Gay rights and the Arab Spring

I think it's fair to say that while gay Arabs have been generally supportive of the Arab Spring, the Arab Spring has not been very supportive of gay Arabs.

The activists among gay Arabs certainly see themselves as part of a broader struggle – which raises the question of how far they should set aside their gay activism while fighting for bigger and more immediate goals.

This question came up last November when a Facebook group wanted to declare January 1 as Egypt's National Gay Day. A blogger in Cairo called Nilesby doubted that it was a good idea and wrote:

"Is shocking people this way going to support our cause, or harm it? Is the time ever 'right'? ... I do think there are times that are more appropriate than others. There are also ways more appropriate than others. How to measure this 'appropriateness'? I have no idea."

As a warning, Nilesby went on to point out the divisions and harassment that had occurred earlier that year in Egypt when people attempted to celebrate International Women's Day.

Another blogger dismissed the argument that the time isn't right, and wrote:

"Over and over we have waited, and put the 'greater' cause ahead, only to find ourselves pushed back once things are settled ... We have learned that yes, the time is not right, simply because the time for us to speak out was yesterday.

"Our demands do not break the 'movement', it is the 'movement' that breaks itself by not including us. Our demands are only ours because the 'greater' cause only rarely embraces them ..."

Even so, and taking a longer view of the prospects for gay rights, I think the Arab Spring is opening up new possibilities. 

There are basically two strands to achieving LGBT rights (and sexual and gender rights as well). One is institutional acceptance, which involves changing laws, and the other is social acceptance, which involves changing people's attitudes. You need to have both, but in practice they don't always happen simultaneously.

What we are seeing with the Arab Spring is the beginnings of generalised institutional change, starting with the removal of authoritarian regimes. But that is also being driven by social pressures – frustrations over a lack of freedom (at a personal level as well as a political level), frustrations over a lack of economic opportunities, a lack of opportunities for self-fulfilment, and so on. 

These social pressures for change began long before the events in Tunisia and they'll continue long after the dictators have gone.

Looking elsewhere in the world, institutional acceptance of LGBT rights has often been the result of political upheaval. For example, South Africa when apartheid ended, or Latin America when the age of the military juntas came to an end.

I can't visualise anything similar happening with LGBT rights in the Arab countries at present and I think they are more likely to follow the more gradual route that we saw in Britain, among other places.
What happened in Britain was partly a change in ideas about the function of governments - that policing what consenting adults did in private was not a legitimate concern of the state.

There were also changing ideas about the law. One was a recognition that in order for a crime to take place there has to be a victim, and when two people of the same gender agree to have sex together there is no victim.

Another was recognition that laws against homosexuality were generally unenforceable – since the vast majority of same-sex acts went unpunished – and that this was making a mockery of the legal system as a whole.

On the institutional front, I think these are the sort of arguments that have some prospect of being accepted in at least some of the Arab countries eventually. Lebanon is certainly moving in that direction. There has been persistent talk of overhauling the penal code to remove those sections that are no longer seen as part of government's legitimate business – including the one that criminalises "all unnatural intercourse".

On the social front, as far as changing public attitudes towards LGBT rights is concerned, I don't see much scope at this stage for a confrontational in-your-face style of campaigning – mainly because the number of people willing to stick their heads above the parapet is too small.

In Lebanon, though, the local LGBT organisation, called Helem, has been functioning openly for about 10 years now and has played quite a smart game.

This has been based on raising the visibility of gay people in a fairly low-key kind of way and presenting them as part of the country's social and political fabric. The first public appearance of a rainbow flag in Lebanon, for example, was during a demonstration in 2003 against the Iraq war.

They have also worked hard at cultivating allies among other sections of civil society, constantly making the point that LGBT rights are an integral part of human rights.

In 2006, when Lebanon was being bombed by Israel, Helem's office became the centre of a relief operation for people who had fled their homes – and this certainly helped to change perceptions of them among the Shia community, and even in Hizbullah.

It's now more than 10 years since I first started writing about gay issues in the Middle East. In the beginning it was still very much a taboo subject but I think there is more awareness now, at least among the more progressive elements, that gay Arabs do exist – despite the lack of public role models – and that the challenges posed by sexual nonconformity won't go away.

These challenges are fundamental in many ways and go to the heart of the Arab Spring. They raise questions about the relationship between the state and the individual, and above all about the continuance of patriarchal rule. 

In a patriarchal system, where masculinity is highly valued and gender roles are rigidly defined, any deviation from the sexual "norms" and expected gender roles is not only subversive but is regarded as extremely threatening.