Was Arafat Gay?

7.29.2007

By James Kirchick

Once again, the rumor that Yasser Arafat was gay is making headlines. In July, Ahmad Jabril, the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, the Marxist Palestinian resistance movement based in Damascus, Syria, told Al-Manar television what had long been known in diplomatic circles: that Arafat died of AIDS. ''To be honest, the French gave us the medical report, that stated that the cause of Abu Ammar's death was AIDS.' I am not saying this'they did,' Jabril quotes officials from Fatah, Arafat's political fiefdom.

That Arafat died of AIDS does not necessarily mean that he was homosexual. The prevalence of AIDS among heterosexuals in Africa destroys the perception that AIDS is a 'gay disease.' But considering the decades-long rumors that have been circulating about Arafat's homosexuality, most notably publicized in the memoirs of Ion Mihai Pacpea (the former head of Romanian intelligence and the highest-ranking intelligence officer to have defected from the Soviet Union), that Arafat potentially died of AIDS is but more evidence for what many have long suspected about the late Palestinian nationalist leader's sexuality.

Pacepa recounted a conversation with a Romanian general, Constantin Munteaunu, tasked with training Arafat. 'I just called the microphone monitoring center to ask about the 'Fedayee,'' explained Munteaunu. (Fedayee was Arafat's code name.) 'After the meeting with the Comrade, he went directly to the guest house and had dinner. At this very moment, the 'Fedayee' is in his bedroom making love to his bodyguard. The one I knew was his latest lover. He's playing tiger again. The officer monitoring his microphones connected me live with the bedroom, and the squawling almost broke my eardrums. Arafat was roaring like a tiger, and his lover yelping like a hyena.'

If you can, put the image of a sexually aroused Yasser Arafat 'roaring like a tiger' to rest. How ought those party to the Arab-Israeli conflict respond to this news?

An honest reckoning on behalf of the Palestinians would be a good start. That Israel somehow killed Arafat is a conspiracy theory that still gains a great deal of traction in Palestinian society. Never mind that throughout his later days Arafat had an immune system'suppressing blood disease, lost 1/3 of his weight, and was suffering from mental dysfunction, all tell-tale signs of AIDS. In the popular Palestinian narrative, the menacing Jews poisoned Arafat, just like they poison Palestinian drinking wells or use Muslim blood to bake their bread. The Palestinians' denial that Arafat might have been gay is indicative of a broader self-delusion on their part to deny uncomfortable realities, the most prominent of which is the fact that a sovereign Israel is not going away.

While Palestinians deny, some conservative, pro-Israel commentators have jumped upon the latest revelation to not-so-subtly impugn gays. They relish the fact that Arafat was not just a terrorist, but a homosexual terrorist. Mark Steyn wrote a mocking post titled 'No Fatah, No Fems' (mocking gay personal ads that warn 'No Fats, No Fems,' on the National Review blog. Writing on the American Thinker, a popular conservative blog, James Lewis wrote of Arafat's 'malevolent narcissism,' a common trope used to disparage gay men with AIDS, and declared that 'Arafat's attitudes about sex no doubt applied to his politics and warmaking as well,' quite the armchair psychoanalysis (does having a hedonistic sex life translate into support for terrorism?). But it's not Arafat's rumored homosexuality that made him a disreputable character, it's that he was a murderous thug. Anyone can be gay. Just as there are gay heroes in history'Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing, maybe even Abraham Lincoln'there are gay villains too.

As for Arafat's fellows in the Palestinian liberation movement, it makes perfect sense for his Arab enemies to publicize their contention that Abu Amar was a vulgar homosexual: Palestinian society'like Muslim society in general'is violently homophobic. The harassment and torture of homosexuals is a tried-and-true practice of the Palestinian Authority, and a burgeoning gay underground of refugee Palestinian homosexuals thrives in Tel Aviv, the gay capital of the Middle East. When Hamas gunmen raided Fatah offices in Gaza following their violent takeover of the territory in June, its operatives told Western media outlets that they had seized evidence of 'corruption, collaboration with Israel, and a total lack of morals, including homosexual relations between officials.' Even though it is not Hamas indulging in the latest revelations about Arafat's sexuality, Arafat's supposed homosexuality and death from AIDS fits well with their narrative that the secular Fatah is little more than a gang of kleptocratic narcissists bent on sacrificing the future of the Palestinian people for their own self-enrichment. Homosexuality is just another indication of their corruption.

That this latest accusation comes from the PFLP'a secular, Marxist group'ought not come as a surprise either. The assumption that the left universally supports gay civil rights does not apply to doctrinaire Marxists, many of whom see homosexuality as a bourgeois practice standing in the way of the mighty class revolution.
If Arafat ever lifted a finger to stop the Palestinian Authority's persecution of gays, then the rumors about his sexuality would not matter. But the fact that he was widely alleged to have had gay affairs while simultaneously looking askance at violently homophobic policies makes his sexuality relevant.

Arafat was and remains a hero to the Palestinians. This is regretful and indicative of the glaring problems in Palestinian society. A man whose life was defined by the murder of innocents and political rejection, both at the expense of his own people, is hardly the sort of figure who ought be the subject of nationalist hagiography. But such is the reality of Palestinian politics. At the very least, the Palestinians ought to have the honesty to accept that the father of their nationalist movement might have been gay. Once they do'and reflect that realization in their culture'perhaps Palestinian gays will no longer feel the need to seek refuge in the monstrous Zionist entity.

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