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Journal of Gender Studies

ISSN: 0958-9236 (Print) 1465-3869 (Online) Journal homepage:

Masculinity, homosexuality and sport in an Islamic

state of increasing homohysteria
Nassim Hamdi, Monia Lachheb & Eric Anderson
To cite this article: Nassim Hamdi, Monia Lachheb & Eric Anderson (2016): Masculinity,
homosexuality and sport in an Islamic state of increasing homohysteria, Journal of Gender
Studies, DOI: 10.1080/09589236.2016.1155979
To link to this article:

Published online: 29 Mar 2016.

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Date: 28 July 2016, At: 22:38

Journal of Gender Studies, 2016

Masculinity, homosexuality and sport in an Islamic state of

increasing homohysteria
Nassim Hamdia, Monia Lachheba and Eric Andersonb

Institute of Sport and Physical Education, Tunis, Tunisia; bDepartment Sport and Exercise, University of Winchester,
Winchester, UK

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Although a considerable degree of research has examined the intersection

of masculinities, sexualities and sport in the West, this is the first article to
address male homosexuality in sport within a Muslim context. To analyze the
intersection of sport, masculinities and homosexuality we interview Ghazi,
20, a competitive male bodybuilder in Tunisia. We utilize his narrative to
illustrate the similarities and differences between the construction of stigma
in both the West and that of Muslim culture in Tunisia. Primarily, we highlight
the profoundly negative representation of homosexuality in Tunisia, and
the broader Islamic social world, and how it affects the construction
and development of masculinity for this Muslim, gay athlete. We utilize
Andersons notion of homohysteria to help situate the relationship between
the expression of femininity and social perceptions of homosexuality in
Tunisian culture, comparing it to the Western zeitgeist three decades earlier.

Received 15 December 2015

Accepted 15 February 2016

Islam; homophobia;
masculinity; homohysteria;
stereotypes; bodybuilding;
sport; gay gaze

There is limited research concerning homosexuality in the Islamic world. The little research that does
exist concerns issues pertaining to Islams rejection of homosexuality, the lack of social acceptance for
sexual minorities, and issues of legal prohibition (El-Rouayheb, 2005; Habib, 2007; Mezziane, 2008).
Furthermore, no empirical research examines the issue of homosexuality and sport in the Islamic world.
These statements extend to the Islamic country of Tunisia (Ben Alaya, 2011), the site of this research.
Here, same-sex sexual relations are religiously taboo and legally prohibited. There is no academic discussion or public discourse about homosexuality in sport in this context.
Like other Asian countries (Whitam, 1983), Tunisia represents a culture in which male homosexuality
is conflated with femininity and physical weakness. Independent of sexuality, men wishing to avoid the
cultural suspicion of being thought gay are culturally impelled to distance themselves from feminized
behaviors or activities, and instead choose to invest in heteromasculine ones.
In this paper, we explore the sport of bodybuilding and its heterosexualizing function for the male
body in Tunisia. We do this through the lens of two in-depth interviews with a closeted gay male Tunisian
competitive bodybuilder. We highlight similarities between sport, masculinity and homophobia in
Tunisia with older literature on sport, masculinity and homophobia in the West (White & Gillet, 1994),
finding that what is occurring in Tunisia today, reflects what occurred in western cultures in the 1980s
(Klein, 1993).

CONTACT Eric Anderson

2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

N. Hamdi et al.

Homosexuality and masculinity under Islam

According to Islamic writings, gender identities are strictly attached to biological sex. It is thought that
the male and female bodies should express binary gender roles because they are understood as being
assigned by God (Mezziane, 2008). The verse that is widely interpreted as promoting a gender binary
(Quran: Surah 30: Verse 21) translates:

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And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquillity in them; and He
placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought.

Within a patriarchal religious system, the predisposition of a man is to occupy a valued position of
power in the social hierarchy (Kligerman, 2007). Being a man in Islam is to be virile, hard, and sexually
abstinent until marriage, but sexually dominant once married (Dialmy, 2009). Departing from any of
these prescriptions is considered a transgression of both cultural norms and religious requirements in
every Islamic culture (Al-Jaziri, 2003; Semerdjian, 2007). Muslim men, regardless of Salafist, Wahabbi,
or Sunni sects therefore remain constrained by a rigid gender role that is thought to be predetermined
by divine will.
Lagabrielle (2006) postulates that men who do not respond to injunctions of the heterosexist order,
namely marriage and procreation, are perceived as dissidents and traitors of the established order: Islam
sees heterosexuality as compulsory and homosexuality as intolerable. However, what it means to be
gay is only partially consistent with what it means in the Anglo-American West. Highlighting this, the
cross-cultural applicability of Western models of homosexuality and gay identities have been problematized because they do not privilege the identity of the penetrative role in same-sex sexual practices
(Almaguer, 1991; Lancaster, 1988; Parker & Caceres, 1999). Men throughout Latin America are reported
to be permitted to penetrate other males and retain or even promote their heterosexuality in the
processes. Mens heterosexuality is thus determined by penetration, not the sex of whom one penetrates.
For example, Azoulay (2011) argues that, in Iran, the man who penetrates women and boys was
seen as hyper-masculine, whereas men who sought sexual submission (mabun) were perceived as a
pervert. Azoulay (2011, p. 261) adds:
where the passive female in Iran is struggling to have her voice heard, the passive homosexual male is struggling to
have his voice recognized at all with his sexual desire for submission, he is plunged into an identifiable category
in which he was neither man nor woman. A category of a third sex Especially when the passive person is Muslim
and the active person [op] is non-Muslim, the passive person is condemned to death.

In this sense, a Hadith of the Prophet quoted by the different schools of Islamic jurisprudence is used
to legitimize the death sentence for homosexual sex in some Islamic cultures. If you find two men
practicing the act of people of Lot, kill the one who has an active sexual role al-fail and the one who
has a passive sexual role almaful bihi (Al-Jaziri, 2003).
One reason why Islam differentiates between these active and passive conditions is because it views
homosexuality as both as an intolerable weakness and anomaly in the construction of masculinity
(Mezziane, 2008). Accordingly, in some Muslim countries, men are willing to engage in same-sex sex if
they are the top, because they can do so without being socially labeled as gay. Highlighting this, it has
been documented that boys in Islamic Northern Africa sought to sexually dominate their male counterparts who are perceived as weak, soft and passive for being dominated (Dialmy, 2009). In fact, 38% of
Dialmys respondents in Morocco considered that being a man does not mean being only heterosexual
but that one must also penetrate other males to be considered masculine.
Kligerman (2007) suggests that, throughout much of Islamic history, sexual relations between men
were tolerated, as long as the actors preserved the image of a good father and husband and only penetrated other men. Accordingly, for a man who is sexually attracted to other men, he must hold social
respect and masculine capital; he must put forth the persona of a heterosexual, masculine identity in
public life.

Journal of Gender Studies

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The Tunisian context

A study by Ferchichi (2011) on law and homosexuality in Arab countries, recently found large disparity
between punishments for same-sex sex: In some countries one gets some months in prison; in others
flogging; and still in others, the death penalty. Tunisia also punishes homosexuality. It follows the Maliki
Sunni school of thought; an Islamic school of jurisprudence which strictly condemns homosexual practices. Malik ibn Anas, founder of the Maliki School of Islamic law argued that sodomites (both active
and passive) will be among the first to burn in the flames of hell (Al-Jaziri, 2003; Semerdjian, 2007).
Ferchichis study also found that Arab legislation do not tackle homosexuality as an identity, they only
same-sex behaviors. In this capacity it is same-sex sex that is prohibited, not the identity of being gay.
Despite this finding, no Islamic culture could be argued to be inclusive of a gay identity. This therefore
also leads to a disparity of how to deal with a gay identity.
Ayatollah Khomeini provided the first fatwa (legal opinion) supporting gender reassignment surgery
for gay Muslims, as a method to correct their sexual desires by aligning them with their sex (Bucar &
Shirazi, 2012). So while this is the cultural force that pushes gay men into gender reassignment surgeries, despite not being transgendered, in some countries, such operations are strictly prohibited
by the law in Tunisia (see Redissi & Ben Abid, 2013). Accordingly, Tunisian gay men are not criminally
prosecuted for identifying as gay; but they are culturally stigmatized. Ben Alaya (2011) even writes that,
in Tunisia, having a gay son is one of the worst things that can happen to the family. Thus, in Tunisia
there is really only one marginally acceptable form of same-sex interactions: It is that of the married
man who penetrates younger men, provided it remains in private and that he does not identify as gay
(Bedhioufi, 2004; Lagabrielle, 2006).

Homoerasure and homohysteria

Recognizing that contemporary taxonomies of sexual identity are the result of specific historical, social
and intellectual circumstances (Greenberg, 1988), Anderson (2009) has argued that western homohysteria is a product of modernity. He suggests that the conditions for a culture to be homohysteric are
the result of the discourses of gender and sexuality that emerged from the second industrial revolution
in the West (Cancian, 1987).
Anderson (2009) suggests that in a culture of low homophobia, there exists less gendered differentiation between the sexes; however, when homophobia is high, a fear of being socially perceived as
gay results in an increased disparity between the gendered spheres of acceptable behaviors (White &
Gillet, 1994). He explicates this social process through his notion of homohysteria, suggesting that it
occurs when three cultural factors are present: (1) widespread awareness that homosexuality exists as
a static and sizable portion of the population; (2) strong cultural homophobia; and (3) the conflation
of male femininity with homosexuality (see McCormack & Anderson 2014a). All three conditions must
be maintained for homohysteria to persist.
In the Tunisian context, the second and third conditions of homohysteria are currently germane.
Furthermore, as the notion of homosexuality is imported from the West the first condition is increasingly
more salient. Just as McCormack and Anderson (2014b) emphasize the importance of the modern gay
identity to notions of homohysteria in America, in Tunisia, homohysteria appears to us (being that two
authors are Muslims living in Tunisia), to be rising in relation to the advancement of this western notion
of gay, its immutability and hegemonic identity.
Accordingly, McCormack and Anderson (2014a) suggest that, as a culture increasingly grows aware
that homosexuality exists both as a static trait and within a significant proportion of its citizenry, it
moves from a culture of erasure of homosexuality to that of homohysteria. This is something occurring
in Tunisia. In other words, whereas homophobia conceptualizes the nature and effects of prejudice and
discrimination against sexual minorities, homohysteria conceptualizes the contexts when homophobia
effects (or is used to police) heterosexual mens gendered behaviors, too.

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N. Hamdi et al.

McCormack and Anderson (2014b) argue that the gendered behaviors of men in the US in the
twentieth- and twenty-first centuries can be categorized into three epochs related to homohysteria:
(1) homoerasure, (2) homohysteria, and (3) inclusivity. A culture of homoerasure is described as one in
which homophobia is so extreme that social and legal persecution force sexual minorities to conceal
their sexual desires and identities. This prevents identity politics from occurring and leads to the false
notion that homosexuality is only located in flamboyant men. In this stage of erasure, it is very unlikely
that how a person acts will result in them being socially perceived as gay. However, matters change
when a population grows aware that homosexuality exists as a static sexual orientation.
For example, McCormack and Anderson describe mid-1980s America as maintaining significant rise
in homophobic attitudes as awareness that homosexuality was represented within the population of
the United States grew (Loftus, 2001). They suggest that this was due to: (1) the AIDS epidemic (Ruel
& Richard, 2006); (2) Fundamentalist Christianity (Marsiglio, 1993); and (3) the politicization of moral
values within the Republican Party (Wood & Bartkowski, 2004). Femininity in men was thought to be
particularly problematic in this culture because it was seen to be evidence of homosexuality (Bird,
1996). A wealth of research from this period shows that males had to distance themselves from homosexuality, socially and attitudinally (Derlega, Robin, Scott, Barbara, & Robert, 1989). Males thus aligned
their gendered behaviors with extreme, idealized, and narrowing definitions of what it means to be
masculine (Connell, 1995).
We argue that in most Arab countries, homosexuality is so vilified that it has been culturally erased as
a concept; virtually non-existent in social debate (Youssef, 2013). While Tunisians are generally opposed
to any public recognition of homosexuality as a possible lifestyle, as with any other contemporary
Islamic culture, they do not readily believe that one of their friends or family members might be gay
(Youssef, 2013). There are, for example, no media rumors about the possibility of famous Tunisians
being homosexual.
However, matters appear to be changing. Recently, the case of a young Tunisian student sentenced
to one-year imprisonment for homosexual conduct has garnered media attention (HuffPost Tunisie1).
As part of an investigation into a homicide, Marwen was accused of being a prostitute, hired by the
victim. An anal examination was even made on Marwen. While Marwen was not prosecuted for murder,
he was for violating Article 230 of the Penal Code for sodomy.
This popularized account reflects that, slowly, Tunisian culture is aware that Tunisians can be gay;
although it still considers homosexuality a disease (Ben Alaya, 2011; Youssef, 2013). In other words, we
argue that Tunisia is beginning to enter a phase of what Anderson (2009) describes as homohysteria,
and thus more explicit laws may soon follow. Evidencing our perceptions, we highlight that whereas
males used to be able to hold hands in Tunisian culture, today this is considered a homosexualizing
activity for those from the age of puberty onwards.
Tunisias growing awareness that homosexuality exists has also recently been addressed by the
Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice; who stated on 4 February 2012 (on Hannibal TV)
that homosexuality is not a human right, but a perversion that requires medical treatment. He added,
They [gays, lesbians and bisexuals] should not cross the red line set by our culture, our religion and
our civilization.2 Ignoring Amnesty Internationals letter,3 which called him to reconsider his statement,
the minister also rejected the recommendations of the United Nations to decriminalize homosexuality
on the grounds that the western concept of sexual orientation is not compatible with Islam. Under
this increasingly homohysteric rubric, a recent survey of 153 undergraduates (Ben Alaya, 2011) finds
that, on measures of disgusting,sick,atheists, and even sub-human, three fourths strongly agree that
homosexual men are all of the above.

Homohysteria and mens sport in Tunisia

Whereas participation in sport was not previously important to Tunisian males, who were presumed
heterosexual in absence of cultural awareness of homosexuality, boys are increasingly turning to

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Journal of Gender Studies

competitive sports. While there is no empirical data on this subject, this is our perception as Tunisian
citizens and scholars.
Whether sport is increasingly popular among young boys or not, however, the structure of Tunisian
sport replicates a spectrum of masculinized and feminized characteristics reminiscent of the West. That
is to say that sports activities follow the classification of Koivula (2001) in terms of some being considered manly sports and others are perceived as either neutral or feminine. Just as with the West, those
labeled as feminine are those played (permitted) for the participation of women. These sports replicate
stereotypical expectations of their femininity: slimness, beauty, aesthetics and softness (Tlili, 2002). By
contrast, mens sports (i.e. masculine sports) require contact and body strength, physical mastery of
the opponent, violence and endurance. Football (soccer) is the most revered male sport in Tunisia. This
dichotomy of masculine and feminine sports is also heavily policed, although as of yet not to the extent
that the mixing of sexes is formally codified men and women are not permitted to exercise in the gym
at the same time. Lachheb (2008, 2013) shows that Tunisian women who play judo or football experience
discrimination because they violate the standards of good femininity. Moreover, sport that is taught
through the educational system is for boys (Tlili, 2002), where Abdelkerim and Ardhaoui (2014) show
that the masculine norms of competition and physical strength are thought to make boys more virile.
Sport is thus understood as an important site for the social construction of masculinity and heterosexual identity reproduction in Tunisia (Hamdi, Lachheb & Anderson, 2015). This is because it sculpts
mens physiques while simultaneously training them to be emotionally stoic and conservative in their
body language and gendered mannerisms. This, consequently, increases their masculine and thus heterosexual capital to ward off homosexual suspicion. Whereas once this may not have been important to
Tunisian males, who were presumed heterosexual in absence of cultural awareness of homosexuality,
increasingly, it is our perception that boys are turning to competitive, combative sports to escape the
stigma of being perceived as gay in Tunisia.

Access to sexual minority populations in Tunisia, or any other Islamic majority nation, is an obstacle
for academic research. This difficulty is amplified when attempting to find someone who is both gay
and an athlete. It is even difficult for the researchers: in this case, the two Tunisian researchers (who
are heterosexual) have suffered social stigma merely for studying this subject. Despite this, we were
able to achieve ethical approval, and then we began looking to interview as many gay male Tunisian
athletes as we could find. We only found one, Ghazi (a pseudonym).
Are route to him was difficult. First, we established credibility in the field by brining in a well-known
gay sport and masculinities expert, Eric Anderson, in order to show that we were legitimate researchers.
Second, we had previously conducted research on the experiences of lesbian athletes and published
it within the Journal of Homosexuality (Hamdi et al., 2015). We were able to show Ghazi, this research,
and the female who helped us locate him assured him we were legitimate. This was a more direct route
than trying to find gay male athletes through the Internet. While there is no indication that the internet
is monitored by the government, and gay websites and aps are not illegal; we wanted to be sure that
the athletes we interviewed were legitimate. This social contact method was more apt for this.
We took a life history approach with Ghazi, who is 20years old, where a participant tells about their
experience through their own understandings (Bertaux, 2005). This approach is thus not invested in
precise truths. Our method does not necessarily mean accurate and well-detailed recitation of events;
memory is understood to be unreliable. However, it provides a general improvisation and contextualization of his lifes events, because he has before him an empathetic listener.
There is as much to be gained from the reflection and consequential retrospective contextualization
of ones life as there is in the details of their experience (Bertaux, 2005). Indeed, a substantial body of
literature has built up recognizing the value of narratives and story-telling in the meaning making of
sexual identities (Anderson, 2005; Plummer, 1995). Given the power of gay identity in the West, the

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N. Hamdi et al.

potential for such narratives to transcend nation state boundaries has important ramifications for how
young people tell their sexual stories in different contexts.
Ghazi was explained the need for the voice recordings of two interviews, and instructed that they
would be deleted after the transcription was made. The first interview was designed to build trust, and
concerned the sport of bodybuilding. Establishing a link based on a mutual trust was viewed as essential
for accessing the most relevant data about his life. Aware of his position as a heterosexual man, the first
author (the only author to interview him) tried to set Ghazi at ease with his words, gestures and nonverbal cues of acceptance of homosexuality. Reputation and trustworthiness was also established through
the fact that the first author had previously interviewed lesbian athletes for a separate research project.
After the first interview, Ghazi agreed to the second, which featured questions about his sexuality
and its influence on his life and sporting career. The interview was conducted in two separate cafes;
the second was known to be a place that gays and lesbians sometimes frequent. Each interview lasted
more than an hour and was recorded on a smart phone instead of a micro-recorder, as not signal to
others that a formal interview was occurring. Once his narrative was transcribed, his contact information
was deleted to protect him.
Our analysis is structured around two key themes to the different axes of the life trajectory of our
participant. The first concerns the social perception of homosexuality and its consequential outcomes
on his life experience. The second focuses on homosexual experiences in the sport of bodybuilding,
which is located within the gym. Analytical interpretation of the narrative was co-constructed and thus
co-verified by the authors. The interviews, conducted in Tunisian Arabic, and translated by the primary
author into English were constructed to be consistent with proper English by the third author, whose
primary language is English.

Social perceptions of homosexuality
Ghazi recognizes himself to be an active, not a passive gay man. This is to say that he is clear to state
that he penetrates other men, but is not penetrated. Originally from an outlying village the young
bodybuilder currently lives in Tunis, Tunisia. He is not out about his sexuality to his family or the public,
but he does navigate limited gay social networks in select cafes (which are also gender segregated).
A reflection of this cultures homophobia is the most salient feature of Ghazis life since he realized
that he was gay around age 16:
Homosexuality in Tunisia is a major sin. It is a dangerous disease and a taboo. It is hated, not tolerated, despised
and sometimes worse than that. Even among those who pretend to be open-minded and understanding, their
ultimate concern is to understand how penetration occurs between two persons of the same sex [not about how
we can love someone of the same sex].

According to Ghazi, our previous interviews with lesbians athletes (Hamdi et al., 2015) and our perceptions of Tunisian culture, matters are worse for gay men than they are for lesbians in Tunisia:
It is more permissible for a woman to be a lesbian, but it is not acceptable for a man to be gay Gays are stigmatized and refuted much more than lesbians. Maybe because gay men lose their sacred masculine identities, and
that is serious in a masculinized society like the ours.

Ghazi confirms that, like in both the West and within Islamic culture, the dominant stereotype about
gay men in Tunisia is that every gay man who receives anal sex is effeminate. He believes that this
effeminacy is the origin of hostility toward them in a way that hostility is not levied against those who
penetrate other men. Supporting his belief, Lagabrielle (2006) and EL-Menyawi (2006) highlight that
there are no words in Arabic [only English] to designate active homosexuals; contrary, Arabic words to
describe passive homosexuals are both multiple and growing.
While Ghazi subscribes to the belief that active gays should be more valued than passive, he does
not define active and passive according to sexual activity, but instead gendered representation. This
may be because he does not frequently talk to men who enjoy same-sex sex and thus may not know of

Journal of Gender Studies

their sexual desires, or sexual roles. Like gay men in the US of the 1980s (Levine, 1992) and perhaps still
to a degree today, Ghazi values the embodiment of masculinity against the stigmatization of embodied
femininity. It is femphobia, not homophobia, which drives his stigma:
There is a difference between a gay and effeminate. I like to be gay and not a sissy. I am a gay man I am against
a homosexual who does not feel masculine, and I feel too masculine believe me It has no relation with being
passive or active. I can introduce you to someone who is hyper-masculine but he is passive in bed.

Ghazi articulates that his femphobic stigma against lesser-feminine gay men is not just a personal
dislike; it is reflected by the Tunisian gay community as well:

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Sometimes you find a gay man with a perfect body and a heterosexual appearance when he sees another gay
effeminate, soft and fragile he insults him by homophobic language, as if he was not gay. He [the masculine gay
man] will shout at him [the feminine gay man] oh what sick, what perverse.

Turning to femphobia to raise ones social status is not new. Heterosexual masculinity has traditionally maintained hegemonic dominance in multiple western contexts (Connell, 1995), where privilege
has, perhaps until recently, been unequally distributed according to ones perceived social identities.
Anderson (2005) has described a stratification of men by suggesting that those with the highest degree
of masculine capital tend to be rewarded, while those who break from norms of heterosexual masculinity face prejudice and discrimination. Thus, attempting to use masculine capital to rise up in a social
hierarchy is common in multiple cultures and this is not the first research to find that gay Muslims
incorporate negative attitudes toward homosexuals, in order to access to the socially privileged group
(Merabet, 2004).
Despite the masculinity that Ghazi both values and embodies, masculine gay men are not immune
from social critique. He suggests that discrimination against gay men most frequently materializes in
the form of verbal harassment:
The most vulgar harassment is very common in the [gay] social space [like this cafe]. Especially for us [compared
with lesbians], we are subjected to all kinds of abuse. Ill be vulgar [in explaining this] but its reality; I apologize!
They call us mwabna4, fags, and atheists. Sincerely, I cannot find connection [to these terms] especially with all the
lexicon of disbelief in God [Ghazi is Muslim].

Homophobic hate speech is understood by Ghazi as a weapon to stigmatize homosexuals, diminish

their self-esteem and their rights to negotiate difference. Eribon (1999) adds that dirty fag and dirty
dyke are forms of verbal abuse designed to inflict emotional damage. Ghazi, however, is only subject
to such discourse when he ventures into locales that are sometimes tolerant of gays and lesbians. For
the most part, he says that he and other sexual minorities avoid social persecution by keeping their
sexuality hidden. They publicly adopt heterosexuality as a sexual identity, a common place survival
tactic in the Islamic world (EL-Menyawi, 2006).
The accuracy of Ghazis life narrative is less important when considering the overarching sense of
fear that he feels in a culture so demeaning of his sexual orientation. Ghazi lives not only in a homophobic culture, but increasingly, a homohysteric culture. Homohysteria manifests in men seeking the
performance of hypermasculinity in order to avoid cultural homosexualization (regardless of ones
actual sexual orientation). It emanates from the fact that, unlike race, age, or sex, ones sexuality is not
markedly visible. This produces the possibility that anyone can be thought gay.
Ghazi indicates that this environment has a direct influence on the beliefs and behaviors of homosexuals. He said that the primary source of stereotypes for homosexuals lies within their physical appearance, their manner, body language, and dress; thus reifying those behaviors/styles dress as domain of
homosexuals. Illuminating the power of homohysteria in homosexualizing behaviors/styles that are
independent of sexual orientation, Ghazi says:
As soon as I arrive to my neighborhood, I change the way I walk and even the position of the backpack and my
clothes I adjusted. I always control my acts because I live in a populace space. Everything must be calculated it
is not like with my friends gays learn to be like chameleons: they change depending to place and circumstances.

These accounts resonate precisely with the way Anderson (2009) describes the operation of homohysteria in the United States, including the way adolescents carried their backpack was coded as gay if

N. Hamdi et al.

both straps were employed, straight if only one was, and that man bags [one strap bags] did not exist
for men. However, Anderson (2009) shows that as homophobia has died, it has lessened homohysteria
in the West so that today adolescents can carry their backpack however they desire without stigma,
and that one-strap bags are very common (Anderson, 2014).
Accordingly, Ghazi strategically selects styles of homosexual or heterosexual in accord to how he
desires to be perceived. He makes a distinction between spaces at risk (like his neighborhood) and
safe(r) spaces, like some cafes. He explains:

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My visibility as a gay man varies according to spaces. It always depends on the environment. For example if Im in
a cafe in my neighborhood, and a stranger comes to ask me about my homosexuality, sorry, Ill tell him fuck off.
You come to me in high school [speaking retrospectively]; it is also the same response. Conversely, if you ask me
about it in a cafe in Marsa [a luxurious area in Tunis] I can identify as gay.

But even in a safe(r) space, where he permits himself to act less masculine than normal, he continues to
reproduce stigma against femininity in order to ward off homosexual suspicion from most caf patrons.
He indicates that he also despises the expression of hyper-femininity among men. At one point during
the second interview he spotted a group of young boys who were presenting a more feminized image.
Ghazi said disparagingly, Here is a sample of Tunisian gays. These people are followers of theaters,
bars and nightclubs. They are always in the company of girls and obsessed by looks and appearance.
This affirmation and negation of homosexual identity highlights that, even in this highly restrictive
culture, there are cracks to the total dominance that heterosexuality maintains. There is something of
a gay culture and visibility; albeit only in more upscale cafs, among select youth, and only in major
cities (Merabet, 2004).

Homosexuality and Tunisian sport

Even in liberal countries like the US and the UK, gay male athletes are underrepresented in sports
that are culturally coded as masculine (Bos, 2009). Ogawa (2014) suggests that there are at least three
potential hypotheses for their absence: (1) Gay men in these leagues remain silent about their sexuality
the silence hypothesis; (2) Gay men choose not to play sports the non-participation hypothesis;
(3) Gay men are less likely than straight men to achieve professional status the selection hypothesis. Unfortunately, researchers examining the issue have no conclusive evidence for any of the three
hypotheses (Anderson, Magrath & Bullingham 2016), but we do know that in America, gay high school
students are more likely to self-select out of macho sports (Zipp, 2011).
Unlike the minimal representation of openly gay men in sport in the western context, there is no
openly gay male or female Tunisian representation in any sport. However, like the eastern context, where
Ferez and Elling (2009)suggest that gays and lesbians are increasingly using gyms (fitness clubs), Ghazis
narrative suggests that this might also be true in Tunisia. He expressed his attraction to bodybuilding
because it might attract gay men. According to him, this sport would be a comfortable and appropriate
setting for gay men for several reasons:
The first time I discovered the world of bodybuilding was a coincidence. I passed by close to the center of town
and heard pop music. So I wanted to take a look, just for curiosity. I liked it, there was a good ambiance, a lot of
materials, many muscular guys [laughs] it was motivatingI started to visit the center [and workout in the gym]
occasionally, and I became addicted.

Ghazi describes the gym as maintaining a homoerotic feel something enhanced by the sex-segregated nature of Tunisian gyms even if he does not hit on, and is not hit on, by other men in the gym.
He thus views his bodybuilding as a paradoxical strategy to both help produce a heterosexual identity
and ward off suspicion of homosexuality, while satisfying at least part of his same-sex desires through
the emersion into a homogenous space of buffed men and visible flesh.
I invested in this area because I really feel that Im a real man not like other gays the qualities of strength, power
and aggressiveness are compatible with my homosexuality. I feel very well when in the gym.

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Ferez and et Elling (2009) state that participation in a specific sport may partly reflect individual taste,
but that it can also reflect the result of the negotiation of the various social constraints, too. Ghazi may
therefore not be alone in his perception that the gym offers a homoerotic environment, and thus is
alluring for men who desire to promote their heterosexual identities while secretly partaking in the
gay gaze. He says, I already know a [closeted] gay boxer that encompasses all these qualities, but of
course he is still in the closet. We tried, but could not secure an interview from this closeted gay boxer.
Ghazi describes his sport as a factor of man production because it includes characteristics of strength,
endurance and self-control. For him, it is not just about doing any sport, but doing a type of sport that
reflects a real powerful man, a heterosexual; and thus Ghazi describes this masculine archetype as an
authentic man. Bos (2009) describes the solitary nature of gyms and fitness centers as partly explaining the gay attraction for these places. Importantly, the constant renewal of customers as well as the
anonymity permits gay men to gaze upon other men without over-gazing at any one particular man
the way one might inadvertently do if playing a team sport which has a finite and stable population
of players (Ferez & Elling, 2009). Ghazi reflects this fact in his opining about why he likes the gym, too:
Being a member of a private gym in Tunis is expensive. So these spaces welcome a specific category of person;
people from the favored class they cannot find in other sports ... also everyday there is new faces and you are not
obliged to know them all. I feel confident and secure over there.

Another advantage of bodybuilding is that it helps men forge a more socially-idolized body, that can
be attractive to potential other gay men in the gym space. Hargreaves (2000, p. 152) argues that in the
gay imagery, musculature increases the homoeroticism of the body. Ghazi also reflects this sentiment:
Sport, and especially fitness, helps me to build a nice and attractive body to seduce guys.
However, the gym is not only a place for practicing sport, but also a suitable environment for socializing with other masculinized men. The gym provides Ghazi a sculpted veneer of heterosexuality for when
he leaves the gym space and this shields him against the homohysteric suspicions of homosexuality
because he does not have a girlfriend. Like competitive contact sports, gyms can serve as a vehicle
through which a dominant ethos of orthodox masculinity is transmitted. Ghazi says that he uses the gym
and his bodybuilding to hide his true sexual identity, and to distance himself from being suspect as gay:
Since we have the notion that the heterosexual is muscular; he is athletic; and he trains, the gym means hyper-masculinity, etc. So people associate it all with virility and also associate virility with heterosexuality they do not
realize that an athlete can be gay.

For Ghazi, sport contributes to a strategy of resistance and prevention against homophobic threats.
He does not use sport for victory, the way it might be used by heterosexual men, but instead for the
mirroring of orthodox masculinity. The better one is at sport, the stronger and more hypertrophic one
becomes, the more tangible the prize immunity from homosexual suspicion. In this sense, lifting
weights could literally save Ghazis life.
Furthermore, just as closeted gay men have been shown to do in other sports in North America
(Anderson, 2005), Ghazi feels that he must outperform his ostensibly heterosexual gym partners. This
is what Bos (2009) calls silent competition. Ghazi explains:
In sport we [homosexuals] must prevail and win the trust of others. We must be like them [heterosexuals] I therefore work hard in the training sessions. I do my best so that they do not remark anything about my homosexuality.
My performance has a strong point that helps me to overcome the criticisms of my surroundings.

Ghazi notes that in accord with silent competition, indirectly, athletes experience victories and defeats
against other gym-goers. The gym serves a place that permits him to gaze with sexual desire upon those
he competes against, but that his gaze is understood as mandating silence:
If you talk about your homosexuality in the club, people around you will treat you as miboun [fag] and be sure they
will stigmatize you because the gym is a small field For this reason I do my coming out well outside of the gym.
Inside is too difficult because I am obliged to talk with them while secretly desiring them.

The silence of the gay gaze is not unique to the gym. Ghazi says that he knows some other gay and
lesbian athletes, and that all of them complain about their situations in their sports. Homosexuals are
stigmatized in sport with all its components, he says.

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N. Hamdi et al.

Despite Ghazis presentation as heterosexual within the gym, and almost all other social spaces
he navigates, just as Anderson (2005) showed with closeted gay American athletes at the time, Ghazi
struggles with his internal desire to come out; to be true to himself and secure both love and sex in
the arms of another male. Because it is not illegal to be gay in Tunisian culture, only to have samesex sex. Ghazi could lead a more honest life. But he would have to be willing to pay the strong social
consequences. Spurred by the enjoyment of once [and only once] having had sex with another male,
he struggles to keep up his heterosexual act within the gym. He finds himself wanting to flirt, to cross
the line. He does this by exchanging glances, and perhaps micro-expressions of sexual attraction. He
senses that others do the same, but says that he is too afraid of the repercussions to follow up on these
exchanges. Above all, he desires a boyfriend.
Another way he momentarily expresses his inner desires, comes through homoerotic banter. He says
that there are activities that simulate gay sex between lifting partners; activities that put them in close
proximity to one another, like mock-fucking each other. Just as Anderson (2014) shows occur among
young heterosexual males in Western sport, he engages in a great deal of homosexually-themed banter
(which ironically confers heterosexuality upon its participants). Ghazi thus sometimes lets out his sexual
desires for other men by pretending to be gay in his pretending to be straight. Sometimes, he worries
that he lets out too much of his true desires so he always concludes the mock sex with an exclamation
that he is not gay, and doesnt like the mock sex. But the truth is, I really like it.

Although a considerable degree of research has examined the intersection of sport, masculinity and
homosexuality in the West, this is the first article addressing this intersection in the Islamic world.
Through interviewing Ghazi, a gay 20-year-old competitive bodybuilder in Tunisia, we help present a picture of the similarities and differences between the construction of stigma in both the West and Muslim
world. Primarily we highlight that Ghazis life-narrative shows the profoundly negative representation
of homosexuality in the Islamic social world, and how it affects the construction and development of
identity of those with same-sex attractions. Ghazi self-identifies as gay, but he only publicly identifies as
such in extremely limited contexts. He suggests that other men, too, privately identify with the western
notion of gay, whilst putting forth a veneer of heterosexuality.
Ghazi has a difficult time identifying as gay for both reasons that he spoke of in this research (religious
antipathy) but also for reasons he did not: namely, Islam is heavily entwined with Tunisian culture and
familial relations (Subhi et al. 2011). Several studies have shown that, like Judaism, Muslim identity is not
only a religious identity, but also an ethno-cultural identity (Hamel, 2012; Jaspal, 2014; Jaspal & Coyle,
2010; Siraj, 2011; Yip, 2004). Lesbians we interviewed in other research in Tunisia suggest that out as
gay would be interpreted as a revolt on both Muslim customs and cultural norms (Hamdi et al., 2015);
even straight women playing sport are culturally stigmatized (Dagkas & Benn, 2006; Dagkas, Benn, &
Jawad, 2011). Something found in other research on athletic. This intersectionality makes coming out
and living with a public, or even a privately held sexual identity as gay, very difficult.
Despite what seems like a very-limited life as a gay man, Ghazi, suggests that he is more open than
many others. He accomplishes this through code switching: swinging in and out of gay and straight
spaces by changing his mannerisms to fit the social expectation of each. He is permitted some flexibility
to joke about homosexuality; to work in close proximity to other young men; to not have a girlfriend;
and to patronize cafes that are sometimes frequented by homosexuals, because his hypertrophic body
publicly signifies that he is heterosexual. He transgresses masculine boundaries enough to let on to
others that he is interested in meeting men; but he must not transgress too far, or he risks facing harassment by straight, as well as other homosexual men. In this capacity, Ghazi benefits from presumed
heterosexuality in the same way thatAllens (1954) showed that most mid-twentieth century Americans
were presumed heterosexual, even when expressing some femininity.
This research makes salient how homohysteria effects Ghazi in that it serves as a powerful policing
agent of gender, as individuals regulate their own and others behaviors to retain heterosexual privilege

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Journal of Gender Studies


(Thorne & Luria, 1986) and avoid homosexual suspicion (McCormack & Anderson 2014b). Ghazis life
narrative thus exemplifies that Tunisia currently seems to exist somewhere between the two states
of homoerasure and homohysteria, as explained by McCormack and Anderson (2014). While there is
not widespread belief that ones friends or family members can be homosexual, there is a notion that
playing the wrong sport or appreciating feminized attire and art are nonetheless signs of it. This is true
of both men and women (Hamdi et al., 2015).
Accordingly, opposite to the newer literature on western masculinities (Anderson, McCormack, &
Ripley, 2016; Branfman, Stiritz, & Anderson, 2016; Kian, Anderson, Vincent, & Murray, in press; Morris
& Anderson, online first; Scoats, Joseph, & Anderson, in press) some of the 1980s and 1990s western
literature on men, sport and sexuality, situated within an Anglo-American culture of homohysteria,
somewhat applies within the Tunisian context. As cultural awareness that homosexuality exists grows,
this will, likely, increasingly apply. Thus far, like American culture in the 1980s, Tunisia represents a culture in which masculine homosexuality is conflated with femininity and physical weakness. Therefore,
men, gay or straight, wishing to avoid the cultural suspicion of being thought gay are culturally forced
to distance themselves from feminized terrains, and instead choose to invest in hetero-masculine environments. This homophobia induced femphobia is the same that Pronger (1990) attributes to Canadian
sport in the 1980s and Messner (1992) to American sports.
Given this context, Ghazi values bodybuilding because, currently, it is socially coded as a heterosexual
enterprise, while simultaneously offering him homoerotic excitement. He exists in this space in a state
of dissonance: somatically desiring sex with those hardened and toned bodies, but fearing reprisal if
that knowledge is made publicly available. He is not alone: Regardless of the sport, we are aware of
no openly gay Muslim male or female athlete anywhere in the world. Thus, Ghazi, like countless other
Muslim athletes across the globe, remains locked in the closet, in order not to endanger his sporting
career, or his freedom. As the growing awareness of homosexuality is imported into the Islamic world
from the West, gay life for Ghazi is likely to be more difficult in the near future.

Dsinformations dans l'affaire du Tunisien condamn pour pratiques homosexuelles: Un mdia accus de
diffamation, HuffPost Tunisie, Par Monia Ben Hamadi, Publication 30/09/2015, http://www.huffpostmaghreb.
Amnesty International (AI). 20 September 2012. Tunisia: Amnesty International Regrets Rejection of
Recommandations Regarding Decriminalization of Defamation, Non-discrimination Against Women and on the
Basis of Sexual Orientation, and Abolition of the Death Penalty. AI Index: MDE 30/009/2012.
Mwabna is the plural term of ma'bn: word used in the Tunisian dialect which means passive homosexual. This
term is derived from the root ubnah that is often mentioned in Arabic literature (adab) to return to passivity or a
disease subsided by penetration.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Notes on contributors
Nassim Hamdi is a PhD student at the Institute of Sport and Physical Education in Tunis, Tunisa. He studies sport as related
to contemporary Tunisia, including the experiences of sexual minorities in sport.
Monia Lachheb is an assistant professor at the Institute of Sport and Physical Education in Tunis, Tunisa. She studies sport
as related to contemporary Tunisia.
Eric Anderson is professor of Sport, Masculinities & Sexualities at the University of Winchester. He holds four degrees, has
published 12 books, over 50 peer-reviewed articles, and is regularly featured in international television, print and digital
media. He is recognized for research excellence by the British Academy of Social Sciences and is a fellow of the International
Academy of Sex Research. His work shows a decline in cultural homohysteria leading to a softening of heterosexual


N. Hamdi et al.

masculinities. This permits heterosexual men to kiss, cuddle and love one another; and promotes inclusive attitudes toward
openly gay athletes and the recognition of bisexuality. His sexuality work finds positive aspects of non-monogamous
relationships and explores the function and benefits of cheating.

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