Elessar Younglove (they/fae)
If I have learned anything as a communications major it’s that visibility matters. Seeing someone who looks like you, and seeing someone seeing someone who doesn’t, on screen impacts how audiences think about and interact with others. LGBTQ+ representation is on the rise, but it has a long way to go, especially for queer people of color. Lack of representation has various consequences. It can promote prejudices, particularly unfavorable ones, about particular ethnic or cultural groups. Shining a light on white queer people denies the lives and experiences of queer people of color. If Arabic people are shown to only be cishet, then viewers assume that all members of this group must take this route because they only perceive negative stereotypes or a lack of representation in these groups.
Social media provides a unique opportunity for viewers to become entertainers. We can take the center stage and put the spotlight on our lives and values. This increasing representation of racial minorities and/or cultural groups. This is one small step to combat the lack of representation in the LGBTQ+ community. April is Arabic American Heritage Month. As the director of digital communications for The Michigan Gayly: LGBTQ+ Issues, I wanted to celebrate with graphics of Arab LGBTQ+ individuals and their impact on the LGBTQ+ community and/or contributions to the United States. Here are 19 queer Arabs and Arabs Americans to celebrate during the month of April and all year round!
1. Nabil Allal
“We had to prove asexuality was a normal orientation so we began to communicate with other asexuals worldwide and doctors from Arab countries to answer many of the questions received.”
Nabil Allal is an asexual Algerian organizer, author, and social media user. In late 2017, he discovered he was asexual.
Sex was connected to so many aspects of Allal’s life. It interested all of his friends. Allal claims that whereas other sexual minorities are covered in Arabic-speaking media, he has never seen an asexual character.
There is a glaring disrespect for asexuals. The biggest danger to asexuals in Arab society, Allal says, is forced marriage and asexual. In late 2017, Allal met another Arabic sexual, Iraqi Alaa Yassin, who discussed their concerns and ideas online. The two worked together to make a social media group on Facebook; they call it Asexuality in Arabic. Afterwards, they created a team of resources for other Arabic asexuals, and to prove their existence to their society. Each member of the team has a specific practical responsibility, such as finding scientific resources, organizing new events, coordinating them, keeping track of the global asexual community, or assisting those who are unsure of their sexual orientation. The team includes doctors, researchers and activists.
2. Amrou Al-Kadhi
“As a queer person, I believe almost dogmatically in difference, in the idea that every single person is unique, with their own innate sense of self, and that it is this difference which brings all of us together as one.”
Amrou Al-Kadhi is a nonbinary and Muslim British-Iraqi writer, director, screenwriter, drag performer, author, a Ted Talk speaker, and filmmaker whose work primarily focuses on queer identity, cultural representation, and racial politics. At age 20 they created their drag persona, Glamrou, and began doing drag shows at their university. The now drag veteran founded the drag troupe “Denim.”
3. Fatima Al Qadiri
“I want to explain this record the least to straight people – it’s none of their business,” says Fatima Al Qadir.
“I don’t want to speak on behalf of the queer Gulf. I don’t think it’s fair for one person to assume that role.”
Fatima Al Qadiri is a queer, Senegalese-born Kuwaiti musician and conceptual artist. Her most recent album, Medieval Femme, takes inspiration from female Arabic poets of the Middle Ages, and it quotes directly from Al-Khansa's verse on “Tasakuba.” She's also the composer for the Spanish film “La Abuela” released in January.
4. Clarissa Bitar
“Music that we have in Arabic music is so upbeat and dancy and then if you look at the words actually a lot of its very depressing and like very sad you know. There's this very clear juxtaposition between the music and the words.”
Clarissa Bitar is a queer, award winning Palestinian oud musician and composer born, raised, and based in Los Angeles, California. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in music and an emphasis in ethnomusicology. She has incorporated oud with a multitude of genres ranging from R&B to pop to hip hop and rap. She released a joint poetry-oud EP with Palestinian poet Mohammed El-Kurd in January of 2019 titled “Bellydancing on Wounds“ as well as a her solo EP “Bayati.” Her latest album titled “Hassan Sabi” is out now on all streaming platforms.
5. Amin El Gamal
“As with misogyny and other forms of hate, people have used and abused religion as a tool to maintain control and power over the centuries. The intolerance we associate with Islam has come from shifting cultural and political forces, not the religion itself.”
Amin El Gamal is a proud, gay Muslim and Arab American actor of Egyptian descent. They earned two BAs at Stanford University before progressing to the USC School of Dramatic Arts, where he graduated with an MFA in acting in 2011. In 2017, they played fan favorite Cyclops on the “Prison Break” revival, which established him as the first openly queer Muslim actor to play a leading role on a TV show. El Gamal has acted in “The Newsroom,” “Shameless,” and “The Librarians.” He has a recurring role on “Good Trouble” and notable appearances in the films “Namour,” “Message from the King,” and the upcoming indies “First Love,” “Spring Bloom,” and “Breaking Fast.”
6. Ghassan El Hakim
“Sexuality is not political in itself. It’s okay if sexuality motivates people to engage in politics, but sexuality itself comes directly out of nature; it cannot be pushed in one direction or another.”
Ghassan El Hakim explained that his work intends to restore the nobility for Cheikhats in Moroccan culture to what it had been before their reputation was defiled by the imperial French regime. Ghassan El Hakim is a queer Moroccan lead singer and founder of Kabareh Cheikhats, a performing arts group. These men are performing as shaykhāts or (شيخات): female entertainers who perform folk songs and dances at weddings and other events. Kabareh Cheikhats’works asks the crowd to question societal gender roles. El Hakim said, “Men’s bodies are in a prison of tradition. We can’t dress in any way we want; we must always be strong, we can’t cry. . .this is not real. It’s damaging and unnatural.”
“Societies tend to believe in weak and strong genders, which harms everyone,” he continued. “Society has to change the way we view both men and women. We are all imprisoned by the way gender is viewed today. . . . Men dancing like Cheikhats is a powerful image. . . it points to a society without judgment.”
The band seeks to identify the ways in which rigid conceptions of gender are harmful to individuals and society. Kabareh Cheikhats believe that in Morocco, but also in every culture around the world, people are pressured into accepting unnaturally narrow concepts of how we should act, what we should wear, and how we should express ourselves.
7. Saleem Haddad
“What sexual minorities are asking for is protection, before recognition… just like so many others don’t have protection in the region, including refugees and women.”
Saleem Haddad is a gay author, filmmaker and aid worker of Iraqi-German and Palestinian-Lebanese descent. His 2016 debut novel “Guapa” was awarded a Stonewall Honour and won the 2017 Polari First Book Prize. His directorial debut, “Marco,” was nominated for the 2019 Iris Prize for Best British Short Film. “Guapa” depicts a gay man struggling with shame amid the devastation of an unsuccessful Arab uprising. Haddad says this emotional story “is and isn’t” inspired by his own.
8. Noor Issa
“Even if I had not discovered my orientation I was planning to stay single my whole life.”
Noor Issa is a greysexual photojournalist and activist from Mosul, Iraq. He dreams of building an orphanage, along with his ongoing efforts to establish an organization for the rights of asexuals in the Arab world. Issa discovered his orientation in September 2018, after joining an Arab asexuals group on Facebook. He describes that moment as “one of the happiest of his life” because he had finally found his community.
9. Zeyn Joukhadar
“There is a goodness in the world that got me through, that taught me it's important to know who you are.”
Zeyn Joukhadar is a transgender Syrian American author, editor, and activist. He is the author of “The Map of Salt and Stars” and “The Thirty Names of Night.” He is a member of American Mensa and the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI). In 2021, he received Stonewall Book Awards - Barbara Gittings Literature Award for the book “The Thirty Names of Night.” They are also a mentor for the Periplus Collective.
10. Umm Kulthum
“If you are in love, then why deny it? Love appears in the eyes of the one who loves.”
Umm Kulthum was an Egyptian icon, singer, songwriter, and film actress active from the 1920s to the 1970s. The singer is known variously as “the star of the east,” “mother of the Arabs,” and “Egypt’s fourth pyramid.” Her possible lesbianism and rejection of gender norms attracted much attention. Umm Kulthum recorded about 300 songs over a 60-year career, with a voice of 14,000 vibrations per second. After Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War of June 1967, she toured Egypt and the broader Arab world, donating the proceeds of her concerts to the Egyptian government. Ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson, who wrote a biography of Umm Kulthum, says that she was constantly surrounded by women and showed little interest in men. “It is very, very likely she had relationships with women,” she says.
11. Haifa Magic
“I do also have a lot of LGBT fans, but I don’t want to frame myself as only an LGBT role model. First of all, I wasn’t the first person to change sex in Lebanon, but the first one that got famous. At the same time, I think I’m a role model for people that have been judged in their life for who they are. But the only thing the media focuses on is my gender identity and I’m so much more. I’m a strong business woman!”
Haifa Magic is a Lebanese singer, makeup artist, cosmetic line owner, pop star, and trans woman from Beirut. In her song “Motawatera” (“Agitated” in Arabic) she sings about how tired she is of people’s judgements about who she is, who she loves, and how she dresses. Haifa says she most enjoys expressing her everyday interactions through song. “In my song Asfoor (“Birds” in Arabic) I’m singing about how people stare at me,” she says, “and are obsessed with my identity and appearance.” One of the singer’s goals is to increase her presence in the fashion industry. She wants the world to know that beauty and diversity isn’t a sin. Haifa says, “[we] have to embrace ourselves and open ourselves and stop judging each other. Her most recent song “Kech Yala Kech” came out in 2021.
12. Nebal Maysaud
“While our power structures reinforce these racial hierarchies of white supremacy, there are a lot of individuals who are aware of that and want to make a change in that power structure, and are not content with how we’re abusing people of color in the field of classical music.”
Nebal Maysaud is an award-winning queer Lebanese Druze composer. Their music has been performed by the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, Juventas New Music Ensemble, and Lawrence University Wind Ensemble and Opera Department. Their work was also featured in Art Song Lab 2016 and the District New Music Conference 2018. A recipient of the first Kluge Young Composer’s Competition and the James Ming Prize in Composition at Lawrence University, Maysaud converges Western and Middle Eastern classical music styles to explore questions of faith, identity, and power. They have contributed articles about diversity and classical music to NewMusicBox and convened community music workshops at YallaPunk 2019.
13. Wentworth Miller
“My gayness was largely erased (by me, for starters) in the first decades of my career. It is my want, now, to center it in a way that cannot be missed by myself or anyone else.”
Wentworth Earl Miller III is a gay, American-British biracial actor and screenwriter of Syrian and Lebanese descent. He is known for his starring role as Michael Scofield in the Fox series “Prison Break.” In 2005, the role earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor – Television Series Drama. He is also known for his work in “Stoker,” “The Flash,” “Legends of Tomorrow,” and “Law & Order: SVU.”
14. Dua Saleh
“Politics and activism is so embedded in my work because it’s always been hyper present in my life and it’s what I’m surrounded by.”
Dua Saleh is a nonbinary Black and Sudanese-American recording artist, songwriter, rapper, poet, and actor. They portray Cal on Netflix's “Sex Education.” Xyr debut EP “Nūr” was released in January 2019 by the Against Giants record label to critical acclaim, with their second, “Rosetta,” released in June the following year.
15. Omar Sakr
“To know your angels and demons intimately is to invite a scrutiny few can stand up to without collapse.”
Omar Sakr is a bisexual Turkish-Lebanese Muslim poet and author. He has explored the multiplicity of his identity in literary publications, anthologies and his own poetry collections “These Wild Houses,” and the Prime Minister’s Literary award-winning “The Lost Arabs.” In addition to gaining praise from publications like the New Yorker and The Guardian, his debut book, Guapa, was released in 2016 and went on to win the 2017 Polari First Book Prize. His novel “Son of Sin” explores his experience growing up queer and Muslim in a broken family in western Sydney. A number of his short tales have also been published, including one for the Palestinian science fiction collection “Palestine + 100.”
16. Shangela/Darius Pierce
“We can't live in fear. There are going to be people who will disagree with us, but it's important for us to stand up and say what's right and what's wrong.”
Darius Jeremy Pierce is a gay Black and Saudi Arabian, singer, activist, actress, reality television personality, business owner, and renowned drag queen also known as Shangela. She is most known for competing on RuPaul's Drag Race season two and RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season three.
17. Alia Shawkat
“As a woman, an Arab-American, and a member of the LGBTQ community, I have to use whatever voice I have,” she said. “There’s no more delicacy in being quiet.”
Alia Shawkat is a bisexual, Arab American actress and artist of Iraqi descent. She is known for her roles as Hannah Rayburn in “State of Grace,” Maeby Fünke in the Fox/Netflix television sitcom “Arrested Development,” Gertie Michaels in the 2015 horror-comedy film “The Final Girls,” and Dory Sief in the TBS and HBO Max comedy series “Search Party.”
18. Hamed Sinno
“The issue is not Islam more than any other religion; most of the attacks that happen against the queer community in the U.S. are not not by Muslims, they're by Christian fanatics.”
Hamed Sinno is a gay Arab singer, songwriter, and musician of Lebanese and Jordanian descent. He is also the lead singer of the alternative rock band Mashrou’ Leila. Mashrou' Leila's unique fusion of progressive lyrics, club beats, and indie sensibility has sparked interest throughout the Middle East for its novel interpretation of what Arab pop can be.
19. Alla Yassin
“The lack of awareness about asexuality has very serious consequences for asexuals because they grew up believing they are sexually impaired.”
Alaa Yassin is an asexual Iraqi author, organizer, and social media user. She created the first asexual society for Iraqi people via Facebook [Asexuality in Arabic] Through this she met Nabil Allal, another asexual Arab. The two formed a team to advocate for Arab asexuals which includes doctors, researchers and activists. The Arab asexuals team seeks to establish an organization for Arab asexuals as well as lobby for laws to protect asexuals from discrimination, forced marriage and marital rape. Additionally, they spread awareness of asexuality in Arab societies through the launch of educational activities and events.