Michael T. Luongo originally wanted to call his latest bookGay Travels in Islam
, but the editor thought it was too controversial. Instead it becameGay Travels in the Muslim World
. “I don’t really see a difference,” Luongo told Hair Balls.
Luongo, who lives in New York, was working a travel writer when the 9/11 attacks took place. “That changed my views about everything. I could write about stupid hotels and beaches, but I felt that it’s more important to write about places that people are afraid to go to. The notion of ‘travel in peace’ became important to me. I began to travel more to war zones. In 2003, I made my first trip to Afghanistan.”
But how did 9/11 lead to a book about gay travel in the Middle East?
Luongo had previously covered Morocco, Turkey, Jordan, and Afghanistan for a gay publication. He had also edited a gay travel erotica book and about one third of the stories were by Muslim men or took place in Muslim countries. Once he began his travels to war zones in the Middle East, Luongo quickly saw that what the nightly news was telling Americans and what was actually happening on the ground were different things, especially when it came to homosexuality.
“You see a lot of absolutely horrific news coming from the regions on the topic of homosexuality, but things are more subtle and undefined that what those headlines would tell you. We’ve all heard about the hangings in Iran, the killings in Iraq. And these things are all true and they’re all horrific. But at the same time, you have this underlying acceptance of homosexuality. If you were to actually travel to these regions, you would find that homosexual behavior is shockingly accepted. In the case of Afghanistan, the passes that would be made and the topics of conversation, the talk among Afghan soldiers and Afghan police, men in mosques, about sex between men, it blows your mind. There’s a reality on the ground and then there’s what’s in the news."
Gay Travels in the Muslim World looks at the two ends of the spectrum when it comes to homosexuality in the Middle East. Many of the writers in the book had positive, even surprisingly affirming experiences. But, of course, not all the stories were happy. “One writer is a Palestinian who was raised in Saudi Arabia. His experiences were horrific. He came to the US basically to seek asylum, because his family wanted to kill him.”
Reactions to the book have also been mixed. “Some people are like, ‘What the hell?’” laughs Luongo. “When I have events at colleges, I see lots of young straight Muslim women who come and link the gay rights movement to their own movement for rights. I didn’t expect that. You also have a lot of young people, who are really curious, beyond the gay topic, about daily life in a war zone."
Luongo was set to participate in a Middle Eastern book fair. “The Arab guy that was sponsoring the event said, ‘We’d love to have you.’ Then the British woman in charge of putting the fair together that said no. She had more of a problem with the book than the Arab guy did.”
Some reactions, Luongo takes seriously. “There’s a supposedly Taliban-sponsored web site criticizing the book. I got a phone call from someone at a radio station in the Middle East. He was very curious about the woman I dedicated the book to; he asked a lot of questions about her. Because of that I had to remove her name from subsequent printings,” says Luongo.
“But I haven’t received any direct threats or anything, at least not so far.” That might change soon. A company in Lebanon has bought the rights to translate the book and distribute it in the Middle East. “Yes, maybe that’ll put a target on my back,” Luongo concedes.
— Olivia Flores Alvarez