The persistent terror sponsored by governments as well as religious and social authorities against the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in the Arab world does not require a recount. From legal criminalization to death threats, shame has always been brought on members of the LGBT community in the Middle East and North Africa just for being who they are and being true to themselves.
The hostility this minority faces varies from one country to another in the region. Most of these nations are still unable to develop a progressive definition of personal freedoms, let alone accepting sexual orientations or gender identities that do not conform.
The situation is pretty bleak both on the official and the societal levels, yet it did not silence voices like those cited in a report just produced by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and The Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE). The report reflects a movement calling for change; it has been growing for a while and has achieved progress by standing up to authorities spurring repression and by attempting to revolutionize how the society deals with the LGBT community.
"They were making fun of me, they would beat me… as if I'm a freak", "They would shame and curse you", "I contemplated committing suicide", "I didn't realize that being gay is not my fault". These were some of the thoughts that are voiced in videos of LGBT individuals, some of whom concealed their faces while others looked straight at the camera. They tell the stories of their ordeal, and explain their journeys to realize that the misery they have been living is actually blamed on "those around them". The epiphany they have eventually had is, "Homosexuality is not sinful". The main message of the video is that the LGBT community members are "no longer alone".
YouAreNotAlone is the name of the campaign in which 34 gender activists have taken part. Participants' efforts have tackled LGBT issues in Jordan, UAE, Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania and Yemen.
There are two adjacent fields for this battle: the first is represented by the draconian restrictions imposed in oppressive and tension-hit countries, brutality of security forces and armed groups, violence exercised by families of LGBT members, religious edicts (fatwas), murders, and anal examinations.
In the second field, there are incremental slow changes and setbacks; dynamism and creativity can hardly be denied despite the tough circumstances. Changes can be spotted in experiences of both individuals and groups, which has raised LGBT awareness in some nations.
YouAreNotAlone is the name of a campaign in which 34 gender activists have taken part to support the LGBT community all across the Arab world. They are out to comfort others
This is the first time LGBT community leaders speak out on their sexuality and their right to live freely around the Arab world without fear
The campaign seeks to break down the complexity of the LGBT community in the Middle East and North Africa, even though different governments have been trying to restrict their activities, according to a 63-page report issued by HRW.
Beyond the Victim's Image
"We don't want the image anymore of just being victims," Zoheir Djazeiri, an activist from Algeria, told HRW. "We want to speak about reality, speak about violence, but also to share positive developments."
This is a main aspect of the problem, according to the HRW report, as many gender activists have echoed similar sentiments while voicing disgruntlement with the one-dimensional international media's coverage of the LGBT. Thus, the report "seeks to examine all that is possible beyond victimhood".
This approach is drastically different from HRW's previous efforts, which saw the international organization mostly document violations against LGBT members to pile up pressure on official authorities. This is the first time for LGBT individuals to send a message through a collaborative effort, telling their peers they are "no longer alone".
"Imagine a gay teenager aged 14 or 15 living in Cairo, Amman or Algeria without realizing the nature of the emotions engulfing him/her while feeling different from the dominant patterns," Ahmed Benchemsi, the Advocacy and Communications Director for HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, told Raseef22.
"His/her family, the society, the government and the law make him/her look at oneself condescendingly… this youngster would wonder, 'who am I? Am I sick? A criminal?' Those people need someone to help them. Who can be the best people to accomplish this mission? Neither Human Rights Watch nor the Arab Foundation, but people like them, individuals who went through the same experience."
"So we thought of giving people from the same community the space to express themselves while looking [through a camera] at those young people and tell them, 'You're not alone, you're not criminals, you're normal people and we're like you'."
When asked about the nature of this approach compared to the customary systematic mechanism of HRW, which usually relies on communicating with and confronting decision-makers, Benchemsi said: "Pressuring decision-makers is not the only effective way; the society is another efficient element."
In his opinion, the society can defend itself against authorities' oppression whether with the backing or the help of the civil society. The HRW program, he said, might empower the LGBT community, yet only to some extent. It starts with boosting the self-confidence of the LGBT community members, who in turn would join organizations advocating their rights. These organizations, under such circumstances, will be more resourceful and capable.
Pushing in the same direction, Jordanian actress and gender activist Shereen Zoumot highlighted while speaking to Raseef22 that art is a pivotal tool to reach out to people and help those who are suffering societal pressure without receiving any support.
"It's Ok to Be Gay, But"
The YouAreNotAlone campaign thoroughly analyzes the legality of the LGBT community, yet its focal point remains the social aspect with voices and stories intended to give a morale boost to outcasts languishing in the region.
The stigma in the society and within the family context has posed a stern challenge for gender activists and LGBT community members alike, regardless of whether or not authorities are after them.
When the police find out that someone is involved in activities related to the LGBT community, they might not arrest him/her. Instead, they would go to this person's house and ask his/her family about him/her. Each family reacts differently, but the fact remains the police use families as an oppressive tool, according Hajar El-Moutaouakil from Morocco.
Jordanian activist Khalid Abdel-Hadi said: "They say, 'It's ok to be gay, but you don't need to come out'."
For his side, an unnamed Bahraini gay man who lives in Lebanon said: "It's a social contract -- 'We have oil, you're going to get wealth, shut up. And if you don't like it, get out'. So generally, activism is not something you see…. The world is a stage and you have to play your role in society."
Other testimonies of LGBT individuals in the HRW report include instances where they received death threats, felt undermined by their family and were asked not to reveal their sexual orientations. In a few cases, LGBT community members were grudgingly accepted by others. Gay people were fully embraced by the mainstream in much fewer cases, according to the report.
The report also highlights that fame could enable celebrities to declare their sexual identities and orientations, even though they would still be prone to the same forms of harassment as a result.
Reaching Out to People Who Would Change
Georges Azzi, the Executive Director of the AFE, told Raseef22 that a layer of the society does not adopt violence while dealing with the LGBT community, yet would still feel its members are aliens.
For this reason, how to approach those who can actually change their perception of the LGBT community is instrumental in integrating it into the society.
The HRW report underscores many ways to reach out to this portion of the society, including arts and cultural production, citing the story of 21-year-old transgender man Rashed who made peace with his fears and obsessions and conveyed his message on stage in Jordan.
Also, the report stresses the importance of media outlets, social media websites, awareness in closed and private groups and discussion with potential advocates.
This comes after many years of work pushing for the integration of the LGBT community into the society, raising medical awareness over HIV, helping associations join forces, building alliances and educating the LGBT community members about their personal and digital security.
Someone might say, "Is this the right time to take care of gays while the region is swamped by unrest?" Benchemsi replied: "We get comments from people who would for instance say, 'You pay attention to homosexuals while people are taking drugs?' We don't believe there are violations that are unacceptable and others not. We don't have any categorizations of rights and violations."
From his perspective, those who pose these questions are "perhaps looking for a way to express dissatisfaction over the fact that human rights have to be applied anywhere and anytime."