Homosexuality between phobia and terror

The 17th of May is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. On this day in 1990, the World Health Organization announced its removal of homosexuality from the list of designated mental disorders. Professor and scholar Hossam El Din Darwish goes in depth with homophobia and its implications.

By Hossam El Din Darwish

The Arab world is replete with negative discourse about homosexual people and against them; not only among the ‘laymen,’ or among religious ‘extremists,’ but also within the legal, media and official discourse coverage. This discourse is common even among senior specialists, actual or alleged, in medical, psychological and behavioral sciences relevant to this issue.

From “disorder” to sexual preference

In recent decades, major shifts occurred in the vocabulary and substance of discourse on homosexuality. These changes have not been limited to the Western world, but to a certain extent pervaded most parts of the world. An important change in this context is the increased use of the term “homosexuality” as opposed to “sexual disorder”. This prevalence or change is extremely important and significant. The term “disorder” is not only a descriptive one, as erroneously argued by some homophobes and those who are repulsed by it; it is also a normative concept. The term clearly implies a negative evaluation of homosexuality and homosexuals themselves. On the other hand, the term “homosexuality” is a relatively normatively neutral term, meaning that it ascribes it neither condemnation nor acclaim. This change in terminology, in Western countries at least, was accompanied by profound and radical legal, political, social and media transformations. However, in the Arab/Islamic world, we find this change to be partial and limited in terms of reach, and it has not been accompanied by major or fundamental change at other levels.

In the Arab world, negative discourse persists

The World Health Organisation’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder reflects the fact that all the globally “recognised” scientific/medical classifications have now ceased to view homosexuality as a disease, an aberration, or as a psychological or physiological disorder. In spite of this, we find in the Arab world strong resistance to this shift in diagnosis. Negative discourse against homosexual people persists, not only among “ordinary” or religiously “extremist” individuals, but also in legal, media and official frameworks and even among leading experts, actual or alleged, in medical, psychological and behavioral sciences related to this issue.

As an example of such supposed experts, we cite Dr. Awsam Wasfy, who is often touted as the most prominent name among those specializing in this issue in Egypt1. Dr. Wasfy presents himself as a “psychiatrist, and a lecturer who specializes in treating homosexuality.” To this end, he has written a book titled Healing Love; Uncovering the Facts about Homosexuality: Causes, Treatment, Prevention, which he published independently [2]. He rejects all scientific research that suggests a “natural” physiological basis for homosexuality and claims that homosexuality is an developmental disorder that affects sexual identity and inhibits its full realisation. From his perspective, the causes of this disorder are the following triad: excess sensitivity, an unlikable father, and an overprotective mother. A fourth cause added to the three mentioned, he argues, could be the child’s exposure to sexual assault [3].

Dr. Hoda Kotb, introduced by the media and herself as a pioneer specialising in sexology and marital and family counseling [4], adopts a generally similar view with only minor differences. While she considers homosexuality to run counter to nature/instinct, she does not go so far as to consider it an illness or a disorder. Instead, she considers it a purely behavioral imbalance or deviation, not a psychological or physiological one. She stresses the possibility, and even the necessity, of treating homosexuality despite her admission that Western/international medical scientific institutions do not consider it a disease, nor do they believe that it requires any treatment, therapy, or medical or non-medical intervention [5].

Evidently, in such contexts, abandoning the discussion of homosexuality as a sexual abnormality or a disorder is not associated with any positive, tolerant or fair approaches to homosexuality/homosexuals. In fact, this approach often makes matters worse. Despite all the negative implications of regarding homosexuality as a disease, such a perspective can nonetheless curtail holding homosexuals culpable for their nature which is perceived as a major sin in these contexts. This is exactly what is implied in the logic of the two so-called experts — Wasfy and Kotb. Dr. Wasfy refuses to discuss the pathology of homosexuality and confirms that a person cannot be held responsible for having homosexual tendencies. Conversely, he stresses that involuntary tendencies are offset by the will to submit to them and to act in accordance with their dictates rather than resist them or and try to absolve oneself of them. Ultimately, the problem and the solution lie in the willpower of the homosexual: Do they really want to rid themselves of this disorder, or this lack of personal maturity, or do they resign to being steeped in it?

Dr. Kotb takes this logic to its extreme, denying any physical or psychological basis for homosexuality, and she maintains that homosexuality is often the result of sexual assault or exposure to deviant and adverse sexual experiences. She emphasizes that the essential and decisive key word in treatment is will; If a homosexual has the will, they can, with the help of specialists such as herself, rid themselves of this homosexuality/deviation and reinstate themselves as a normal and healthy human being. As such, Dr. Kotb proclaims herself the “discoverer of a method for treating homosexuality.” [6]

Preconceived stereotype

The claims made by Drs. Kotb and Wasfy provide an ‘elitist’ model of the discourse prevalent in the Arab public sphere regarding homosexuality. Obviously, it is homophobic and anti-gay rhetoric that targets individuals on the basis of their sexual preference. Instead of accepting homosexuality as such, it instead emphasizes the need to dispose of it and rejects any semblance of tolerance towards it. We do not believe that the term homophobia is appropriate for characterising this discourse. The term homophobia gives the impression that a person has pathological fear and is not responsible for their hostile thoughts and behaviors towards homosexuals/homosexuality. In reality, this is not remotely the case. The term homophobia can also give the impression that people who suffer this alleged “phobia”, rather than homosexuals themselves, are victims who are in pain. This is an obscene twisting of the facts and a reversal of the roles of oppressor/oppressed. The discussion on the pathology of homosexuality ought not immediately refer us to the pathology of people intolerant to it. Homophobia, and/or acts of assault and abuse targeting homosexuals, have political, legal, religious and moral dimensions and contexts. On the other hand, the term homophobia is employed arbitrarily and in a misleading way. It obfuscates the aforementioned factors and focuses instead on the pathology, or psychological features, of attitudes toward homosexuality. This so-called homophobia is, in fact, a preconceived stereotype of homosexuality and homosexuals; a negative image accompanied by extremely denigrating moral and religious provisions. It is the substance of media, social, and political discourse that targets homosexuals and evokes feelings of aversion, revulsion and contempt in the hearts of the homophobe toward homosexuals.

Political and legal support for anti-gay rhetoric

Anti-gay rhetoric in the public sphere and in the Arab media could not have dominated, in this form and with this content, without being politically supported and legally upheld by autocratic regimes that dominate the local media sphere with total or near-total control. These regimes do not care about the persecution to which homosexuals are subjected by society at large. Perhaps worse yet, these regimes promote and legalise this persecution by criminalising homosexuality and handing out harsh sentences in relevant cases. For example, this is what was committed by Hassanal Bolkiah’s regime in Brunei and the Sisi regime in Egypt. The Sultan of Brunei decided a few months ago to impose strict laws in the application of Sharia, which included stoning to death for homosexuals and adulterers [7], but under international pressures condemning his decision, he later suspended this sentencing regimen [8]. Furthermore, the Sisi regime did something similar before: After a number of people raised the rainbow flag during a concert in Egypt performed by the band Mashrou’ Leila which advocates for gay rights in the Arab world [9], the security services arrested seven people on the pretext of “inciting debauchery and immorality, and promoting homosexuality.” [10] Deputy Abdel Moneim Al-Alimi, a member of the Constitutional Affairs and Legislation Committee in the House of Representatives, deemed necessary to “reconsider the punishment of homosexuality, after classifying and determining whether it is debauchery and immorality, a threat to general security or an act that tarnishes the image of the Egyptian state.” He stressed that, “What these young men did, raising the rainbow flag in a concert, falls under the category of acts that undermine the general security of the state, distorts Egypt’s image and destabilize security and stability in the region.” [11]

Terrorism, not phobia

We cannot, and should not, refer to this discourse and the behaviors that accompany it as homophobia, because they are a form terrorism — not a phobia. It is terrorism as that spreads fear and dismay among homosexuals; perpetuates fear and apprehension of them and reinforces a worldview that humiliate and degrades them. Aside from imprisonment and stoning, humiliating and painful anal examinations are routinely conducted on suspects of homosexuality in Arab/Egyptian prisons and detention centers. It is these severe punishments, and the degrading treatment of homosexuals, that provoke panic and fear among gay people and their supporters. These dynamics should not be obfuscated by reference to the homophobia pervasive among those who hostile and abusive towards gay people.

“We cannot, and should not, refer to this discourse and the behaviors that accompany it as homophobia, because they are a form terrorism — not a phobia.”

A political decision or a scientific one?

Many anti-gay advocates, including the two experts mentioned earlier, claim that the exclusion of homosexuality from the list of diseases, deviations, psychiatric/sexual disorders by Western/global medical institutions is a political act rather than a medical or scientific decision based on reliable results and research [12]. These advocates question the validity of scientific research that shows homosexuality not to be a disease, aberration or anomaly, and which instead relates it to hormonal, psychological and physiological factors as a foremost cause. However, the two self-proclaimed experts overlook the fact that their skepticism does not correlate with any scientific research that supports the theories they use to explain the phenomenon of homosexuality as a behavioral dysfunction or deviation, as Dr. Kotb claims. Neither does Dr. Wasfy’s description of homosexuality as a disorder and incomplete sexual identity stand the test of existing evidence. If the consideration of homosexuality as a ‘natural’ sexual preference is questionable, as they claim, then there is certainly nothing to suggest any scientific validity to the pontification offered by homophobes. Regardless of the scientific nature of the question, it should not be denied that the political and legal support that homophobes receive in Arab countries is much greater than the advocacy of gay people and their supporters in “Western countries”. It should not be forgotten that in America and Germany, for example, same-sex marriage was legalised only a few months or a few years ago. Meanwhile, the legal, social, religious and political criminalisation of homosexuality persists in more than seventy-seven countries. The evolution of this issue is not subject to the logic of progress, as goes the wishful thinking of believers in the myth of progress. We cannot simply expect gay people to obtain their sexual rights and full equality with heterosexual people, automatically and gradually over time. In this context, it is perhaps sufficient to refer to the relatively broad sexual rights and freedoms that many homosexuals enjoyed in ancient Greece or in the Islamic Middle Ages, and the subsequent deterioration of these rights in the centuries that followed.

What role does religion play?

In discussing this issue, we should not overlook the religious framework invoked by most anti-gay advocates, and upon which their attitude is partially based on it. It is necessary to note that the allegedly scholarly theories provided by Dr.  Kotb regarding homosexuality are based on religious/Qur’anic belief. On her YouTube channel, Dr. Kotb, who gives consultations on the Marital Counseling and Sexual Problems section of the website Islam Online, says that her method is “based on the teachings of the Qur’an.” [13] The Christian counterpart of this religious rhetoric is found in Dr. Wasfy’s work. Wasfy holds a BA in theology, and has often referenced the vision of his ‘Christian faith’ in regards to homosexuality and the validity of considering it a sin. There seems to be no discernable difference between the religious and “scientific” visions of these two so-called experts. In both cases, they claim science affirms what religion suggests from their perspective. Homosexual tendencies, they suggest, is in principle involuntary in that it results from circumstances beyond individual control. On the other hand, error and sin lie in succumbing to this tendency, rather than treating it and getting rid of it.

“We cannot simply expect gay people to obtain their sexual rights and full equality with heterosexual people, automatically and gradually over time.”

Claiming anti-gay discourse to be “scientific”

The larger problem in Arab anti-gay discourse is not its very existence, but rather its alleged scientificity. This discourse justifies, directly or indirectly, the severe physical and moral assaults against gay people in Arab countries, and the harsh “legal” penalties imposed against them and in the disregard of these attacks and penalties. Anti-gay advocates are often silent about the severe repression of gay people and thus cannot claim that their discourse is acceptable and justified according to the principles of freedom and democracy. Moreover, what is an affront to reason is the claim of such a democracy in the Arab world and invoking it in an assault on those who are helpless in theory and in practice, legally, socially, politically and in the media.

First and foremost: the acknowledgment of human freedom

The primary and principal basis from which any ethical attitude towards homosexuals should be based is the recognition of human freedom and the individual right to be gay without any external interference or repression. This acknowledgment is necessary before, and after, any discussion or debate regarding the scientific/medical perspective on homosexuality. It is only after this acknowledgment, and after rejecting all the repressive and terroristic practices against gay people and trying to overcome them,  it can be possible to create a healthy environment for constructive debate on this issue. If Dr. Wasfy believes that the problem of ‘the West’ in dealing with the ‘phenomenon of homosexuality’ is to associate it with human rights, we maintain that this link is important, useful, necessary and positive. Abandoning this link is the biggest obstacle preventing the elimination of homophobic terror in the Arab and Islamic world and in other countries and societies that still criminalise homosexuality and punish homosexuals for their nature. If we begin by acknowledging the existence of sexual preferences and by treating human beings with respect, then we must also respect gay people’s privacy and recognise their freedom to live their lives as they see fit rather than interfere. To treat others with respect implies, among other things, the recognition of the person’s humanity, consciousness and autonomy. Respect is thus the recognition of the distance that separates us from others, which we ought not transgress by imposing our values ​​and preferences upon them.

Multiple implications of homophobic terror

 hope the text’s content has already clarified the multiple implications of its title. I would like to conclude with a quick clarification of those meanings which could be considered a margin to this text. The title refers to four main meanings.

On the one hand, the title refers to phobia in an expression of two different meanings: the first meaning refers to homophobia; the state of apprehension felt by straight people towards gay people and the second refers to the phobia that gay people may have towards straight people. On the other hand, the title refers to terror, a word which shares a common root with the word phobia. Here, too, the wording includes two possible meanings: One to the terror that straight people may feel towards gay people, while the other refers to the terrorism practiced against gay people in many parts of the world.

Regarding the first meaning, there is a popular belief of the existence of such a phobia —homophobia. In this text, I attempted to argue that if the term/concept of phobia refers to a psychopathological condition and is inappropriate to describe what is referred to as homophobia. In this case, this term gives the wrong impression of the psychology and pathogenesis of this phenomenon and overlooks and obscures the fact that it is, first and foremost, a moral, political, legal, media and social issue. This first meaning is related to the third meaning of the title as it is commonly held that homosexuals are the ones who provoke this alleged phobia among anti-gay advocates and opponents of their lifestyle. According to this theory, homosexuals practice terror and conjure fear, dread, and a supposed phobia among straight people. This text is based on the rejection of this hypothesis, and its related provisions and values.

The thesis I defend in this text relates to the second and fourth meanings. Regarding the second meaning, it seems to me necessary to highlight the fact that those who are subjected to intimidation, repression, persecution as well as psychological, moral and physical punishment are homosexuals themselves. It is gay people, not those persecuting them, who are justified in feeling terror or even a phobia as a result of their social rejection and political oppression. This hostility and persecution is what I suggest calling terrorism, as a violent practice, or the threat and implication of it, with the intent to intimidate and stir terror, fear and dread in order to achieve some goals or targets. This is what homosexuals experience in most Arab and Islamic countries. On the one hand, in the common perception in the region, homosexuality is associated with rape, drug abuse and pedophilia, gang activity and perverted criminal practice as well as with values alien ​​to our society and culture, etc. On the other hand, homosexuals are being prosecuted and assaulted socially, legally, financially, morally, physically and spiritually and denigrated in media discourse. They are subjected to painful and degrading anal examinations, and severe penalties that may amount to imprisonment for many years or even execution by hanging or stoning.

In the title of this text, its four implications coalesce, intersect and overlap in a deliberate manner intended by the author, and they refer to what is and what ought to be. When making claims about what ought to be, it is necessary to recall what is. It is also necessary to take into account the normative “ought” discourse, how it is currently conducted and what it can alternatively be. In this text, I attempted to present a critical reading of the concept of homophobia and of anti-gay discourse in general. My reading is founded on descriptions of reality on the one hand and on what it can and should be on the other, both from my perspective and from the vantage point of the global human rights system.

[1] This is what happened in dozens of media interviews with him. For example, see his meeting on the channel Cairo and the People, entitled “An Interview with Dr. Awsam Wasfy on Homosexuality in Egypt.”

[2] Awsam Wasfy, Healing Love; Uncovering the Facts about Homosexuality: Causes, Treatment, Prevention (no publication place or publisher, 2007).

[3] See: Previous reference, pp. 73 et seq.

[4] This is a common occurrence in her media appearances and on her personal social media pages. See, for example, her website.

[5] Dr. Kotb’s attitude and ideas in this regard can be found by watching her media appearances on YouTube. See, for example, her appearance on the Biwodoh program, titled “Dr. Heba Kotb In Conversation on Homosexuality.”

[6] This is mentioned in her own post.

[7] See this report on the website of Deutsche Welle: “The Penalty of Stoning to Death for Gay People Comes Into Effect in Brunei.”

[8] See this report on the BBC website: “Brunei Suspends the Penalty of Stoning to Death for Homosexuals.”

[9] See the interview published by the Guardian in English, entitled Mashrou’ Leila: the Lebanese indie band championing Arab gay rights, and its Arabic translation on the website LGBT Arabic entitled “Mashrou’ Leila: An independent Lebanese band that advocates for LGBT rights.”

[10] See BBC report, “Seven arrested in Egypt after raising the gay flag in a concert” September 26, 2017.

[11] See this report by Hisham Abdel-Jalil on the website Youm7, entitled “Deputy Legislative: We will increase the penalty for homosexuality in amending the Penal Code.”

[12] See Awsam Wasfy, Healing Love…, pp. 37-53

[13] This is how Kotb presents herself in English on her YouTube channel.

The article was originally published 17 May 2019 by Syria Untold. Read the original here.

Translated and edited by AlJumhuriya/Docstream

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality