LGBT in the Middle East: Marginalised and barely tolerated
Beirut - Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities are increasingly insecure and marginalised in the Middle East and North Africa, where little tolerance for homosexuals has been exhibited. Recent incidents, however, including a ban of a pride gay parade in Istanbul, in addition to the Islamic State’s notorious brutality against homosexuals has brought gays’ plight to the forefront.
While gays are relatively tolerated in Lebanon and Jordan, they remain subject to legal persecution elsewhere in the Middle East. All Arab countries, with the exception of Jordan and Lebanon, have laws criminalising same-sex intimate relationships. LGBT communities remain persecuted in the mostly conservative Arab societies, regardless of what the law says.
“LGBT in Lebanon and the Middle East have always been a marginalised category. They are discriminated against in the society and in the law. Even where there is no specific law criminalising them, other laws are used, such as protection of public ethics in Jordan, to arrest and prosecute them,” said Ghinwa Samahat, executive director of Helem, the first non-governmental organisation (NGO) protecting and defending homosexuals in Lebanon and the Arab world.
Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code prohibits “sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature” and is used to prosecute LGBT people, even though “nature” has not been legally defined in Lebanon.
“We had at least three cases of homosexuals who have been decriminalised in court on the grounds that natural sexuality is not legally framed. That was a progressive development, which somehow eased pressure on the LGBT community in Lebanon,” Samahat said.
“Nonetheless,” she added, “LGBT are still harassed by police and persecuted in the society. Some are blackmailed. Others are fired from their jobs, subjected to harassment in the street and repudiated by their families.”
Helem, which started as a movement advocating freedom of sexuality in 1998, developed into an officially registered NGO defending LGBT rights. It represents people in court and offers judicial consultations in addition to social services.
Members of LGBT communities in the Middle East tend to hide their sexuality, fearing persecution by society and close family members but they are often discovered.
“They are looked upon wrongly as homosexuality is often associated with drug addiction and prostitution and that makes their families even more intolerant,” Samahat said.
“There is a trend that says Lebanon is more open and tolerant to LGBT but this is not true because Beirut does not represent all Lebanon. If you go out of Beirut — whether north, south or east — there is utter intolerance. Even inside Beirut, there are a few spaces where they feel more accepted and comfortable but still there are raids, random attacks and arrests,” she added.
Homosexual behaviour is clearly recognised as an act of sodomy in Islam and it is harshly punished. In some Arab countries punishment can include years of imprisonment.
In Egypt, homosexuals are considered religious, social and even legal outcasts. “Our religion views same-sex relations as gross violations of its rules because they spread vice and destroy the family as an institution,” said Mohamed al-Guindy, a member of the Religious Research Academy, the research arm of al-Azhar mosque. “This is why it stipulates a heavy punishment for these relationships.”
Nevertheless, homosexuals are present — some say in large numbers — in the region. They are often seen as “social lepers” inside family circles and in the wider society.
A homosexual said in a recent TV interview that he feels afraid every time he goes on the street. “People get to know that I am gay from my haircut and my clothes,” the man, called Rami, told a private Egyptian channel. “They call me names, beat me and sometimes steal my belongings.”
Political developments in recent years added to the suffering of the LGBT community in Egypt. The regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which came to power after crushing the Muslim Brotherhood, wants to prove that it is more Islamic than the people it removed from power, observers said. This translated into more restrictions on freedoms, including sexual freedom.
Social and legal treatment of LGBT people is as hostile in North Africa where suppression of homosexuality begins at an early age.
Although homosexuality is not explicitly a crime in Morocco, Article 489 of the penal code states that “licentious acts or acts against nature with a person of the same sex” can result in prison sentences of up to a year.
“In Morocco, the victim must pay the price for his own aggression,” said Ibtissam Lachgar, a leading figure in the Movement for Individual Freedoms (MALI).
“Most gays hide their sexual identity under mask of shame and fear. They kiss girls to appear like men in the eyes of their friends and sometimes insult their fellow homosexuals when their entourage does.”
In Algeria, articles 333 and 338 of the penal code mandate prison terms of up to two years for homosexual relations.
In Tunisia, despite the constitution allowing freedom of religion and consciousness, lesbian and gay sexual relations can be punished by up to three years in jail. Those suspected of homosexual relations could be forced to undergo anal tests. Nonetheless, a legal organisation has been formed with decriminalising homosexual behaviour the top priority of this group.
As the country gained freedoms after the uprisings of 2011, the push for homosexuals’ rights became more visible but did not gain tangible support among mainstream intellectuals, politicians and artists out of fear of a societal backlash.
“I do not see why we should live hidden. Our life is a private matter,” said Ahmed Ben Amor from the gays’ association Shams. “Homosexuality has always been a taboo and systematically repressed in the Arab world long before the rise of Islamic jihadism,” Samahat said, “but now it is more in public focus because of (the Islamic State’s) practices against gays.”