On a busy Saturday afternoon in downtown Tunis, my interpreter and I bumped into them: a group of openly queer kids. They stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. In Tunisia, this kind of defiance is nothing short of brave.
In addition to the country’s highly conservative attitudes towards queerness, Article 230 of Tunisia’s Penal Code sees sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment imposed on those found guilty of same-sex relations.
Arrests, merely on the suspicion of being queer, are common. Cellphones are confiscated and inspected for anything remotely incriminating. Beatings and forced anal examinations – declared torture by the United Nations Committee Against Torture – are commonly carried out by law enforcement officials.
Unfazed, this group strolled with quiet confidence down the city’s main street – past pavement cafes brimming with people who gazed, gawked and giggled at them. They seemed blithely unaware, in appearance at least, of the attention they were drawing.
Our introductions made, we joined them and made our way to a poky, smoked-filled bar on the second floor of a worse-for-wear building a few blocks away. There, over stale bar snacks and warm Tunisian beer, they opened up about being queer in Tunisia and whether they hold out any hope that their country – this country which “does not love [them] back” – will one day become more queer-inclusive. This is what some of them had to say.
25 years old, identifies as bisexual.
What is it like being a queer person in Tunisia?
It may be different [depending on whether] you are a cis-gendered gay man, a trans woman or a trans man. But if you are openly LGBT in Tunisia, it’s difficult, so people try moving into big cities to lead a more liberated lifestyle. Growing up here isn’t easy for any queer person, no matter what class they are in. So it’s pretty tough. We face discrimination and harassment on many levels. But I think things are slowly changing for the better here in Tunisia, especially the attitudes of people. It’s gradually changing, but we’re hopeful that a real catalyst would be a change in the law. [Getting Section 230 of the Penal Code repealed] is the main thing people like me and other activists are focused on, so that we can actually start working on the social attitudes towards queer people.
Have you ever considered leaving Tunisia?
Personally, as a queer activist, I want to have a good life. I want to have a healthy, loving relationship where I am not afraid of the cops, my parents, my boyfriend’s parents or my girlfriend’s parents. I want to be able to go out and hold my boyfriend’s hand in public. Or my date’s hand in public. I want to speak my mind on my religious beliefs or the lack of them. But I am also in a space where I am so deep into this life of trying to change things. So I feel like if I leave this third world country, I’m going to lose my identity; I’m going to lose my purpose. I ask myself, what am I going to do [in another country]? I fear that I would feel insignificant in any other place because … as much as I am going through a lot of shit here, I feel like I am part of a movie because our lives here are so different from the lives of most people. Our lives here are so intense and full of problems and confrontations and plans and precautions that it feels like I am in a movie.
18 years old, identifies as non-binary.
What is it like for you being a queer person in Tunisia?
Being a queer person in Tunisia is really hard because you don’t know what choices to make. By choices I mean doing what queer people do usually, like showing up and really not caring. My advice for queer people in Tunisia is to have a lot of self-esteem and confidence. Because it is hard. You can hear insults from everywhere.
I noticed, though, how you and your friend were walking arm-in-arm in the streets …
I don’t feel scared, honestly. But I am talking for myself because I know that queer people in Tunisia are usually scared of people and the way they look at us. The only people I am scared of is the police, because the police have the right to arrest me. But walking in the street with a guy doesn’t disturb me at all. I can do that and it is not a problem for me – but I am talking only for myself because it is a problem for queer people in Tunisia. But for myself, it is something that doesn’t disturb me anymore. Because I’ve learnt to live with it.
Are you out to your parents?
My parents know, both of them. I live with my mom now, and she kind of supports me a lot. She came to [queer rights organisation] Mawjoudien’s Friends queer film festival last year and she was really proud of us. She told me that the LGBTI community in Tunisia is really beautiful because we were all, like, holding each other’s hands and loving each other. So, ja, I don’t have a family problem I would say.
Are you hopeful for a change in mindset when it comes to how queer people are viewed and treated in Tunisia?
I won’t say we will live in Disneyland, but I am hopeful that people’s mentality will change with time. It will get better and better. It is getting better. From 2011 to now, it has changed a lot. But I believe that one day we will have our gay Pride in Tunisia. And we already are making that possible by ourselves in the streets. Like when we are a lot of friends together, we are kind of not afraid of the police. They can’t beat us all. So that makes us even more courageous.
20 years old, identifies as non-binary.
How do you feel living in Tunisia as a queer person?
I feel very oppressed by this society. I feel disturbed by people who look at me in the streets and stuff. But I am still really proud of myself as I am.
I noticed you do walk with a lot of self-confidence. You make for a really striking figure …
When I am not alone – when I’m walking the streets with someone I feel comfortable with – it is easier for me to walk confidently.
And when you are alone?
When I am alone, I try not to look up too much. I try not to look at people’s faces and just, you know, walk.
Do you think things will ever get better for queer people in Tunisia?
I think it will get better one day. Because queer people and our allies will make that change one day, one way or the other. Because we were few at first, but now we are many.
21 years old, identifies as non-binary.
How do you feel living in Tunisia as a queer person?
Being queer in Tunisia is very isolating for me, personally. I find it to be very isolating. But at the same time it’s nice because you are part of a revolution, in a sense. You’re part of a step forward into the future.
What makes you say that?
What makes me feel this way is because in my own existence, as an individual, I am constantly challenging every restriction, every unhealthy tradition that this society has put on itself. By just being me, I am taking part in liberating this society.
What is your family situation like?
With my family … I was kicked out of the house. And it’s hard. But I noticed that now that I don’t live with them, I feel like they are trying to get closer to me. So it’s not like I’m completely cut off like a lot of [queer] people are.
Are you hopeful for change in mindset?
To be honest… Am I hopeful? Yes. But do I see it happening soon? Not really, no. But I do know that, sooner or later, this society is going to change. Because a lot of change has happened in a very short time. Like, the issue of sexuality and gender expression wasn’t even discussed five or 10 years ago. It wasn’t even a subject in the consciousness of the country. But now it is out there, and I see it being normalised more when it comes to people just living their lives. There is still a lot of hate, and there is still a lot of things that aren’t positive. But at the same time, there is a lot of improvement. Like, at least there are grounds for improvement.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
I want to say that even though it is hard, we are not … people who are living in societies like this … are not numbers. They’re not ideas to be discussed by people in more advanced societies. They are people with their own personalities and their own essence as human beings. I say this because the West and people in more advanced countries are trying to help people that are living in societies like ours so much so that they, you know, forget that they are actually people. For them, it’s just numbers. Just agendas.
23 years old, identifies as sexually fluid.
From previous interviews I’ve done with queer people here, virutally every one of them has said they want to leave Tunisia …
I actually love my country. The most love I had for my country was when I was about 16 or 17 years old and I went to the [United] States as part of an exchange programme for a year. Part of me being there was presenting my country to the world – a duty that I loved. I talked about our traditions and our clothes and our food and our values. It was such a proud moment for me to present that to the world. I did it [in] classrooms, in a church, everywhere.That was the peak of me being happy and being proud.
But the more I learned about myself, the more I got detached from my country and the more I came to see that the country I love does not love me back. That it was not ready to give me the support I needed. So of course we want to leave. Because the love is not mutual. I’d give anything to my country if I felt I had everything I needed; if I felt safe; if I felt loved; if I wasn’t judged on the way I dress or talk or how I act. And who I love is part of that, of course. Actually, I feel a little bit of … what’s the word? … It’s not hate, it’s … I’m mad. I’m kind of mad because I put some effort into loving my country. And loving your country is not a given. It’s not something that you have to do.
I was at the top of my class academically. I had plans. I thought I could conquer the world and be something that could help my country. But with all the hate I got and all the things I went through … I feel, I guess, betrayed. I come from a very rich country that is the melting pot of huge civilisations. There were so many colours, languages, religions. And there’s so much beauty in that. Learning about that and seeing what it has become …
Now it is literally not a place for dreams to come true. I have to follow these dreams. I have to live this way. There is no room for options. For colour. I always thought I would fly. But the more time I spend here, the more I feel like my wings are cut off. Right now, to be honest, I am ready to become a no one. To leave all the things I take pride in behind me – my academic success, my relationships – just to get the satisfaction of being authentic to myself and doing something I’m truly passionate about. I am so fucking proud of myself. I know what I can achieve. But I just can’t do it right here and right now. And if I have to build myself up from the ground up again, I will do it. I’m already working hard and putting all the effort I need to make a change in my life. So, for sure, I will do it.