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LGBTQ Discrimination in the Middle East and North Africa

July 14, 2017

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a panel with LGBTQ activists from Jordan, Kuwait, and Tunisia. Panelists shared their strategies, challenges, and lessons learned around LGBTQ activism in their home countries. It was a moving experience to be able to listen to the vivid stories from the speakers on the panel about their lived experiences being LGBTQ and living and working in the Middle East and North Africa.

One of the speakers was a civil rights activist from Kuwait and is a part of an effort that aims to promote constitutional awareness to the residents of Kuwait through various media outlets. He has worked on projects, publications, and campaigns related to civil and constitutional awareness. He does so by facilitating trainings and workshops. He talked a lot about how dangerous it is to be a gay man in Kuwait. He also talked about the ways that being a gay man and a transgender woman are similar and different. With regards to how they are treated and what is legal and illegal both groups are struggling against a system that wants to penalize them for being who they are. He talked about the violence against gay men from the public and government and the hate crimes and humiliation transgender women have to face daily. One thing that really stuck out to me was the story he told about a transgender woman getting her head shaven. As a trans person myself, the story really affected me and I felt like I was there in the story with them.

Another speaker was a Tunisian civil rights activist who has worked with different international NGOs on Human Rights issues. She has worked with international and local civil society organizations in Tunisia on implementing the constitutional rights of a fair trial and equality to all citizens. She was also a member of a coalition that drafted a report on the violations of human rights of the Tunisian LGBTQ community, which was presented to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. She is also a LGBTQ advocacy officer and advocates for the abrogation of the unconstitutional article 230 of the 1913 Tunisian penal code which punishes sexual intercourse between consenting same-sex couples, and for the ban of forced anal/rectal examination used to criminalize homosexuality. She shared information about the work happening in Tunisia to counter criminalizing being LGBTQ and legally allowing people to perform rectal examinations to “prove” homosexuality through protesting and bringing the issues to the government and the people. She said that after liberation, from the Arab Spring revolution, activism has sparked amongst the people and she is excited about the opportunities that lie ahead for Tunisia.

The final speaker identifies as a queer Sufi Muslimah (to emphasize the female pronoun and divert from a male centered identity) from Jordan. Like the previous speakers she also works in development in Jordan. She is an organizer, and a writer for MyKali, the only LGBTQ online platform in Jordan. The magazine was blocked by the government in Jordan, and the MyKali team is trying to get it back online. A lot of what she spoke about was the experience of being queer in Jordan. She talked about how the focus of discrimination toward LGBTQ people in Jordan is mainly toward gay men. Transgender women are often overlooked or perceived as gay men; while, lesbian women are almost entirely ignored. She stated that in Jordan, they don’t see women as sexual beings and therefore are not concerned about them being lesbians. She also talked about how in Jordan people are a part of tribes, usually including your family, which helps results in a very low rate of homelessness. But, a problem is, that if you come out as LGBTQ there is a good chance you will be kick out and ostracized from your tribe.

As the event closed and I was taking in all the information I had just learned and all the stories I had just heard I started to see all the similarities in the stories these individuals shared. The specifics were different, there are a lot of cultural differences and the countries are all in difference stages of change after the Arab Spring revolutions – but what was clear was the dedication and passion of these activists to put the people and the issues first in front of their own safety to fight for what is right. From what I experienced all three of these activists have hope and optimism in the good of humanity and in the opportunity to give voice to the people and issues that have none. Every day in all of these countries (and in our own), there are violations of human rights and dignity taking place. These change makers have the courage, values and tenacity to move forward in the name of justice. Do we?

*Names have been purposefully omitted to protect the safety of the speakers as they travel home to keep up their work, especially because for them working towards LGBTQ justice is an arrestable offense.

 

By Camden Hargrove, field organizer, National LGBTQ Task Force

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