The first cross-cultural studies

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The re-definition of the word homosexuality as a social construct rather than pathology by social constructionists such as John D'Emilio and Michel Foucault has allowed for its introduction into the domain of anthropology (Norton 2002). The first cross-cultural studies conducted on homosexuality by anthropologists that started in the 1970s were mainly concerned with how homosexuality differs across space and time. Findings have shown that there are no universal patterns of human sexual behavior but multiple ones. So when one refers to homosexuality one has to take into consideration the existence of different homosexualities, each having a certain set of meanings attached to it. "Although biological and psychological factors help explain variations of sexual behavior between individuals within a given society, intercultural variations in patterns of human sexual behavior are mainly related to social and cultural differences occurring between societies around the world" (Carrier 1980:100). In some societies, engaging in same sex relations is institutionalized, masculinizing or a rite of passage to adulthood. In other societies, such as Arab societies, homosexuality is considered a 'taboo'.

"Homosexuality is a subject that Arabs, even reform-minded Arabs are generally reluctant to discuss. If mentioned at all, it's treated as a subject for ribald laughter or (more often) as a foul, unnatural, repulsive, un-Islamic, Western perversion" (Whitaker 2006:9). The uninterrupted silence surrounding homosexuality finds its roots in the scarcity of scholarly material and research on same sex relations in the Middle East. The only sources available that are accessible to the public are religious books and psychiatric theories on homosexuality's causes and cures that confirm pre-existing stereotypes and the perception that homosexuals are sinners and/or mentally ill.

The reticence on the part of Arab sociologists to write about sexuality in general and homosexuality in specific is mainly related, I believe, to both personal and political factors. On the personal level, researchers are usually subjected to the moral codes of their culture either by adopting them and, consciously or subconsciously, working on conserving them or by simply abiding to the dictation of these codes in order to avoid any clash with the guardians of morals in the academic sphere. On the political level, the Egyptian government imposes censorship on the publication of research's findings, with the stated purpose of preserving public order and morality. A law regarding social research that was formulated after the 1952 revolution requires researchers to obtain permission from the Center for Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) before undertaking any research. Without any doubt, these restrictions on the research topic, fieldwork, data collection and questionnaires by the Egyptian government along with the fear of a social backlash have had an impact on the sociologists' inability to tackle such a controversial topic as homosexuality.

In contrast, Western researchers seem immune to these kinds of challenges that their Arab counterparts face but interestingly, that has not always been the case. In fact, homosexuals have long been referred to as perverse and deviant in Western history, especially prior to the nineteenth century. Only in the 1950s and 1960s had liberation movements succeeded in leading homosexuality to begin to acquire a more positive connotation. Homosexuals were no longer defined as abnormal persons but rather as persons having a different sexual orientation or preference than the majority. Along with this new meaning attributed to the word homosexuality and social acceptance of the practice, there started to be a more frequent use of gay-happy, carefree, rather than homosexual to refer to people engaging in same sex relations. Being gay also means having a separate identity, behavior and lifestyle than the majority of people in society.

In Egypt, as in many other Arab countries, there has never been a positive label or name to describe men or women engaging in same sex relations till the beginning of the 21st century. That century witnessed the sudden rapid development of a relatively prominent Arab subculture of male homosexuality expressed in the blogosphere and the arts scene which led to the emergence and appropriation of the western word "gay" by many Arab homosexual men whereas, Arab female homosexuality remained a social enigma that still lacks a voice and a clear image. No wonder, since in a male dominated society where men have always flaunted their sexual activity as a sign of their virility and dominance, female sexuality is still heavily guarded by the institutions of chastity and taboo.

The relative prominence of the Arab gays and the double marginalization of Arab lesbians might have influenced my conscious decision to exclude female homosexuality from my research not only due the difficulty of data collection but also as a result of my personal realization of the dangers that Arab male homosexuals are facing nowadays. Furthermore, it is strongly believed that the life of a male homosexual in this part of the world is in constant serious threat compared to his female counterpart. This claim is backed by the fact that men have always dominated the outer public sphere and women were confined to the inner private sphere for centuries. Female homosexuality has been always hidden, usually been ignored and to a lesser degree was tolerated when compared to heterosexual pre-marital affairs.

It is in this context that the identification as gay by Egyptian men engaging in same sex relations and their increased visibility in the public sphere has worked against them and resulted in a series of arrests. The recent governmental aggressions have broaden the spectrum of the issue from a matter of sexual freedom and tolerance to a matter of basic human rights related to illegal incarceration, aggressive torture and unconstitutional prosecutions. The crackdowns on homosexuals not only in Egypt but also in other Arab countries, in which sexual diversity is not considered as an option, have triggered the attention of many international organizations defending human rights and gay rights.

Joseph Massad (2007) finds the source of such visibility outside of the region: "With the rise of the women's movement and the discourse of sexual liberation across Western countries in the late 1960s and especially in the 1970s,the attention of many Westerners came to bearon the sexual question as such, and not only in the West but also and increasingly outside it" (160). Founded in 1978, the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), along with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and a total of 117 other organizations defending Health and Human Rights from 41 different countries, have all failed in their attempt to normalize and legalize gay rights in the Middle East. Homosexuals living in this part of the world are still subjected to harassments, imprisonment and death penalties.

No law forbids same sex relations in Egypt. Nevertheless, hundreds of homosexuals have spent days, months and even years in jail. Debauchery and prostitution laws are being used by the Egyptian legislative system to punish male homosexuals which is a violation of the human rights' law that gives the freedom of choice of one's sexual orientation. Explanations for the aggressive campaign launched by the government against homosexuals vary according to whether they are presented by national or international media. The Egyptian media claim that the crackdown on male homosexuals is necessary in order to preserve cultural authenticity and public morality. In contrast, international media blame the authoritarian regime, Islamists and the socio-economic problems facing the country as factors explaining these repressions. However, it is important to highlight that the calculated waves of aggression against homosexuals occurred during periods of political unrest to distract the masses or to please, recruit and polarize the conservative majority in order to adopt an upcoming governmental agenda.

In an attempt to understand the current discourse on homosexuality in Egypt, this thesis explores the process of categorization of sexual behavior in Western and Arab societies. I argue that, during the last century, while in the West the categorization of homosexuality has been a subject of gradual shift from criminalization to eventual legalization, the Arab societies have witnessed a counter process in which homosexuality, that was one day fluid [however never legally tolerated] is no longer accepted and increasingly criminalized by the state's public morality narrative and punitive actions. Such criminalization has had a decided effect on individuals who claim to be gay in Egypt. According to both, the literature review and my fieldwork, I demonstrate that the categorization of sexual behavior that has occurred in the West did not occur in Arab societies. This explains why Egyptian homosexuals have been unable to build visible communities and identities based on their sexual orientation. They have not been part of a political struggle like their Western counterparts; however, they have begun to identify themselves as "gay".

My argument is that the development and maintenance of "gay" identity by male homosexuals in Egypt is due to multiple factors among which the most important are: 1) the non existence of a positive social definition of homosexuality and thus the absence of a homosexual role model that homosexuals in Egypt can refer to, 2) the impact of globalization-internet, 3) the interaction of Egyptian gays with other men identifying as "gay", 4) and finally, both, the political and social repressions male homosexuals in Egypt are subjected to.

Research objectives

One objective in this research is to break the taboo of academic discussion surrounding the words "homosexuality" and "gayness" and all of the cultural and religious restrictions imposed on them in Egypt. In doing so, it is necessary to understand the histories of homosexualities-Western and Middle Eastern. Only after taking account of these different histories can we understand why homosexuals are still repressed in the Middle East today. My aim is to move beyond the typical religious and psychological points of view on homosexuality, and instead address this swept-under-the-carpet topic from the perspectives of political sociology and anthropology.

My second objective in undertaking this research on male homosexuality in Egypt is to demonstrate that repression can sometimes help construct, rather than eliminate gay identity formation. The more repressive the state's political, social and cultural institutions will be, the more homosexuals in Egypt will develop, adopt and maintain gay identities as the only option and alternative provided to men engaging in same sex relations living in this part of the world. As a result, I demonstrate how repression has created a unique type of gay identity with its own set of characteristics and meanings that are unlike those of 'western gays'.

My last objective is to transmit the voices of homosexuals in Egypt through messages they are sending to the straight world and other gays. Where dialogue is the best form of communication for understanding the "other", whether religious, tribal and sexual minorities, it is of the utmost importance to listen to and to respond to the messages of homosexuals in Egypt. Through such dialogue, it is hoped, that a formula for tolerance will begin to develop in Egypt that will open the doors for further research on homosexuality.

This research attempts to answer the following set of questions:

  1. What have been the pre-requisites of gay liberation movements in the West? What are the factors that have prevented Egyptian homosexuals who identify themselves as "gays" from gaining their right of being publicly and visibly present in society like their Western counterparts?
  2. How and why have Egyptian homosexuals developed a "gay" identity within the repressive environment of Egypt? How is this gay identity acquired, expressed, disseminated and reproduced? Do homosexuals in Egypt want to "come out" or would they rather stay "in the closet"? How do they perceive themselves, other Egyptian homosexuals and the heterosexual world around them?
Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework chosen for this study is primarily based on social constructionism, and in particular to Foucault's "repressive hypothesis". Historically, various influential philosophies, religions and societies were threatened, intimidated or disgusted by the body. From Plato and the ancient Greeks to Buddha, from the early Jews and the dawn of monotheism to the formation of the Christian churches and from the early tribal sacrifices to the promulgation of Islamic law, there has always been a universal belief that "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" and a constant urge for spiritual transcendentalism. With the supremacy of monotheistic religions, nominally Christianity and Islam, with their wide geographical empires, varieties and degrees of inhibitions have been dictated on the collective mind perception of the body and its sexuality. Control of the flesh was conducted by the various institutions of the family, class, religion and state through the strict network of norms, traditions and laws. Sexuality was regulated with various mechanisms related to the dogma that rules every region.

In Catholic Europe both silence and repression have been imposed on sex as it was considered 'dirty', 'shameful' and 'sinful'. As the tradition of confession was inscribed in the Latin Christianity with Saint Augustine, sexuality had to be confessed to preachers in the 17th century and later on to psychoanalysts in the 20th century. These confessions have helped in creating a discourse on sexuality. Instead of causing some "deviant" sexual orientations such as homosexuality to vanish, such discourses have further encouraged the recognition of the homosexual as a personage with specific characteristics. It is repression that has led to the creation of sexual identities and other types of sexualities in modern times.

State control of the human body & categorization of sexual behavior

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault's main argument is that the industrial revolution and the development of industrial capitalism in nineteenth century Europe required the state to find new strategies to gain more control over the bodies of individuals to organize and regulate the work force. The reinforcement of state power was done through social institutions. These institutions' main objective was to dictate a certain code of conduct and norms and to make individuals internalize this code. To ensure that people follow the norms, respect the laws thus maintain a disciplinary society, a perpetual system of surveillance was installed in each and every institution.

Foucault argues that the creation of the prison resulted in a more humane way to punish individuals. In fact, less pain inflicted on the body and more on the soul of the prisoner helped in the formation of the docile body. The 19th century marks the social evolution of the panopticon, an expression of state power over the body of the prisoner that was evident in numerous social institutions:

It serves to reform prisoners but also to treat patients, to instruct school children, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work. It is a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of individuals in relation to one another, of hierarchical organization, of disposition of centers and channels of power, of definition of the instruments and modes of intervention of power, which can be implemented in hospitals, workshops, schools, prison. Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behavior must be imposed the panopticon may be used. (Foucault 1995:205).

The panopticon operated not only in public arena but also in the private lives of the citizens. In fact, in order to manage populations and ensure their productivity and social stability, Western governments began to control and regulate sexuality. The new emerging state modern systems implied a new perception of the individual, the self and the body which was equally related to the constructed image of the ideal citizen in the emerging new both nation/state people and productivity had to be defined and categorized. The regulation of sex was done through the categorization of people's sexual behavior. "Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration: The homosexual was now a species" (Foucault 1995: 43). Homosexual intercourse has always existed and had always been practiced. When governments decided to categorize sexuality, however, such activity came to indicate a "kind" of human: "the sodomite".

The medicalization of the peculiar and greater governmental intrusion into the private lives of the citizens were an objective reality in nineteenth century Europe. Laws on sodomy were formulated by religious and judicial institutions; other sins were debauchery, (extramarital relations) and adultery; rape, spiritual or carnal incest, but also sodomy and the mutual caress. As to the courts, they would condemn homosexuality, as well as infidelity, marriage without parental consent or bestiality.

"Up to the end of the eighteen century, three major explicit codes - apart from the customary regularities and constraints of opinion - governed sexual practices: canonical law, the Christian pastoral and civil law. They determined each in its own way, the division between the licit and the illicit" (Foucault 1995:37). During the 19th century, marriage and regulation of sex between husbands and wives was encouraged and reinforced by the state. Heterosexuality became the norm, and any other sexual orientation was condemned by the law.

Homosexuality as a social stigma

Minority groups that did not conform to 19th century norms were stigmatized. These groups were socially selected and constructed and were linked to stereotypical beliefs. Among these minority groups were male and female homosexuals. In this light, the male homosexual was labeled as effeminate. According to Goffman (1963), deviance from social norms leads to the development of negative characteristics applicable to certain people at a certain time and space. He defines stigma as an "attribute that is deeply discrediting and that reduces the bearer from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one" (3). The social stigma attached to the word homosexuality is different than racial or physical stigma as being homosexual is less visible and can therefore be hidden by the person discriminated against in society.

Putting people into distinct categories like heterosexual and homosexual creates differences and excludes the person who is labeled by the non-normative category. This categorization has led to the separation of "them" from "us" and the creation of the concept of the "other" that is different. According to Bruce Link (2001), "Peopleare stigmatized when the fact that they are labeled, set apart, and linked to undesirable characteristics leads them to experience status loss and discrimination" (371).

Social stigma, civil society, social movement and collective identity

Stigma also depends on power and power differences that exist between the stigmatiser and the stigmatized: "Stigma is entirely dependent on social, economic and political power-it takes power to stigmatize" (Link 2001:363). From the nineteenth century onward, a shift of power toward the individual was incited with the birth of the civil society. Erik Nielson traced the concept of the civil society back to Aristotle but it was the 18th century professional guilds and associations created by the merchant class and the heated debates conducted in Cafes, bars and nightclubs in the midst of feudalism and weak monarchism that have truly paved the way for a state-civil society duality which was crowned with the formation of the parliament as a political mediator between the state and the society. Hegel, Marx and Engels, who focused on market economy, agreed that the civil society is a form of freedom that allows the individual to become a public person and defined civil society as being "The intermediate realm between the family and the state". Gramsci has broadened the definition to incorporate liberal politics and added the cultural, political and ideological debates as issues of concern. Later on, most scholars concluded that the civil society is made of nongovernmental, on profit organizations seeking social, economic and political shifts to support a particular agenda either by challenging or replacing the power of the state in a democratic framework.

According to Gramsci social and political transformation can come about only if people fight for their rights in civil society and transmit their will for change to the state. However, democracy is not an institution of perfection and state failure in providing equality, justice and liberty often needs an organized mobilization of the masses in the form of a social movement that voices not only the need of the individual but the disenfranchise of the collective. Confused with riots, social movements have been misperceived by scholars for decades as a malfunctioning group of individuals who lack rationality and cause malfunction.

It was only in the 1970's that many of these scholars were accepting this social utility and taking part in this public mobilization. Social movement was defined as a "A conscious, collective organized attempt to bring about or resist large scale change in the social order by non-institutionalized means; Unconventional groups that have varying degrees of formal organization and that attempt to produce or prevent radical or reformist type of change; A collectivity acting with some continuity to promote or resist a change in the society in which it is part" .To ensure that, the formation of social movements to eliminate certain customs and attitudes must be directed towards a change in the laws. "Every citizen with a sense of human dignity, Gramsci writes, is aware of the right to protect at all costs freedom to live, to choose his own way of life, to select the activities he wants to pursue, and that he had the right to prohibit curious outsiders from poking their noses into his private life" (Buttigieg 1995:9).

Social movements are made possible only on the basis of the sharing of one collective identity. "This identity requires a perception of membership in a bounded group, consciousness about that group's ideologies, and direct opposition to a dominant order" (Howard 2000:384). This collective identity permits a better acceptance of oneself as different from the majority. Howard highlights the role of Epstein in drawing attention to identity, arguing that Epstein:

equates his model of gay and lesbian identity with an ethnic identity, both combine affective ties to a group with the pursuit of sociopolitical goals; both groups direct activity toward the terrain of the state; both are progressive, with a goal of advancing the group position; lacking structural power, both groups press demands by appealing to and manipulating hegemonic ideologies; and both groups tend toward a local character organized around a specific space or community. (Howard 2000:365).

Gay identity formation and social definition

In his theory of gay identity formation, Weinberg stresses on the importance of the social definition attributed to homosexuality or same sex relation in a certain society and at a certain time:

Social definitions and meanings are central to the entire process of identity formation. The presence or absence of definitions of homosexuality, the nature of these definitions, and the rules that the individual has learned for applying these definitions to himself and others determined how he perceived his feelings, his behavior, his relationships with other people and himself. (Weinberg 1983:2).

The construction of these definitions of homosexuality forces the homosexual to make a link between his sexual behavior/ activity/doing and his identification as "being gay". The pejorative definition of homosexuality provided by the hegemonic "straight world" has an impact on self acceptance as gay. As a consequence, homosexuals usually seek to have a more positive definition, evaluation and acceptance of their sexual preference by the social congregation and interaction with other gays:

In dissonance-reduction, one rejects some definitions as un-applicable to oneself and cultivates and applies other definitions to oneself...this process sometimes involves finding other reference groups whose definitions are consistent with one's sexual behavior without the negative evaluation of "homosexual", or whose definitions of "homosexual" (or "gay") make this behavior an acceptable or good thing...the re-evaluation of oneself as gay often results from social contact with other homosexuals who help to define the meaning of one's feelings and behavior in a positive evaluative way. (Weinberg 1983:301).

Gay identity formation model

Homosexual identity acquisition is a gradual process that usually starts in adolescence. Public self labeling as gay is not a requirement to gay identity formation, since many gays can go through all of the different stages without telling anyone. "People actively develop, maintain and reject all sorts of identities for themselves; how they think about themselves may have little or nothing to do with the ways in which others perceive them and respond to them" (Weinberg 1983: 301-303). There are different models of homosexual identity formation that have been proposed by psychologists and anthropologists starting from the 1970s. The only common point between all of these models is that the appropriation of a gay identity is in reaction to the social stigma attached to the word homosexuality.

The most important theories on gay identity formation are those that have been formulated by Cass, Coleman, Troiden and Lipkin. These stage theories range from three-stage models up to six stages, but all mark changes. In one example developed by Vivian Cass, these changes begin with acceptance of a label and end with incorporation into some kind of community:

Progress through the stages is characterized by, firstly, increasing acceptance of the label homosexual as descriptive of self; secondly, development of a positive attitude towards this self identity; thirdly, a growing desire to disclose the existence of this identity to both homosexuals and non homosexuals; and fourthly, increasingly more personalized and frequent contacts with homosexuals...The process involved in the acquisition of a homosexual identity is one of identity change in which a previously held image of sexual orientation is replaced with a homosexual image. The former image is usually a heterosexual one. (Cass 1984: 144-146).

However, Cass's model of homosexual identity formation is not a fixed model applicable to all of the men engaging is same sex relations and claiming to be "Gay". This model is not valid to everyone everywhere but rather a relative process that differs from one culture to another and from an individual to another. Some people remain in one stage and don't move beyond it and some others go through all of the stages mentioned above gradually.


This chapter has identified ways in which repression in history has stigmatized and discriminated against people according to their sexuality and their relationship with their own body and how these measures have worked in favor of the formation of an identity especially with the rise of the civil society and how this identity were later channeled into non-governmental organizations and popular movements. The following chapter focuses on the two different paths histories of homosexualities in the West and the Arab World have taken. More precisely, I focus on the ways in which both social and political factors have played a role on whether legalizing [as in the case of Western countries] or criminalizing homosexuality [as in Arab countries].