The queer and drag scene in Lebanon is on the rise. Inga Hofmann shows how this – playful in appearance – at the same time is a deeply political act, claiming the rights of the communities to be recognized.
Bassem Feghali is one of the most popular Lebanese TV stars, famous for his impersonations of Arab celebrities such as Fairuz and Nancy Ajram but also of international personalities like Britney Spears or Marilyn Monroe. Although his use of wigs, feminine clothing and makeup means that he does not conform to traditional male gender stereotypes, he has gained extraordinary popularity on social networks like Facebook and Lebanon’s LBC TV station even gave him his own show during Ramadan, ‘Alf Wayle Bi Layle’ where Feghali impersonated various international celebrities The title loosely translates to “1000 fooleries in a night” and is a word play on “Alf Layle ua Layl”’, “One Thousand and One Nights” or “Arabian Nights” as it is known in English.
Given the audience’s resoundingly positive reaction to Feghali, one could assume that the LGBT community in Lebanon is also treated with goodwill and that, by extension, an increasingly tolerant attitude towards taboos such as sexuality and gender can be expected. In actual fact, Feghali has, to this day, not come out to his (mostly heterosexual) fan base, and Lebanese media simply refer to him as an “entertainer”.
However, reducing Feghali to his entertainment value alone means ignoring the importance of the drag queen scene. Many drag queens in Lebanon raise political issues and challenge the patriarchal system.
Despite legal discrimination and a lacking tolerance of diversity when it comes to sexuality and gender, a scene that fundamentally questions both heteronormative structures and traditional role models has established itself in Beirut during the course of the past months. Some proprietors make their clubs or bars available for their events and, in doing so, give people the option to abandon traditional gender roles and to slip into a different persona as a drag queen. Neither the costumes nor the entertainment truly lie at the core of these events. Instead, the objective is to break social taboos. For example, sex and permissiveness take centre stage by means of unconventional clothing and as a result, they are made approachable.
Given that many Lebanese families still attempt to maintain the duality of man and woman, personal identity conflicts can oftentimes only be resolved during the drag queen performances: While social and familial pressures prevent living out one’s own identity, precisely these evenings create a platform for individuality and diversity.
Following their performance, each drag queen has the opportunity to briefly voice their thoughts and these moments reveal that it is about much more than merely the imitation of famous people. For the stage is more often than not dominated by serious topics like suicide prevention, instead of entertaining jokes. All in keeping with the principle: You are not alone, we have been through it as well. That may sound corny but, given the taboos on sexuality and gender in all other facets of life which frequently lead to depression or suicidal thoughts, its impact should not be underestimated. As a conversation about these psychological problems would amount to outing oneself, most of those affected tend to neither speak to their families about them nor do they seek professional help. Against this backdrop, the “drag queen shows” assume even greater political and social relevance.
And it is for good reasons that drag queens who pass on their experiences to younger individuals call their protégées “drag children” – an alternative family structure so to speak, a safe space in which identity conflicts can be resolved and where everyday familial pressures fade into the background, at least for the evening!
Despite the provocative character of the drag scene, the performances primarily revolve around mutual support and living out one’s own identity within a tolerant environment. In view of the rejection of the drag queen scene by the majority of the population, it appears even more impressive that it has resisted the influence of these negative attitudes. Instead, it stands for tolerance and respect and does so in a peaceful manner. This fundamentally positive attitude that breaks away from heteronormative and discriminatory social structures is most aptly summarised by Lady Gaga, an icon of the Lebanese drag scene, in her song “Born this Way” when she sings: “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen!”
Translated from the German by Christine F.G. Kollmar