Out of the Closet Into the Courtyard: an Alternative History of Sexual Clandestiny and the Arab Diaspora



When writing the recent history of gay liberation in the “Western” world, we have tended to hold interiors in inferior esteem, as compared with exteriors. Acquiring the liberty to express one’s sexual identity in public was generally the desired end goal for 20th century gay activism. Gay self-expression that occurred privately in clandestine clubs, bars, and undergrounds — no matter how emphatic and celebratory — was always going to be mere pre-history, compared to the telos of “coming out” and public acceptance. Much of the research in my book Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture (Fordham University Press, 2017), alters this historical script by weaving in the voices of queers of color and immigrants: I identify clandestinity and interiors as productive sites for the emergence of queer ethnic minority subcultures. The particular subcultures I will describe here seem at first glance to look backward, valuing that which has been discarded in the canonical history of gay liberation: the secret, the invisible, the silent. However, I argue that these subcultures are of the utmost currency because they force us to reconsider core imperatives of transparency and visibility that LGBT communities have historically embraced as “progressive.”

Mack Funambulist 1
Drawings by Neila Czermak Ichti

One must acknowledge that offering an alternative and perhaps charitable view of clandestinity has the potential to offend. For most of their recent history, gay people in Europe and North America did not choose their clandestinity; society’s homophobia pushed them indoors whether they liked it or not. Pioneering activists may legitimately conclude, when faced with young gay men who choose clandestinity while outness is available, that these youth are ungratefully spitting at the struggle. However, this misidentifies a historical continuum: an important number of gay youth of color are choosing clandestinity for reasons that have less to do with past oppression, than with contemporary desires for cultural affirmation and feelings of exclusion in white gay spaces.

Before I detail this alternative history, some admissions are in order: clandestinity is a notoriously difficult object of study, and sexual clandestinity even more so. What ethical issues arise when discussing that which aims to remain secret? Does one endanger underground sexual subcultures by exposing them to analysis and scrutiny? For these reasons, some of what follows will be speculative, theoretical, anonymized… absent names, places, and identifications. I will also use fiction and other cultural representations to get at the heart of our understandings of sexuality, which is not meant to substitute for the study of human subjects.

This alternative history starts, in my version, with the colonial encounter in North Africa, then moves to the era of the immigration from North Africa to Europe, and finally takes a twist with the advent of the internet and cellphones. Immigrants (and earlier Algerian French Arabs) had very different relationships to two important binaries that some say structure all of modern life: the public-private distinction and the homo-hetero binary. Traveling French writers like André Gide, and later, homosexual “nomads” fleeing oppressive European societies, had expressed admiration for North Africans’ investment in the private sphere, their live-and-let live attitudes: these travelers had even found comfort and protection in those values themselves. Though the North Africa they saw still outwardly adhered to moral conservatism, this conservatism was “paradoxically” protective for them because it allowed for discretion. It sheltered (moneyed) travellers and provided their homosexualities in formation inward space to blossom. Courtyards, casbahs, labyrinthine markets, somber hamams… all of these became fodder for homo-eroticism, sexual experimentation, and later, even pornography and gay charter flights to North Africa.

This special access to the Other’s private sphere, to shelter from prying eyes had a price, one which the travellers could actually afford: as such, this privatized exploration of homosexuality cannot be divorced from questions of privilege and the hierarchies that separate travelers from the indigenous. The Moroccan authors Abdellah Taïa and Rachid O. have both explained, in semi-autobiographical novels and memoirs, how this sexual service economy subsists to the present day: they tell revealing stories about kept boys and the European expats who kept them within their private abodes. This figure of the kept boy, also appears as a thread throughout North African literature featuring interethnic and interreligious homosexual relations, from the British benefactor Mr. David in Mohammed Mrabet’s Love With a Few Hairs (1986), to Tahar Ben Jelloun recounting his memories of the American Beat Generation in Morocco: William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg, he says, came to Morocco “for the boys.” Though North African interiors were crucially important for generations of gay writers whose homosexual subjectivities crystallized against this Maghrebi foil, there is also the glauque side of interiors, where other people’s privacy and “authenticity” can be sampled for a time in updated touristic riyads, for a good price.

The commodity being pursued by visitors was sexual fluidity, of a kind “unobtainable in Europe,” to borrow a phrasing from Edward Said. Travelers with an ethnographic eye for detail described a widespread and possibly contagious same-sex attraction: a given North African man could engage in relationships of love, sex, and marriage that involved different genders. The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th was a pivotal time, which saw the colony and metropole permeate one another geographically, socially, but also affectively and sexually: new understandings of sexual identity were emerging in Europe just as colonial penetration continued. In Western Europe, medical communities coined vocabularies like “invert” and “homosexual”: these doctors and psychologists searched for and pathologized “homosexuals,” inciting patient prisoners to verbalize and confess sexual practices, finally attaching these practices to identity. Europeans met North Africans in the colonial arena, and contrasted the incitement to public identification and confession in Europe, with North African understandings of sexuality that were entirely different in their emphasis on non-disclosure and the sanctity of privacy. In the stories of Mohammed Mrabet, as recorded by Paul Bowles, a British expat involves a married Moroccan young man in a relationship of sexual and professional assistance, the existence of which everyone knows, but no one exposes.

Scholars like Joseph Massad have warned more recently that, when it comes to the Arab world, many individuals practicing same-sex sexuality cannot be neatly classified as “gay,” as they continue to resist the imposition of the homo-hetero binary in important ways. This comes to the dismay of mainstream journalists and human rights groups, whose priority is to identify Arab subjects who practice same-sex sexuality as “gay” (whether these subjects wish to be identified as such or not) in order to “save them.” This turns out to be a greater priority than comprehending local sexual cultures on their own terms. Would the journalists’ frequent refrain — that these Arabs are essentially closeted homosexuals — mask an aversion to, even a phobia about sexual fluidities that are commonly observable in the Global South and East? Fast forwarding to the present, this ongoing accusation of Arab backwardness, of an inability to grasp sexual orientation, is ironic in light of the character of the globalized millennial generation which declares itself less “gay” or “straight,” and more sexually fluid, than previous generations. In 20th century travel literature, this sexual fluidity was seen as “contagious”: some European travelers partook in same-sex sexuality only for the duration of their voyage — their homosexuality an exotic parenthesis. Here, we might be moved to talk about the interior walls of the Mediterranean in reconceptualized terms: hetero-homo segregation without, sexual fluidity within.

Mack Funambulist 2
Drawings by Neila Czermak Ichti

The era of decolonization and post-colonial immigration saw the massive transfer of people, and importantly, customs, to Western Europe. Formerly servile and at your service, the Arab youth became, through work, protest, and grievances, a whole man with demands for recognition. Finding Europe inhospitable for reasons of racism, isolation, and rejection both professional and romantic, Arabs started to dwell in their own interiors, mental and physical. This dreaded repli sur soi (collapsing on oneself through withdrawal from society) was documented in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s psychiatry thesis on the affective and sexual solitude of North African workers who came to relieve Europe’s labor shortages: the widespread sexual impotence these workers suffered from had a social cause, Ben Jelloun maintained, and signified their unwillingness to perpetuate themselves in a Europe that didn’t want them. These workers, who often greeted each other with effusive salutations and tender gestures in their mother countries, were made to feel ashamed of this “homo” affection in front of skeptical bosses and colleagues. The consequence was self-censorship in public and concealment of these practices within the private sphere: in the subsequent generation, however, children replaced kisses and hand-holding with “urban” handshakes and chest taps, as Nacira Guénif-Souilamas makes clear in her fascinating history of the attrition of Arab affection in the diaspora. This reversal of customs mirrors a phenomenon, decades removed, that Massad previously identified in Arab intellectuals’ relationship to their own sexual and affective heritage: intellectuals who came in contact with Europeans and their judging senses of morality, were moved to erase from the historical record all “shameful” traces of love and sexuality that seemed to deviate from the European center and norm.

In the time period I study, from the 1980s onward, one can observe the return of the repressed. What had been subsumed, shamed into hiding in the parents’ generation, resurfaced in children who discarded their parents’ shame and embraced ethnic affirmation, emphasizing certain patterns of affection culturally inherited. However, this affective practice does not necessarily surface in a public way: it gets exhibited indoors and in communitarian spaces, frequently invisible to the French mainstream that mostly sees these youth as hard and unfeeling. An esthetically luscious exploration of these private, affective displays can be found in two recent music videos by electro-artists and film-makers the Blaze, recording for the aptly named Bromance records. The first (“Virile”) shows two male friends sharing a joint inside a tower block apartment, serenading, and dancing with each other. The second (“Territory”) follows an athletic young man as he returns to visit family in Algeria, embraced effusively by mother, siblings, cousins, and friends. In almost every frame, men are touching each other, exhibiting love, intimacy, and tenderness. The small touches and signs of same-sex affection — not to be confused with homosexuality, but not mutually exclusive either — stretch across the Mediterranean to Europe in ethnic enclaves that are sometimes permeable with public spaces.

These affective customs, previously mined by gay auteur directors like André Téchiné and Gaël Morel, have become an object of hipster fascination, but also Algerian appreciation, as indicated by the popularity of the music videos online among Algerian fans. Though it was later revealed that, despite expectations to the contrary, the Blaze was not an Algerian nor even a Franco-Arab outfit, the videos still mark an important turning point in the portrayal of Arab men usually demonized as macho and incapable of affection: the film-makers inquire into how these men may “relax their guards” when, amongst themselves, no one is looking. Of course via the medium of art and representation, someone is looking, someone who feels all the more special for having unique access to the clandestine. In this way, the Blaze’s videos echo an argument made in my book: that French film-makers esthetically expose ethnic communitarian spaces meant to be private, not out of spite, but because they believe that by sharing the beauty that normally lies inaccessible within, this will save these enclaves from demonization, even if that means violating codes of clandestinity.

What was once bashfully private now surfaces in French spaces where minorities congregate. We can observe the continuation of Arab homo-affectivity in a variety of places: from familiar ones like the mosque and the wedding hall, to newer sites in the urban post-colony like the Pompidou Center’s student-populated library, shopping malls, cinemas, and shisha lounges, all frequented by growing numbers of New French. As explained in my book, this reemergence of ethnic affection in public is partly the result of public policy decisions about urban density and settlement: with apartments in the projects stacked, overcrowded, and inhospitable, youth have resorted to claiming public space as a home away from home, in a way that confuses the public and private, with interior practices surfacing in outside spaces.

These developments also had an important impact on queer relationships between French men of color. On online personal ad sites and GPS dating apps like Grindr, it is possible to curate one’s degree of “outness”: by showing a photo of one’s body rather than one’s face, for instance, and then sending a picture of one’s face only after establishing a greater degree of trust. Due to new internet possibilities, minority men can more easily search, outside of the gayborhood, for like-minded men who exist within the homosocial constellations just described: for “cousins” who can “pass” in the banlieues, who are hors milieu or non-scene. This form of attraction to the similar is in my argument particular to the French banlieue context and the postcolonial era. North African memoirists, journalists, and sexologists have typically described homosexual attraction in the Maghreb as based on the erotics of difference (one partner virile, the other effeminate, often with a difference of age). However, in the French urban postcolonial context, we see something different: Franco-Arab men who make a show of their own virility and their “passing” abilities, who are seeking carbon copies of themselves, or at least comparable virilities (with less importance attributed to sexual role). This exclusive rhetoric and apparent avoidance of public effeminacy, beg the question of whether this population can indeed be called “queer”? Is “queer” even a term these populations would use to describe themselves? While “queer” may not be a popular term of choice, a larger sample of Franco-Arab men online have become acutely aware, after difficult interactions with other men, of their marginality and distance from a gay mainstream that prides itself on transparency, visibility, and confession. This type of communitarian homo-eroticism is also fringe in relation to the gayborhood, which harbors its own separatism and exclusions: according to Fouad Zeraoui, banlieue men in the 90s especially were frequently rejected from gay nightlife spaces, the criteria for denial of entry based on an interplay of factors involving class, race, body language, and style of dress.

Nightlife entrepreneur Zeraoui, with his Black Blanc Beur dance parties (20 years strong) located outside Paris’ Marais, initially catered to just such a population, which had faced exclusion or exotification in the gayborhood. The club’s location in the diverse Pigalle district did not outwardly advertise the fact that it catered to a gay clientele, and its tea dances beginning in the early evening allowed young men with jobs, curfews, or families of their own to get home at a non-suspicious hour, using the RER train links to the banlieues. On the inside however, was another scene dispensing with discretion entirely: men flirting and dancing together to a diverse array of Arabic, African and hip-hop beats.

Mack Funambulist 3
Drawings by Neila Czermak Ichti

The sociology of the Internet helps us better understand how these young men have created hospitable spaces for their homosexualities in the urban post-colony. As we know, the internet provides varying degrees of privacy, a place to cultivate an online persona that may not be admissible outside the door to one’s room. In online personal ads, these men use passwords, fake names, and sometimes fake photos to create protective walls, but these walls also have doors that open on to large spaces where the clandestinity described earlier is safely abandoned. Borrowing from Patricia Lange, the terms “publicly private” and “privately public” are useful for describing the curation of outness apparent in these online forums: Lange was describing Youtube, but we see something similar in the way internet users have withheld the confession of their sexualities in public while publicizing their sexualities in semi-private online personal ads, accessible mainly for those already interested.

Cruising grounds are spaces that can be qualified as “publicly private” and also, “pro-regressive.” In my book, I’ve called sexual minorities’ return to traditions or older modes of socializing (for reasons of disaffection with the gay mainstream) “pro-regressions.” Considered vestiges of a bygone era of forced gay clandestinity, cruising spaces have recently been (re)invested by men of color and others who may find this secretive form of socialization more erotic. Marc Endeweld has documented that, even in the age of smartphones and universal gay accessibility, men flock to places like Paris’ Bois de Vincennes, where there is a notable presence of banlieusards, older, and/or bisexual discreet men (populations not catered to in the Marais). Banlieusards are not necessarily inheritors of gay history who frequent cruising spaces out of habit, they would instead be “new” visitors foregoing the gayborhood for these supposedly discarded cruising areas. This form of socialization, though premised on masculine passing, is transgressive for its existence in unprotected heterosexual space, as well as its rejection of the sexuality of convenience: many of these men crave more serendipitous encounters than bars or phones can provide. Even though cruising takes place outside, it is paradoxically more private. Cruisers arguably run less risk of being discovered by a judging member of one’s home community, and even if caught strolling there, they could shield themselves with multiple alibis. In parks, a face can be more private than a name, or any spoken word. This is not to minimize, of course, the real dangers posed by the presence of police and sometimes other cruisers. Members of the wider gay community have followed minority men into new spaces, in this case cruising grounds once familiar but gone out of style. With gay landmarks closing one by one in the Marais due to rising rents, there has concurrently been a population movement from bars to phones, and also to parks: all in all, gay identity affirmation in public has taken a hit, its disappearance the ironic mark of its success in changing public views of homosexuality, increasingly accepted throughout the city. Although gay cruising in parks and other natural sites suffered a moment out of vogue, it has come back for reasons that have less to do with nostalgia as with the evolution of outness and ethnic minorities’ impact on Euro-American sexual customs. I say this because cruising spaces have become a place to sample non-public virile homosexuality, and connectedly, ethnic minorities. Some French art-house films have documented this transition. Alain Guiraudie’s Le roi de l’évasion and L’inconnu du lac articulated working class and rural masculinities in a non-patronizing way, esthetically valorizing cruising space in a way that enchanted the city-dwelling public. Though describing a different time period, André Téchiné’s Les Témoins insisted that 1980s cruising grounds were also spaces of color. Finally, Christophe Honoré’s L’Homme au Bain took an unexpected view of the banlieues: far from being exclusively an inferno for homosexuals, the banlieue’s structures of male bonding made it a paradise of homosexual opportunity.

From the internet to cruising spaces, queer Franco-Arabs now frequently bypass gayborhoods like the Marais, in favor of inter-banlieues contact. When they avoid the centralism of cities like Paris and its star-shaped transportation nexus, they are initiating a horizontal form of contact in which the city center loses its magnetic draw as a gay sanctuary. In this way, banlieue populations anticipated what would later become larger gay society’s move to online: the depopulation of gay bars in favor of smartphone socializing. Although Franco-Arabs were initially called closeted, hypocritical, and backward for their internet discretion, now everyone has a “second” or “double life” that exists online. Just as queer banlieusards showed that even the most “macho” suburbs contained gay possibilities, larger gay society’s move to online shows that any neighborhood is now potentially a gay neighborhood, at least in the privately-public sphere of the internet. The gentrification of gay neighborhoods has only exacerbated this trend. Thus, though it may have seemed unlikely at first, Franco-arabs and banlieusards have set the precedent for the sexual democratization of space.