October 10, 2018 / 1:55 PM / 10 months ago

LGBT+ rights improve in 'homophobic' Middle East with uptick in activism

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An upsurge in LGBT+ activism has led to “enormous advances” in the Middle East and North Africa, researchers said on Wednesday, yet campaigners warned full equality remains a distant dream.

Activists fought “even in the hardest places” in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia, rights groups said in a comprehensive review seen exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, with Lebanon on the cusp on change.

“LGBTIQ activism in the (region) over the past decade has not stopped, and it is moving forward,” said the Beirut-based Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality and U.S. campaign group OutRight Action International.

Same-sex relations are illegal across most of the Middle East and North Africa, and gay people often risk fines, jail or even death. In Jordan, which decriminalized homosexuality in 1951, stigma and discrimination are common.

“Many people, both in Europe and here in the U.S., look at the Middle East and Africa and think everything is the same: it’s a homophobic region and everyone is a homophobe,” said Maria Sjodin, OutRight Action International’s deputy head.

“Yet there are many other people in the region who are very active in advancing rights and bringing visibility to these issues.”

A Lebanese district court of appeal ruled in July that same-sex relationships were not illegal, challenging Article 534 of the penal code which outlaws “sexual intercourse contrary to nature”, punishable by up to one year in jail.

Despite several political parties in May’s general election advocating for the abolition of Article 534, it was “far-fetched” to expect parliamentarians to amend it, said Tarek Zeidan, executive director of Lebanese LGBT+ rights group Helem.

Beirut Pride - which became the first Arab gay pride week in 2017 - was effectively shut down this year following the detention of organizer Hadi Damien under morality laws.

Yet the fact that Lebanon’s Shi’ite group Hezbollah - which made gains in the poll - stated in May that homosexuality “defies logic, human nature and the human mind” showed local LGBT+ activists had succeeded in raising the issue, Zeidan said.

“This is a clue that the religious establishment has long known and tolerated the presence of LGBT clubs and services,” he said by phone from Beirut. “What has provoked them into action now, is the effect of us starting to get organized.”

Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org

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