With a yearning for human rights playing a vital role in the Arab revolts; putting an end to discriminatory LGBT laws may determine how the future democratic process unfolds.
“As a gay Arab, I feel represented in these protests in every way and I’m confident that one day there will be a gay rights movement sweeping the Arab streets,” 22-year-old Egyptian biology student, Khaled tells IPS. “But to get there we have to achieve other levels of freedom such as transparent governments and building institutions where no human rights crime will go unpunished.
“Religion and certain traditions still play a major role amongst the protesters and once new governments are formed I believe that the issue of gay rights will continue to be unacceptable and we’ll need a hundred more revolutions to at least be able to discuss the issue openly.”
After many years of oppression under authoritarian regimes, Islamists have emerged as a major force that could shape the region’s future.
Following the ouster of long-time Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the al-Nour party are leading in the third round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections.
The moderate Ennahda party, which dominated October’s historic elections in Tunisia, is now poised to form an interim government and write the new constitution.
In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) became the first Islamist party to run the Arab world’s oldest monarchy after garnering the most seats in last November’s elections.
However, the fact that the pro-democracy movements were led by Arab youth has lessened a fear that progress towards human rights and democracy will be halted with the rise of Islamists.
“Repression of Arab LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) individuals under previous regimes no doubt existed. Having a non-Islamist government is no guarantee against the persecution of individuals for sexual and gender non-conformity,” Middle East and North Africa researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) Rasha Moumneh tells IPS.
“However, the fear over what is being called an Islamist ‘takeover’ completely ignores what is actually happening on the ground. The Tunisians had free and fair elections for the first time in decades. In Egypt, the primary concern is the abhorrent behaviour of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and not the Islamists.”
In most countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), homosexuality is a criminal offence.
Sodomy laws such as Tunisia’s penal code article 230 criminalise same-sex acts for both men and women with a punishment of up to three years imprisonment.
Although Egyptian law does not criminalise homosexuality, authorities use a 1961 law on the Combat of Prostitution, which carries a custodial sentence of between three months to three years in prison and is tried in criminal rather than state security courts.
In the Queen Boat arrests in Egypt in 2001, 52 men were arrested at a club and charged with debauchery and blasphemy. The torture they suffered in detention under the Mubarak regime was well documented by human rights groups.
In the past, governments have used homosexuality as an excuse to maintain a conservative society.
“Sexuality has always been a politically tense battlefield. On the one hand, one of the more common accusations leveled at local groups working towards the rights of LGBT persons to discredit them is that they are Western cultural imports, or harbingers of Western imperialism,” says Moumneh.
“On the other hand, social anxiety brought about by homosexuality is not all that different from conservative fears that arise from the promotion of women’s rights and freedoms.”
In Algeria, law prohibits homosexuality and cross-dressing. Individuals prosecuted under Article 333 and 338 of Algerian law face imprisonment of between two months and three years and fines ranging from 500 to 10,000 Algerian dinars.
For many trans people societal discrimination is magnified by the lack of inclusion within the LGBT community.
“Within the community you have this hierarchy of gay men, the feminine men, the lesbians, the bisexuals and then the trans. Of course there’s also the class issue that plays a role in further dividing the community,” 39-year-old Randa Lamri, founding member of Abu Nahas, an underground LGBT rights association in Algeria tells IPS.
“What really makes me angry is the discrimination that I face within the LGBT community where I’m told that trans people give the gay community a bad reputation because we don’t respect our bodies. In a vulnerable community, exclusion can jeopardise our struggle.”