After the Arab Spring, No Bloom for Arab LGBT Rights

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Mounir Baatour, the leader of one of Tunisia’s secular opposition parties, was arrested in March for having sex with a man.

The Tunisian authorities subjected Baatour to a “rectal examination” to verify the charges purported by staff at a Tunis hotel that he had committed the “illegal act” in the hotel spa. He was sentenced to three months in prison for breaking the law against sodomy, and the prosecution has since appealed for an even longer sentence.

The sodomy law in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring in 2011, stands as a stark reminder of the discrimination the gay and lesbian community continues to face in the Arab world. Baatour has refused to challenge the law. He says he was falsely convicted, and has declined legal support from gay-rights organizations out of concern for the political repercussions that would arise from associating with such groups.

“Up to now, the revolutionary cries of the Arab uprisings — ‘freedom,’ ‘justice,’ ‘dignity,’ and so on — have been directed mainly against regimes,” Brian Whitaker, the author of Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, writes in an e-mail to TIME. “It’s easy to see how these same buzzwords might also be applied socially … but it’s going to take a long time because Arab societies are traditionally authoritarian and conservative.”

Even as many Americans celebrate last week’s Supreme Court decision on gay marriage and gay-pride parades sweep through cities across the U.S., gay and lesbian Arabs are forced to live secret lives. “When I see Gay Pride in the USA or countries in Europe, tears come to my eyes,” Lotfi, a 24-year-old Tunisian who identifies himself as gay, writes in a message on Facebook. Lotfi, who asked to use a pseudonym because he is not open about his sexual orientation with anyone beyond a close circle of friends, says he participated in Tunisia’s revolution in 2011 with the hope of attaining basic human rights, including gay rights.

Instead, he fears the situation for gay Tunisians has worsened because he says the new government, led by the Islamic party Ennahda, has arrested people under the sodomy law and condoned homophobia. “At least gay people in the West can stand up and say we are here and we exist,” Lotfi writes. “But we, here, live in obscurity and in fear of the society and the law.”

Article 230 of the Tunisian penal code, introduced under French colonial rule in 1913, effectively prohibits homosexuality by outlawing sodomy, imposing a maximum three-year sentence for offenders. Similar laws across Arab countries, sporadically enforced, legally persecute gay men and women. In Lebanon and Morocco, the penal code bans “acts against nature.” In Egypt, where massive protests also overthrew the former regime, “debauchery” laws still effectively target gays and lesbians.

“We have not seen any change in laws that discriminate against gays,” says Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Human Right Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “We haven’t seen movement in that direction.”

A report from the Pew Research Center released in June showed that the Arab countries, like other predominantly Muslim countries in Africa, are among the least accepting of homosexuality in the world. In Egypt, 95% of respondents said homosexuality should not be accepted; in Tunisia, 94%.

Newly elected Islamic parties that have pledged to uphold conservative values based on Islamic law are unlikely to support the cause for LGBT rights. The ruling Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has sought to crack down on activities seen as morally reprehensible, including alcohol consumption, which is forbidden under Islamic law.

And earlier this month, a Tunisian judge sentenced three European feminist activists from the controversial Ukraine-based group Femen to four months in prison for “indecency” after staging a topless protest against the government, though authorities released the women last week after intense pressure from the European Union, Tunisia’s primary trading partner. In February, Tunisia’s Minister of Human Rights Samir Dilou, a member of Ennahda, said on national television that homosexuality was a “perversion” and not a human right. Amnesty International shot back, calling for the minister to retract his statement and repeal Act 203, but Dilou has refused to take action against the law.

Though the Arab Spring brought down political barriers, it has done little to change the standing of LGBT communities. Goldstein says HRW pushed, to no avail, to include articles banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in Egypt’s newly adopted constitution and the Tunisian draft constitution.

Whitaker, the author of Unspeakable Love, says legal and social persecution of LGBT Arabs persists. He recently wrote about a young gay man in Yemen, Alaa Jarban, who publicly identified as gay for the first time in a blog post, announcing: “I’m queer.” Jarban left home before publishing the post, fearful that his extended family might harm him.

One nasty comment on Jarban’s post claimed homosexuality was the cause of the country’s tumultuous period in the wake of the Arab Spring, an insult that Jarban told Whitaker he found particularly hurtful because he says he was one of the first to take to the streets during the uprising against former authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Internet has provided one of the few new portals for LGBT communities to congregate and speak out, as the oppressive online restrictions of the previous regimes have given way to greater freedom of information. Websites like the Bahrain-based forum, the Tunisian Facebook page of Kelmty, with nearly 1,000 Likes, and the Tunisian online magazine Gayday have formed Internet communities since the Arab Spring.

But activists are wary to push beyond the cyberworld, still fearing legal and personal attacks. “We can’t take to the streets,” the founder of Kelmty, meaning My Word, told the English-language news site Tunisia Live. “But we can help people understand what it’s like to be gay, because the lack of knowledge is what triggers hate.”