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LGBTQ+ Community In The Arab World

posted on: Jul 24, 2020

Lebanon’s LGBTQ+ festival

By: Yasmina Hage/Arab America Contributing Writer

Over time, the LGBTQ+ community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning) has seen its rights evolve significantly. They have endured hardship and finally made their voices heard in many Western countries, for example. The more time goes by, the more progress is made. However, this positive evolution is not present in all states. 

In fact, almost all Arab countries find it difficult to “tolerate” the LGBTQ+ community. State laws are to the disadvantage of this community, and the population of these countries also discriminates against them. Thankfully, the status quo is changing, albeit slowly. Arab countries are far from accepting the LGBTQ+ community like Western countries; however, we can still see small changes.

Laws that discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community:

Activists arrested after demonstrating in Morocco to criticize article 489 of the law that we will see below.

The LGBTQ community is frowned upon in Arab countries because many governments reject the concept of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” As a result, many Arab countries have punitive legislation against same-sex relationships, including the death penalty. While its application is decreasing, it remains in force in Sudan, for example. According to article 148, the death penalty applies if the offense of homosexuality is repeated for the fourth time for women, and from the first time for men. 

In Arab countries that do not apply the death penalty for homosexuality, the situation is not good either. Let’s take the example of Morocco: homosexual relations, both female and male, are illegal there. According to article 489 of the Penal Code, acts “against nature” with an individual of the same sex, are criminalized. Homosexuality is punishable by six months to 3 years imprisonment and a fine of 120 to 1,200 dirhams ($12 to $120). Some countries have even stricter laws, such as Libya, for example. According to article 407/4, homosexuality is punishable by up to five years imprisonment. The law does not distinguish between sexual orientation and gender identity. As a result, laws against gay, lesbian, and bisexual people can apply to transgender and transsexual people. In addition, trans people cannot change their name or sex and they are not allowed to undergo sex reassignment surgery.

A transsexual person in Tunisia, for example, is denied the right to change their gender on their passport. Furthermore, in Jordan, Article 307 of the Penal Code states that: “Any man who cross-dresses in female clothing and enters a place reserved for women or with limited access at the time, will be imprisoned for less than six months.”

An evolution of LGBTQ+ laws:

As we have seen above, the situation of the LGBTQ+ community is very complicated in Arab countries. However, things are changing which gives some hope in this cause. 

It should be noted that not all Arab countries have punitive laws against same-sex relationships or people who are. In fact, this is the case in Jordan and Iraq. Jordan’s position on issues relating to the LGBTQ+ community is considered to be one of the most advanced in the Middle East regarding the criminalization of same-sex relationships. 

In Tunisia, for example, they used to carry out forced anal examinations to check whether a man had been sodomized, and thus use them as evidence to conclude that he is homosexual. The Tunisian authorities have pledged to end these practices in 2017. In addition, in Lebanon, for example, a person can call the police to report seeing homosexual people engaging in sexual practices so that they end up in prison. However,  things are changing. A Lebanese judge has refused to prosecute a soldier accused of “homosexual activity” and believes that the article in the penal code condemning homosexuality is “from another time.”

The population vis-à-vis the LGBTQ+ community:

Against the LGBTQ+ community.

In Arab countries, being attracted to a person of the same sex, thinking their sexual identity does not match their biological sex or wanting to change biological sex is seen as a mental illness. In fact, when mentioned, they’re presented as a pathology that requires the care of a psychiatrist. Moreover, if they are so wrongly perceived, it is also because of religion. Many Christians and Muslims, for example, believe that homosexuality or changing sex is a sin. As a result, there is a lot of homophobia. Even in Arab countries where homosexuality is not sanctioned, people act in homophobic ways. This is the case in Iraq, for example, where the LGBTQ community should not display itself too much in public to avoid homophobic and discriminatory remarks and behavior. 

In Morocco, for example, there has recently been a so-called “witch hunt”—a known influential woman asked her followers to create fake accounts on gay dating sites to unmask homosexuals. Because of this, many gay people have been forced to come out of the closet and face consequences such as death threats, bullying, and shunning by their families. Homophobic behavior is, therefore, still omnipresent in Arab countries. However, we can still observe a growing tolerance. 

Activists from the pro-LGBTQ+ group Rasan pose in front of murals in Souleimaniye.

In fact, thanks to social networks and globalization, there is more and more tolerance from young people in these countries towards the LGBTQ+ community. In Iraq, for example, discussions on sexual differences are rare and discouraged. Nonetheless, a group of activists from the town of “Souleimaniye” and an association “Rasan” painted murals to show that the subject of LGBTQ+ people should not be taboo. In addition, in many Arab countries, when a person from the LGBTQ+ community is arrested, for example, they have difficulty finding a lawyer willing to represent them because lawyers are afraid that it will tarnish their images. However, some of them are beginning to take on cases less discreetly than before. 

Many young people today are more open-minded and want things to change. So perhaps the new generations will make a difference and guide these countries toward a better future for the LGBTQ+ community. 


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