More Freedom, More Problems
Tunisia’s new freedoms have enabled the country’s LGBTs to speak out — and conservative forces to strike back.
TUNIS, TUNISIA -- Late last month, this city experienced an unprecedented public protest by members of Tunisia’s small LGBT community. Twenty young gay activists shouted slogans against homophobia and unfurled rainbow banners in front of the Bardo Museum, scene of the bloody terrorist attack that took the lives of 22 people just a few days earlier. “We got all sorts of reactions; some people showed sympathy and started walking with us, others called us names,” said Ramy Ayari, a 22 year old student who took part. (In the photo, demonstrators gather near the Bardo.)
TUNIS, TUNISIA — Late last month, this city experienced an unprecedented public protest by members of Tunisia’s small LGBT community. Twenty young gay activists shouted slogans against homophobia and unfurled rainbow banners in front of the Bardo Museum, scene of the bloody terrorist attack that took the lives of 22 people just a few days earlier. “We got all sorts of reactions; some people showed sympathy and started walking with us, others called us names,” said Ramy Ayari, a 22 year old student who took part. (In the photo, demonstrators gather near the Bardo.)
Many consider Tunisia — birthplace of the Arab Spring and its lonely success story — one of the Arab world’s most modern countries. The fact that a protest for gay rights was even possible here speaks volumes. But the picture for Tunisia’s LGBT citizens is not a simple one of unblemished progress. Even as all Tunisians adapt to their new freedoms – particularly freedom of expression and freedom of the media – these same gains have empowered forces that are deeply opposed to LGBT interests. Just a few days after the demonstration at the Bardo, activists who tried to start a similar protest at a university were verbally assaulted and physically expelled from campus.
“I knew I was gay when I was about 16 years old,” said Ramy, the student protester. “I came out to most my friends, but not my family. My mom knows, but we never really talk about it. My dad doesn’t know,” he said. Ramy was brave enough to allow me to use his full name. His desire for his story to be told triumphed his fear of being persecuted for being openly gay. A passionate LGBT activist, he founded an organization called “Without Restrictions.” Though they are still waiting for a permit from the government, Ramy and his fellow activists have already held and participated in several pro-LGBT advocacy events. This new assertiveness is beginning to break down a wall of silence that has been imposed for years by both society and government.
I first got in touch with Ramy on the phone after we were introduced by a mutual friend. My first impression was that he was very kind — and very fashionable. The warm colors of his clothes, his stylish haircut, and his hip glasses gave off a fun, friendly vibe. But his kindness failed, at times, to hide his discomfort. We met several times before he finally opened up about the intimate details of his life as a gay Tunisian man. “If I sit with a straight person, I keep wondering if they’re homophobic or not. I never feel comfortable enough,” he told me. When I shared my impression of Ramy’s stylish fashion sense, he took it as a compliment. But he said others would point or laugh at him because of his appearance. “I don’t usually respond to hateful comments. But for some of my friends, it goes beyond mockery and insults.”
In March, before the Bardo terrorist attack, Ramy and I sat down with his friend “Sarah,” a 25-year-old lesbian. (She asked me not to use her real name for her safety.) Late the previous night, two strangers had attacked her on the way to the train station. She had just returned from the hospital, and showed me her X-rays and medical reports. I could see the purple bruises on her nose and left eye underneath her bandages. She wore a hoodie to cover the stitches on her head, and could not turn around because of the pain in her back. “They were two homophobic men,” she said. “They called me names and asked if I knew what it was like to be with a man, instead of a woman … One of them pulled me and started punching me in the face, and when I fell, the other started kicking me everywhere. They were making jokes about me being a lesbian. Then they hit my head with an empty bottle of beer.” Sarah filed a complaint to the police, though she left out the reason for the assault. “No one came to my rescue when I was being hit, and I don’t expect the police to help me if I tell them I’m a lesbian,” she added.
Sarah said that this wasn’t the first time she had been attacked because of her appearance. She used to have a shaved head, and still has tattoos and visible piercings on her body. She explained that she had been forced to change neighborhoods every couple of years to escape her neighbors’ bigotry. Sarah’s friend Dorra, who was with her when we spoke, pointed out that reporting a homophobic crime in Tunisia is like a non-virgin female reporting a rape: “Chances are the victim will become the accused.”
Having witnessed discrimination at her workplace and during her daily life because of her looks, Sarah is not optimistic about the future of Tunisia’s LGBT community. She thinks the solution is to go abroad, as many of her gay friends already have. Ramy disagrees. He feels strongly about the importance of resisting homophobia by staying in his home country and demanding recognition. Being outspoken about LGBT rights can inspire members of the community to accept themselves for who they are, and also to become more involved in advocacy, he said.
But the fight of LGBT citizens here is far from easy. Ramy argues that it’s not just being an LGBT activist that’s challenging — simply being gay remains the most difficult part. Another friend of his, a 26 year old man who preferred to remain anonymous, does not have high hopes about a potential change in the near future either. He said the revolution has done nothing for him, as he still needs to be on his guard and avoid standing out as a gay man. “I watch my behavior, what I do and what I say, so that I don’t draw attention. There’s always fear, though. You have to be always super careful,” he added.
Other than personal safety, police indifference, and pervasive discrimination, the leading challenge in the LGBT quest for equality is the law itself. Article 230 of the Tunisian penal code criminalizes homosexuality, banning “homosexual acts” in the Arab version and “sodomy” in the French. Dating back to the pre-colonial times, the law prescribes imprisonment of up to 3 years for violation. An invasive and illogical medical test is usually conducted on men suspected of being gay to attempt to determine whether they have engaged in sexual activity with other men.
Lawyer Ghazi Mrabet explained that citizens have the right to refuse the test. However, a refusal would make them look all the more “guilty.” When judging alleged lesbians, judges and officers have to rely on contextual evidence and draw conclusions at their own discretion. “I remember this one woman was accused of homosexual acts in Tunis, but there was not enough proof to condemn her. The judge used one of her piercings as incriminating evidence […] It’s ridiculous,” said Mrabet.
According to Mrabet, LGBT Tunisians are treated as second class citizens. They need to be protected by the law, but he cautions that the decriminalization must be gradual, as a radical cultural and social reform would be impossible in a conservative Muslim country. The penal code is currently being reviewed for possible reforms by a specialized committee within the Prime Minister’s office. In a potentially encouraging sign, the committee’s members include representatives of civil society. But outcome of its work is not yet known.
“Reforming Article 230 will need political and moral courage. So we’ll see,” said Mrabet. The main challenge is how to break stereotypes about the LGBT community. People need to understand that “it’s not something that could negatively affect society, and that being punished cannot stop or change it,” he said.
If social attitudes about homosexuality are to change, the media must surely play a role. And indeed, in Tunisia’s newly freed media environment, several outlets have begun to cover LGBT-related topics since the Arab Spring. But most members of the LGBT community think the media has portrayed them in a negative light, provoking homophobic reactions by religious and conservative forces.
In December, radio host Alaa Chebbi aired a broadcast called “Homosexuality and The Reasons Why it Has Spread.” As this title implies, the host and his guests treated homosexuality as a perversion and a psychological illness. One of the guests — an Imam named Nabil Ben Younes — openly called for homosexuals to be murdered. “In the media, they portray us like circus animals, just to generate buzz,” said Aya, a 29 year-old architect from the coastal city of Sousse.
Seeking to bring some sanity to the coverage, Ramy attempted to participate in the few radio and television shows which addressed LGBT issues. He once took part in the recording of a TV show scheduled to air on a private channel. But the show was never aired because its producer and the channel’s management feared a public backlash. Ramy said that radio producers never called him back and asked homophobic questions like “how did you become this?” For him, inviting Imams and sexologists to treat homosexuality as a harmful phenomenon shows that most people in the media don’t know what the term LGBT really means. “What do they mean by such questions? I’m a human being. We’re all different. There are different shades of being an LGBT,” he said.
Ramy, his friends, and his fellow activists have different visions about the future of the LGBT community in Tunisia. Some may one day push for same-sex marriage, others focus on repealing the penal code or just on being able to host gay pride events in safety. But even those who are optimistic inevitably recognize the need for a deep cultural change — gradual and slow — in order for LGBT members to be accepted. However, they all agree that the priority right now is to decriminalize being an LGBT.
“Right now, we’re not even demanding same-sex marriage or a gay pride. We just want to be protected by the law. We want the law to ban any assault based on sexual orientation,” said Rzouga, a representative of the Tunisian Association for Equality and Justice Damj association. “It’s my life dream to see such a law happen.”
Photo Credit: Ramy Ayari
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