Wednesday, July 16, 2014

BEING GAY IN TUNISIA: STILL IN THE SHADOWS

As Tunisia makes progress in other areas of human rights, homosexuals in the country complain that their rights have been neglected.

By Aman Rizvi | Jul 16 2014 (Fanny Ohier contributed reporting to this article)


“We really suffer here,” Mahmoud [name changed], a gay man living in Tunis, told Tunisia Live. “Gay people are rejected by society.”

More than three years after the 2010-2011 revolution, many Tunisian homosexuals share his view.

Even as Tunisia has made advances in other areas of human rights, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community says that the country’s gay rights record languishes far behind.

Article 230 of the Tunisian penal code forbids sexual acts between consenting adults of the same gender, punishable by up to three years in prison.

Social attitudes often remain hostile to homosexuals as well.

“You hear people using pejorative language about us all the time,” said Mahmoud. “I could never tell my family and friends that I am gay.”

“The greatest fear for a homosexual in Tunisia is that his or her family might find out,” Amine [name changed], another gay man living in Tunis, told Tunisia live.

Confined to Cyberspace

Because of the legal and societal constraints, the country’s gay community, unable to congregate or organize in public, conceals itself.

“There is no gay community. We do not have gay bars or cafes,” said Mahmoud.

He relies on the internet and smartphone applications such as Grindr to meet other gay men and access what LGBTQ community there is.

One of Tunisia’s more prominent online homosexual groups is Kelmty, or The Association for Tunisian Gays and Lesbians.

“The only way for me to meet other members of the LGBTQ community is on the internet,” Kelmty’s website administrator, who uses the pseudonym Sappho, told Tunisia Live. “There are no public spaces for us. We have to be discreet.”

“It is especially hard for lesbians, as we are relatively invisible, even within the LGBTQ community,” Sappho said. “A gay man once asked me whether lesbians actually existed, as he had never actually come across one. Even many of the Facebook profiles claiming to be lesbians are actually just straight men who find lesbianism attractive.”

The online community consists mostly of people from Tunis and Sousse, according to Sappho.

“I have never come across anyone [who is gay] from the country’s interior. Tolerance of homosexuality varies greatly across the country, and I think gay people in the smaller towns are scared to even search for the LGBTQ community online,” she said.

The LGBTQ community’s low profile limits the scope of possible activism in Tunisia.

“Civil society groups and politicians, even those that claim to be secular, are reluctant to defend us in public, as they might lose face. So they keep away from the issue entirely,” Sappho said, citing the case of Samir Bettaieb, a politician who faced public ridicule and anger after stating that homosexuals were entitled to basic human rights.

Changes Since the Revolution: “At least people are talking about it”

For many homosexuals, like Amine and Mahmoud, the situation is more difficult since the revolution.

“Before the revolution, things were easier because at least President [Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali didn’t attack gay people,” Amine said. “But now we are afraid. When the Islamists came to power, people became more willing to express homophobic views.”

“Before we could do what we wanted, but now it feels like we are living in a prison,” Mahmoud said.

Sappho, however, says that the situation has seen improvement.

“In terms of social attitudes, things have not changed since the revolution. But now at least people are talking about it more,” she said. “Under Ben Ali, we had no visibility, but now homosexuality comes up in conversations and the media more often. Even if most of these comments are negative towards us at the moment, visibility is still a necessary first step towards equal rights.”

The Dangers of Being Invisible

The gay community’s relative invisibility has had negative consequences, including the high rate of HIV-AIDS among gay men.

“Because of the social stigma, homosexuals are forced to adopt high-risk sexual practices and often lack awareness on preventing the transmission of HIV and the material means for its treatment,” Dr. Ridha Kammoun, President of the Tunisian Association to Fight Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS, told Tunisia Live.

“Our last study showed that 13 percent of gay men were HIV positive,” Kamoun added. “People are scared to talk about these diseases, even with doctors. Tunisia is modernizing, but it still remains under these cultural influences.”

Talking about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is stigmatized even within the LGBTQ community, Sappho said.

“I once brought it up with a few friends of mine, but they seemed extremely uncomfortable talking about it,” she said. “I have not heard it discussed ever since.”

The Future: Hopes and Fears

As the fall elections approach, Tunisia’s homosexuals remain uncertain as to what the outcome will mean for gay rights.

“I am scared that parties with homophobic views will do well in the election,” said Mahmoud. “If I had the means to leave the country, I probably would.”

“While Islamists are more vocal in their prejudice, I don’t think it matters whether Islamists or other parties are in power,” Sappho said. “After the Ennahdha government fell, the current one has not done anything to improve our situation. But I believe that things improve with time and have faith that the future will ultimately be better for us.”

Aman Rizvi is an editor and journalist in the Tunisia Live newsroom. He is a third-year undergraduate at Harvard University in the United States, especially interested in politics in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. He has lived in the United Kingdom, Singapore, India, and the United States, and speaks English, Hindi, Arabic, and some French.