Strategies for rebellion: A queer reading of the Syrian revolution

Being a revolutionary and an LGBTIQ activist

"To be queer in the revolution means that you have to remain silent as if you yourself were responsible for all the massacres, shelling and displacement, while no one seems to notice or want to acknowledge that you, too, are oppressed and suffering from these same injustices and violence."

06 October 2020

Illustration by Ward Zaraa
Leel Yousef

Leel Yousef is an LGBTIQ activist and researcher from Syria. Leel has a BA from the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts and an MA in comparative literature from Damascus University.

Translated by: Fadi Saleh

This piece is part two of our series on LGBTIQ Syria guest edited by Fadi Saleh, and published with funding from Hannchen-Mehrzweck-Stiftung

Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, there have been continuous attempts to archive, document and analyze this pivotal event and its repercussions. The narratives varied, and each faction claimed that theirs was the only authoritative and accurate one. 

Though diverse, these narratives were often structured around an overarching binary of opposition vs. pro-regime. Over time, however, fissures started to emerge within the Syrian opposition, forcing its different parties to revise their ideological positions. As the country was gradually engulfed by the chaos of a collective collapse that no one wanted to acknowledge, many people abandoned, distanced themselves from or completely hid their initial political positions and affiliations.

This has intensified questions over who has the authority to narrate the revolution, who owns the most legitimate narrative and whose interests and followers would benefit most from such a dynamic.    

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Is a queer reading of the revolution possible? 

Against this backdrop, LGBTIQ narratives of the Syrian revolution and its reverberations remain scarce and scattered. So I ask: Is there room for at least one queer voice within these competing narratives? 

In other words, is there room for a queer reading of the Syrian revolution that transcends the binary oppositions, on the one hand, and that imagines different, less normative discourses, on the other? And can this queer reading resist becoming itself yet another normative and dichotomous discourse?

The answer to the first question seems theoretically possible: there is room for a queer discourse within the Syrian revolution. After all, LGBTIQ people are also part of the revolution, and have taken to the streets as a constituency oppressed and stripped of their rights by a state that publicly denounces them in local and international platforms, denies them access to basic rights and violently dehumanizes and criminalizes them. 

We can offer many testimonies by LGBTIQ Syrians who protested with the masses, then add their stories to a growing archive, proving that we were also there. But such a strategy has its limits. Such testimonies can become good fodder for discussions around a dinner table or reading materials for one of those closed, secret meetings that no one hears about, organized by queers who are enthusiastic about producing a revolutionary liberation narrative, but whose enthusiasm wears off as soon as everyone is hit by compassion fatigue and collectively concurs that nothing has changed (and will not).

Marginalizing queer political discourse

The problem lies not in the lack of (testimonial) talking about our experiences within the revolution and our confrontations with the state, but in the marginalization of Syrian queer political discourse inside and outside of Syria--by both the Syrian regime and different factions within the opposition. 

Syria’s state and the opposition have instrumentalized homosexuality as an accusation to vilify the other, negate its politics and deny it its legitimacy. Both also failed to invest in attracting queer voices into their ranks, including  more “progressive” factions of the opposition. That said, LGBTIQs certainly do not expect support from the many extremist factions that still imagine themselves under the umbrella of “opposition,”  factions that feed into ethnic and sectarian divisions. 

When we queers accept that our narratives and visions of the revolution be erased and relegated to the background, aren’t we also indirectly validating the attempts of the other groups to take over the revolution, monopolize its discourses and dictate which demands or freedoms are permitted and which are not? Must we always be made to prioritize “other” causes or express only the parts of our identities that are deemed unproblematic and acceptable?

For example, Damascus and its suburbs were divided into regime- and opposition-controlled areas. The regime succeeded at regaining control over the suburbs after a series of deadly battles which ended in political settlements with the conflicting parties. These settlements—or “reconciliations”—mandated that fighters, their families and willing citizens evacuate and leave for opposition-held northern Syria, while those who stayed would adjust to renewed regime control.  

Through these settlements, citizens living in formerly opposition-controlled areas now found themselves back under Damascus’ authority. Given that conservative, oftentimes Islamist trends were dominant, these communities at times considered the public visibility of LGBTIQ people evidence of the regime’s immorality, a discourse we heard daily in statements such as “This is Assad’s Syria.” 

Conversely, Assad’s mukhabarat intelligence apparatus , army and loyalists believed that the revolution was directly responsible for such “immorality” and “indecency.” We heard those accusations expressed in questions such as:  “Is this the freedom that you want?” or “Is this what their fa***t Sheikh al-Aroor wants?” in reference to the pro-opposition salafi cleric from Hama. 

Queer discourse in the face of violence

Despite LGBTIQ participation in the uprisings, a queer political discourse in the Syrian revolution and opposition remained absent. Exclusionary rhetoric, already part of the social subconscious, seeped easily into revolutionary circles and discourses without being challenged.

Such rhetoric is so effective that pointing out or simply alluding to an activist’s non-normative gender or sexuality was an easy strategy to delegitimize their political stance. It was a dynamic that forced many activists to make a difficult choice: either leave revolutionary activist circles, or leave queer political discourse. 

Most activists opted for the latter, for to be queer in the revolution is to receive countless insults about how ludicrous, egoistic and crazy your cause is. To be queer in the revolution means that you have to remain silent as if you yourself were responsible for all the massacres, shelling and displacement, while no one seems to notice or want to acknowledge that you, too, are oppressed and suffering from these same injustices and violence.

Perhaps no further explanation is needed as to why a lesbian activist would feel torn when trying to find her “place” within the opposition. She often finds herself forced to erase an essential part of her life and politics so as not to be excluded or marginalized within her activist circles. Without the ability to speak about that part of herself, it is as though freedom of speech, and freedom more generally, have been suspended as fundamental rights that apply to everyone. It is as though we have created a new, more oppressive and more limiting regime than the one before. 

That is not to say that she can express herself freely within loyalist circles--far from it. However, oppression is already expected from the regime. It becomes unacceptable and frustrating when this also becomes the norm within opposition circles that supposedly adopted freedom as a revolutionary principle. 

Within this dynamic, to be queer and a revolutionary means that one has to prioritize the revolution and take a few steps back in the hope that others will follow suit and let go of their “individual” demands in order to protect the revolution. 

But when we queers accept that our narratives and visions of the revolution be erased and relegated to the background, aren’t we also indirectly validating the attempts of the other groups to take over the revolution, monopolize its discourses and dictate which demands or freedoms are permitted and which are not? Must we always be made to prioritize “other” causes or express only the parts of our identities that are deemed unproblematic and acceptable?

While the desire for freedom is what ignites revolution, that desire can only be fulfilled when the revolution engenders a new beginning, establishes a system based on social equity, and lays the groundwork for a political structure that can guarantee rights and freedoms. Freedom is not just some romantic concept that becomes disposable once some settlements are reached or privileges are acquired, but the standard against which governments and political entities are measured. 

Freedom is not divisible. It is the freedom to choose, an unbounded space of possibility, where our choices are allowed expression in various forms, which might or might not actualize into civil rights. Freedom is the freedom of expression; it cannot be reduced to one’s political affiliation or to practicing one’s religion freely, as is the case in Syrian revolutionary contexts. 

As our societies have been going through their first revolutionary experience, it is important to remind them that expressing one’s identity and sexual freedoms are not luxuries, but are also at the heart of liberation and the meaning of freedom. 

Here, I am not simply referring to the politics of naming and categorizing sexualities within the Syrian context, because that would imply that non-normative sexualities did not exist before that naming and are thus merely “constructed.” Rather, sexual liberation discourses must be allowed the right to occupy space within the dominant conversations and future nation-building political processes. 

Such propositions are often discarded, accused of detachment from the realities of the violent conflicts ravaging the country, and hence un-revolutionary. While “violence” is intrinsic to every revolution, it does not fully define it. Thus, it is counterproductive to call LGBTIQ activism within the Syrian context un-revolutionary due to its being more anchored in non-violent politics. Such acts of symbolic violence cannot delegitimize queer political discourses with the charge that the peaceful demonstrations and politics proved unfruitful in the face of the regime’s brutal violence. 

“Violence” is not all there is to a revolution; “transformation” better captures a revolution’s essence. 

Deconstructing exclusionary discourses

The transient changes that result from armed conflict often fail to transform the social and cultural discourses and structures. Large-scale transformations take longer to register in the collective consciousness; gradually changing the language of dominant discourses becomes a more effective tool than force. 

Dominant conflicting factions draw their authority and legitimacy from the power of the following logic: you exist only when you exist in discourse. The (hetero)normativity of the hegeomonic discourses does not allow for the articulation of difference and non-normative ways of being. The problem therein is not existential, for the different “self” does not question its own existence. Rather, it is excluded and made peripheral to a “center” that cannot accommodate these differences. Therefore, this “center” must be decentralized, eradicated or replaced. While doing this, however, we must be cautious not to produce a new binary opposition of center vs. periphery that might force queer identities into a new struggle with yet another “center” that reproduces new hierarchies and privileges a select few at the expense of other groups that remain marginalized. 

What we need today is not to assert our existence within liberation movements, but within liberation discourses. We need artistic and literary works that queer what’s already there. We must affirm our presence in social science research not just as objects of study, but as agents whose lived experiences of oppression or suffering are not just an academic topic. 

We need to obliterate the center-periphery binary and take hold of every opportunity to decentralize the center. In the Syrian context, this could translate into establishing a queer discourse that breaks out of the regime vs. opposition impasse and lays the groundwork for a different political trajectory. 

As constituents with varied ethnic, sectarian and political ideologies, but who are still colletctively subsumed under the sign of “queer,”  Syrian LGBTIQs might be able to offer alternative, non-dichotomous and non-normative political visions for conceptualizing a model for transitional justice. The ethical priority here must be re-evaluating the question of perpetrators and victims within the conflict in a way that does not simply follow the normative opposition-pro-regime binary. It must follow alternative forms of judgment that take into consideration the fact that many civilians were forced to identify themselves with either side without having the luxury of “choice” in many places, situations and cases.

We need a Syrian queer discourse that is borne out of our experiences as queers and Syrians and a queer language that relies on our own cultural vocabulary. We need to reclaim terms and imbue them with new meaning. We need to impose and institutionalize these new usages until they form a new, fully fledged discourse. We need to find new ways of writing that do not only produce Syrian equivalents to “foreign” terms, but that take over and redefine cultural discourses of queerness that permeate the collective social consciousness in Syria. 

Lastly, the need to make room for a progressive sexual discourse within Syria’s public sphere is a humanitarian responsibility. We have been constantly reminded of the dire consequences of the lack of access to knowledge about such social issues. Ignorance spreads, misinformation abounds, and popular myths and extremist ideologies dominate. 

It is, thus, a moral responsibility towards ourselves, our societies, the generations born amid fire and devastation and the future generations that we, as marginalized and oppressed communities, assert our existence. We must resist exclusion, and remain at the center of the political efforts to imagine and build a future Syria.

This work is under a Creative Commons license. Attribution: Non commercial - ShareAlike 4.0. International license

Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad