“Fight Rape” and “Gay is OK”: Gender and Sexual Politics in Beirut Graffiti

By Nadine Sinno
Submitted to Session P4904 (From the Bedroom to the Street: Projecting Gender and Sexuality in Public Places, 2017 Annual Meeting
Cultural Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
During the Lebanese Civil War, Beirut’s visual culture was dominated by posters of political leaders and martyrs, sectarian slogans, and other territorial and terrorizing visual markers as evidenced by studies including Maria Chakhtoura’s La Guerre des Graffiti and Zeina Maasri’s Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War. In the past decade and a half, however, Beirut’s postwar public spaces have been transformed at the hands of both anonymous pedestrians and famous street artists. Calligraffiti murals commemorating (male and female) singers and poets, stencils advocating for social justice, and rushed scrawls proclaiming non-normative sexual identities, now intersect with warlike visual markers and compete with them in the construction and interpretation of space. Such new street artifacts engage with various discourses, including gender and sexuality, in ways that did not exist during the civil war era. Multilingual scrawls such as “Gay is OK,” “fight rape,” and “kissi mish msabbi” (my vagina is not a swearword) and stencils of the “the lady in the blue bra” occupy the city’s walls, thus transforming the public sphere into a polyphonous platform for articulating the evolving concerns and commitments of Lebanon’s youth, beyond the framework of sectarian politics. Engaging with studies of visual culture, gender and sexuality, and spatial theory, this presentation offers a discourse analysis of gender-centered graffiti and street art present in Beirut. I argue that while sectarian militias and their divisive markings still occupy much of Beirut’s public spaces, new civilian actors are staking claim to the city and engraving their aspirations on the walls, including their desires for gender justice and civil society. Such graffiti and street art seeks to expand the discourse on the street from one that venerates political leaders and exacerbates sectarian tensions to one that engages with a number of social issues including homophobia, sexism and gender violence.