LGBT Voices from the
When Human Rights Watch and the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) released No Longer Alone: LGBT Voices from the Middle East and North Africa in April 2018, the videos helped to convey to isolated LGBT people in the Middle East and North Africa that it’s possible to come to terms with one’s identity, find support, and be part of a resilient community. Now, a new Human Rights Watch and AFE video looks at the myths surrounding being LGBT in the Arab world. LGBT activists spoke to Human Rights Watch to address those myths and talk about how the myths, and stereotypes, have affected their lives.
As an openly gay man and LGBT activist, Farouk Ashour told Human Rights Watch he faced death threats from militia groups in Libya. At first, he didn’t take them seriously, but then one group turned up at his office.
He realized he could never be safe at home and now is seeking asylum in the Netherlands. He said he could never live freely in Libya, especially as some people still believe being LGBT is an illness.
“This is not a disease or a problem that needs to be fixed,” he said, adding that people in the region should seek answers in the place they trusted most – whether that was religion or clinical studies.
In 1992, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases. Since then, medical associations around the world, from Lebanon to India to Brazil, have stated that same-sex attraction is not a mental disorder.
Farouk dresses in bright clothes and embraces his exuberant style, something he never did in his home country for fear of unwanted attention.
“I’m 30 years old, but I felt like I was born again in the Netherlands.” he said.
Throughout his life, Farouk has run into people who believed the myth that a childhood trauma must have “made” him gay.
“It’s the most aggravating myth that I’ve encountered,” he said, adding that even some LGBT people thought their sexual orientation or gender identity is a result of trauma.
One man Farouk met through his activist work believed he was gay because he experienced sexual trauma as a child. Farouk had to explain to him that other people who hadn’t experienced trauma were gay, too, and that it is totally normal.
Dispelling this myth is challenging, as LGBT people in Libya can’t talk freely and openly. Because he had resources and a circle of LGBT friends, Farouk understood the idea that childhood trauma causes homosexuality was ridiculous. But for people who are alone, it can be a lot harder.
“To LGBT people I say: Your identity is not a product or consequence of trauma, it is inside you and it’s completely normal. You shouldn’t blame yourself for who you are,” he said.
Liz, a trans woman from Algeria, founded one of North Africa’s first LGBT groups. She said that she fled Algeria in 2009 because of death threats – including one she was told she’d be killed if she did not leave the country in 10 days.
For a while she lived in Lebanon, but when she was detained by police in a case of mistaken identity, they kept her in detention – even after unraveling the mix-up – because she was trans. She thought she’d never get out and was scared that if she did, they’d send her back to Algeria, where she feared for her life.
She now lives in Europe, where she is studying law.
Liz, with her friendly smile and gentle voice, speaks thoughtfully about the way that misconceptions about being transgender have harmed her.
Because she is queer as well as being trans, she constantly deals with questions from people who don’t understand why she’d make the transition to female if she was also attracted to women.
“It bothers me so much, first because it’s none of anybody’s business, but also, just because I’m trans doesn’t mean I’m straight,” she said. “We need to get out of these binaries because they are harmful to everyone.”
Liz struggled for a long time because she had no idea that being trans existed. She was bullied by her teachers and peers for acting feminine and for a long time assumed she must be a gay man.
Most countries still do not formally recognize transgender people or allow them to legally change the gender markers on official documents.
“I kept feeling like something was missing, that there’s no one out there like me, and something is wrong with me.”
When Lizfinally saw a trans woman on TV, she was overwhelmed with happiness.
Liz’s family defied another myth discussed in this video – that Arab parents will never accept their LGBT children. Although it took time, her family accepted Liz’s identity, with the help of her sister.
“Now, [my father] addresses me as his daughter and he doesn’t talk about the past, he just loves me as I am now.”
Asked what she would say to other transgender people, Liz said she would recommend that they seek out support and guidance.
“The most important thing in your life has to be you,” she said.
Rima is from a small town in Tunisia. She seems carefree and confident in this video, wearing a bright red fez and laughing with other activists.
Rima has dealt with the myth that lesbians are always masculine – often being told she “doesn’t look like a lesbian.” Within LGBT circles she has had to defend herself as being “gay enough”.
Shortly after this video was shot, she was banned from Lebanon, where it was filmed, because she had attended a conference there on LGBT issues. Border security officials accused her of “tainting Arab societies and morals,” she said.
In many countries, anti-LGBT politicians and religious leaders spread the myth that LGBT activists are corrupting local cultures with Western ideas.
Rima thinks this myth is the most “provocative” of all, adding that activists face this accusation every day.
The myth that Arab LGBT activists are imitating the West fails to see 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.
“[LGBT]organizations are not copying the West!” Rima said. She pointed out that some groups are working to shatter stereotypes that LGBT identities are western imports, including by paying close attention to their funding sources and groups they partner with.
If Rima were to look back in Arab and Islamic history, she would find 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.
Since Rima was banned from Lebanon, at least five other people from other LGBT groups have been blocked from entering the country.
It upsets Rima to see Lebanon, previously known for acceptance and openness, becoming less tolerant and less safe.
By hosting film festivals and other events that look at LGBT people in the Middle East and North Africa, Rima said Lebanon was becoming center-stage in the region for debunking the myths. But the closing space could put that at risk, with particularly high stakes for those from countries where LGBT issues are not even publicly discussed.
Mhamad Hjeij is an openly gay Lebanese man but, like Rima, when he first started accepting his sexuality, other gay men told him that he didn’t “look gay.” In addition to all the other myths, he had to deal with those being perpetuated by LGBT people themselves – such as gay men and lesbians have to look a certain way and fit a certain stereotype.
He felt isolated from both straight society and the LGBT community, and didn’t feel fully accepted by any group while struggling to come to terms with his identity.
“I went through years of bullying in school and university for being gay, and when I finally was ready to be part of the LGBT community, people told me I don’t fit into a gay category,” he said.
Mhamad also knew people who thought LGBT people had been cursed by God and needed to be cured, or that they were “abnormal” and should be pitied.
LGBT people worldwide have been subjected to so-called “conversion therapy” at the hands of psychiatrists, counselors, or religious figures to attempt to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“For me, hearing these things growing up was very confusing, and it took me a long time to unlearn them.”
Making things more painful, Mhamad’s parents, who found out about his sexuality through his activism on social media, died before they accepted him.
Social ostracization can make it hard for LGBT people to speak openly with family members. For Mhamad, the fear around being rejected was strong.
“Now that I feel strong enough and ready to confront these myths, the people that I wanted to come out to are no longer here,” he said.
According to Mhamad, media in Lebanon perpetuates dangerous myths. Often people’s only exposure to LGBT people is television – especially for the older generation – and TV shows use LGBT stories as a “shock factor” to boost ratings. This makes it harder for families to understand when their children come out, as they have only seen negative myths about LGBT identities.
“All these shows that host LGBT people to make a spectacle out of them … set back by many years the cause that we have fought so hard to advance.”
Mhamad is proud of how far he has come in understanding himself, and wants other LGBT people in the Middle East to know they have support and solidarity from their community.
“Nothing is wrong with you, you are not sick. Love has never been a disease, and all we are doing is loving.”
Activists' stories compiled and written by Rasha Younes and Philippa H. Stewart.