Argument

How Gay Rights Advance Democracy in the Middle East

LGBT activists are in the vanguard of the struggle against the region’s dictators and theocrats.

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Last month’s massacre at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando launched a heated debate about the relationship between Islam and homosexuality, and more acutely, about the prevalence of a virulent homophobia in the Islamic world. But in the Middle East, this debate began long before Orlando. LGBT people in this part of the world have been battling for their rights for years, and not without casualties.

Across the region, sexuality has become one of the main battlegrounds in the broader confrontation between advocates for democracy and human rights on the one hand and authorities and conservative religious forces on the other. This is reflected in LGBT activists’ successful alliances with other progressive forces, and in the success they have found championing their own cause by casting it as part of a more general struggle for freedom and dignity.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s drive to concentrate power in his own hands is being accelerated in the wake of last week’s failed coup attempt. Inherent to Erdogan’s growing authoritarian streak is his push to impose on the Turkish people a set of conservative, Islamist values that impinge on a raft of civil and personal rights.

Since his ascent to power in 2003, discrimination has become widespread. Its manifestations range from public homophobic statements by ruling party officials — one former minister in 2010 labelled homosexuality “a biological disease” — to the blocking of gay social media apps and, in 2013, the punishment of a publishing house for releasing a novel with “homosexual content” under the pretext of “indecency.”

The crackdown against the LGBT community is part of Erdogan’s grander ambition to Islamize Turkish society while quashing dissent, which many fear will now intensify in the wake of the coup attempt. One Ankara-based activist told me this week she was “highly concerned” about “police-backed” attacks by ruling party members on LGBT activists. Her group has closed its office due to “security concerns.”

The harassment of communities that do not fit Erdogan’s Islamist vision has long characterized his rule. In response, LGBT activists have found solidarity with other marginalized groups and civil activists who reject Erdogan’s authoritarian drive and seek a Turkey that is tolerant, diverse, and respectful of individual liberties. This new alliance was on full display during the Gezi Park protests in 2013, when millions of Turks marched nationwide against the government’s autocratic policies.

The LGBT movement was particularly active in organizing rallies and workshops during the protests, presenting itself as a key civil society actor and opposition force. To increase visibility within the protests, various LGBT groups and activists formed an umbrella organization. Among its varied activities, the group, known as LGBT Blok, distributed food and T-shirts, released regular statements and updates via social media, and liaised with other participating organizations, including (rather remarkably) soccer club enthusiasts, to prevent homophobic slurs in protest chants. These efforts were recognized soon after, when up to 100,000 people took part in Istanbul’s Pride Parade in June 2013, and again in 2014. While it has been an annual fixture since 2003, Istanbul’s pride march had barely been able to gather a few thousand people prior to the Gezi protests. The overt presence of the LGBT movement during the protests laid the foundations for solidarity with likeminded groups and activists.

In the wake of these successes, Turkey’s LGBT movement became an important avenue through which Turks — and not just members of the LGBT community — could openly voice their dissent from Erdogan’s policies at a time when such avenues are being closed off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Turkish authorities banned Istanbul’s Pride Parade in 2015, and maintained the ban this year. When organizers tried to revive the parade last month, officials confronted marchers with tear gas and detained 19, including two European legislators. As one Turkish activist wrote in response, “The crackdown was indicative of the fact that Erdogan and his [party] are now extremely scared of people coming together in solidarity, marching for their rights.”

In Turkey, the LGBT question has become a focal point of tension between pro-democratic and its authoritarian political forces. The same pattern has been repeated in other Middle Eastern countries. LGBT activists in Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia have diligently sought alliances with other civil society actors by articulating their messages to broaden their struggle and gain a wider appeal.

In Lebanon, this strategy has been effective in amplifying LGBT rights in tandem with other civil rights. In 2012, Beirut’s police forces sparked a public outcry after raiding a gay adult cinema, detaining 36 men, and inserting eggs into their rectums as a brutal “test” of homosexuality.

To attract public attention and support, activists steering the outcry prudently shifted the discourse away from LGBT rights and toward issues that would have greater public resonance, such as privacy and police abuse. “We didn’t go and protest about LGBT rights, but against police raping individuals and police violating our sexual lives,” said Georges Azzi, a renowned Lebanese LGBT and human rights activist. In the wake of the uproar, the Lebanese Medical Association banned anal probe tests.

This strategy was also deployed in Egypt after 26 men were arrested during a raid on a Cairo bath house in December 2014. In a conservative country where homosexual acts are widely considered “indecent,” LGBT activists were again able to turn public opinion in their favor by shifting the focus away from homosexuality to privacy and government overreach. “After the bath house raid, the language basically became: ‘Why can’t the state just leave people alone? They’re not harming anyone, leave them be.’ It achieved a real resonance among journalists, intellectuals, and the remaining cadre of secular revolutionary activists,” said Scott Long, an activist and researcher on LGBT issues in the Middle East.

The men were eventually acquitted, an outcome Long attributes to the movement’s success in swaying public opinion. “The state backed down because they realized that the ideological ground that they wanted to stand on — of protecting morals — was being cut out from under them by a pretty articulate defense on the right to privacy.”

Enmeshing the struggle for LGBT rights with the broader push for democratic reform and human rights was a natural progression, given the conservative environment in the Middle East. “There was a general consensus among the people that were working on this issue that talking about LGBT rights per se wouldn’t get you anywhere,” Long said. “But talking about right to privacy, the right to autonomy on freedom from state surveillance and control, resonated with other political actors.”

The relationship between LGBT activists and pro-democracy movements is mutually beneficial. For the LGBT movement, participating in a larger democratic project provides greater visibility and advocacy for LGBT issues. For the pro-democracy movement, including the LGBT cause within the broader struggle provides an extra avenue in which to challenge the authorities. If the battle for democratic reform in the Middle East is to be reduced to one over the rights to privacy and sexual rights, this is a battle pro-democracy activists are prepared to fight.

In addition to winning specific victories, alliances between LGBT activists in both Turkey and Lebanon have also led to more durable progressive political projects. Turkey’s LGBT movement was a key enabler and supporter in the formation of the progressive, liberal Peoples’ Democracy Party, which successfully entered parliament in the June 2014 general elections. The party even ran openly gay candidates in the elections. While none of them were elected, the episode marked a significant advance for the prominence of LGBT issues and for the recognition of the movement as a key opposition and pro-democracy force.

In Lebanon, LGBT activists have been heavily involved with other political initiatives, ranging from solidarity with domestic workers and women to high-profile activism during the mass anti-corruption protests in 2015 and the formation of an independent anti-corruption electoral list — Beirut Madinati — in this year’s municipal elections.

Needless to say, the visibility won by the LGBT movement as a result of its pro-democracy activism has also attracted hatred and abuse from its opponents. A 2014 report on LGBT rights in Turkey noted that hate crimes against the community had spiked, with 41 murders between 2010 and 2014, 12 of which occurred in 2013 alone, the year of the Gezi protests. But some progress, albeit incremental, has also been made. Following the cinema fiasco in Lebanon, one of the country’s main television networks, LBC, decided to start using a dignified Arabic term for homosexuality — mithliyeh, which implies “sameness” — breaking from the previous practice in the Lebanese media of using derogatory terms such as “deviant.”

These are not just victories for the LGBT community, but for all in the Middle East who seek reform based on shared democratic values. The LGBT movement is not only alive in the Islamic world, but is a leading challenger of the region’s extremists and autocrats alike.

In the photo, LGBT and human rights activists chant slogans during anti-government protests on Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s main shopping corridor, on June 23, 2013.

Photo credit: BURAK KARA/Getty Images

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