Kevin Steen is currently a senior majoring in Linguistics and Middle East Studies. In the Spring of 2012, he spent a semester abroad in Jordan and was able to study in the University of Jordan. Kevin was also chosen to be the resident advisor for the Rainbow Floor at Century Apartments. Read about his experience at Amman, Jordan and what goals he has this year for the Rainbow Floor and its residents.
What was your most memorable experience abroad in Amman, Jordan?
Probably my most memorable experience was going to Wadi Rum, which is a big, beautiful, expensive desert with mountains. In the village of Wadi Rum lived the Bedouin, who lived there for who knows for how long. There I met a Bedouin guy named Salewa, through a friend, who introduced us and took us through this awesome trail through one of the mountain canyons, and we had to walk a long way around the mountain in sand with our giant backpacks on. There we spent the night in the desert inside our own tent. In order to get home, we had to hitchhike, which I was nervous about but we ended up getting picked up by a tour bus.
Can you describe the challenges that LGBTQ people face in Jordan?
The main challenge for them is that people don’t talk about it! It is really easy for people to pretend that it doesn’t exist in a place where the only attention it gets in the public realm is the occasional report about some gay prostitution ring being busted up. They also report on transgender prostitution rings and whether or not that’s true, I don’t really know but I’m sure that people who identify as queer have to go underground in a lot of ways. There’s no venue to voice concerns and there’s no organization to really turn to for legal protection. I will say that queer individuals generally don’t face any kind of explicit violence. You can be out and proud, walking down the street and people are not going to attack you. People will disapprove of you, you may not have a lot of friends but it will be unlikely that you would face physical harm. Of course, there’s no protection if your landowner wants to kick you out or if your boss wants to fire you – coming out in Jordan means coming out in a predominantly Muslim society without legal protections which could lead to people losing their entire lives. A lot of them do end up on the streets and turning to prostitution.
What LGBT activist did you meet while you were there?
I met Kali (Khalid) who was forcibly outed by the media when he was about 18 and he was the face of gay Jordan for a long time in the most negative way possible so any news report that came out relating to the queer community always had his face on it. He didn’t like it but he was outed after he was found out to be participating in queer spaces. There are queer spaces where people can hang out. Specifically, there is one street in town called Rainbow Street and it is sort of the expat street where a lot of Americans go, there are more American styled bars there. (Note: Drinking is legal in Jordan, although it is also very expensive, highly taxed, and frowned upon because Muslims generally don’t drink.) There are a few bars that are designated as safe spaces, or queer spaces where a lot of the people there are queer but it is just something you don’t talk about. So you can go to those spaces where they would have parties and dance pretty close to someone you really like but you’re not going to be able to make out or hold hands with someone of the same gender. These parties are often broken up by police officers who come in saying that they’ve received a tip that there are drugs being distributed or something like that, which is common. They don’t arrest anyone typically but parties usually get shut down if it gets too rambunctious. Kali may have been outed at one of those parties.
Kali started this new magazine that is a couple years old now and it’s called My.Kali and it’s the first (online) venue where people can voice their concerns about the queer community and have discussions about what it is like to be gay in Jordan in the Muslim world. The government does have control over information in Jordan but they haven’t shut it down. It’s all online and a lot of the contributors are anonymous but a lot of them aren’t. On this site, people are coming out, speaking out, and making alliances with celebrities who are coming out with support of this magazine and support for this cause. They are having a lot of features with these celebrities and little by little, this new movement is gaining momentum and they’re getting the word out.
As the RA for the Rainbow Floor, what are some goals you have for the year?
I have a lot of goals as RA for the Rainbow Floor. In the past, I’ve known that the Rainbow Floor has had great programming and it is a really fun community to be a part of. People have come here to explore their identities with all these awesome programs that open doors for them to speak with one another as well as with their RA. I’ve heard really great things about past Rainbow Floor RAs. This year I really started thinking about what is the point of the Rainbow Floor. We all know that it is a place for all identities and a place for all of us to feel safe and come together to build community but I’ve been thinking and asking myself what do I have on my agenda? What do I want people to think about the Rainbow Floor for years to come? What do I want people to learn as a resident here and how do I want to do that? Vincent and I developed some learning outcomes this year and one of them that I feel very passionate about is connecting Rainbow Floor residents to the greater LA queer community, and not just LA but also United States and even beyond. Residents on the Rainbow Floor, whether they know it or not, are definitely leaders in the queer community because people know that the Rainbow Floor exists and see it as a place where queer people gather. I just really want to impart that to the residents and really encourage them to act on that and be knowledgeable of resources for the rest of campus and beyond as well because we represent USC. I would say that my goals for the Rainbow Floor is connecting residents to Los Angeles and giving them a global perspective on queer issues and provide them with the resources for those who are dealing with identity issues or even personal struggles that may or may not have to do with their queer identity. It is very important to be aware of personal needs of each resident and be able to be flexible and react well in order to provide resources for them.
What words of advice do you have for first year students (on how to get involved on campus)?
When I came in as a Freshman, and a spring admit, I had a really hard time plugging into the queer community on campus. I think I was really nervous and wasn’t really out and assertive in making friendships. I went to events and felt a bit left out and didn’t feel like I was a part of the community so I sought out other places that weren’t particularly queer spaces but I turned them into queer spaces. I would suggest finding your interests, connecting with people on campus. There are so many queer organizations, especially devoted to freshmen like FAB and uRap. I think uRap is such a great place to go and have discussions with people that you haven’t really met or gotten to know before. You could walk in for your first week in the middle of the semester without having met anyone and really connect with someone then have coffee with them afterwards. uRap is just a really unique program to USC and a really great place to start. But I also think it’s really good to have our queer community branch out a bit and do things that aren’t necessarily associated with the Rainbow Floor or QuASA or the LGBT Resource Center. I was a part of Trojan Knights and that is still a major network for me. I really get along with those guys; they’ve helped me and I’ve helped them. I really encourage people to take the plunge and go to that extra meeting that maybe they don’t have time for but it peaks their interest. They have four years so whatever they do their first year is only what they’ll do their first year. They may find another interest afterwards.
Besides being an RA for the Rainbow Floor, Kevin is actively involved with the Queer and Ally Student Assembly as well as Trojan Knights.