No Longer Alone
LGBT Voices from the Middle East & North Africa
Religious figures, the government, your parents—they all want to have a say in what you do between your legs. I want to tell you it’s none of their business and that your body, your desires and your ideas are yours alone. If they don’t like what you are, they are wrong.”
—“Rima,” bisexual woman, Lebanon
I am a human like everyone else, and I have rights. I will defend those rights.”
—“Ahmed,” gay man, Libya
Despite state-sponsored repression and social stigma, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the Middle East and North Africa are finding ways to speak out. They are telling their stories, building alliances, networking across borders, developing national and regional movements, and finding creative ways to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Human Rights Watch and the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) teamed up to produce videos featuring Arabic-speaking LGBT activists describing their journeys of self-acceptance. Through the campaign “No Longer Alone,” they offer messages of support and encouragement to LGBT people living in Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
For many, their personal experiences of isolation and abuse led them to activism. Rayan, a gay man from Algeria, describes being taken by his parents to a religious healer known as a raqi, who beat him, saying that there was a woman inside him that needed to get out. “He could beat me all night, but nothing would change,” says Rayan. Rayan is now working to sensitize mental health professionals in Algeria so that they are equipped to help LGBT people rather than trying to change them.
Once painfully reserved, Rashed overcame his shyness to create a play about his experience coming to terms with his gender identity and performed it in front of 50 students in Irdib, in northern Jordan.
We are this way. And God made us this way. We have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide.”
Hajar, a lesbian from Morocco, came out publicly through a YouTube video that went viral. She eventually had to leave Morocco for the Netherlands, where she continues her activism, working with LGBT refugees.
The only option is to come to terms with yourself, and embrace yourself.”
After finding support and community, many of these activists have gone on to offer that support to others. Noor, from Sudan, remembers searching on Facebook for people like her: “I found this group that had many Sudanese [lesbian] girls. I wrote, ‘Where are you people?’ I realized I was not alone in the world, there are many people like me, and I was very happy. I think that night I was so happy I didn’t sleep.” Now a seasoned activist, Noor works throughout North Africa to provide resources to LGBT people who are in the same position of isolation where she once was, and to document and share their stories.
I understood and I discovered that my coming out had an impact on society and on people.”
Some of the activists featured in “No Longer Alone” insisted on having their faces hidden or their voices altered. They send an important message to LGBT people in the Arab world: one must not be “out” in order to be making change. As one activist said in an interview with Egypt’s MadaMasr, “It’s not about a group of individuals coming out to society… but rather about the issue itself ‘coming out’ for social discussion.” While some of these activists hope that a time will come when they can safely show their faces to the world, they are adept at working creatively within the constraints imposed by states and society, and sometimes that means working undercover while ensuring that the issues—LGBT identities, LGBT health, equality, discrimination, violence—obtain coverage.
We all have rights. We all have responsibilities.”
To accompany the videos, a new Human Rights Watch report, “Audacity in Adversity,” highlights the resilience of LGBT movements throughout the region and how they are making change in the face of significant obstacles, including criminalization of same-sex conduct and gender non-conformity, arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment, lack of recognition of transgender people, violence, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, family rejection and social stigma.
In Oman, several men started small: organizing “parties for gay guys to meet and network in a safe space, so that they can help each other in the future.” In Kuwait, an activist trained LGBT people on digital security, working out of peoples’ houses. In Jordan, a number of activists are using theater and other arts to raise awareness about sexual orientation and gender identity among LGBT communities themselves and in some cases, the general public.
I’m a normal person. I’m just attracted to members of the same sex.”
In other countries, activists are taking on their governments, successfully pushing for incremental change. In Lebanon, lawyers linked to LGBT activist communities have persuaded several courts to acquit people accused of “unnatural offenses” arguing that this phrase does not apply to same-sex sexual acts. In Morocco, activists have pushed for courts to convict perpetrators of violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). In response to reports submitted by activists at the UN Human Rights Council, Iraq has publicly acknowledged the need to address SOGI-based violence. In Lebanon and Tunisia, activists have successfully lobbied state institutions to commit to ending forced anal examinations as a means of obtaining evidence in sodomy prosecutions.
Repressive laws make activism difficult. In most countries in the region, same-sex acts between consenting adults in private are treated as a criminal offense. Some laws prohibit all sex outside marriage, or zina, including all sex between same-sex partners. Some states explicitly outlaw same-sex acts, while others refer to undefined “unnatural” sex. And several countries use vague “morality” laws to persecute people for consensual same-sex conduct. Some states in the region also criminalize non-normative gender identities: Oman, in its revised 2018 penal code, became the latest country to take this regressive step.
I used to think that it was forbidden and wrong, and no one should know. My way of thinking changed with time. I refused to be ashamed.”
Restrictions on freedom of association also pose obstacles to the work of LGBT groups. According to an analysis by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association (ILGA), laws regulating non-governmental organizations in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates make it virtually impossible for organizations working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity to legally register.
Backlash is a constant, looming threat for activists who seek to push boundaries. In September 2017, Egyptian security forces arrested dozens on charges of “debauchery,” “inciting debauchery,” and participating in an “illegal group” following the display of a rainbow flag—a sign of solidarity with LGBT people—at a concert. Even by recent standards in Egypt, where hundreds of people have been arrested on homosexuality-related charges since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in 2013, the September crackdown—involving scores of arrests, forced anal examinations, and a formal media blackout on pro-LGBT speech – was severe. Some had to leave the country. But activists demonstrated creativity and dynamism even in such challenging contexts. Some provided emergency shelter for LGBT people being hounded by the police, while others focused on training LGBT people on how to digitally protect themselves from police surveillance and entrapment. Several groups have been working to galvanize international pressure on the Egyptian government, a tool that they employ cautiously, often reserving it for human rights emergencies.
Even in countries that do not criminalize same-sex conduct or gender non-conformity, severe social stigma forces many people to hide their identities, making activism more difficult. Yousif, a gay man from Bahrain, which does not criminalize same-sex conduct, said that the same “social contract” that stifles dissent of all kinds also limits the options of LGBT people who might wish to speak out: “It’s a social contract—'We have oil, you’re going to get wealth, so shut up. And if you don’t like it, get out.’”
My father was against me in every way. But he transformed from hateful to accepting and tolerant.”
In spite of the repressive legal and social environment, several LGBT activists from Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa told us they were frustrated by one-dimensional international media coverage portraying the region as hell on earth for LGBT people. Such coverage fails to recognize the agency of LGBT activists from the region, or renders them completely invisible. “We don’t want the image anymore of just being victims,” says Zoheir, an activist from Algeria. “We want to speak about reality, speak about violence, but also to [show what is] positive.”
It’s hard when you are young. And it stays hard, but it gets easier.”
By amplifying the voices of LGBT activists from the Middle East and North Africa and inviting them to share their personal stories and their experiences as activists, this project seeks to examine all that is possible beyond victimhood.
Contacts in your local community.
Le collectif féministe d'Alger