Meet The Lebanese Drag Queen Living A Double Life

A new short film follows Anya Kneez as she struggles to live in the Arab world - a place where homosexual acts are illegal

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In 2012, Anya Kneez left Brooklyn after 23 years and moved back home to live with her parents in Beirut, Lebanon. In New York, she could live her life as she saw fit: hitting up the city's clubs in her finest drag. Yet five years later, at 28, Anya still struggles with the values of a Middle Eastern society that refuses to accommodate her chosen lifestyle.

Homosexuality is still technically illegal in Lebanon, due to an article that prohibits sex against the 'laws of nature' yet, paradoxically, there are a handful of famous drag queens who perform in Beirut's gay clubs - Anya being one of them.

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A new short documentary, directed by Mohamad Abdouni, offers a glimpse into the life of a man who must either go back in the closet or challenge the values of her family and community. Anya Kneez is her drag queen name, and when in this mode uses the pronoun 'she', but can't reveal her real name (out of drag) due to obvious security reasons.

A Queen In Beirut brilliantly captures the often confused relationship she has with the society in which she lives, while celebrating Beirut's burgeoning queer culture.

ELLE chatted to Abdouni about the risks involved in releasing the film, RuPaul's Drag Race (naturally) and why everyone has suddenly seen Paris Is Burning.

Scroll to the bottom to watch the documentary in full.

Why did you decide to make this film?

Aside from being an amazing drag queen, Anya happens to be my best friend. So it was bound to happen at one point. Even if she doesn't do it in broad daylight, it's still quite dangerous to be a drag queen in Beirut – it's frowned upon. So I wanted to document this person that I thought was very brave to do what she does in this country.

ANYA KNEEZ: A Queen in Beirut | ELLE UK
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How big is the drag queen scene in Beirut?

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Not very, but it's burgeoning. That is, if not entirely, in big part thanks to Anya. When she moved back to the Middle East, she thought it would be impossible to pick up drag but she started doing shows as 'Anya' and everyone slowly became familiar with the idea.

Even within the community itself, drag queens weren't really prominent six or seven years ago. The exception is Bassem Feghaly - he's a 'celebrity female impersonator' who is hailed by audiences old and young on national TV. He's a drag queen, at the end of the day, but isn't looked at as a drag queen so is therefore accepted by a wide audience.

Homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon – how dangerous is it for Anya to be out in drag?

The [drag] nights take place in clubs that are very secure. It's illegal to have gay clubs in Beirut but they exist. And it's not like there's one or two, there's quite a few. They exist because they're secure; deals happen with the armed forces, or bribes and some have existed for decades so they've become landmarks.

Once inside those clubs it's safe, and she's safe. What's dangerous is the commute. If she's performing and she cannot get ready at the venue – she has to get ready at home and travel in – then her nerves start chattering because she has to be on the road in drag. And that can be really dangerous.

Has Anya experienced abuse from others?

Funnily enough, out of drag more than in drag. We were both stopped at a checkpoint, and the officers made a point of making very nasty comments about the rings that Anya was wearing. They asked if he was part of the circus – that sort of thing.

Did you learn anything about this world that you didn't know beforehand?

I realised my best friend is much more fragile than I ever thought he would be, but equally much stronger.

In the film we hear Anya's dad spits at the TV when a news bulletin mentions gay marriage being legalized in California. Is that kind of attitude changing now?

Slowly but, yes, definitely. There's more drag queens and Vogue-ers coming out. A queer scene has finally taken shape as a culture rather than just gay folk.

All of a sudden everyone in Beirut has seen Paris in Burning, which people hadn't heard of six years ago. It's not just Anya obviously, it's RuPaul's Drag Race, too. But locally Anya played a huge part in making it okay to come out in your own colours and feathers and just do your thing.

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Are you worried about potential backlash?

Anya's parents and family still don't know he's gay, or a drag queen – they think all the clothes he owns are for styling purposes. It's coming out with no turning back, I guess. Anya's parents are very old school - no internet, no Facebook. If it's not on the eight clock news, they're not going to know about it. I'm worried too, about directing something like this and advocating for queer life/culture in place where it isn't allowed.

A judge recently issued a court order saying homosexuality is a 'personal choice, and not a punishable offense.' Do you think it's a sign of things to come?

Yes, hopefully, and we hope this film helps. We're trying to normalise something that should already be normal. We're telling Lebanese people who have this prejudice against drag queens and gays that, at the end of the day, everyone is the same. [Being in drag] is just a hobby.

This is still someone who goes to work, supports his family, has insecurities. I also wanted to convey from someone who lives in Beirut, and is part of this queer culture, that it's not all sad. It's not all tragedy, you know? It's fun, these things happen and there is a place for this to blossom.

Watch the full documentary (produced in collaboration with Cold Cuts) below:

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