As Pride Month takes off, millions of people around the world are about to take to the streets to march and celebrate the amazing progress that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has experienced throughout the years. I am lucky to live in a time when my community is visible and acknowledged in so many countries, but with all the progress we have made, between the parties and the parades, we have neglected our community’s core value. Many of us forgot that the fight for equality is more than just a battle for same-sex marriage or equal opportunities.
The core of our struggle is to protect our community members everywhere, to defend their lives and freedom.
For many, especially in my part of the world, the Middle East, the basic safety that many take for granted, is nonexistent.
In fact, many LGBT people are persecuted and their lives are threatened.
I am a gay Iraqi-North African (Amazigh), who lives in Tel Aviv. I have it real good here, where LGBT rights are respected and society is the most tolerant in the Middle East. While “tolerant” is not enough and we still encounter some discrimination and prejudice, my country has made notable progress since its establishment 70 years ago. Same-sex sexual activity was legalized in 1988 and the former law against sodomy had not been enforced since a court decision in 1963.
Israel became the first country in Asia and the Middle East to recognize unregistered cohabitation between same-sex couples. Although same-sex marriages are not performed in the country, Israel recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was prohibited in 1992.
Following a court decision in 2008, same-sex couples are able to jointly adopt. LGBT people are also able to serve openly in the military, like I did for five years as an openly gay IDF commander. Moreover soldiers who identify as transgender are supported in the military both financially and psychologically during their transition.
For those who identify as transgender, Israel is a safe haven. In the words of Talleen Abu Hanna, Miss Trans Israel 2016: “I wouldn’t be alive if I grew up in Palestine...
Not as a gay man, and definitely not as a transgender woman... I’m lucky to be an Israeli. Being an Israeli means being truly free.” The Israeli transgender community is protected by law, gender reassignment operations are state-funded and transgender individuals can serve openly in the Israeli army and police and they are visible.
In spite of the aforementioned, there is always room for further improvement, as the Israel transgender community still faces many challenges. From my time volunteering at the National LGBT center to combat LGBT-phobia, I have witnessed first hand some of these challenges, including discrimination by public service officials, and even members of the police. The beauty of this society, however, is that there are so many organizations and individuals that are working to improve this reality, that the majority embraces diversity and opposes any form of hatred and discrimination.
While transgender Israelis hold the choice to determine their gender, in the Middle East the choice is not always available and in some countries it is forced. For instance, within the Palestinian society, which is mostly conservative, families tend to see homosexuality, cross-dressing and transgender behavior as immoral acts against god, deserving of condemnation. Some LGBT Palestinians have relocated to Israel, often fleeing harsh intolerance that includes physical abuse, disowning and even murder. Significant expatriate groups exist in Tel Aviv, and many Palestinians live with their Israeli samesex partners. Some receive permits to live in Israel yet some are dependent on their partners to help keep their presence in Israel hidden from the authorities, who would pursue them, not for their sexual orientation, but for staying illegally in the country. A difficult situation.
Shockingly, the Palestinian territories are not the worst places for LGBT people. There are far worse countries where gender identification and sexuality often come with a heavy price. While there is much debate about the rights of women in the Middle East and North Africa, the discussion about the treatment of transgender and gays is long overdue. In a region where gender segregation is widespread and dress codes are mostly enforced by law, where much of the social structure is based on the distinction between men and women, anything that challenges the status quo is tackled violently.
Culturally, there is no tolerance for transgender people in the Middle East. In 2016, several cinemas in Qatar began screening The Danish Girl
, a film telling the story of a transgender artist. It had already been censored in most of the countries in the Middle East, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait. In Saudi Arabia the question of a ban did not arise at all, since in the interests of morality the kingdom has no cinemas. The hope for Qatar to actually allow it failed quickly. Complaints about the film immediately flooded social media, and in a swift response the Qatari Culture Ministry thanked Twitter users for their “unwavering vigilance,” and announced that the film was banned.
The most horrific government in the Middle East for LGBT people is in Iran. The Iranian government’s welcoming of trans people contrasts dramatically with its criminalization and severe punishment (often the death sentence) of homosexual activity. This contrast creates a powerful push for gay people to legalize their position by registering, against their will, as transgender.
It is encouraged that any gay man undergo gender reassignment, as the alternative is punishment and ultimately death. A gay Iranian described his experience to Human Rights Watch: “I went to a psychiatrist... At first she said you are a trans person and you can easily change. I told her I am a man and I will not change. I like men but I want to be with men as a man not as a woman. I have no problems with my manhood. I knew I would never do this. Despite this, she never used the word ‘gay.’ She just called me a ‘weak trans.’” In 2014 the BBC reported a story about another gay man who had a narrow escape from reassignment surgery: psychologists suggested gender reassignment to Soheil, a 21-year-old, gay Iranian. As a result, his family pressured him immensely to go through with it: “My father came to visit me in Tehran with two relatives,” he says. “They’d had a meeting to decide what to do about me... They told me: ‘You need to either have your gender changed or we will kill you and will not let you live in this family.’” Not only is there forced sex reassignment, but even once an individual undergoes the transition, he/she is still mistreated. Trans Iranian often face unemployment and isolation within their communities.
As of 2008, Iran carried out more gender reassignment operations than any other nation in the world, only succeeded by Thailand. This is while same-sex sexual activity is legally banned, in accordance with the Shi’ite version of Islamic law.
Other governments in the Middle East actively punish transgender people. In Saudi Arabia in 2013 the religious police raided a party at a hotel in the eastern city of Khobar. According to the authorities the party was attended by about 100 young transgender women and cross-dressers, and included a contest for the best-looking one. The police seized a crown that was supposed to be presented to the contest winner, along with a large quantity of “Satanist” items. Reports said a man and a woman who organized the party were arrested, but most of the girls were handed over to their parents for punishment. We can only imagine what horrendous punishment they have faced in their homes.
In Egypt, according to Egyptian medical sources, almost all reassignment surgeries are female-to-male.
This is probably due to the fact that trans women fear being associated with the stigma of homosexuality.
This is the opposite from the situation in Iran, where the men feel pressured to undergo gender reassignment.
Homosexuality is punishable by death in the Islamic Republic. As Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in 2007, when asked about Iranian homosexuals, “we don’t have this phenomenon in Iran.”
This Pride Month, in Tel Aviv, I will march with hundreds of thousands in the biggest and the only LGBT pride parade in the Middle East. Let us return this year to the roots of the struggle of our community. Instead of just marching in our cities, we must be a voice to the voiceless. I will use social media, I will use my voice, and I will mobilize others to speak up for our people. Being LGBT means more than just being proud, it means standing up and fighting injustices faced by international members of our community. We are in it together and we must fight as one, against the homophobes, the dictators and tyrants of the Middle East. We will overcome.
Hen Mazzig is an Israeli writer, public speaker and digital communications consultant from Tel Aviv.