuality is in the Hadith, a collection of teachings by the prophet Muhammad, which contains verses forbidding men to lie with other men.

In many Arab countries, homosexual activity is either illegal, or punishable by public lashings, stoning or the death penalty. The one exception is Israel.

“Once homosexuality is public, it crosses a line, and what that line is has always been a blurred one,” Al-Solaylee told the audience. “You have to keep up a façade of nobility, honour and conformity. That culture in general does not place much emphasis on individuality, which explains why there is particular resistance to gay rights as an organized movement. It moves sexuality to a public space.”

For Al-Solaylee, the Arab Spring held the possibility of changing that worldview. He watched the uprisings begin, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and said he was excited about the prospect of eradicating what he describes as “decades of oppression.”

“I thought the grounds for a gay movement were being prepared. I thought, ‘If not now, then when?’ This is the moment where there could be some changes related specifically to gay rights.”

But he admitted those initial expectations of the Arab Spring in both the Western media and the local populations were “unrealistic.”

On the other hand, he argued, gay rights movements are slowly becoming more and more prominent in some countries, such as Beirut. Al-Solaylee also pointed to the growing number of Arab men in other parts of the world, such as Canada, the United States and United Kingdom, who speak publicly about the need for change. These voices provide a lifeline of moral support to closeted men in Arab countries, he said.

“What can we do? I encourage people to put pressure on our government to include gay rights in the mix with other rights issues in diplomatic relations,” Al-Solaylee said.