Year of Deaths, and Firsts: 2014 in the Gay Middle East

Mostly bitter news, but some defiantly sweet: the most important LGBT headlines out of one of the world’s most violently homophobic regions.

AP

From mass arrests in Egypt and Lebanon to executions in Syria and Iran, 2014 was a largely acidic year for LGBT Middle Easterners, who are subject to some of the world’s harshest anti-gay laws and societal attitudes.

Yet amid the reports of persecution, there was good news for the community, mainly from Israel and Turkey, the two Middle Eastern countries with most legal protections for LGBT citizens – with one hopeful headline out of Lebanon, too. 

Islamic State / Suspected gay men stoned to death, thrown off building

In December, ISIS released graphic photos showing a man being thrown off a building, along with a statement reading: “The Islamic court in Wilayet al-Furat decided that a man who has practiced sodomy must be thrown off the highest point in the city.” The man’s body was then pictured lying lifeless surrounded by bricks; it was unclear whether he died from the fall or was then stoned to death. The previous month, Islamic State jihadists reportedly stoned to death two Syrian men, claiming clips on the first man's cell phone showed him "practicing indecent acts with males." 

Screenshot of ISIS militants throwing a man accused of being gay off a building in Iraq, Dec. 2014.

Israel / An LGBT haven – albeit imperfect

For those looking for upbeat headlines, Israel did not disappoint. Multiple gay pride parades were held across the country in 2014, with the flagship Tel Aviv Pride parade drawing 100,000 people, and Jerusalem marking its 13th such event. The Health Ministry came out against gay conversion therapy and then Health Minister Yael German spearheaded a bill equalizing surrogacy rights for gay couples. In September, Israel got its first openly gay congregational Conservative rabbi, and in November, Israel began issuing ID cards that allows people to list two fathers or mothers. Also, after a two-year hiatus, a sex reassignment surgery specialist began operating in the country.

Dancers perform during Tel Aviv's gay pride parade, 2014. Photo by AP

A gay couple and their child pictured at Jerusalem’s 2014 gay pride event. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi

There were also incidents of anti-LGBT violence, including the assault of a transgender woman by a group of teenagers, and an attack on a gay man in Be’er Sheva, in which the victim accused police of ignoring his injuries. In May, the chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, a city adjoining Tel Aviv, ruled against renting an apartment to lesbians. And, like previous years, Israel stood accused of 'pinkwashing.'

Iran / Gay men coerced to undergo sex changes, ‘immoral villains’ hanged

At Iran's UN Human Rights Council review in New York City, representative Mohammed Javad Larijani stated that Tehran will not recognize a “lifestyle” (that is, homosexuality) under the banner of universal rights. Apparently: In August, the Iran Human Rights group reported that two men were hanged in the southern city of Shiraz on the charge of sodomy. Then in September, BBC Persian reported that gay Iranians are being pressured into having gender reassignment surgery as to ‘cure’ them of their homosexuality.  

The Gulf / Whipped and jailed for being gay

Across the Gulf, no executions of alleged gay men were reported but arrests abounded. In Saudi Arabia, following entrapment by the kingdom’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a 24-year-old man was reportedly sentenced to three years in prison and 450 lashes for ‘cruising’ Twitter for men. In November, a man was reportedly jailed for three years for allegedly posting nude photos of himself on social media. In neighboring Kuwait, authorities reportedly arrested 23 “cross-dressers and homosexuals” in October after raiding a “wild party” held in a chalet, and in December, local media reported that authorities had arrested an Iranian man and Kuwaiti transgender person for kissing in a “morally offensive” video. 

Turkey / A year of firsts

All was not dark in the Muslim Middle East, however. Though Turkey’s ruling Islamist AKP’s grip on power seems perhaps firmer than ever, there were numerous reasons for LGBT Turks to smile in 2014. Chief among them was the Constitutional Court’s ruling that calling gays and lesbians “perverts” constitutes hate speech, after news site Habervaktim.com referred to Sinem Hun from an Ankara-based LGBT right organization as “the lawyer of the association of the perverts called Kaos GL.”

Istanbul Pride, 2014. Photo by Lubunya/Wikimedia Commons

In what is hailed as the Muslim world’s largest gay parade, around 100,000 people turned out for Istanbul Pride in June – a similar number to the march staged in Tel Aviv. Turkey’s first transexual beauty contest was also held during the June celebrations. In August, the country’s first gay lifestyle magazine hit the shelves, and in September, Turkey’s first ‘gay marriage’ was held (though only a symbolic one). In yet another first, Turkey’s parliament hosted a press conference to mark the Transgender Day of Remembrance in November, dedicated to the victims of transphobic violence.   

Ekin Keser and Emrullah Tuzun, who held a symbolic marriage in September. Screenshot from www.kaosgl.com

Screenshot from www.radikal.com.tr of the winner of Turkey's first transexual beauty contest.

Bad news?  In September, the country’s first openly transexual reporter was fired from a TV station for reported ‘dress code’ violations. Also, Gay.com, a global dating service, was banned by the Turkish Telecommunications Directorate, joining other blocked LGBT sites.

Egypt / Al-Sissi’s war on ‘debauchery’ heats up

In the Middle East’s most populous country, 2014 saw a much reported anti-gay crackdown under the Al-Sissi regime. Homosexuality is legal in Egypt but men suspected of being gay are subject to arrest on charges of “debauchery,” and around 150 men total were estimated to have been arrested under related charges over the year. In September, eight men were arrested for staging a ‘gay wedding’ on a Cairo boat on the Nile, and were sentenced the following month to three years in prison (which was later reduced to one year). Most recently, 26 men were arrested for allegedly participating in a gay bath house orgy in December.

Eight Egyptian men convicted for 'inciting debauchery' following their appearance in a video of an alleged same-sex wedding party on a Nile boat cover their faces in the defendant's cage. AFP photo

Lebanon / Mass arrests and ‘anal testing’ – but one judge makes a stand

Though widely considered one of the more liberal Arab countries, police from Lebanon’s Moral Protection Bureau arrested 36 men in a Beirut adult cinema in July for allegedly meeting to engage in same-sex relations. Less than two weeks later, another 27 men were detained in an alleged gay bathhouse. Both groups of detainees were reported to have being subjected to ‘anal testing,’ a procedure intended to ‘prove’ a person’s engagement in anal sex, and therefore, their homosexuality. However, one positive headline did emerge out of the Land of Cedars: A judge ruled that homosexual relations do not contradict “the laws of nature,” and therefore cannot be deemed a criminal offense. 

There's much more out there - both reported and unreported. Being gay involves daily fear of assault, arrest and even death throughout much of the region. But among the horrors, as we saw, there are also signs of hope for the Middle Eastern LGBT community.