Setting the Scene
When I was on the plane crossing the ocean from Canada to Tunisia, I reflected on the fact I was landing in a country that penalizes sexual acts by three months to three years in prison (Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code). I must admit I was not expecting to learn more about queer activism in Tunisia than any of the other countries I’ve travelled, considering I assumed the political climate was too dangerous. Writing this article is important precisely because I did not expect to be writing it.
After explaining my positionality and providing a brief background on the legal context and existing socio-economic studies about the Tunisian LGBTQ population, I will share the activism I witnessed in my first two months in Tunis and reflections about intersectionality and inclusion. Key moments included meeting the screenwriter for the first queer play “TranStyX” in the Arab world (2018), seeing the first queer play “Flagranti” staged in Tunisia (2022), attending an LGBTQ+ refugee focus group discussion through my internship with the UNHCR, attending an art event hosted by the Argentinian and British embassies for queer artists, and celebrating pride month. Although my perspective tells a fragmented, superficial view of the reality in Tunisia, I defend writing this piece because it will hopefully foster further learning and difficult discussions. Preconceived notions of a place are dangerous when they are so entrenched you do not realize they exist. My assumptions were false. Tunisian LGBTQ organizations, such as Mawjoudin and Damj, are working on defending and promoting queer rights, and I am thrilled and humbled at the opportunity to be learning from activists in Tunis.
Since I hope this article will be read by people not necessarily familiar with the topic, I want to set the groundwork for common terminology. Although often confused as interchangeable, sexual orientation is fundamentally different from gender identity. Sexual orientation refers to the gender or genders a person is sexually attracted to. Gender identity refers to a person’s gender identity or expression. Therefore, while terms including “gay,” “bisexual,” and “asexual” are used to describe sexual orientation, terms like “woman,” “man,” or “non-binary” are used to describe gender identity. Finally, the word “queer” is an all-encompassing term signifying that a person belongs to the LGBTQ+ community, which can refer to sexual orientation or gender identity or both.
Positionality refers to one’s position in the arbitrary but quite naturalized reality of socio-economic hierarchies and geopolitical privilege. As a person who identifies as a white cis Canadian woman who identifies as part of the queer community, I have multiple privileges which likely influence how I understand the world. For the purposes of this article I mention only three.
Firstly, I have the privilege of coming from a certain country where LGBTQ+ rights are recognized. This not only affords me legal protection back home but also a certain degree of social protection abroad. As I learned in Ecuador, the country on my passport also somehow offers me flexibility which is not always afforded to locals. In other words, since I come “from elsewhere,” then in some cases it is easier for people to come to terms with my sexual orientation than if I was a neighbour coming from the same culture.
Secondly, as someone who is cis-gender, my gender identity aligns with the sex I was assigned at birth. This means that seeing me on the street will tell you nothing about my sexual orientation, and it is also easy for me to “hide” my queerness in order to protect myself, as I wrote about regarding my experience in rural Kenya. Trans or gender non-conforming people face more violence than cis-gendered people all over the world in part because their sexual orientation is erroneously deducted from their outwardly presented gender identity. (I say “erroneously” because as mentioned above, sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same, which means one can be trans without being gay, even though people often assume sexuality based on gender expression.)
Thirdly, I have the privilege of knowing I am legally protected somewhere. The same may not be said for certain individuals born in countries with little to no prospects of having the legal right to love who they love, and even less to marry who they want to marry. Even if there are countries these people could technically go to have legal protections, moving is expensive and visa access is limited. Psychologically and emotionally, knowing I can hop on a plane to Montreal and live my romantic life without fear makes a world of difference.
I note these privileges to ground this post in a certain perspective. For Tunisian accounts of queer life in Tunisia, see Nawaat’s article “Protests in Tunisia: Queer Activists on the Front Lines,” 42 Degrees article “Self-reconciliation, self-acceptance: Interview with Khawla,” New Frame’s article “The realities of being queer in Tunisia,” and Where Love is Illegal personal testimonies. In order to draw guidance from some of these voices, I had three Tunisian members of the queer community provide me with feedback on this article before publishing. I did this in order to both verify that the information I was sharing was accurate but also to make sure they felt they were reflected in the forthcoming representations I share.
Legal and Social Context
Tunisia’s legal context entrenches social discrimination and vice versa. Highlighting laws and statistics before diving into the activist scene emphasizes the extraordinary context in which activism takes place.
The legal context in Tunisia continues to sanction same-sex relationships, specifically sodomy, punishable by up to three years in prison. Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code criminalizes sexual practices between two individuals of the same sex and Article 226 and 227 for “indecent exposure” and “indecent assault.” Dating from French colonial laws in 1913, this Penal Code contradicts the rights entrenched in the 2014 Constitution, which arrived a century later. The 2014 Constitution protects privacy in Article 24 and equality and non-discrimination in Article 21. Despite the Constitution, the 1913 Penal Code has not yet been repealed despite ardent efforts by activists. The book by human rights activists Ramy Khouili and Daniel Levine-Spound, called “Article 230: A History of the Criminalization of Homosexuality in Tunisia” is one such effort.
Although compared to its neighbours Tunisia is often considered a relatively safe place to be part of the LGBTQ community, these laws make it difficult for organizations to create a meaningful community that is not fragmented, considering the legal dangers posed. Article 230 continues to be applied in Tunisia, as you can read about in a story covered by Democracy in Exile‘s “The ‘Nightmare’ of Being Gay in Tunisia.” In order to prove sexual intercourse between men, the state even engages in rectal examinations. The play “Flagranti” I attended had a scene depicting how degrading such examinations can be. Emotionally, they take a toll. As one person told me, “I’m a criminal for letting my poor heart fall madly in love.”
Activists advocating for Penal Code reform are often met with demands for precise statistics. Unfortunately, the absence of quantitative data is used as a disqualification argument for investing in legal reform or social programs. During my first week in Tunisia I spent time at a feminist organization where I read three studies about LGBTQ rights. As explored in the next few paragraphs, these studies shed light on violence, discrimination, and psychological impacts linked to sexual orientation or gender identity. They also highlight the great work of NGOs committed to improving conditions for LGBTQ people, and are a testament to data gathered by NGOs in a context where queer activism cannot rely on state-funded research.
The 2018 “Study on Violence Against LGBTQ Individuals” was a result of collaborations between three organizations called Mawjoudin, Damj, and Chouf. This study interviewed 300 individuals identifying as part of sexual and/or gender minorities, and documented experiences of physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological violence as well as soci0-economic discrimination. Over half of those surveyed had experienced verbal harassment in public spaces in the year preceding the survey and nearly 24% were physically threatened with a weapon or had experienced a murder attempt in the last 6 years. 51.4% of respondents had attempted suicide, 49.3% self-harmed at least once in their lifetime, 36% often felt tense, stressed and anxious, and 27.2% were unhappy and depressed. Blackmail in this context refers to threatening a victim to reveal their identity to the police or others to ensure their silence. The survey found that more than a quarter of sexual touching and rapes were obtained by blackmail. In one discussion with an activist, I heard about a landlord using blackmail (“I’ll tell the police about your sexual orientation if you dare report me”) as a way of keeping an extra month of rent.
Seeking a need for more information, Mawjoudin completed a demographic study of the socio-economic situation of LGBTQ+ people in Tunisia, “LGBTQ+ People in Tunisia” in 2020. Conducted with 288 individuals, one important finding of this study was that 13.2% of people identifying as LGBTQ+ have found themselves homeless for a period of time. Housing discrimination is only one indicator of difficulties faced by this diverse population. The National Institute for Statistics of Tunisia found that 15.1% of the general population holding a university degree didn’t have job in the first trimester of 2020, but this survey found that 74% of LBGTQ people surveyed did not have a job despite over half holding a university degree. In all categories trans individuals fared worse.
The third and final study I read, called “Cartographie des sites de population Transgenre” or “Mapping of Transgender population sites” (my translation) was completed in 2019 by L’Association Tunisienne de Prévention Positive, an organization fighting against discrimination for those living with HIV/AIDS. Considering the dangers associated with speaking about being transgender, their pool of 400 transgender interviewees across Tunisia was impressive in its own right. While all participants identified as being either trans or being born in the body of the wrong sex, only 5.1% of respondents had requested a change of sex in their civil status with the authorities. 71.6% declared having been verbally abused at least once in the 12 months preceding the study because of their identity, the majority (88.3%) citing strangers as being the people who verbally abused them, followed by police officers (57.1%), family members (51.9%), sex workers (18.2%) and paying sexual partners (14.3%). With limited options for stable employment, 27% of those interviewed reported being sex workers. On the positive side of things, 99,5% of those surveyed knew of HIV/AIDS.
These studies are examples of increasing LGBTQ visibility in Tunisia. Although I have heard both positive and negative things about the government since the 2011 Revolution, one thing Tunisian society benefits from is an extremely active civil society that pushes the boundaries on public discourse. By way of example, the Civil Collective for Individual Liberties (CCIL) was created in 2015, includes more than 40 NGOs, and has been advocating for LGBTQI rights. One action it took was to draft two alternative Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR), or reviews of the human rights records of all UN Member States to the UN Human Rights Council, about the LGBTQ situation in Tunisia. While many countries have laws similar to Tunisia’s (in)famous Article 230, not all have the same relative safety for NGOs to publish these studies.
My prior knowledge of the legal context utterly misguided my assumption that there would be a void of queer activism in Tunis. To add an element of texture to the glum statistics above, I now turn to the lively LGBTQ+ scene I witnessed in the first two months in Tunis, starting with a wholesome story about where I live.
“Medina” translates to “old town.” Dating from the year 698, or approximately 1500 years ago, the Medina of Tunis is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its impressive history. On the southeast side of this Medina, you will find a little blue house tucked inside the labyrinth of tiny streets with bougainvillea bushes and jasmine flowers growing around the door. That’s where I live. Since people call the house “home” for different amounts of time, the next roommate is picked by group consensus. Completely by fluke, we are a majority queer household in the most traditionally Muslim part of the city. Let that sink in for a moment. My house is a safe space and amenable to meaningful conversations about queerness and experiences related to LGBTQ issues, right in the hustle and bustle of “traditional” Tunis. Thanks to my quick integration as part of the household, my four French and Tunisian housemates kindly introduced me to the city, opening doors to not only meaningful friendships but to LGBTQ circles and events. (For an inside scoop on the house and Tunisian adventures see my personal blog where I wrote a post about my first month in Tunis).
During the second week of living at the house, my housemates decided to hold a potluck to watch the sunset from our rooftop. One of my housemates is a queer Tunisian activist and human rights defender, currently writing a book about love between two women. She told me it was important to mention in this article that difficulties faced by queer people impact everyday life, especially regarding harassment of police, misogynistic comments, and the persistent pressure to stay silent. When I got home from work and head to the roof for a glass of wine with the potluck invitees, I met some of her friends. One of them just happened to be the Tunisian man who wrote and directed the first queer play in the Arab world, “TranStyX” a few years ago (now a book and art project), which addresses transgenderism, near-death experiences and the afterlife in a one-person show, explained well in this interview. He explained with passion and dry humour what encouraged him to write it and its dystopian sequel, called “Church of Euthanasia.”
In two different conversations, both my housemate writing the book and this playwright paving the way for queer theatre made clear they are using their artistic mediums as venues for outreach, in part because they would have benefitted from it when they were kids. In the words of one, “I’ve been trying to do something, not for myself but for the young me, the people who still have a chance to live in peace as I’ve always dreamed to live.” Making information available for younger generations seems to be a main motivation not only for them, but for other activists in Tunisia. For example, Instagram activists @khookha.mcqueer and @yulia_bouteraa have thousands of followers and use social media to raise awareness about their daily lives as trans people. The high number of youth who participated in the surveys above may indicate an increased willingness to discuss these issues.
During my third week in Tunis I went to see the play called “Flagranti” at the Rio Theatre in Tunis, organized by the local grassroots NGO called Mawjoudin, which translates to “We Exist.” As a side note, Mawjoudin is a grassroots trailblazer in terms of human rights, considering in 2018 it organized the first queer film festival in all of North Africa, and continues to do impressive work advocating for the rights of sexual minorities. (Note that before Mawjoudin’s queer film festival there was a feminist festival organized by no-longer existing organization, Chouf).
“Flagranti” was written by Essia Jaibi and tells the tale of a group of friends who report a disappearance to the police and are placed in police custody when the investigators discover their sexual orientations during an interrogation. The play was an edge-of-your-seat, heart-wrenching, humanizing, utterly raw play about being gender non-conforming in Tunisia. Considering the politics of the conservative country, I was both surprised and found myself beaming at the more provocative scenes which gave me goosebumps. Mindful of the heavy subject, the play included both humorous moments and education about the legal context, encouraging empathy and understanding that queer people in Tunisia are people who deserve to live with dignity.
This play provided a glimpse into understanding the wider dynamics of activist work in Tunisia. Firstly, the cast and crew were extremely courageous considering the play directly critiqued the government’s laws. Although some made off-handed jokes about the possibility that an Islamist mob might attack the theatre at the end of the play, there was tangible apprehension underlining those lighthearted attempts at humour. There is always a fear that such work can result in violence. Secondly, while the evening brought together people mostly between the ages of 18 and 35 (from my best guesses), one of the most talented actresses in the piece was clearly much older, pointing to the important groundwork that had to be set in place for decades before such a piece came together as it did. Today’s activism does not stem from a vacuum. Thirdly, this event brought together the LGBTQ community in Tunis, and for the first time I saw queer people expressing their love for their partners in the closed theatre — a light touch on the arm, eye contact only found in relationships — that I had not seen in public before. Fleeting moments like these in events held only occasionally indicate the importance of these events and the need for a wider network of safe spaces.
Beyond grassroots NGOs, international organizations and embassies are paving the way for discussions about LGBTQ issues. Although we should not forget that the Penal Code article criminalizing same-sex relations stems from a colonial law put in place by the French, it would be an incomplete account of French activities in Tunisia to end the story there. For example, the Institut français de Tunisie (IFT) is a French institution mandated to carry out linguistic and cultural events in the spirit of upholding cooperative agreements between France and Tunisia. After going to an outdoor concert at the IFT of an artist duo reviving traditional Tunisian music mixed with electronic modern beats, I reflected on the fact that this exploration of Tunisia music was financed by the French state. Although I have personally not attended, the IFT hosts LGBTQ-themed workshops, discussions, artistic expositions, films, and performances in collaboration with local NGOs. By no means do I defend French colonial pursuits from years past, nor continuing neocolonial ideas all-too-present on the continent (a common topic of discussion in our house). However, such initiatives are worth considering when it comes to financing LGBTQ events and fostering the LGBTQ community in Tunis.
Thanks to a partnership between the Embassy of Argentina and the Embassy of the UK, during my sixth week in Tunis I spent a magnificent evening celebrating queer Tunisian artists during pride month. L’Art Rue supports local artists and organizes art events in the Medina. My housemate works at L’Art Rue and set up a magnificent evening at the British Embassy after being contacted by someone from the Argentinian Embassy. Coincidentally, when I arrived at the cocktail I met not only a UNHCR colleague whose partner worked with my housemate on organizing the event (small world), but also the man who wrote TranStyX and the main actress who starred in it.
The art was varied and meaningful. The installation included paintings, drawings, photography, sculptures, film, and other mixed-medium pieces. Although most people enjoyed the photography most, my favourite was a realistic portrait of two women wearing burkinis looking in each other’s eyes. Another aspect I enjoyed from the evening, beyond casually meeting two Ambassadors, was meeting a fashion designer with impressive makeup, wearing an outfit he designed that mixed aspects of traditional men’s and women’s clothing. He was a walking art piece!
Intersectionality refers to how different privileges and oppressions intersect, including class, race, sex, gender identity, sexuality, physical ability, age, immigration status, language, education, and in some cases political affiliation, caste, etc. An intersectional approach is more likely to capture the complexities of LGBTQ realities than by looking only at membership in the LGBTQ community.
Classism intertwines with other forms of social organization, influencing how LGBTQ people live their lives. One person I know went so far as to say, “only the rich can be gay here,” referring to the fact that “safe” restaurants where one can go on dates are relatively expensive. One of the “safest” bars called Yuka is owned by visible members of the LGBTQ community, found in the suburbs of the city in the posh Gammarth district on the ocean. So far, that’s the only place I’ve danced with friends and colleagues in a non-heteronormative environment. Taking a step back, my entourage is perhaps one of the reasons why my impression of Tunisian queer activism is generally positive, considering my foreign friends have purchasing power and my local friends are university educated.
While classism plays an important role in Tunisian society, it bears mentioning that some Tunisians I’ve met here across are so frustrated by the status quo that they cannot imagine not living outwardly as themselves, regardless of their social class. While some have supportive families when it comes to their queerness and others have lost their families for the same reasons, this does not appear to be based strictly on class lines. Recalling the Mawjoudin study summarized above, one of the aspects I found particularly interesting was that respondents and their parents were well educated, which challenges the assumption that educated people are more accepting of sexual diversity. Queer activists in Tunis who defy social norms are found in various neighbourhoods with varying income levels and backgrounds. There is not just one prototype, and suggesting as much is a danger to understanding the diversity within the community.
Still, making progress for LGBTQ rights in Tunisia might mean breaking down assumptions about class. When I first arrived in Tunis, some well-intentioned women told me that the area I lived was so uneducated/dangerous/simple that they had never visited because it was too traditional for feminist work to take place. Although perhaps I’ve been lucky, part of the reason I stayed in this area of the city was because the locals know me, smile when I walk by, teach me arabic phrases, and help me find taxis. I do not feel in danger in this area as long as I respect the local dress code of long pants and say “salem!” whenever I walk by. In fact, I might go so far as to say these supposedly uneducated/dangerous/simple people are more willing to consider different points of view than those unwilling to have conversations with them based on their perceived social class. Just like individuals are hierarchized, so too are activist organizations. For example, some feminist organizations have been boycotted by university students for practicing a sort of elitist feminism that does not include all women – notably lower class, Muslim, or trans women. Other activist organizations roll their eyes when these elitist organizations are named, and the concept of “inclusivity” takes on a whole new meaning. Nobody is “too poor,” “too uneducated,” or “too religious” to discuss equality. If activism only benefits the empowerment of upper-class LGBTQ people, then from a structural perspective, the impacts are limited in scope.
My reflections about class are not fully formed. They are further complicated when the conversation expands beyond the urban context of Tunis to larger Tunisia, which I have a limited understanding of considering I’ve only lived in Tunis and only lived here for less than two months. Just like in other places I’ve lived, from Ecuador to Canada to Kenya, understanding the fight for equality requires discussions about class. When it comes to LGBTQ causes, I’ve found these dynamics are sometimes more complex than at first glance.
Although I do not want to dwell too long on religion, considering I have a limited understanding of Islam and how it shapes Tunisian society, I do want to make clear that some of the most ardent feminists I’ve met here wear veils, and some LGBTQ activists go to the mosque. (Note: wearing the veil is not obligatory in Tunisia, and from my very rough estimates, perhaps only a third of women in Tunis I’ve seen wear the veil). The reason I mention this is to counter the narrative that religious people cannot be progressive. In fact, I spoke more openly about my sexual orientation with a Muslim Tunisian woman dressed from head to toe in black garments than to an atheist foreigner woman on a beachfront in a bikini, because I felt safer doing so with the Tunisian activist than with the French tourist. While religion plays a role in shaping our understanding of equality, so too does family upbringing, social circumstance, education, employment, friend group, personal interest, etc. etc. etc. In short, stereotypes are harmful when it results in the exclusion of certain voices which have contributions to make to activist efforts.
I am in Tunis completing an internship with the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Although the internship experience is not directly relevant to this article, there are key aspects of my work that relate to the topic. Working at the UNHCR with refugees from countries as diverse as Libya, Algeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq, Chad, Niger, the Congo, Syria, and others has shed light on how race and immigration status complicates social inclusion in the queer community.
Tunisia has a complicated history with race and continues to socially entrench beliefs about skin colour that are contrary to goals of inclusion. I heard multiple accounts of racism in various settings, but I’ll only provide one example for brevity. I learned during a conference about unaccompanied migrant children that racism (alongside lack of identity papers) is one of the main factors which detrimentally impacts unaccompanied migrant children’s educational prospects. This population is already vulnerable enough without having to think about their skin colour, but any intervention with the objective of assisting them must consider that despite being children, they experience racism, which either directly or indirectly alters their survival tactics and interest in pursuing further education.
While I am unable to discuss details of our interactions for reasons of confidentiality, I will say that I attended a focus group discussion in which trans, gender-nonconforming, and gay-identifying people with refugee status recounted their experiences fleeing countries where they experienced death threats and violence for their sexual orientations or gender expressions. Queer refugees or asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan Africa face difficulties above and beyond queer Tunisian nationals due to compounded factors including identity, race, economic opportunities, and increased levels of stigmatization. Perhaps the most direct, however crude way to put it, is the following: it’s hard to be queer in Tunisia, especially if you don’t “look” like you fit in the heteronormative mould, are black, have non-national immigration status, and have experienced trauma for factors related to your queerness.
UNHCR Tunis has an extensive referral program which, after completing individual assessment counselling, points people with refugee or asylum seeker status to organizations that can support them, including LGBTQ organizations. That is a major step forward. One of my coworkers at UNHCR used to work at Mawjoudin, and has played an important role in ensuring the refugee protection team is properly trained on gender and sexual diversity. That is another major step forward.
While much more could be said, I’ll tie but this section by concluding that one thing I’ve learned from my experience at UNHCR Tunis is that a particular effort must be made to include populations that may not hear about word-of-mouth programming for LGBTQ events. Inadvertent exclusion is felt as exclusion all the same.
Learning is an ongoing process which requires questioning our assumptions and embracing our ignorance in the spirit of learning more. I learned more about queer activism in Tunis in two months than I did in two years in Montreal, and without even coming to Tunis for that purpose. Hopefully, my reflections will encourage readers to consider what assumptions or biases they hold in order to collectively unlearn and relearn for a more honest approach to activism going forward.
Activists in Tunis are using various tools at their disposal — reports, statistics, plays, artwork, books, events, local and international support systems — to make noise about the LGBTQ community. Although Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code continues to be a significant barrier to empowerment, courageous projects are raising questions about heteronormative and cis-gender expectations. These projects are taking place in a context where pan-African struggles are gaining momentum on the global stage, rightfully demanding to be heard.