A group of Arab activists and human rights organizations have issued a statement about the Israeli-linked group GayMiddleEast.com. This organization was founded in 2003 by Shabi Assaf Gatenio, and has recently appeared in the media after the exposure of the Amina hoax presenting itself as the credible and authentic voice of LGBT Arabs.
Titled Que(e)rying the Israel-linked GayMiddleEast.com: a statement by Arab queers, the statement opens:
As queer Arab activists working on the ground in several countries in the Middle East, our initial disagreements with GayMiddleEast.com were political in nature. But rather than respond to them or engage in dialogue with us, GayMiddleEast.com resorted to playing the victim and shrugging off those concerns.
GayMiddleEast.com’s disingenuous response to what it sees as a “smear campaign” against it not only obfuscates the legitimate reasons many queer Arab activists take issue with its work, but also presents lies so blatant that a simple Google search is enough uncover the truth. It is duplicitous to claim that pointing out GayMiddleEast.com’s extensive ties to Israel is more dangerous than those ties themselves and its lack of transparency about them.
In the statement, which has been endorsed by a growing list of organizations across the Arab world and globally including MidEast Youth, Al-Qaws, Meem, Engender, Khomsa Network and Decolonize Queer, the authors take GayMiddleEast.com to task for four issues: unwelcome and unsolicited intervention; co-optation of Arab voices; pinkwashing Israel; and violations of the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
They also present compelling evidence that GayMiddleEast.com (GME) has systematically tried to conceal its founding in and extensive ties to Israel and that GME representatives Dan Littauer and Shabi Assaf Gatenio are not being honest about themselves.
GME has been the subject of mounting criticism from Arab and Palestine solidarity activists at least since last year (see #lgbtME: We Do Not Live in Vacuums! and GayMiddleEast.com’s Zionism). Most recently, Kaw at Mideast Youth posted Whose Gay Middle East(.com)? and asked three questions:
- Why are activists not fully informed of GayMiddleEast.com’s Israel connection, so as to make informed choices about whether or not to get involved with the organisation?
- Or better yet, why is the information not made publicly available on the website?
- While GayMiddleEast.com claims to oppose pinkwashing, why have the grassroots campaigns by Palestinian queer activists to counter Israel’s pinkwashing been neither highlighted, nor endorsed?
The people behind GME have tried to evade these questions about their origins, methods and standards and about the identities of their representatives in English-language and Israeli media.
On 19 June, GME responded to what it called a “smear campaign” saying:
- GME is not an Israeli organisation. Nor is it Zionist. It is not owned or run by an Israeli.
- The site’s executive editor is Dan Littauer, a German citizen (with only a German passport) who lives in London. …
- GME’s website was registered in Germany in 2003 by Shabi Gatenio, GME’s Israel Editor on behalf of a number of Arab LGBT activists.
In my own research on GayMiddleEast.com, I found the history of their so-called advocacy very troubling. Using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I reviewed the content produced by GME from 2003 through 2008. Some of the people currently or previously associated with the site–namely Dan Littauer, Avi Ozeri, and Scott Piro–have a background in the tourism industry and public relations, and until 2009, GME tried to be a tourism resource.
Before 2009, their site had a section about tourism to Arab countries with cruising tips. The site offered up coming out stories that were both implausible and prurient. They noted sodomy law and age of consent information for each country.
Sodomy laws and age of consent have been important indicators of sexual freedom and equality in many countries. In fact, the United States had sodomy laws until 2003 when the Supreme Court ruled that they were unconstitutional. In other countries, they are also a colonial legacy of laws authored by European powers which persisted after independence. With cruising tips, age of consent, sodomy law information and tourism advice, the GME project looks more like orientalist sex tourism rather than human rights advocacy.
GME’s support from LGBT activists
Some LGBT rights organizations and writers have been eager to defend GayMiddleEast.com against what they called a smear.
One of the most prominent defenders of GME, Peter Tatchell, a founder of the group OutRage!, was denounced in 2007 by African activists for unwelcome interference in their countries. Tatchell’s interventions, they said, “repeatedly disrespected the lives, damaged the struggle, and endangered the safety of African Human Rights Defenders.”
So it is alarming that Tatchell now defends GME, an organization whose dishonesty and interventionist tactics are generating similar resistance from Arabs.
Mainstream media role
In light of the activists’ latest statement, it is important to note the role of some prominent media in perpetuating these kind of shadowy organizations who ventriloquize Arabs. The Guardian for example avidly promoted the Amina hoax. After the Electronic Intifada exposed the Amina hoax, The Guardian rushed to feature the hoaxter on their front page, giving him more publicity and oxygen. It then published an article called “The real world of gay girls in Damascus” by a pseudonymous author who credited GME with helping to place it in the media. GME heavily promoted this article through Facebook and Twitter. GME used the Amina hoax to promote themselves as authentic authorities on Arab sexuality, but in fact, GME merely reproduces the main elements of the hoax: anonymous male authors speaking on behalf of unseen female native informants. Foreign Policy also published a version of the article.
While posing as liberatory, GME revels in voyeurism and titiliation about a supposedly sexually repressed orient – classic orientalist themes.
The statement from Arab organizations serves as a powerful antidote.