100 Years of International Women's Day – Will the "New Middle East" be a welcoming place for gays and lesbians?

Published: March 6, 2011

Hossein Alizadeh, is the Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The opinions expressed are his own. Thomson Reuters will host an International Women’s Day follow-the-sun live blog on March 8, 2011.

Karim is a 27-year-old medical professional who until recently was doing everything possible to remain under the radar of former President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali’s secret service, while trying his best to help other gay men in Tunisia.  This included organizing support groups, teaching about sexually transmitted diseases, and arranging counseling—all while  avoiding politics.

The popular uprising in late December changed all of this. He began posting images of demonstrations and victims of government crackdowns on Facebook and toward the end, even caricatures of the dictator himself. Karim is one of many gay Tunisians who overcame his fear and joined millions at the barricades to overthrow a corrupt and dictatorial regime.

Like all other citizens, Arab lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals suffered through decades of injustice and oppression from despotic rulers and their regimes. In the headiness of the current moment, there is an expectation that the “new wave of freedom” will benefit LGBT people. But will they equally enjoy the fruits of this struggle? Is it time for LGBT Arabs to step out of the closet and demand basic human rights?

The deep-seated homophobia in the region results from a complex interplay of religion, culture, and a colonial history, which goes beyond particular forms of governance. The secular dictators who are being swept out, often reinforced existing homophobic laws and practices to appease conservative religious and social forces in order to maintain power. In the absence of long-term strategies or the resources with which to seize the moment, LGBT people are not guaranteed to see a dramatic improvement in their lives as a result of the demise of these despots .

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