Coming out in Arabic
When Rauda Morcos heard there was an emailing list for lesbian Palestinians, she couldn't believe it at first.
"I thought it was a joke," she said. "Until then, I thought I was the only lesbian who speaks Arabic."
The list was certainly not a joke but, in a society where same-sex relations are still taboo, its members guarded their privacy. The only way a newcomer could join was by personal recommendation.
"Eventually I got in," Ms Morcos recalled, "and I found a lot of other [lesbian] women who couldn't be out."
After corresponding by email for a few months, she thought it would be good to talk with some of the invisible women face to face, so, in January 2003, Ms Morcos and her flatmate called a meeting.
"We had no expectations," she said, "but eight women turned up. The meeting lasted eight hours and I don't think anybody wanted to go home."
That, it later turned out, marked the birth of Aswat ("Voices") - the first openly-functioning organisation for Arab lesbians in the Middle East.
"We realised we had a great responsibility towards other women in our community," Ms Morcos continued. "We tried to contact many organisations and sent out letters but the only reply came from Kayan ["Being"], a group of feminists in Haifa ... Many NGOs don't count it as a human rights issue or want to be associated."
Three years on, though, Aswat is firmly established with more than 70 members spread across the West Bank, Gaza and Israel (where the organisation is based). Only about 20 attend its meetings; the need to keep their sexuality secret, plus Israeli restrictions on movement, prevent others from attending but they keep in touch through email and an online discussion forum.
Beyond the group itself, there are also signs of acceptance in a few places. "We do a lot of work within the community, for example with youth groups, counsellors, and so on," Ms Morcos said. "That proves to me at least that the gay/lesbian movement has started for us as Palestinians."
One of Aswat's main goals is to provide information about sexuality that is widely available elsewhere but has never been published in Arabic. This is not simply a matter of translation; it's also about developing "a 'mother tongue' with positive, un-derogatory and affirmative expressions of women and lesbian sexuality and gender ... We are creating a language that no one spoke before".
If women are to find their voice, the language needs to be re-appropriated, Ms Morcos explains in an article on Aswat's website. "I have forgotten my language. I don't know how to say 'to make love' in Arabic without it sounding chauvinistic, aggressive and alien to the experience."
Recognition for Aswat's work came earlier this year when Ms Morcos won the 2006 Felipa de Souza award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The citation described her as "a true example of courageous and effective human rights leadership", but Ms Morcos is quick to point out that other women are also doing a lot of work behind the scenes.
Speaking to a standing-room-only meeting of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign during a visit to London last week, she explained that necessity has made her the public face of Aswat. Many of the women involved do not want to be identified - often with good reason. "But if we don't want to come out as persons, let's at least come out as a movement," she said.
Ms Morcos's own coming-out was not entirely voluntary and proved particularly unpleasant. In 2003 she gave an interview to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot about the poetry she writes. In passing, she mentioned her sexuality - only to find that the L-word turned up in the newspaper's headline. An article on Aswat's website describes what happened next:
"All of a sudden, the Arab population of her home town [in northern Israel], which she generally assumed to have no interest in the literary supplements of Hebrew newspapers, seemed to have read the article and had something to say about her. Local corner shop owners made photocopies and distributed it, because, after all, everyone knew it was about the daughter of so-and-so from their own town.
"The consequences of that article were far more serious than Ms Morcos had imagined: her car windows were smashed and tyres were punctured several times, she received innumerable threatening letters and phone calls, and, to top it all, 'coincidentally' lost her job as a school teacher, since parents of pupils complained that they did not want her as a teacher."
Arab society today is riddled with the kind of anti-gay prejudices that were found in Britain half a century ago, and persecution is common. Muslim clerics condemn homosexuality in no uncertain terms, though similar statements can be heard from Arab Christian leaders too, such as the Coptic Pope in Egypt who once declared that "so-called human rights" for gay people were "unthinkable".
With a few exceptions here and there, this is the prevailing attitude in all the Arab countries, but in Palestinian society the issue of gay rights is further complicated - and made much more political - by the conflict with Israel.
Israel legalised same-sex relations between men in 1988. Four years later, it went a step further and became the only country in the Middle East that outlaws discrimination based on sexuality. A series of court cases then put the theory into practice - for example, when El Al was forced to provide a free ticket for the partner of a gay flight attendant, as the airline already did for the partners of its straight employees.
These are undisputed achievements but they have also become a propaganda tool, reinforcing Israel's claim to be the only liberal, democratic society in the Middle East. At the same time, highlighting Israel's association with gay rights has made life more difficult for gay Arabs, adding grist to the popular notion that homosexuality is a "disease" spread by foreigners.
Linking the twin enemies of Israel and homosexuality provides a double whammy for Arab propagandists, as can be seen from sections of the Egyptian press. In an article to mark the 30th anniversary of the October war, a headline in the Egyptian paper Sabah al-Kheir announced: "Golda Meir was a lesbian." In 2001, following the mass arrest of more than 50 allegedly gay men, al-Musawwar magazine published a doctored photograph of the supposed ringleader, showing him in an Israeli army helmet and sitting at a desk with an Israeli flag.
Israel, however, is not quite the gay paradise that many imagine. There is still hostility from conservative Jews, and some of their blood-curdling statements are not very different from the more widely publicised remarks of Muslim clerics. In Jerusalem last year, the ultra-Orthodox mayor banned a pride march, though an Israeli court promptly overturned his decision. As the parade took place, a Jewish religious fanatic attacked three marchers with a knife and reportedly told the police he had come "to kill in the name of God".
The gay rights movement in Israel also has a questionable history. Lee Walzer, author of Between Sodom and Eden, explains in an article that the first Israeli activists pursued "a very mainstream strategy" that "reinforced the perception that gay rights was a non-partisan issue, unconnected to the major fissure in Israeli politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict and how to resolve it".
"Embracing gay rights," he continues, "enabled Israelis to pat themselves on the back for being open-minded, even as Israeli society wrestled less successfully with other social inequalities."
As part of their strategy, activists sought "to convince the wider public that gay Israelis were good patriotic citizens who just happened to be attracted to the same sex". As a general principle this may be valid, but in the context of war and occupation it leads into murky territory. Should it really be a matter of pride that openly gay members of the Israeli armed forces are just as capable of wreaking havoc on neighbouring Lebanon as the next person?
The question here is whether gay rights - in Israel or elsewhere - can really be divorced from politics or treated in isolation from other human rights. Helem, the Lebanese gay and lesbian organisation, thinks not, arguing that gay rights are an inseparable part of human rights - as does Ms Morcos.
For Ms Morcos, there's a connection between nationality, gender and sexuality. She has a triple identity, as a lesbian, a woman and a Palestinian (despite having an Israeli passport) - "a minority within a minority within a minority", as she puts it. Her first concern, though, is to end the Israeli occupation, and she sees no prospect of achieving gay rights for Palestinians while it continues.
Nowadays, the more radical Israeli activists also acknowledge a linkage. In 2001, Walzer recalls, "Tel Aviv's pride parade, typically a celebratory, hedonistic affair, got a dose of politics when a contingent called 'Gays in Black' marched with a banner proclaiming, 'There's No Pride In Occupation'." Later, a group called Kvisa Sh'chora ("Dirty Laundry") sprang up and began drawing parallels between the oppression of sexual minorities and Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.
The issue was further highlighted in 2002 when Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to formally meet a gay delegation. Activist Hagai El-Ad asked: "Is this an achievement for our community, or an example of a lack of feeling, callousness and loss of direction?"
He continued: "It would be unbearable to simply sit with the prime minister and, on behalf of our minority, ignore the human rights of others, including what's been happening here in relation to Palestine for the past year: roadblocks, prevention of access to medical care, assassinations, and implementation of an apartheid policy in the territories and in Israel.
"The struggle for our rights is worthless if it's indifferent to what's happening to people a kilometre from here.
"All we get by holding the meeting with the prime minister," he concluded, "is symbolic legitimacy for the community. What he gets for sitting down with us is the mantle of enlightenment and pluralism."
This mantle of enlightenment and pluralism does not, however, extend to Israel's treatment of gay Palestinians. For those who face persecution in the West Bank and Gaza, the most obvious escape route is to Israel, but this often leaves them trapped in an administrative no-man's-land with little hope of getting a proper job in Israel and constantly at risk of arrest and deportation.
Meanwhile, as far as the average Palestinian is concerned, fleeing into Israel is a betrayal of the cause, and gay men who remain in the Palestinian territories also come under suspicion - not always without good reason. There have been various reports of gay Palestinians being targeted or pressurised by Israeli intelligence to act as informers. Whether or not they actually succumb to the pressure, all inevitably come under suspicion.
"Gays in Palestine are seen as collaborators immediately," said Ms Morcos.