In the five decades since the Stonewall riots, much of the progress made by the LGBTQ community in mostly Western countries has in many ways skipped over the Middle East. Nonetheless, conversations with members of the region’s LGBTQ community offer at least a glimmer of hope that the tide will one day turn thanks to the courageous, relentless work being done by activists and ordinary people in the face of the bleak-looking reality.
In its most recent annual State-Sponsored Homophobia report, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association paints a rather grim, but hardly surprising, image of the region and the state of its LGBTQ community.
A mix of arguments claimed to be rooted in religion, conservatism and the remains of colonial-era laws provide a broad basis for opponents of LGBTQ rights.
In North African countries, a person found to be gay faces anywhere between two and five years in prison, while in Iran the law allows for the death penalty. Technically, gay people in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Saudi Arabia could also be sentenced to death, but no such cases have been recorded in those countries. Some other Gulf states, such as Kuwait and Oman, also sanction harsh prison terms for gay people, as does President Bashar Assad’s Syria.
In Egypt, homosexuality is not explicitly criminalized, but members of the LGBTQ community are targeted under various laws. Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Iraq and Bahrain no longer criminalize same-sex relations, but offer hardly any protection, let alone recognition, of LGBTQ rights.
Yet, progress is being made. Adding to Israel and Turkey, whose LGBTQ communities operate in a relatively open environment despite their many challenges, in Lebanon, for example, authorities can technically sentence gay people to one year in prison. But several courts in the country have argued in recent years that the criminalization of same-sex relations should be abolished. Lawmakers, so far, have failed to act on that.
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“There’s hardly any hate that’s similar to the hate of the queer comunity,” says Rita, 18, who identifes as lesbian and asked only to be identified by her first name, fearing persecuation in her homeland of Morocco. “There’s a lot of fear among the Moroccan queer community, and zero visibility.” Some of the bigger cities host underground activities, but the general public’s attitudes toward the LGBTQ community remain “very aggressive,” she says.
I., a 28-year-old Moroccan activist who recently moved to Germany, says that with the Arab Spring came an opportunity for human rights activists. A new constitution gave hope that Article 489 of the Penal Code, criminalizing same-sex relations, would be repealed. An ongoing campaign, which peaked with a “kiss-in” in front of the parliament in Rabat in 2013, was faced with adamant conservative opposition by both the authorities and the general public, and has yet to achieve its goals.
“Tensions have increased, and I came to the conclusion not to shout my homosexuality and atheism from the rooftops,” I. explains. He left the country after realizing he “would be cursed in Morocco” for his actions.
As a former French colony, the sense of fighting off any Western influence is widespread in Morocco (and some other North African countries), but it also used by opponents of the LGBTQ cause to dismiss gay rights as a neocolonialist plot. Ironically, in most of the Middle East it is colonial-era laws that provide the legal basis for persecution of LGBTQ people. Most countries that have decriminalized same-sex relations did so not necessarily by design, but in the process of repealing colonialist leftovers in their legal codes.
The younger generation sees “acceptance of queer people as part of the package of ideas that came with the French,” and tries to reject them, says Rita. “Me and my friends have been noticing that older generations would be more open to new ideas, whereas the younger generation is a lot more close-minded. But queer people have existed in all societies for a long time.”
‘Our fight is global’
“What we do isn’t really welcome in our country,” says Mohammed, who works as the communications officer for IraQueer, Iraq’s only LGBTQ rights organization.
Fearing the legal and social consequences of simply coming out of the closet in the vast majority of the region’s communities means activism is even more difficult, navigating a minefield that really can be deadly. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, and in many communities it is that same violent opposition, the legal obstacles and the authorities’ complacency that fuel the struggle for freedom.
“There are multiple challenges and difficulties that we face on a daily basis. There’s the security issue, we have to stay concealed, it makes it difficult,” says Mohammed.
Like quite a few other activists in the region, his organization’s work is far from being endorsed or even recognized by the authorities, which is why he also asked to be identified only by his first name.
This lack of recognition also means that many LGBTQ rights campaigners in the region have had to come up with new words in Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish or Farsi to discuss members of the community in a respectful manner, as the words being used by most people were hurtful and derogatory.
One sign of progress came in 2017, when Jordan’s Interior Ministry referred to LGBTQ people for the first time in an official statement as the meem community — taken from the first letters in the Arabic names given to different identities in the LGBTQ community — instead of one of many derogatory terms at hand.
Apart from services such as legal and medical advice to LGBTQ people in the country or Iraqi asylum seekers abroad, IraQueer focuses on education and advocacy, aimed both at Iraqi communities and the international community. It publishes content in three languages — Arabic, Kurdish and English — with the aim of reaching local and international audience.
“Even though we’re working in and for the Iraqi LGBTQ community, it doesn’t mean we should be isolated from the rest of the world,” Mohammed says. “Our fight is global, and at the end of the day it’s important they know what happens. Using English creates that solidary with the global LGBTQ community.
“If you speak to an Iraqi politician, they would say, ‘We don’t have gay people in Iraq, only in the West,’” adds Mohammed. His organization’s response is to “show them we exist,” most recently with the publication of over 40 personal stories by LGBTQ people and their families, detailing their lives and their struggle for acceptance. “People are reading stories of love, stories of fear, stories of courage and stories of death they can identify with; stories of other people, and understand that they’re not alone in this.”
‘A white-person thing’
“Our cultures aren’t accepting, but neither was American culture in recent history,” says 38-year-old Ellie, a Lebanese-American and bisexual transgender woman who is one of three Arab-Americans who started a podcast called The Queer Arabs. “It’s seen as a white-person thing,” says co-host Alia, a 34-year-old Saudi-American lesbian.
Despite living in a more open and accepting society than those their families left behind, they still agree that finding others who are like you can mean a lot for LGBTQ people in the region, as it is for Middle Easterners in the diaspora. “We knew we needed” something like The Queer Arabs podcast, Alia explains. “It’s such a relief when you realize you’re not isolated.”
Discussing the future of the LGBTQ struggle in the Middle East, they say that class divides also play an important part. “The wealthier you are, the more you can get access or get out of situations,” says Alia. Where a great deal of any form of social activity has to be done underground, such as in Saudi Arabia, this can mean a lot.
Ellie adds that “people with wealth and status are also the ones least likely to disrupt the status quo. … Refugees or people on the edges of society probably won’t be able to survive without pushing back. It may not be fair to them, but they don’t have a better choice.
“Not everyone has to be in active rebellion or in the streets all the time. There’s a lot of good in the mundane,” she adds. Their podcast aims to reflect that. “We all do just regular things,” Alia stresses. “We’re really just like everyone else.”
Alia says she has “realized how powerful social media is” when it comes to LGBTQ people. “Twitter is a huge thing for Arabic speakers, maybe it’s a way to be the most anonymous. A lot has been enabled because people were able to connect on social media. Unity is starting to happen through it,” she says.
Activist Nizar Hlewa, born and raised in Jaffa, also says social media plays a key role in showing Palestinian youth they’re not alone, finding diverse sources of information and offering alternative role models.
Hlewa, 30, currently leads Israel Gay Youth’s program for the Arab community, Alwan, which, complemented by the West Bank organization AlQaws, works to educate Palestinians on issues of gender and sexuality, as well as providing a safe space for Palestinian LGBTQ people in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
He says he finds hope in this younger generation, which is a lot more willing to tackle taboo societal issues. “The LGBTQ issue has more visibility in the media in recent years,” he explains. “Youth are in a different place, they’re more exposed.”
For instance, many of the teenagers he meets in schools follow transgender models and singers on Instagram, like Lebanon’s Haiifa Magic. “There’s more acceptance of transgender identities than other LGBQ ones” in conservative Muslim societies in Israel, he claims, explaining that there seems to be something in that conservation of the binary paradigms that makes more sense to youth and adults alike. When it comes to gay people, conservative are “stuck on the sexual act,” which many deem improper, more so than transitioning.
In many senses, Turkey has been leading the charge on LGBTQ acceptance. In the early 2000s, affected by what Turkish sociologist Cenk Ozbay of Istanbul’s Sabanci University calls “queer globalization,” the country “witnessed a certain positive increase in the visibility of LGBTQ people in society. The diversity within them, their rights in the framework of equal citizenship and human rights, the inspiration for Europeanization and tolerance of the government served this positive mood,” says Ozbay.
However, following the 2013 Gezi Park protest, which involved many queer people, and the massive Istanbul Pride parade the same year, “the government’s position has shifted and it started to conceive LGBTQ people not as an insignificant minority not worth talking about, but as one of the ‘dangerous’ groups that is manipulated by the West against the government,” Ozbay says.
Two years later, this led to Istanbul Pride being banned halfway through, and police forces rushing to violently disperse the crowd. In a step that at the time seemed rather dramatic but later became the norm in Turkey, the Istanbul government effectively banned the Pride march. Over the past five years, including the most recent one last month, the marches have taken place in an ad hoc manner on the central Istiklal Boulevard, without official permits and practically under blockade by massive numbers of Turkish police.
Yildiz, 29, works for Kaos GL, one of the country’s largest LGBTQ rights organizations. He says that in spite of a “systematic attack on freedom” and constant fears of hate crimes against LGBTQ people, he detects a “change in society. People are more knowledgeable about the issue, and they declare their support openly.”
He also sees social media as an invaluable platform in promoting LGBTQ rights and changing the public’s attitudes toward the community, despite the backlash that naturally comes with more exposure.
But despite what he calls the government’s attempts to oppress all forms of LGBTQ activism, Yildiz is confident in the changes to come. “Sexual and gender diversity have always been an integral part of every society,” he says. “Oppression is not an integral part of society; diversity is.”
Ozbay, meanwhile, believes activists will “show resilience and creativity to ‘organize otherwise’ and arrange … forms of visibilities that would crisscross the official ban,” as they used to do in the past. He looks to the young, urban population that is “actively challenging and refusing the dysfunctional and obsolete cultural and political values and presuppositions. … At the end of the day, despite all legal and cultural obstacles that we see now, sexual democratization has started and I believe it is not possible to stop it.
“There is an irresistible and irreversible democratic trend virtually everywhere in the world that favors inclusivity, diversity and absolute freedom for lifestyle choices,” he adds. “As you cannot defend misogyny, racism or xenophobia today, you cannot argue for homophobia. As researchers observed and predicted 20 years ago, this is the globalization of sexuality. Turkey cannot resist. No country can in the long run.”
IraQueer’s Mohammed admits there haven’t been many positive changes in Iraq, but he still sees reasons for hope. “I talk to people on a daily basis, people more aware of themselves, accepting of themselves — that’s where I see most hope,” he explains. “The hope comes from inside us. No matter what happens, people can’t take hope away from us.
“I don’t think a Pride event will happen anytime soon” in Iraq, he continues. “The Iraqi government still lets people kill people for being gay, and is at least complicit in the killing. It will end up in a disaster; an assembly of people who are targeted.
“We will have our own Stonewall,” he concludes. “It might be different in its form, but we’ll have [one]. That’s what we’re working for. We will have our own Stonewall — just on our own terms.”