Every June, LGBTQ+ communities celebrate around the world with events and parades to commemorate sexual diversity. But as millions rejoice in proclamations of love, LGBTQ+ individuals still face enormous obstacles globally. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), social stigma, state hostility, and acts of violence make it difficult for members of this community to live safely while being open about their sexual identities. Despite these challenges, however, progress is slowly being made. LGBTQ+ movements in the MENA region are finding ways to speak out, build communities, and challenge repressive laws in the face of severe restraints.
Tunisia is one place where improvements are starting to take root. Since 1913, homosexuality has been illegal in the country, making it one of 70+ nations where same-sex relations are prohibited. State-sanctioned violence against the LGBTQ+ community is prevalent, and the subject of homosexuality remains taboo within Tunisian society. In 2008, the Tunisian government even co-sponsored a statement opposing a 2008 UN General Assembly resolution calling for the decriminalization of same-sex relationships and intercourse.
Since the Arab Spring, however, Tunisia’s LGBTQ+ community has enjoyed greater visibility and prominence. In 2011, the first online magazine for the LGBTQ+, Gayday Magazine, was launched. In 2015, the country recognized its first LGBTQ+ organization, Association Shams. This January, Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival, the first LGBTQ+ film festival, took place in the country. On June 15, another milestone in gay rights was achieved. Tunisia’s Freedoms and Equality Committee (COLIBE) recommended the repeal of Article 230 to Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi. Article 230 of the Tunisian penal code criminalizes “sodomy” with up to three years in prison; under this law, in 2016, at least seven men were prosecuted for engaging in consensual same-sex conduct in a period of just six months. Alternatively, COLIBE recommended amending Article 230, by imposing a cash fine of 500 dinars for same-sex activity instead in place of imprisonment.
Despite these strides in gay rights in Tunisia, Bouhdid Belhedi, Executive Director of Association Shams and a LGBTQ+ activist, remains pessimistic that the law will be repealed. Belhedi operates the only radio station exclusively catering to the LGBTQ+ community in the Arabic-speaking world. The station has 10,000 listeners each week across 15 countries, stresses “the dignity of LGBTQ people,” and the importance of equality for the community in both law and society. For his work and openness about being queer, Belhedi has received death threats and been physically assaulted.
Tunisia is often viewed as one of the more liberal countries in the Middle East and North Africa. But to truly deserve this reputation, Tunisia must do more to legally protect and recognize its LGBTQ+ citizens. COLIBE’s recommendation to President Essebsi should be taken seriously. According to Gay Star News, Neela Ghoshal, acting director of the LGBTQ+ Human Rights Watch division says the recommendation “provides fuel for the dynamic LGBT rights movement in Tunisia, and it will strengthen activists’ message that it is time for change.” or amending Article 230 would undoubtedly be a step forward for Tunisia’s budding LGBTQ+ community. And that is something LGBTQ+ individuals across the MENA region would benefit from.