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


Article published in The Funambulist 13 (September-October 2017) Queers, Feminists and Interiors. Click here to access the rest of the issue.


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.