For a long time, Tunisia’s LGBT community remained discreet. Now it is moving into the public sphere and defending its rights out loud.
(Note: All linked content in French)
Late March, in Tunis: the World Social Forum (WSF) is in full swing. Solidarity marches are being organized, and citizens of the whole world are coming together to discuss “Rights and Dignity”, the WSF’s theme. Amid the signs and flags, a small group of activists stands out: LGBT activists who have organized the first public demonstration for the community’s rights in Tunisia. For a minority that remains hidden in order to protect itself, this is a novelty.
Ali Bousselmi, president of the Mawjoudin (“We exist!”) association, explains:
“Our initial idea was to make signs and demonstrate for an hour or two within the framework of the WSF. But with activists from other associations in Tunis and elsewhere, as well as help from activists from Morocco, we considered organizing more activities: Free hugs, marches, leafletting … The Forum has helped us to become more visible and start discussions.”
Photos of the gathering quickly made the rounds of the social media and were disseminated in the press. The public debate was started. In a country where homosexuality is taboo and sodomy is subject to three years in prison, demonstrating publicly takes courage.
Spring 2015 marks a change in the fight for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) rights in Tunisia. Ali tells how the group decided to run a stand on the El Manar campus of the University of Tunis and invite people to discuss homosexuality. “We put paper and pens on the stand and asked people to react in writing – whether they were for or against homosexuality. We wanted to start a dialogue. At the beginning, everything was fine. Then, at a certain moment, people reacted violently, with insults and punches. That was a predictable reaction…”
Ali knew there was a risk of violence: “It’s a risk we took, and it was worth it. In the end, it went quite well – aside from that incident.”
The group’s outdoor presence helped it to draw more people during the debates and organized presentations. “We had planned meetings and wanted a lot of people to come. Not everyone reads the program and knows exactly what it’s about, so we had to be noticeable,” he explains.
For Meryam*, the action of the feminist collective, Chouf (“Look!”) Minorities at the WSF, was well thought-out: “The people there were activists who know how to protect themselves, know their rights, know that they can’t be arrested for having waved a flag. In addition, with the atmosphere at the WSF and thousands of people from all over the world, we could feel protected for that moment.”
These public actions were followed by another kind of independent action some days later during a fashion show at the “La fête de la Mode” in Tunis.
The LGBT flag was brandished by a model during the Tunis Fashion Show in April 2015. Photo shot by an audience member.
One designer decided to end his presentation with a personal act: a model waving the LGBT flag. Once again, the image circulated on social media and was disseminated in the press.
Over the years, the LGBT community in Tunisia had worked to strengthen itself internally, identify needs and take action to help make its members feel safe. Now it is moving on to another stage: going public and lobbying.
A prepared outing
It took time to get started, as Ali bears witness. “Mawjoudin! We exist, we’re here,” explains Ali.
Organized in early 2014, Mawjoudin, which fights for the community’s rights, was finally granted legal status in late January 2015. But Ali had cut his teeth before that. At the beginning of 2011, he tried working on LGBT rights with Amnesty International in Tunis. “However, we thought we needed time to understand the workings of an association, get training, and understand homosexuality and homophobia in Tunisia.” Exchanging views and meetings with international associations that are fighting for the same rights, especially in Lebanon, enabled the Tunisian activists to hone their skills rapidly.
Today the activists are ready to act more publicly and feel a sense of urgency. Homophobic discourse, which is widespread in Tunisian society, is the problem that must be addressed first. Since the revolution, freedom of expression has allowed for greater freedom of speech. In the media, a homophobic discourse has also appeared. Members of the community feel it is important to respond in a constructive fashion.
Most importantly, it is high time to defend the rights of the community and fight against the criminalization of homosexuality. Since the revolution, activists have regularly been told, “The time is not right”. But “When it comes to rights, there is no priority,” explains Khouloud Mahdhaoui, the president of Chouf. “Either you have them all or you don’t.”
Many activists are exasperated by the “bad timing” excuse. Houssem*, who heads the Kelmty association, wants to liberate political speech. If Tunisia wants to be part of the modern world, he thinks, the country must fight against the article in the Penal Code that discriminates against part of its population:
“It’s ridiculous to say that it’s not the right moment. If Tunisia calls itself democratic, there is no better moment.” He bitterly runs through the never-ending discussions with lawyers and politicians.
“It’s as if we were throwing temper tantrums! But my rights are no whim. I have the right to demand that the State stops regarding me as a criminal.”
He also talks about the restraint in part of the community that has so thoroughly absorbed the repression and taboos that it can’t imagine being able to demand its rights. “We heard belittling from members of the community, who told us that it made no sense to demand our rights,” he reports.He keeps on fighting. Others do, too.
For Badreddine Baabou, president of the Damj Association for justice and equality, the time of undercover campaigning is past. He bitterly runs through the discussions with lawyers and politicians that never lead to anything.
“The battle must be fought out loud,” he says.
In August 2011, Damj, the Tunisian community’s oldest association for justice and equality, received permission to operate. An effort had already been made in 2010 but was rejected, “because we spoke about LGBT rights in the articles of association. That had to be changed: today we talk about minorities and marginalized groups.”
Damj has been working in the field for years, but before he discusses everyday life for part of the community, Badreddine wants to underscore the legal aspect of the fight. The community is stronger and better able to defend itself today, he explains, and legislative changes can help to improve the situation. He emphasizes the new Constitution’s major principles, such as equality between citizens, the protection of privacy and the home, and the confidentiality of correspondence.
Article 230 of the Penal Code contradicts these principles, but because there is no Constitutional Court it’s not possible to challenge the article.
Fighting the abuses
It is important to repeal Article 230 of the Penal Code because that could trigger a change in behavior and mentality that would impact the everyday lives of LBGT people in Tunisia. “The work began in 2002. At the time, it was marginal. There were problems with Internet dating sites,” Badreddine explains. The police would use false identities to arrange meetings for people in the community – and then beat them up or detain them. There were also forced coming-outs, and people found themselves in the street, disowned by their families. The community mobilized in the early 2000s to respond to the endangerment and stigmatization that individuals were suffering.
“People talk about Article 230 of the Penal Code as if it were dead, but that’s wrong. In 2008, especially in Tunis, there were waves of arbitrary arrests, with people arrested and hunted down in bars and cafés,” Badreddine recalls. In the early 2000s, the police reports of arrests referred to ‘depravity’. Then in 2008 and 2009, the tone changed. A kind of witch hunt began. Official reports spoke openly of homosexuality as grounds for arrest or condemnation. The community always organizes to help people who are detained, find lawyers and get the sentences reduced. “In all these years, only two lawyers regularly helped us and succeeded in getting the sanctions reduced. However, you had to ‘cheat’ and claim something like weak mental health. Disturbing excuses, but at the time that was the only way to get people out of prison, and that was our main concern.”
Arbitrary arrests and facial discrimination
“Beginning in 2008, we found ourselves confronted with facial discrimination. Article 230 was variously applied – according to
the mood of the judges and police officers who wrote the official arrest record,” recalls Badreddine.
A semantic shift had taken place: it was no longer about condemning the act of sodomy, but was left to the good will of the authorities. The more homophobic the police officer and the judge were, the heavier the sentence.
During those two years, there were dozens of arbitrary arrests and trials. According to Badreddine, most of the homosexuals were incarcerated in Sousse. There, as in Tunis, people convicted of homosexuality were imprisoned in cells referred to as ‘the pink room’ or ‘the room for lions’ – ironic names intended to call into question the men’s masculinity. Between 40 and 60 people were locked up in those cells.
“Each time a ‘homosexual’ prisoner is identified in prison, he is put in this cell.”
At that time, unable to form an association legally, a dozen people created the anonymous online group of Tunisian LGBT activists to defend their rights. They organized legal support and virtual campaigns and real ones, too. A tag appeared on the walls of different cities: the sign of a community that is joining forces.
The revolution: the dark years
Between 2011 and 2013, the abuse worsend, reports Badreddine.
“There were raids in popular hangouts and lynchings right in the city center – by organized groups and people who knew that they weren’t risking anything because the victim wouldn’t file a complaint for fear of being charged.”
Worse: between 2011 and 2014, there were nearly fifteen homophobic homicides throughout the country. Some of the victims had been threatened on the phone, Badreddine explains. “Those were the cases we know about; others have gone unreported…. It’s true that the community grew slowly. But after the revolution and the rise in the number of murders and widespread and rampant homophobia, the community united more quickly.”
As evidence that abuse still happens, a few weeks ago, a Chouf activist was physically attacked after having first endured homophobic remarks.
Yes, there has been an increase in abuse. You can feel it. Minorities in general are targeted much more. Being more visible makes us all more vulnerable. We witness jeering and attacks since the Revolution”, notes Meryam. Khouloud agrees wholeheartedly. Houssem talks about an explosion of violence: “There’s a hatred of minorities.” For him, it’s clear that the society is macho. “In this society everything masculine is admired and considered to be respectable.”
This sentiment is shared by members of the feminist LBT ‘Chouf’ (“Look!”) collective, which focuses on the female body and the fight against discrimination. Created in 2013, the collective is registered abroad because, once again, it was impossible to register as an organization defending LBT rights in Tunisia, Meryam* explains.
One of Chouf’s co-founders, Meryam had also belonged to another association, but didn’t find the feminist visibility there that she was seeking. “We were always victims of lesbophobia and transphobia.”
Khouloud explains that Chouf members decided to meet and think about their skills in terms of the media and audio-visual creation, which led them to use these media to address feminist and LBT issues.
The collective has been active since 2013: training members to lobby, writing a quick guide about rights, holding meetings… On 17 May 2014, Chouf organized a first meeting for the International Day Against Homophobia. The work was done in partnership with Mawjoudin: with photos and flyers that were translated into the Tunisian dialect to make them accessible to everyone.
Around fifty people came together for this first day. “Our greatest concern was the participants’ security: it was a secret event, by personal invitation.” Thus the work remains discreet – closed, in fact. “It’s true that today there is a need for greater visibility: Chouf nahna mawjoudin! (Look, we exist!),” jokes Meryam.
The International Day Against Homophobia
On 17 May 2015, the International Day Against Homophobia, Chouf and Damj organized two public events.
Chouf organized an arts festival in which everyone who self-identifies as female was invited to express herself with a work of art. In the festival, the issue of society deciding one’s gender was called into question. The Chouf website explains: “Five minutes after your birth, they decide your name, your nationality, your religion, your sexuality and your community … and you spend your whole life fighting for and stupidly defending things you didn’t choose.” It was an event for debating clichés about identities.
Cat on the left: “I sure am going!”
Cat on the right: “Why? Are you a feminist?”
Cat on the left: “No, but there are gonna be a lot of girls there!”
For its part, Damj is organizing another café debate, like that in 2014. This year’s subject is ‘Homosexuality (homo sensuality) in Islam’. The successful café-debate form marks a change for the organization that previously had worked underground.
These meetings feel like rest breaks before the heavy fighting begins. Repealing Article 230 of the Penal Code has priority for Khouloud, Meryam, Badreddine, Ali and Houssem – and the reform of all the discriminatory legal provisions, fighting against abuse, achieving recognition as equal citizens. A battle that, today, is fought out loud.
This article first published in French on inkyfada.com.
*To protect the security of certain witnesses, their first names have been changed.
The cover photo was made using a photo from Chouf.
A big thanks to Willis From Tunis, who allowed us to use his illustration.
Sana Sbouai – Editor-in-chief of the French edition and journalist. I write about society, equality, economic and social rights, migration and the media. @sanasbouai email@example.com
Translation: Nancy du Plessis