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 LGBTIQ* 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’
This restrictive label ignores the importance of the Lebanese drag queen scene. Many drag queens in Lebanon raise political issues and challenge the patriarchal system. Despite legal discrimination and a lack of tolerance for diversity when it comes to sexuality and gender, a scene that fundamentally questions heteronormative structures and takes a stand against the traditional concept of gendered roles in society has established itself in Beirut during the course of the past year.
Against the backdrop of article 534 in Lebanon which criminalises “sexual intercourse contrary to nature” and therefore, to this day, makes gender and sexual diversity a punishable offence, drag shows which involve a conscious flouting of gender norms require great courage and grit. The law itself does not explicitly define the term “contrary to nature” and instead leaves it up to individual judges. However, based on the predominant heteronormative value system, anything queer – that is to say anything that does not fit the template of the ruling value system – is regarded as “contrary to nature” and therefore both unacceptable and subject of prosecution.
Although Lebanon is still dominated by the idea of male female duality along with traditional gender roles within families), drag queens question this concept during their performances by wearing clothing and cosmetics typically attributed to females. By donning wigs, make up, dresses, high heels, nail polish and jewellery, they offer a gender fluid and tolerant alternative to the predominant static and heteronormative world view.
Some proprietors make their clubs or bars available for these drag shows and, in doing so, give people the option to abandon the traditional gender roles society has forced them, slipping 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, these subjects are made approachable.
Through their choice of unconventional clothing, drag queens often risk public discrimination as well as conflict and even broken ties with their own family. Because family values are held in high regard in Lebanon, the majority of people aim to maintain the male female duality and a traditional family image. When it comes to gender and sexuality, diversity is not recognised and there is a widespread lack of knowledge about the subject itself. For example, this frequently leads to homosexuality and transgender being confused out of sheer ignorance. Traditionally, masculine attributes such as (physical) strength, dominance, heterosexuality and insensitivity are attributed to men. Anything that deviates from this static model is perceived as an indication of weakness and is therefore not accepted in society. This lack of acceptance within many families can lead to personal identity conflicts which arise from societal and familial pressures and can oftentimes only be resolved during the drag queen performances.
While social and familial pressures prevent living out part of one’s own identity, these evenings uniquely create a platform for individuality and diversity. In addition, following their performance, each drag queen has the opportunity to comment and expand on their (political) background. These moments reveal that it is about much more than merely imitating famous people. For the stage is more often than not dominated by serious topics like suicide prevention, instead of entertaining jokes or comedic interludes. All in keeping with the principle: ‘You are not alone, we have been through it as well and we’re here for you’. That may sound cliché but, given the taboos on these subjects in all other facets of life, its impact should not be underestimated. The enormous familial and societal pressure frequently leads to depression or suicidal thoughts in those affected and professional therapeutic help is beyond financial reach for most drag queens. As a conversation about these problems with their family members would amount to outing themselves, most of the drag queens that struggle with psychological problems tend to not speak about it. Professional help, meanwhile, is expensive, and most could only cover with the support of their parents, making it not really an option.
Against this background, the drag queen shows assume even greater political and social relevance. They provide the opportunity to exchange experiences with others as well as to lend support and be supported. And it is for good reasons that drag queens who pass on their experiences of performing and styling tips to younger individuals call their protégées ‘drag kids – an alternative family structure so to speak, a safe space in which identity conflicts can be resolved and where every day 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