“Ambivalent men” and fluid categories in non-western cultures

by on May 13, 2009  •  In Culture

By Diamond Walid for The Guardian:

… 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.


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