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How Terror Is Undermining Tunisia's Gay Rights Struggle

In the wake of two devastating terror attacks, the fight for LGBT rights in a country that still criminalizes homosexuality has become even tougher.

Demonstrating for gay rights in Tunisia.
Demonstrating for gay rights in Tunisia.
Frédéric Bobin

TUNIS — Like many of his compatriots, Badr Baabou is deeply distraught from the grave wounds inflicted on Tunisia's young and fragile democracy by two major terrorist attacks in the past three months.

"It's very serious," he says.

On a blisteringly hot Ramadan day, Baabou is sitting in an otherwise empty bar in a Tunis hotel on Bourguiba Avenue. He sports a buzz cut and Bermuda shorts, and also wears a string of rosary beads that stand out against the rest of his attire. "I'm not very religious," he says. "I'm more mystical. Humanism is my religion."

Shortly before the terror attack last Friday that left 39 foreign tourists dead at a Sousse beach resort, Le Monde visited Baabou to ask him about the state of gay rights in Tunisia. A tense climate was already weighing on the country since a similar attack killed foreigners at the Bardo museum in March.

As the country embarks on a security crackdown, and the rising threat of fundamentalist attacks, civil rights struggles such as LGBT rights become even more difficult than usual.

A faint wind of change seemed to be blowing during the spring, when the government recognized Shams, an organization campaigning for homosexuality to be decriminalized here. It's still illegal under article 230 of the Tunisian penal code, and is punishable by three years in prison. This wasn't the first such acknowledgment of a pro-rights group, but the case was heavily covered and debated on national television.

A few weeks earlier, at the World Social Forum in Tunis — an annual meeting of nonprofits and civil society organizations from around the globe — LGBT activists brandished a rainbow flag. The scene repeated itself when a model held the flag during an April fashion show in the capital, and the online magazine Inkyfada even published reportage about the fight for LGBT rights entering the public realm.

Last April, an LGBT flag was waved during the International Fashion Festival in Tunis — Kelmty

One of the first gay rights activists in Tunisia, Baabou heads Damj ("inclusion" in English), the first pro-LGBT organization to be legalized by the authorities in the heady revolutionary days of 2011's summer. Damj was followed by Mawjoudin ("we exist") and finally Shams this year. Gays, bisexuals and transgender people have coalesced in an organization named Chouf Minorités ("look, minorities"), which organized the flag-waving at the forum.

But despite the rise of a new generation of activists who can openly campaign for their rights, the political and cultural environment remains hostile. Homosexuals in Tunisia continue to face threats, violence and hatred based on their sexual orientation.

The political upheaval that followed the Arab Spring hasn't always worked in their favor: There have been 15 homophobic murders recorded between 2011 and 2015. Baabou's predecessor as leader of Damj was even forced into hiding for a time. "We helped him hide for four months before he fled to Switzerland," says Baabou, who himself was attacked for being gay in the center of Tunis in 2012. Police continue to actively enforce article 230 like they did in the final months of the Ben Ali regime, and 60 to 70 people are arrested under the article each year.

Safer synonyms

The dangers of living in Tunisia are still very much present. "It's difficult because we don't even know who our real enemies are," Baabou says. "We don't know who'll hit us next. The interior ministry? The judicial system? All we know is that we are being monitored and at any moment this information can be used to harm any human rights activist."

The democratic parties that blossomed in the aftermath of the revolution, some of which are now in government, should have been Baabou's natural allies. But the "liberals" are biding their time and are hesitant to repeal article 230. "They explained to us that this isn't the right moment," he says angrily. "It will never be the "right moment.""

In the meantime, LGBT activists are using softer, more "acceptable" terms to advance their cause. Baabou and his friends prefer to say they are fighting for "minority" rights rather than LGBT rights. In the best-case scenario, they will be welcomed by some of the more generous members of the current administration. "But only as a form of paternalism like that shown to vulnerable members of society like the disabled," he clarifies. In other words, pity without recognition.

Baabou's friends call him the "eternal optimist," as he believes in his mission despite the obstacles. In the bleak aftermath of Sousse, Tunisia is in dire need of optimists like him.

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