Tunisia is, by many standards, the most progressive and inclusive country in North Africa. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings began in that country, and have seen the most success there. An increasing number of Tunisians have begun to live more comfortably in the years since the revolution, enjoying unprecedented cultural and social openness. It is, as such, hardly shocking to observe the increasing freedoms enjoyed by Tunisia’s LGBTQ community.
Still, with increased visibility comes heightened animosity. In late April 2015, a group of around twenty young gay activists flew rainbow banners in front of the Bardo Museum (the site of a terrorist attack that left twenty-four people dead on March 18, 2015.) Yelling slogans against homophobia, the group triumphantly avoided any real violence and were widely photographed. Several days later, however, efforts at launching a similar protest, this time at a university, failed. Participants were booed, and the entire effort fell apart.
Mixed signals define the LGBTQ experience in Tunisia. Despite growing acceptance, many individuals still face stigma and other devastating social consequences for coming out, both from their families and the government. Consensual gay sexual activity remains criminalized under Article 230 of the penal code, and carries a sentence of up to three years in prison. Article 226 penalizes transgender persons as outrages against public decency.
This legalized discrimination is frequently coupled with aggression from religious extremists. Salafists in particular have been inclined to target homosexuals and subject them to many varieties of abuse.
These forms of harassment, of course, can vary. While catcalling is a daily reality experienced by heterosexual women as well as the gay and gender-variant population, other outbursts can be far more dangerous. In early March 2015, two members of Chouf, a Tunisian feminist LBTQ organization, were brutally attacked and assaulted. A statement released by the organization noted that one woman had been told to “show how she could fight if she wanted to marry a woman.” She was then severely beaten by a large group of men.
Experiences like these are not terribly uncommon. People who present differently from their actual gender often stand out, and are met with violence. Older gay, lesbian, and bisexual Tunisians have also faced harsh stigma, and found little support outside of youth-centered spaces.
Politics have played a particularly key role in driving public opinion about the LGBTQ community. Many LGBTQ activists were alarmed when Ennahda, an Islamist party, ascended to power following the overthrow of Tunisian President (and dictator) Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Ennahda was ushered out of its leadership role in October 2014, and was replaced by the more secular Nidaa Tounes party.
Even under Nidaa Tounes, however, official support for homosexuality has yet to materialize. Within the government, vocalized solidarity is virtually non-existent; non-governmental outlets are hardly louder. In fact, the Tunisian Association for Minorities remains one of the only organizations to openly support the rights of LGBTQ individuals across the country.
Still, despite an enduring atmosphere of antagonism, many Tunisians are enjoying a growing sense of freedom. This relaxation can be viewed on social media. Tunisia Gays, a Facebook page that strives to educate the public on same-sex issues in both Arabic and French, enjoys some popularity, as does its growing Twitter page. Far more active is Kelmty, an association established for the entire Tunisian LGBTQ community, which boasts over 2,000 followers.
Other resources have appeared on the Internet. Gayday, an online magazine launched in March 2011, caters to the gay community in Tunisia and the broader Maghreb. “Gayday’s aspiration is to satisfy the needs of the gay community in the MENA region and beyond [and to] help them feel comfortable about their sexuality and provide well targeted topics that matter…to them by them,” the magazine’s mission statement reads.
As with most attempts at progress, however, these steps forward have been met with resistance. Facebook pages for these groups frequently come under attack, as do their other social media outlets. Gayday itself came under fire in 2012 when Samir Dilou, who served as Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice under Ennahda, came out in opposition to the magazine. Arguing that homosexuals were “sick” and should seek medical attention, Dilou lobbied for the magazine’s closure, in a call that was widely echoed by others.
A lack of broad support is not the only hurdle facing many LGBTQ activists. In a trend reflected across the globe, efforts to raise awareness and provide an outlet for discussing LGBTQ issues in Tunisia disproportionately cater to gay men. Magazines like Gayday and various Facebook pages market themselves as all-inclusive, but in reality target a male audience, leaving others without support. In this atmosphere, lesbian and bisexual women face greater challenges when it comes to finding accessible media, as do transgender individuals.
This lack of balance is one of many factors contributing to slow social acceptance for LGBTQ persons. But, slow is still something – here and there, things are changing for the better.
Blue Is The Warmest Color, a film depicting a lesbian love story, took the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. Its French-Tunisian director, Abdellatif Kechiche, was personally congratulated on his victory by Tunisia’s then-Minister of Culture, Mehdi Mabrouk.
Kechiche himself was less than naive about the nature of governmental support. “In certain Arab countries it’ll definitely be banned, but I think in Tunisia they’ll turn a blind eye to any screenings,” he told The Guardian at the time. “Politics always lags behind changes in the world. Young people see films if they want to – they download them, and no one can stop them.”
It is this sentiment that most closely echoes the transformation Tunisia is currently undergoing. Despite challenges, the country is rapidly progressing in a region that has often been hostile to homosexuality. The demonstration at the Bardo Museum this past April is only one such example of the increasing confidence Tunisians have in their ability to protest without censure.
The country may have a long way to go before its citizens live equally under the law, but until that day hope springs eternal.