Tunisia as a hub for LGBTQ rights? Democracy is making it happen.

Why We Wrote This

Freedom propagates. The democracy Tunisians have been reveling in since the Arab Spring is providing the LGBTQ community with a safe path toward making the country a haven.

Hassene Dridi/AP
Mounir Baatour, a lawyer and leading LGBTQ activist, holds a rainbow flag in Tunis, Tunisia, after submitting his candidacy for the early presidential elections, Aug. 8, 2019.

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Less than a decade after its popular revolution transformed Tunisia from a closed dictatorship to a hub of democracy and political activism, the country is emerging as a center for LGBTQ rights advocacy in the region. The first openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world vied for votes here this fall. 

Yet the country’s arcane legal code and police tactics make it fall short of an actual haven. After all, same-sex relations are still illegal in Tunisia.

LGBTQ advocates pin their hopes on a central strategy: vigorous activism. There are now five licensed organizations specifically advocating for LGBTQ rights, lobbying politicians, and partnering with other NGOs, lawyers, and the media to raise awareness of the community’s cause.

The face of the new generation of LGBTQ Tunisians who came of age during the 2011 revolution can be seen in Mawjoudin. Arabic for “We Exist,” the organization was built from a Facebook group of fellow LGBTQ-identifying Tunisians sharing their experiences. Its bare office in downtown Tunis is made up of 20-somethings who are bubbling with energy and ideas. 

Hana Jemly, a Mawjoudin community manager, says, “We have safe spaces, but now we want the laws to feel safe anywhere.”

An openly gay man running for president. An annual “We Exist” queer film festival. LGBTQ-friendly certification for restaurants and bars. Rights organizations that lobby politicians and advocate in the media.

This isn’t the United States. It’s Tunisia.

Less than a decade after its popular revolution transformed Tunisia from a closed dictatorship to a hub of democracy and political activism, the country is emerging as a center for LGBTQ rights activism in North Africa and the Arab world.

Yet as remarkable as it is to see public LGBTQ activism in this socially conservative region, the country’s arcane legal code and police tactics make it fall short of an actual haven.

Same-sex relations are still illegal in Tunisia, and members of the LGBTQ community who are utilizing Tunisians’ hard-fought freedoms of association, speech, and assembly to abolish these laws still risk arrest.

With Tunisia’s modern, liberal constitution at odds with entrenched conservative social norms and century-old laws, the country’s LGBTQ advocates are pinning their hopes on a central strategy: vigorous activism.

“These LGBT associations have crafted for themselves a space for action, raising awareness, and advocacy in Tunisia, which is very important,” says Amna Guellali, senior Tunisia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“They have created a vibrant space for the discussion of these issues and [to] normalize the existence of the LGBT community in the country.”

Article 230

During the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, LGBTQ persons in Tunisia faced a line in the 1913 Penal Code – Article 230 – criminalizing same-sex relations and providing for prison terms of up to three years.

That article is still on the books today, but then, with no nongovernmental organizations or free speech, the LGBTQ community was underground, unseen, and unheard.

“In those days, we had no voice; people had to hide their identities,” says Mounir Baatour, a leading LGBTQ activist who as a lawyer defended Tunisians charged with same-sex relations during the Ben Ali era in the early 2000s.

With the fall of Mr. Ben Ali and his one-party rule in 2011, a burgeoning civil society emerged with organizations representing all causes; LGBTQ rights was no exception.

There are now five licensed organizations specifically advocating for LGBTQ rights, lobbying politicians, and partnering with other NGOs, lawyers, and members of the media to raise awareness of the community’s cause.

Mr. Baatour’s organization, Shams, publishes a monthly magazine and runs an online radio station; a youth-oriented group, Mawjoudin, educates lawmakers and provides community outreach.

Activists hold public protests and organize boycotts of companies and public figures who make homophobic comments or voice support for discrimination.

More visibility, more arrests

Paradoxically, as LGBTQ civil society and public awareness grows, so too have arrests.

In 2018, Tunisian courts handed down 128 convictions of same-sex relations, a 60% increase from the year before and double the average during the Ben Ali era, according to Shams.

Worse still, police and judges – many of whom served under Mr. Ben Ali – confiscate mobile phones for “proof” of homosexual acts. Courts continue to order men to undergo invasive physical exams that have been discredited by forensic experts and denounced by rights advocates and politicians here as “torture.”

These acts and the 1913 laws are in violation of Tunisia’s progressive constitution, but with politicians divided and the constitutional court yet to be established, the policies have so far gone unchallenged legally.

Tunisian NGOs are carrying on the fight.

“We are not like activists in the West; we are not demanding the right to marry or adopt children – we just don’t want to live under the threat of being sent to prison,” Mr. Baatour says. 

“We are only defending ourselves, and in terms of human rights, that is the least we can do; to push back.”

Prized image of tolerance

And push back, they have.

With each arrest, LGBTQ rights groups and their partners have alerted the foreign press and lobbied European and North American rights organizations – pressuring a government that prizes Tunisia’s tolerant image and tourism-driven economy.

Activists have put the issue of the penal code and invasive police tactics front and center, making it a litmus test of whether politicians will uphold the constitution and its articles against discrimination, torture, and enshrining the right to privacy.

Article 230 became a talking point on the campaign trail in this year’s presidential elections. And Mr. Baatour threw his own hat in the ring, becoming the first openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world.

Although ultimately unsuccessful, the veteran lawyer claims victory.

“As the first openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world, there were over 650 articles written across the world on my candidacy, the LGBT community in Tunisia, and Tunisians being jailed for their sexual identity,” Mr. Baatour says at his office in a leafy Tunis suburb.

“I will run again and again if it means I can bring our cause to the world’s attention,” he says with a sly smile, “and embarrass the government into action.”

Recently elected President Kais Saied, who referred to homosexuals as “deviants” on the campaign trail while courting conservative voters, has since met with LGBTQ organizations to offer them reassurances.

“We exist”

The face of the new generation of LGBTQ Tunisians who came of age during the revolution can be seen in Mawjoudin.

The organization based in a bare office in downtown Tunis is made up of 20-somethings who are bubbling with energy and ideas and have none of the baggage of their predecessors, who lived in fear for decades.

More than just rights, they are pushing for their needs as a healthy and vibrant community.

Arabic for “We Exist,” Mawjoudin was built from a Facebook group of fellow LGBTQ-identifying Tunisians sharing their experiences.

The organization now acts as a support network, lobbying arm, and meeting point for LGBTQ persons to discuss their concerns, share their interests, explore their identities, and provide legal help.

“It has changed a lot since the revolution,” says Hana Jemly, a Mawjoudin community manager. “Having licensed organizations allows us to seek support and partner with lawyers, other NGOs, politicians, the media, and international organizations.”

Mawjoudin is looking to push further.

“We have safe spaces, but now we want the laws to feel safe anywhere,” says Ms. Jemly.

In addition to trainings for politicians, this year Mawjoudin began providing certificates to “LGBTQ-friendly” bars, restaurants, and cafes in the capital, a certification that is given after sensitivity training for staff and that can be revoked.

Last year, Mawjoudin launched an annual Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival celebrating non-Western LGBTQ identities, featuring more than 30 films and documentaries from Tunisia, Kenya, Pakistan, China, and Latin America.

It is the first queer film festival in North Africa and the only one in the Arab world. 

Regional epicenter

Civil society has also allowed Tunisia to become a focal point for LGBTQ activism and community outreach in North Africa and the Arab world. International organizations go through Tunisia to access individuals and launch initiatives in the wider region.

And the safe space created by Tunisia’s constitution and licensed organizations has attracted LGBTQ refugees and migrants from across the continent and around the region, including those from Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, and even the Levant, many of whom are fleeing less tolerant societies and threats of violence at home.

People such as Ahmed.

The 30-year-old from Libya came to Tunisia three years ago after he received death threats from a militia because, he believes, of his sexual identity.

“Here you have a support network and a community,” says Ahmed, who declined to use his real name or home town in order to protect his family from reprisals. He says others from North Africa have come to settle in Tunis to live and work, and in some cases, apply for asylum in the West through Tunisian organizations.

“When we have the chance to stand together, not only do you realize that you are not alone, but that we are stronger than we believe.”

Progress

Tunisia’s LGBTQ activists have made significant progress in less than nine years.

No speech or homophobic comment in public goes unchallenged.

In 2018, a government-appointed Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee – tasked by the president to ensure that laws were in line with the post-revolution constitution and its guarantees of equality and personal freedoms – issued recommendations calling for the abolishment of Article 230.

In addition, the committee called for ending century-old laws criminalizing “public indecency” and “public offense to morals” that also have been used to target the LGBTQ community. And it urged a ban on court-ordered physical tests.

A draft law to abolish these laws sits in parliament, and LGBTQ organizations are pressuring the recently elected lawmakers to follow through on the committee’s recommendations.

“We are alert, and we will make sure the world’s eyes are on you,” says Mr. Baatour.

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