A Place for LGBTQ Rights in the Arab World?

A comparative glance at LGBTQ rights and how to advance them in different countries

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A Place for LGBTQ Rights in the Arab World?
Members of the Lebanese LGBT community wave rainbow flags as they sail along the famous Raoucheh (Pigeon Rock) landmark in the capital Beirut on May 17, 2019/Marwan Tahtah/AFP via Getty Images

Over a year has passed since Mounir Baatour announced in August 2019 that he was running for the presidency in Tunisia as the first openly gay candidate. But becoming the country’s — and the modern Arab world’s — first openly gay leader did not go as he had hoped. A month after the presidential campaign, Baatour fled to France to seek refuge from the death threats he received from Islamist parties in Tunisia.

“My house and office were placed under police custody because I was threatened to be killed. And I was notified by the police that there were actual plans being prepared to kill me,” he told Newlines in a phone interview. “I will never return to Tunisia so long as Islamists are influencing the ruling power in the country.”

While Baatour has become a poster child for LGBTQ activists, gender and sexual identity are not the only struggles that shape the LGBTQ experience in the Arab world. Governments in the region vary in their disregard for human rights in general — and LGBTQ rights in particular — and they all participate in disseminating homophobia through policies and the persecution of the LGBTQ community, often emboldening abuse and lynching.

But for Baatour, taking such a public stance on LGBTQ rights was worth it. He views his presidential candidacy as a political strategy to encourage the 26 presidential candidates at the time to express their opinions about LGBTQ rights.

“This was a successful attempt that let the public know who were the candidates supporting gay rights,” he said. “Among the 26 candidates, 20 expressed their opinions about the LGBTQ cause, ranging between opposition and support.”

From his safe haven in France, where he is a political refugee working as a lawyer, Baatour continues to advocate for Tunisian LGBTQ rights. He is working with local and international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Tunisian Human Rights League, to document violations against the LGBTQ community in Tunisia.

Over 120 people were arrested in 2019 on the basis of homosexuality, according to data he compiled with rights groups. “Members of the community get assaulted on a daily basis,” said Baatour, who was arrested and jailed for three months for sodomy in 2013.

Human Rights Watch is currently working on documenting the crackdown on LGBTQ organizing in Tunisia. “We’ve seen that the government strengthened restrictions around LGBT organizing,” Rasha Younes, an LGBTQ rights researcher at HRW, told Newlines. “The arbitrary arrests increased based on sexual orientation, under the guise of damaging public property, and violations of freedom of assembly when LGBT people were protesting specific rights over them in general.”

Civil society, at times, managed to progress LGBTQ rights across the judiciary and media in Lebanon and Tunisia, but security forces and the justice ministries in those countries, among others in the region, don’t align with this progress, according to Younes.

“So, in this context, for example, the attack on LGBT issues is arbitrary; you don’t really know where the attack is coming from, but it’s always there,” she said.

Only 7% of people in Tunisia accept homosexuality, according to a survey conducted by BBC News Arabic in 2019. Nonetheless, Tunisian LGBTQ advocacy has resumed under the current Tunisian regime, even though it is influenced by Islamist political parties, according to Baatour.

A lot could be learned from the Tunisian and Lebanese experience, but in the end, protecting the community’s rights boils down to a unified civil society, advocacy, press freedom, and laws, according to the Arab queer community.

People in Tunisia need to understand that jail doesn’t change sexual identity or orientation

In the case of Tunisia, LGBTQ advocates, including Baatour, pushed for abolishing Article 230, which punishes homosexuality for up to three years in prison. “People in Tunisia need to understand that jail doesn’t change sexual identity or orientation,” he said. “Gay people will not be straight if they spend a three-year sentence in jail.”

The Tunisian queer community became empowered by the wave of protests in 2018, which shaped new social standards. They became vocal about LGBTQ rights and successfully called on international human rights organizations to pressure the country into stopping the practice of anal examinations, which was used to determine sexual orientation and prosecute homosexuality.

The United Nations special rapporteur deems anal exams as “intrusive and degrading” and “medically worthless” practices. The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, a network of torture rehabilitation centers in 76 countries, describes these tactics in the HRW report as a “form of sexual assault and rape.” Those conducting or approving the exams falsely believe that homosexuality can be identified by the tone of the anal sphincter or the shape of the anus of the individual. They often involve medical personnel forcibly inserting fingers or a tube into the anus to search for sperm as a means of determining whether sexual conduct had taken place.

The 2016 HRW report states that these examinations lack evidentiary value and are a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that may, in some cases, amount to torture. And while Tunisia agreed to stop those exams after being pressured by rights organizations, Baatour said that this was only “ink on paper.” The country still conducts anal exams to this day, he asserts.

Despite the state failing to protect LGBTQ rights in Tunisia, queer activists say a sense of togetherness and community that developed under the current regime is maintained on some level thanks to local nongovernmental organizations, women’s movements, and dialogues with different political parties.

This sense of activism is lost in more conservative countries in the region.

Over three years have passed since the arrest of over 70 people who attended a concert of the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila in Cairo. Among those arrested were LGBTQ people and advocates who raised the rainbow flag during the concert. This was followed by mass arrests targeting the gay community in the country. The crackdown, which included forced anal examinations, became known in Egyptian media as the “rainbow case.”

Those arrested included the late Egyptian queer activist Sarah Hegazi, who committed suicide in June in Canada at the age of 30 years, after long suffering from her imprisonment for raising the rainbow flag at the concert.

A software developer and an openly gay woman, Hegazi was detained three months after her arrest. She said she was tortured by electrocution and sexually harassed by female inmates; she wrote about this in March in a testimony published in Daaarb, a socialist publication.

Hegazi was charged with “promoting debauchery” and “joining an illegal organization that threatens public and societal peace.” She was then released pending trial and fled to Canada shortly afterwards, where she sought asylum.

“Forgive me for I have tried to survive and failed, the experience was hard, and I was weak to resist,” her suicide note read. “To the world: You have been greatly cruel, but I forgive.”

By the end of 2017, around two people were being arrested every other week in Egypt on grounds of homosexuality, according to Fouad — not his real name — one of the underground cofounders of a group called Solidarity with LGBTQ Egypt that documents crackdowns.

Arrests declined later, according to Fouad, as many LGBTQ individuals continued to hide their orientations and identities, living in fear of another crackdown.

Amid the long-standing crackdowns on homosexuality in the Middle East and North Africa that range from imprisonment and the death penalty in Saudi Arabia to forcing thousands of gay people to undergo gender reassignment surgeries in Iran, there is hope within the LGBTQ community in the region.

Homosexuality is not criminalized in Egypt, but Law 10 of 1961 is used to prosecute the LGBTQ community on charges of debauchery, which is punishable by up to three years in prison.

Before the “rainbow case,” crackdowns were different. For example, users of online dating apps such as Tinder were identified as individuals likely to engage in homosexual relations and were arrested, according to Fouad. In other cases, members of the community would be arrested from their homes during private social gatherings.

“Housing discrimination is also common as many LGBTQ individuals are denied housing and, in case they were able to secure a place to live, they are often reported to the police by either their landlords or neighbors,” Fouad said. “They are only safe if they manage to buy or rent a place in the suburbs where prices are unaffordable.”

LGBTQ individuals would sometimes arrange to rent a place together to avoid being questioned, which is risky in case of a police raid. In such cases, they could all be arrested, including their landlord, who would be charged with running an “illegal prostitution ring.”

Despite the crackdown, Egypt’s online community has taken up the cause of spreading awareness about the gay community. “Building up from 2013 to this day, the attitude towards gay rights began to slightly improve in Egypt because of the growing online initiatives calling for change,” Fouad said.

In November, Egyptian Minister of Education Tarek Shawki called for acceptance of transgender individuals to prevent abuse. On a locally aired TV show, Shawki highlighted the importance of exploring different paths to accept transgender rights.

However, this was not enough for photographer Nour Wali to stay in the country. Wali moved to Lebanon in 2019 after traveling back and forth between both countries for seven years to attend photography workshops and see his Lebanese boyfriend. “Every time I went back to Egypt, I felt a gap and fear. I was always hiding who I am, and I would wait for those trips to Lebanon,” Wali said. “I felt I had limits even within my social groups because the Egyptian gay community is underground.”

In Lebanon, Wali said he became an advocate for Arab LGBTQ rights after being inspired by how the Lebanese LGBTQ community is mobilized in civil society.

Working at the LGBTQ rights organization MOSAIC in Lebanon, Wali has witnessed how the protection of gay rights has progressed, a process that began as early as 2004, when Helem, the first NGO offering legal services to the LGBTQ community, was officially registered in Lebanon.

In a country where homosexuality is punishable by up to one year in prison under Article 534 of the penal code, the Lebanese gay community felt more hopeful about calling for change during the recent demonstrations protesting the country’s crumbling economy and the explosion that rocked Beirut last August.

“Rainbow flags unfurled during one of those marches, calling for the rights of domestic workers, refugees, and LGBTQ, and no one holding the rainbow flag was arrested,” Wali said. “Gay people in Lebanon feel empowered because of the long years of fighting for gay rights.”

Established under the French mandate, Article 534 states that “every relation outside the rules of nature is deemed as an outlaw.” The article is often used to criminalize homosexuality, but some judges, from military and civil courts, consider it inapplicable today, arguing that gay sex “is not unnatural,” according to Bertho Makso, the executive director of LGBTQ rights group Proud Lebanon.

“Sometimes this article has been used as an excuse to exclude the gay community,” Makso explained.

Mario, who asked to be identified only by his first name, was among those impacted by the exclusion.

The 32-year-old chef, who now lives in the U.S. with his American boyfriend, was prosecuted under Article 534 in 2015. Mario, his boyfriend, and a friend were stopped and searched as they drove through a security checkpoint in Beirut.

The checkpoint was set up to guard a political party’s headquarters (which Mario refused to name). One of the guards searching Mario’s phone found pictures of him kissing his boyfriend and reported him to authorities. Only a few moments later, Mario and his boyfriend were picked up by the police.

“We were taken to the police station, where officers called us anti-gay slurs and slapped us on our faces, yelling, ‘Aren’t you ashamed, don’t you know what you’re doing makes God mad?’” Mario recalled.

Officers compiled a report stating that both men are in an “illegal” homosexual relationship. They stayed for nine hours at the police station without food or water until they were taken into interrogation, where they were verbally abused for being gay.

Both men were later handcuffed and transferred to a prison, where they stayed in separate cells for one night.

“I was devastated. I stayed in a small cell with 12 other people that included sex traffickers and drug dealers, and I couldn’t use the bathroom because it was in a public open space,” said Mario.

The following morning, Mario and his boyfriend were released on a combined bail of $600.

Although officers promised that Mario’s justice record would not include this incident, Mario received an arrest warrant three months later, incriminating him of homosexuality. “At this moment I was anxious and decided to ask Proud Lebanon for help,” he explained. In return, the rights group assigned him a pro bono lawyer to present his case in court, and a judge dropped the charges and considered the period in which they were detained as a penalty.

Although Mario was free of charges, having this incident documented on his criminal record bars him from working in Lebanon or visiting any of the Gulf countries for five years.

Lebanon is not the only Arab country where NGOs, some political parties, and women’s movements are deeply involved in the lives of the LGBTQ community despite ongoing persecutions.

Tunisian LGBTQ activists were successful in having open dialogues with different political parties, including with the leftist-oriented groups that make up the Front Populaire (or the Tunisian Popular Front), which support the cancellation of Article 230.

Women’s movements in the country, including the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, “were in the frontlines” when it came to advocating for LGBTQ rights and canceling Article 230, according to Baatour, who is also the president of the Tunisian LGBTQ rights group Shams – Pour la Dépénalisation de L’homosexualité en Tunisie (Shams – for the Decriminilization of Homosexuality in Tunisia.)

“Great efforts are made within the community itself, where LGBTQ people became more aware of their rights and accepting to their sexualities as they called on media, lawyers, and the medical community to support their causes,” said Karam Aouini, communication officer at Tunisia’s LGBTQ rights group Mawjoudin (We Exist).

However, the Tunisian queer community is still subjected to societal rejection and weighed down by a bureaucratic government and homophobic politicians, according to Aouini.

Baatour said that a number of LGBTQ rights groups, including Shams, asked to have an official meeting with Rachid Ghannouchi, the president and one of the founders of Ennahda Movement, the Muslim Democratic Political party in Tunisia.

“Ghannouchi refused to meet with us and declined any form of dialogues about LGBTQ rights, and that is when the party developed a more aggressive attitude towards the community, declaring in different local media outlets that homosexuality is a crime and a sin and that gay people should be jailed,” Baatour said.

Despite the disappointing position of the Tunisian government, advocacy groups such as Mawjoudin and Shams play a crucial role in protecting the LGBTQ community. Both Lebanon and Tunisia set an example of unity through efforts by their rights groups and NGOs advocating for LGBTQ rights, a rarity in other Arab countries.

Egyptian civil rights groups have long been silent about gay rights and have only criticized how the media demonizes the LGBTQ community, calling it “unethical journalism,” according to Fouad.

Meanwhile, Tunisian NGOs are fighting online hate speech by allying with feminist organizations in which women play a pivotal role to create safe spaces for the community by providing them with information about HIV testing, employment resources, and legal and financial services.

With many gay bars, cafes, and an active drag scene present in Lebanon, members of the queer community have their own businesses and are not prosecuted if they hang rainbow flags outside their shops. However, this is not the case in all Lebanese neighborhoods.

“You can live freely in a neighborhood like Achrafieh in eastern Beirut, but there are neighborhoods with predominantly radical Shiites or Christians where gay people pretend to live as straight individuals, and so it all really depends on the person’s ability to obtain independence and financial empowerment,” Makso explained.

The media also plays a great role in empowering the community. The Lebanese press, including the non-state news outlets, began to change the terminology associated with the LGBTQ community; for example, using “gay” and “LGBTQ” instead of “abnormal,” “outlaw,” and “immoral.”

In 2014, Tunisia launched its first magazine covering LGBTQ news called Gayday.

However, the Arab queer community finds it difficult to replicate such scenarios in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where press freedom falls short and gay journalists are outed by the state, and Egypt, where the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, which supervises the press in the country, bans the press from interviewing LGBTQ individuals and promoting their content.

“If they (those opposing the LGBTQ community including authorities) consider homosexuality as an illness, then maybe they should come up with a new medicine to cure it,” Baatour said, facetiously. “If homosexuality was an illness, then why aren’t they jailing persons with diabetes and high blood pressure?”

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