There is progress — and hope — for LGBTQ people in the Middle East and North Africa.
That may seem to be a preposterous statement, given news of mass arrests of gay and transgender people in Egypt and murders of gay men and boys in Iraq. But a new report details improvements in four countries in the region that provide not only encouragement to citizens of those countries but models for activists elsewhere.
The report, Activism and Resilience: LGBTQ Progress in the Arabic-Speaking States in the Middle East and North Africa Region, is a joint project of OutRight Action International and the Arab Foundation for Freedom and Equality. Researched and written by Suraj Girijashanker, it focuses on Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia because they are sites of advancement, says OutRight executive director Jessica Stern.
“We really wanted to highlight that LGBTI rights are making progress in the Middle East and North Africa,” Stern tells The Advocate.
That progress can seem disappointingly slow to outsiders. In these nations, as in most Arabic-speaking countries, LGBTQ people risk running afoul of laws that either explicitly criminalize consensual same-sex relations or allow for arrest for violation of less specific “morality” codes. Violence and discrimination remain widespread in both the public and private spheres.
But to characterize LGBTQ people in these countries strictly as victims misrepresents them, according to the report. They are founding political organizations, publications, arts groups, and community spaces. They are forging coalitions with other activists, finding common ground especially with feminists. And they are increasingly speaking out against injustice and receiving support when they do so.
On the latter point, Stern notes some enraging incidents, detailed in the report, that ended up leading to public outcry on behalf of LGBTQ people. For instance, in 2016 in the city of Beni Mellal, Morocco, two men believed to be gay were dragged out of a home by a gang of youths and brutally beaten. The attackers were arrested, but the men who were beaten also faced criminal charges – for violating Article 489 of the country’s penal code, which bans “lewd or unnatural” acts with a person of the same sex.
But LGBTQ activist groups fought back, in coalition with other organizations. “Initiatives included a joint communication signed by over 40 organizations, which called for the release of the victims and Article 489 to be repealed,” the report notes. An activist quoted in the report commented, “This was one of the first cases where there was consensus across civil society, not just LGBTQ organizations.” International media spotlighted the case as well. There is more work to be done – Article 489 remains on the books – but the victims received relatively light sentences, thanks in part to public attention focused on the case.
Another outrage led to outcry in Tunisia. In 2015, a man named Marwen was summoned by police investigating a murder because his number had been found in the dead man’s phone. Under the threat of being charged with murder, Marwen confessed to police that he had had sexual relations with the victim. He was then forced to undergo an anal examination and was charged with violating the nation’s law against “homosexual acts.”
Activists mobilized, including the LGBTQ group Damj, of which Marwen was a member. The group called the forced anal exam a violation of privacy and human rights, and a form of torture. And it found allies. The Tunisian Human Rights League, previously silent on LGBTQ issues, called for Marwen’s release, an end to such examinations, and repeal of the law against gay sex. Leading political parties and even one government official joined in. Again, while work remains to be done – the law is still in force – this represents progress, Stern notes. And while Marwen was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison, his sentence was reduced to two months on appeal.
These cases, Stern says, show that LGBTQ people in Morocco and Tunisia have advocates fighting for them – and that there is backlash against the state for punishing them.
There is material progress against antigay laws in Lebanon. In recent years, several judges have refused to apply the nation’s ban on sexual acts that “contradict the laws of nature” to private, consensual same-sex relations. In 2018, for the first time, an appeals court upheld such a decision by a trial court, ruling that consensual same-sex relations would violate the law only if they occurred in a public place or involved a minor. This isn’t the final word on the law, but it is likely to influence future decisions.
Other signs of progress are not legal but cultural. Jordan’s first LGBTQ magazine, My.Kali, is celebrating its 10th anniversary, having stood up to pressure from a member of Parliament to have the government shut it down. Filmmakers, photographers, and performance artists are creating works dealing with queer themes. A group that holds monthly screenings of LGBTQ-oriented Arabic-language films noted in the report that it seeks to challenge the perception, based on Hollywood exports, that the only successful and happy LGBTQ people are white. (On the legal front, Jordan notably does not specifically ban gay sex, but its vague “morality” law sometimes results in arrests of LGBTQ people.)
And across these countries, LGBTQ activists are teaming up with feminist groups, seeing a common interest in changing patriarchal societies. In Lebanon, a member of Meem, a queer feminist group that no longer operates but has given rise to others, remarked that homophobia and transphobia are no longer accepted in women’s rights organizations. “We raised the bar,” she said in the report.
Another Lebanese queer feminist added that there is strength in coalition. “It is difficult to attack us as an intersectional movement … it creates power and [applies] pressure on the government to negotiate with us,” she said.
Meanwhile, in Morocco, feminist and LGBTQ groups helped to secure legal counsel for two teenage girls who were arrested in 2016 under the nation’s law against gay sex, reportedly for kissing on a rooftop – and the girls were eventually acquitted.
“One of the things we found time and again is that LGBT community members can make progress by being intersectional,” Stern says. “I really found that to be deeply inspiring.”
She hopes the report will inspire additional intersectional activism, and that it will also help dispel stereotypes that being homophobic goes with being part of an Arabic-speaking or Muslim society. There are progressive Muslims who support LGBTQ equality, she points out.
The advances detailed in the report are a testament to activists in the region, she adds. “These victories are hard-won,” she says. “But if LGBTI activists can progress, it shows they’re creative, they’re tenacious, and it’s just a matter of time before we see even larger victories.”
She’s reluctant to say which countries in the Middle East are worst for LGBTQ people, noting that the worst place is anywhere an individual feels unsafe. But some clearly fail on certain measures, she says: Saudi Arabia has not a single LGBTQ organization, while Iraq and Syria have the highest number of killings of people believed to be gay.
There are some advances even in Iraq, however, as in recent years the LGBTQ community has forged connections with other human rights advocates, Stern says. This trend gives her hope for the country, which she’ll visit in a few weeks. “If you can make progress in a country like Iraq,” she says, “you can make progress everywhere.”