Assem Al Tawdi, a hero that puts a face on Arab LGBT rights movement
Assem Al Tawdi, founder of arabs4tolerance shares with us in this interview his life experience regarding gay rights activism.
Assem: I started my site arabs4tolerance.org about a year ago. And I did that because I felt and still feel that the prejudice and hate we (LGBT people) face in the Arab world is due to extreme ignorance and to the fact that we are not publicly visible.
People only know what others have told them, what has been passed down from one generation to the other and it is FALSE and extremely inaccurate information. And there is nobody out there from our society to correct or challenge the myths that exist about us.
Thus, the mission of my site and my own mission really is to educate people; to address the ignorant arguments / statements out there and nullify them.
Gayday: Tell us a little about yourself, your activism and the You Tube channel?
Assem: My YouTube channel takes my site one step further and that is to put a face – a person – for people to see, to become VISIBLE to others. To let people know that we exist, that I’m a regular guy just like any other guy and I differ in one thing: my sexual orientation. It’s for people to have a reference point, to show them that here I am: an Egyptian gay man just trying to live my life with it’s day to day challenges.
I was born in Qatar and went to school there till I was 8. I attended the Doha Independent School. From there my family and I moved to London, England where we lived for 2 years. And from there my father was transferred to India but my mother, sister and I moved to Cairo, Egypt instead.
I attended the British International School in Zamalek and graduated from the American University in Cairo in 1998. I started working as a teacher that Fall.
I lived in Egypt until August 2001 when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I have been living here ever since. Throughout all that, I was gay. I am still gay and always will be gay. Nobody “made” me “this way”, I did not “choose” to be gay, I was not sexually abused and I’m not mentally ill. I am a human being who happens to be gay. That’s all. I am hoping that people will see me and us just as that and realize that what people have been telling them about gay people is completely inaccurate and incorrect.
I have also made a few videos intended for LGBT Arabs. The message there is from them to know they are not alone and that there is nothing wrong with them. To love themselves for who they are without shame or guilt.
Gayday: What main life changing challenges did you come across?
Assem: A lot – I could write a book! But one experience that definitely rocked my world was the police raid on the Queen boat on the early morning of May 11, 2001. That was and continues to be the biggest police raid of its kind. 55 people – which later became 52 – were arrested or were said to be arrested on the boat that night/morning.
I was on the boat while the undercover police were arresting the men. For some reason, the police did not arrest me – even though one of them interrogated me – and I managed to literally walk off the boat and walk/run back home. My friend was there with me that night and he was arrested.
What happened to these men during their detention in the police station and what happened to them after that in prison and in court in addition to the lies and scandalous reporting in the Egyptian and Arab media – all made me realize that I was not safe anymore and that I needed to get out of there (the country). For me and for my family. My picture, my name, my place of work could have been in the newspapers too and my family would have been humiliated and probably harassed.
Gayday: Some think that we shouldn’t advocate for Tolerance yet Respect. We tolerate ‘negativities’. What do you think about this?
Assem: For me, tolerance goes hand in hand with respect. For me tolerance means respecting others that are different from you even if you do not agree with them. Even if you think they are wrong. I have my own opinions, my own views, my own beliefs that may be different from yours. My sexual orientation or gender identity may be different from yours or from the majority but that does not mean that I am wrong and you are right or vice versa. We are different and that is all. You should not force your beliefs on me and I should not force my beliefs on you.
People who are LGBT already coexist with everybody else in the Arab world – we are your brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, friends and in some cases your mothers and fathers. We are just not “out”. We are not free to be who we are without fear of persecution whether that be in the form of ridicule; verbal, emotional, physical and/or sexual assault; imprisonment and in some cases death. Right now, the majority of people in the Arab world are not willing to tolerate our existence.
Gayday : Would you like address a word to our readers?
Assem: To your LGBT readers, I want them to know that they are not alone, that there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with them. I want them to feel no shame and no guilt. I want them to know that it got better for me – A LOT better. And it can get better for them too. It will take time but it will happen.
For your non-LGBT readers, I want them to know that we are not a threat to them in any way. If they are going to judge me, I want them to judge me by the content of my character and not by my sexual identity. They do not have to like me. But they have to respect me. We have been a part of their life for thousands of years and we will always be. We are not going anywhere.
Gayday: thank you so much, pleasure speaking with you.
Assem: My pleasure, thanks for having me.
You can follow Assem on twitter here.
Check Assem’s latest video to the Arab LGBTs – a message with love (in Arabic):