As a researcher and advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, I am often asked: “What is it like to be gay in the Middle East?”
It is a question that cannot be answered. It assumes a uniform “gay experience” across the region, that does not align with reality. Sexual orientation and gender identity are only one aspect of experience. Social position and economic status also determine “what it is like.” Individual experiences of LGBT people are varied and distinctive and cannot be generalized to an entire country, let alone a region.
A better question would be: How do governments in the MENA region use anti-LGBT rhetoric to advance their political agendas? The answer to that question reveals the state-sponsored homophobia that negatively impacts the lives of LGBT people in the region.
Pride Month is an opportunity for people around the globe celebrate the visibility and hard-earned victories of LGBT people and movements since the Stonewall uprising in 1969. It is a good time to unshroud government strategies that inhibit equal rights in the MENA region, where anti-LGBT discrimination and violence are rampant.
Where there is oppression, there is resistance, whether channeled through public campaigns calling for legal reform or within the safety of an underground LGBT-friendly café. But despite LGBT organizations’ and activists’ defiant resilience in advancing the rights of sexual and gender minorities in the face of state-sponsored repression, the climate around LGBT rights in the MENA region remains bleak as ever.
The chokehold of the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed once again how LGBT people, who already face healthcare discrimination and economic marginalization, are scapegoated in crises. Beyond pandemics and natural disasters, governments in the region absurdly claim that the achievement of LGBT rights will lead to a weakening of their social fabric, if not an eternal curse for which queer and transgender people would be held responsible.
In the Name of “Public Morality”
Most countries in the region have laws that criminalize same-sex relations. Even in the countries that don’t – such as Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan – spurious “morality laws,” debauchery and prostitution laws are used to target LGBT people, often without a legal basis and contrary to international law.
In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government has since 2014 waged a campaign of arrests and prosecution against hundreds of people for their perceived or actual sexual orientation and gender identity, under the guise of “protecting public morality.” In 2019, a Cairo-based LGBT rights organization documented 92 arrests for alleged same-sex conduct under Egypt’s “debauchery” law.
In Lebanon, government interference has in recent years halted human rights events around gender and sexuality in the name of “preserving public morality.” A gender and sexuality conference, held annually in Lebanon since 2013, had to be moved outside Lebanon in 2019 for the first time, following General Security’s attempt to shut down the 2018 edition. General Security cited the so-called “morals” exception to the right to peaceful assembly under international law, claiming that the law requires an event “to be consistent with the moral standards of the particular society.” However, the law has been authoritatively interpreted to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Authorities in Jordan have accused LGBT people of “sexual deviance” which “violates...the state’s general system and decency.” In Mauritania, a court convicted eight men in January of “indecency” and “inciting debauchery,” after a video showing them celebrating a birthday party led to their arrest. They were accused of being “sodomizers” who were “imitating women.” Following pressure by activists and human rights advocates, the men were eventually released. In Algeria, a law that prohibits the registration of organizations whose aims are inconsistent with “public morals,” poses risks to LGBT groups, as well as to human rights organizations that otherwise might support them.
In Tunisia, the authorities have prosecuted and imprisoned men suspected of being gay and transgender women under Article 230 of the penal code, which provides for up to three years in prison for “sodomy.”Authorities have also often utilized other penal code articles to arrest and prosecute LGBT people for “public indecency” and “offending public morals”. Despite the willingness of few Tunisian politicians in the post-revolution governments to address violence against LGBT people, major political parties such as Ennahda, which defines itself as a “Muslim democratic” party and holds considerable influence in Tunisia, have repeatedly opposed initiatives for equality.
In Iraq, where a series of kidnappings, torture and killings of LGBT people by Iraqi armed forces has been a grave pattern for over a decade, previous governments absolved themselves of responsibility and instead claimed that these abusive forces were attempting “to stand as protectors for morals and religious traditions.” In 2012, the army, along with other armed forces, launched a wave of attacks on people, some perceived as LGBT. Killings of LGBT people continued in Baghdad into 2017 and 2018, with Iraqi authorities seemingly doing nothing to stop the killings or punish those involved. Newly elected Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has indicated a readiness to address ongoing human rights violations more generally.
“Preserving morality” is used by states to control the bodies and identities of queer and trans individuals. Far from serving the public interest, policing non-normativity aims to preserve the status quo, by upholding patriarchal social values and justifying state neglect. Governments across the region claim that society is not ready for the “confusion” that non-normativity presents to their regressive ideologies, but collective uprisings in Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia, for example, have shown that solidarity with LGBT people is sometimes part and parcel of the people’s calls against forms of exclusion.
The “Western Import” Myth
Across the region, a dominant narrative that governments employ to discredit the legitimacy of LGBT rights is claiming they are “imported from the West.” In Qatar, host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and where same-sex relations are punished with one to three years imprisonment, officials have promised that “everyone is welcome,” including LGBT foreigners, during the World Cup. This decision to temporarily suspend local norms has the paradoxical effect of bolstering the idea that same-sex desire and gender variance are a peculiar preoccupation of outsiders.
Also in Qatar, when Northwestern University announced that it was moving a talk by members of the band Mashrou’ Leila, who pushes the Middle-East envelope on issues of gender and sexuality and whose lead singer is openly gay, from its Doha campus to Chicago, it ignited online rhetoric on the familiar theme of “Western cultural imperialism.” The Qatar Foundation, a state-linked nonprofit organization, said the event was cancelled because of its conflict with Qatari laws and customs. When Qatar paints LGBT rights as an imperialist agenda, it leaves LGBT people reluctant to speak out against government oppression for fear of being labeled “traitors,” as many LGBT Qataris have told Human Rights Watch.
In Iraq, a foreign embassy compound in Baghdad raised a rainbow flag, a symbol of solidarity with LGBT people, on May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOBIT). This triggered condemnation in Iraq including from Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, parliamentarians, and the foreign ministry, who all claimed that the embassy was disrespecting Iraqi values and imposing a Western agenda. Since then, activists told us, several gay men have been murdered and dozens of LGBT people threatened.
In Lebanon, General Security justified its decision to impose arbitrary entry bans on LGBT activists who attended a 2018 gender and sexuality conference, on grounds of “considerations of state security” and “protecting society from imported vices” that “disrupt the security and stability of society.”
LGBT activists in many countries face the accusation that they are corrupting local cultures with Western ideas every day. This myth fails to note that activists in the region have developed a movement in their own right, based on their lived experience, rather than being an echo of their Western counterparts, including by paying close attention to their funding sources and groups they partner with. Looking back at Arab and Islamic history, there is no shortage of references to same-sex desire including from poet Abu Nawas, Abbasid Caliph Al-Ameen, Ottoman Grand Vizier Mustafa Rasheed Pasha, the 8th century prose of Al-Jahiz, or the writings of 13th century Tunisian jurist Shihab El-Din Al-Tifashi.
Censorship of LGBT Content and Groups
Barring people from accessing, producing, or sharing content and initiatives related to gender and sexuality is rife around the region. Qatar, at pains to present itself as more open than its Gulf neighbors, was embarrassed in 2018 by the extraordinary sight of the New York Times censored by the private publishing partner, who removed LGBT-related content from an issue of the paper that was distributed in Qatar. Qatar also joined Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon in banning the band Mashrou’ Leila from performing locally.
An Egyptian television anchor was sentenced to one year in prison for interviewing a gay man on TV. The Supreme Council for Media Regulation – a government body established in 2017 – issued an order that prohibits the “promotion or dissemination of homosexual slogans.” Egyptian authorities went so far as to deny the existence of LGBT people, when they made an outrageous rejection on March 12 during its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR), recommendations made by several states to end arrests and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In an effort to shut down LGBT groups in Tunisia, the government attempted to suspend the activities of an LGBT rights organization, contending that its mission to defend sexual minorities contravenes “Tunisian society’s Islamic values, which reject homosexuality and prohibit such alien behavior.” Ultimately the Court of Appeal upheld the organization’s right to operate. In Palestine, where LGBT Palestinians suffer already under an Israeli occupation, the Palestinian Authority in 2019 barred Al-Qaws, an LGBT rights group, from holding events in the West Bank and threatened to arrest participants. The authority claimed that the group, which has since 2001 worked to challenge intersecting forms of oppression, violates “traditional Palestinian values” and accused al-Qaws of being “foreign agents.”
For many LGBT people in the region, merely walking the streets is an exercise in the self-censorship they are forced to practice to navigate their daily lives, which is one reason they resort to online platforms to express themselves more freely. But entrapment of LGBT people by state and non-state actors on social media and same-sex dating apps is common around the region. In Morocco, a campaign of “outing” in April, when people created fake accounts on same-sex dating applications and endangered users of these apps by circulating their private information, trampling their right to privacy.
When governments portray LGBT people as a “threat to public morality,” the “traditional family unit,” and “social stability,” they mobilize homophobia and transphobia as state strategies, further fueling social stigma. Discrimination continues with impunity when affected LGBT people do not have recourse to the law and are not protected by the authorities.
Resistance as Hope
Uprisings in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia have been periods of hope for human rights, including LGBT rights. The social movements brought together diverse factions of society in unified calls for dignity and equality. Most recently, Lebanon’s October 17 revolution showed that LGBT people and their rights were front and center, in a country where same-sex relations are punishable by up to one year in prison and transgender people face systemic discrimination. LGBT people used the power of voice and presence in protests to demand their rights, putting the government on notice that socioeconomic and legal reform needs to include marginalized groups, including LGBT people.
While solidarity from individuals and groups in the region is a needed step in changing negative social attitudes , the onus is on governments to stop discriminating against LGBT people and to protect them instead. Despite the strides made for LGBT rights around the region, LGBT people will continue to live on the margins unless governments repeal legislation that punish same-sex relations, and introduce laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination. Governments should uphold their fundamental rights to dignity, bodily autonomy, socioeconomic mobility, and freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.
LGBT rights are fundamental human rights, and stifling them as an excuse to keep a portion of society marginalized under the false pretext of the “public good” is detrimental to human rights for all. To governments around the MENA region adamant on silencing LGBT voices: Happy Pride, and shame on you.