School of Public Policy Capstones

The Double Closet: The Case for Sexual Orientation Programming in Arab American Communities in the United States

Jennifer L. Smith, University of Massachusetts - Amherst


Arab Americans who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) face a compounded difficulty known as the “double closet” effect, in that they not only encounter racism and homophobia from society as a whole, but also face racism from within the LGBT community as well as homophobia from within the Arab American community (Gittens and Smith. 2009:1). Based on the most conservative available data, it is estimated that there are approximately 60,800 LGBT Arab Americans in the United States; however, other reports show this number could be as high as 193,800 (ACS. 2010; Gates. 2011; AAIF. 2012).1 Underrepresented populations, particularly those populations who are marginalized and discriminated against, are typically the same populations most in need of organizational support and access to essential services. A large but mostly invisible population, LGBT Arab Americans lack access to organizational support and cultural resources which incorporate the topic of sexual orientation into their mission and programming. This paper presents the findings of a collaborative investigation into the programs offered by U.S.-based organizations serving Arab American communities. Of thirty-seven organizations identified, twelve senior staff members and executive directors (n=12) participated in this study, which was administered through a series of electronic surveys. Although both the literature and the findings of this study confirm a substantial need for as well as a sizable interest in providing this programming, the vast majority of the organizations surveyed stated that they do not offer any programming relating to sexual orientation. The findings reveal that Arab American community and organizational leaders are essential to reversing the organizational trends which lead to perpetuating the double closet, but that they need to be informed and convinced of the significance and urgency of this need. The development of a singular targeted program, then, does not address the systemic issues that result in this gap. This study recommends an informational campaign which serves to provide these leaders with the framework with which to move forward in the discussion, development, and implementation of culturally competent sexual orientation programming.