A tweet could have changed my life. One hundred and forty characters of high school heresy spewed forth into the cyber world by the student council president left me outed in Egypt. She, the high school president, tweeted to her hundreds of fellow student followers that I was gay. In a country where rumour spreads faster than truth, I was at the center of a whopper. Cyber slander that could have landed me an outcast, and I had only just arrived.
The only proof to verify my “depravity”, as it is considered in most parts of the Middle East, was a witnessed account of my playfulness on the jungle gym with my Grade 1 and 2 students during their PE class. As I came to understand, Middle Eastern countries are deeply patriarchal and traditionally, men don’t play with children. However, my love of fun was enough to condemn me to a potential fate of segregation, harassment and exclusion from a society with little to no regard for its underground and seldom heard from LGBT community.
It was only last year that one of Egypt’s top diplomats told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that in the Middle East “Gays are not real people.” Politicians from around the country regularly call for executions of homosexuals, or at least, for them to be sent to prisons, or mental institutions to be cured of their own “depravity”. The now infamously heavy-handed Egyptian police have a long history of arresting men on suspicion of being gay, citing their “satanic” and “lewd” conduct that violates Egypt’s strict Public Order and Public Morals code. So, it doesn’t take much to appreciate my concern that too many people might hit the retweet button.
This quick condemnation should be no surprise given the recent baseless accusations that were hurled at two fellow Canadians, John Greyson and Dr. Tarek Loubani. During their detention, they faced allegations ranging from murder to inciting violence. With no crime greater than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, these two men were thrown in prison for 7 weeks, tortured, and kept in abysmal, cockroach infested conditions. Greyson and Loubani paid in full to the notorious Middle Eastern misinformation mill, just as imprisoned Canadian Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy is now. Thankfully, I got a discount.
When I came to school the day after the tweet, the administration had already taken action. The school director had been alerted by a colleague to the slanderous tweet and had no tolerance for such accusations and got to work at setting the record straight. Pun intended. Having just been flown in from Canada, I was a considerable investment and this rumour could not reach the parents. The SC president was forced to delete the Tweet, stripped of her role as president, sentenced to a weeklong in-school suspension and was told to apologize to me. The punishment seemed severe, but in an unpredictable political landscape and an increasingly Islamicized Egypt, it was necessary. If the tweet had made the rounds my students would no longer have respected me, most of my colleagues would have shunned me, and many parents would have refused to let me, a gay man, teach their children. I would have been forced to flee.
When the time came for my teenage accuser to apologize, she knocked on my staff room door and entered. She twiddled her hands nervously and looked distractedly at her feet, reflecting my own unease with the situation. She said she now understood the potential impact her tweet could have had. She was sorry and I forgave her. I did my best to be a teacher and told her that when we find ourselves in positions of power, we have to be accountable for the things we say, even if they take form in a tweet. As she left the staff room, with what I hoped was a lesson, I wondered what would have happened if I were actually gay?