Op-ed: An Airbrushed Jordan for the Gay Traveler
Last week, The Advocate ran a travel article online that was not just deceptive but potentially dangerous. I feel compelled to respond.
William Forster’s piece ran under the title “What Part of the Middle East Is a Great Gay Destination?” To anyone who has traveled extensively in that part of the world, as I have, there is only one reasonable answer to that question: Israel. Not only can Israel boast an exceptional record on gay rights; it also has thriving cultural and club scenes, where openly gay (and incredibly hot) men and women mingle freely with visitors. Even Forster begins his article by noting that when people consider the Middle East as a gay destination, “Tel Aviv is most likely to come to mind.”
Yet the subtitle appended to the headline advises readers to “skip Israel” and “find fun, beauty, and some hunky gay men in Jordan.” Exactly why readers should “skip Israel” is never explained. What’s clear, however, is that Jordan has been chosen by a process of elimination. Other countries in the Muslim world, Forster notes, have been getting what he calls “bad press” lately, because of such P.R. mishaps as their mass arrests, organized harassment and/or brutal murder of gay people. That does make Jordan relativelyattractive compared to its non-Israel neighbors, but it does not make it, as Forster claims, an “outstanding destination” for gay tourists.
Before I go any further, let me say that I have spent time in Jordan, and agree that it has many fine qualities; the food is indeed delicious, the people are friendly, and the city of Petra in particular is stunning. But The Advocateis a gay magazine, and whatever the country's merits may be as a tourist destination in general, Jordan remains a perilous place for LGBT people as such. It has no law outlawing gay activity, but it also has no law protecting gay people from harassment or discrimination, which are pervasive.
Forster dances around this issue when he notes that "many Jordanian men feel safer propositioning foreigners." That word, "safer," at least hints at the dangers faced by gay people in Jordan's highly traditionalist Muslim society, where gay identity is widely despised. I haven't met any gay Jordanian men who were out of the closet to their families. But I have met several who have been beaten up and blackmailed, and who went to the police only to face more humiliation at the hands of policemen. There have even been reports of so-called "honor killings" aimed at gay people.
Forster casually mentions Amman's Roman Theater as "the city’s main cruising area for gay men." It is true that, out of desperation, closeted locals do meet there. But harassment by police and attacks by straight men are common, and the district is dominated by predatory hustlers who have been known to rob their clients (or worse). Life for gays in Jordan is a darker picture than Forster implies when he calls it one of the "gay-friendlyest closeted society in the world."
Gay men will feel comfortable in Jordan, writes Foster, because affection between members of the same sex is more common there. “Same-sex affection abounds in the public sphere, while public affection between members of the opposite sex is taboo,” he claims. “A gay couple can walk the street arm-in-arm or holding hands while a straight couple would get dirty looks.” This seems deliberately misleading. Straight Jordanian men do hold one another by the elbow, but there is nothing gay about it, and it’s not comparable to Western men holding hands. Foreign gay couples who tried it would not pass; they would be recognized as homosexuals and outsiders, and treated accordingly. The same goes for gay male visitors whose dress or style marks them effeminate.
Strangely, Forster spends much of his article reminding readers that same-sex love was celebrated in medieval Arabic poetry and that urges us to remember that, for writers like the English novelist E. M. Forster — any relation? — "at one time, the Middle East was a relative refuge for gay men who faced jail-time in Europe." This is true, but sadly irrelevant to the realities of gay life today in the liberalized West and the increasingly fundamentalist Middle East. It is also true that Jews in the middle ages were safer in the Muslim world than the Christian one, but no one would suggest that Jews should move to Iran or Syria today.
Middle Eastern culture is friendly and hospitable as a rule, but misinterpreting that friendliness for tolerance could lead gay tourists down some very risky paths. Gay readers who take this article at face value (like the commenter who responded that he "did not know Jordan was that gay-friendly") may find themselves in trouble if they take its advice. Jordan is beautiful and well worth a visit. But if you go there, please don't just "leave your presuppositions on the plane," as Forster advises; leave your gay identity there, too — or in Israel — and bring a closet everywhere you go. Because this "great gay destination," actually, isn't that great if you're gay.
MICHAEL LUCAS is the creator of Lucas Entertainment, one of the largest studios producing all-male erotica. He lives in New York City. This article is the opinion of the writer and not The Advocate.