Society

Queer in Tunisia: "What are you, a faggot?"

Article published on April 25, 2014
Article published on April 25, 2014

They're young, queer and suf­fer­ing. Three years after the Arab Spring, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and bi­sex­u­al­ity re­main a taboo, and in Tunisia, a crime. In spite of this the young, queer gen­er­a­tion wants to fight for its rights. But what they lack is the sol­i­dar­ity, strat­egy and courage to start an influential move­ment.

It was a mem­o­rable mo­ment in Jan­u­ary 2011. Dur­ing demon­stra­tions against dic­ta­tor Ben Ali, young Tuni­sians waved the Rain­bow flag. The first time it had been done pub­li­cally - a sym­bol of change. Ràm'y saved a photo of it on his note­book lap­top. He shows it proudly in a café in Marsa, the chic dis­trict of Tunis. That other peo­ple might see it doesn't bother him at all, given that Marsa isn't a dis­trict in which he needs to hide. If you didn't know any bet­ter, you could imag­ine the café was in Paris or Berlin. The style is trendy and hip. The peo­ple are young, af­flu­ent and ed­u­cated. The only dif­fer­ence is that a cool breeze sweeps across the ter­race from the Mediter­ranean Sea. 

Here, Ràm'y sits, smokes and tells his story. His mother knows that he's gay. His fa­ther on the other hand doesn't. But he con­tin­ues to live his life with­out let­ting that bother him. He posts pho­tos and sta­tuses on Face­book about what it means to be gay, bi or les­bian. He doesn't mince his words, even if most peo­ple are dis­turbed by what he says, leav­ing be­hind com­ments such as "what are you, a fag­got?" "I want peo­ple to get used to it. With time ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity will be­come nor­mal­ized," says Ràm'y. For a 20 year old, he speaks with a sur­pris­ing level self-con­fi­dence. He has a lot planned in his life, and wishes for a fu­ture in which life will be made eas­ier for queers in Tunisia. "I'd like a lot more pos­si­bil­i­ties for us: Gay Pride, self-help groups and more ac­cep­tance."

It cen­ters around the fu­ture of those young peo­ple, whose sex­ual iden­tity is met with scorn and con­tempt in Tunisia, from both the state and so­ci­ety. De­spite the fact that ar­ti­cle 204 of the con­sti­tu­tion, which threat­ens gay sex with three years im­pris­on­ment, is rarely en­forced, it re­minds one of the pos­si­bil­ity of being per­se­cu­ated at any mo­ment for being gay or bi. This is be­cause in Tunisian so­ci­ety, being gay, as well as trans­sex­ual (Trans­sex­ual: Term for all peo­ple who don't iden­tify with the as­cribed so­cio-cul­tural gen­der roles of "women" or "men." Ed.), re­mains a taboo.

Mar­ry­ing twice for the ap­pear­ance of het­ero­sex­u­al­ity

Methi (name changed, Ed.) has also ex­pe­ri­enced this. He lives two and a half hours away from Tunis. He needs this dis­tance from his fam­ily, he needs  "room to breath." From his one-bed­room apart­ment he looks onto the beach of a tourist town on the east­ern coast of Tunisia. On the walls of his apart­ment are oil paint­ings of lush, green forests. Ger­man forests. Methi loves Ger­many. For seven years he lived there and stud­ied Ger­man philol­ogy. It was the most lib­er­at­ing time of his life, he ex­plains. Now he's 35 years old. He's known since the time of pu­berty that he's bi­sex­ual, with a pref­er­ence for men. Com­ing out of the closet back then, as well as now, wasn't even con­tem­plated: "it's too dan­ger­ous." Under pres­sure from his fam­ily, he mar­ried the same woman twice, the same women with whom he's in the mean­time had a child. Now he lives in the midst of his sec­ond di­vorce and is lonely. 

The Rev­o­lu­tion had lit­tle im­pact on his life, as well as on those of other gay and bi­sex­ual Tunisians over the age of 30. "The sit­u­a­tion wasn't dif­fi­cult for ho­mo­sex­u­als under Ben Ali, be­cause they didn't pose a threat to his power," says Methi. In fact, he fears the sit­u­a­tion will worsen, should the power of the con­ser­v­a­tive Salafi move­ment grow.

That's why the sit­u­a­tion for Methi is clear; he'll marry again and lead a het­ero­sex­ual life. In his opin­ion, how­ever, young Tunisians will surely feel a change: "The in­ter­net has not only brought the Rev­o­lu­tion here, but has also brought young, like-minded peo­ple to­gether. That's a true rev­o­lu­tion," he says. 

bound to the pil­lory: the first queer mag­a­zine in dire straits

The World Wide Web is the place where queers net­work. The dat­ing com­mu­nity Plan­etromeo brings men to­gether, whether for sex, re­la­tion­ships or friend­ships. Many queers on Face­book have a sec­ond pro­file to or­ga­nize and ex­change ideas. Sim­i­larly, there are pages like Kelmty, Tunisia's first ac­tive on­line LGBT or­ga­ni­za­tion. Ac­tivists have also founded Tunisia's first queer mag­a­zine on­line; Gay­Day­Magazine. How­ever, after the ini­tial launch, the site has only sparesly been up­dated. Ever since the for­mer Tunisian Min­is­ter for Human Rights openly placed the mag­a­zine in the pil­lory, the founders have been liv­ing in fear. "The mag­a­zine changes its lo­ca­tion al­most every two months so that it won't be found," says Ali, a 25-year-old stu­dent.

Ali is in­volved in web admin for the mag­a­zine, in ad­di­tion to being an ac­tive mem­ber of Amnesty In­ter­na­tional. He's one of the many young Tunisians who are strongly con­nected in the in­ter­net com­mu­nity, and who ad­vo­cate wide­spread de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion. In­stead of spend­ing his evenings sit­ting in front of a tv, he's in­volved in dis­cus­sion fo­rums in al­ter­na­tive cul­ture cen­ters; but for his friends these places aren't for mere di­ver­sion. They want to col­lec­tively make a change, even in things re­lated to queer rights. But that takes time. Ali waits for the "Bon mo­ment," the right mo­ment, to be­come ac­tive. That's what sets him apart from the oth­ers who hastily im­ple­mented in­tia­tives fol­low­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. "Every­one ini­ti­ated some­thing, all with­out know­ing what ex­actly it was they wanted to achieve or how they would go about doing it." 

Even within the com­mu­nity there is a lack­ of a sense of sol­i­dar­ity

In con­trast, Ali acts out­side the lime­light. Up until now he's been an­a­lyz­ing pos­si­ble strate­gies for the queer move­ment. He speaks with ac­tivists in other coun­tries, gar­ners ad­vice, and tries to net­work with other gays. The lat­ter is es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult. Many are afraid that their in­volve­ment would un­avoid­ably re­sult in an in­vol­un­tary com­ing-out. Added to this is the fact that there isn't a clearly es­tab­lished com­mu­nity through which a com­mon thread is woven. Sure, there are in­for­ma­tional groups for gays and les­bians in dif­fer­ent city dis­tricts of Tunis, but many of these are in op­po­si­tion to each other. "If we can't es­tab­lish sol­i­dar­ity among our­selves, then it will be dif­fi­cult to ob­tain sol­i­dar­ity from out­side," says Ali.

That's why for him, the queer move­ment still finds it­self in an em­bry­onic stage, three years after the Rev­o­lu­tion. But time is run­ning out. For many gays the sit­u­a­tion will be sim­i­lar to Methi's: forced mar­riages and pub­lic fa­cades. The rule of taboos. Not a very promis­ing out­look. 

This ar­ti­cle is part of the Eu­romed Re­porter pro­ject, con­ducted in part­ner­ship with I WATCH and Search For Com­mong Ground and sup­ported by the Foun­da­tion Anna Lindh.