Amid democratic reforms, deeper troubles for LGBT Tunisians

The Arab Spring revolution that started in Tunisia in December 2010 has led to many democratic reforms, but the human rights of LGBT Tunisians remain unrecognized.  In fact, discrimination against the LGBT community has worsened over the past five years, Tunisian observers say.

World Politics Review reported on Sept. 28:

Tunisia’s Democratic Gains Have Done Nothing for Its LGBT Community

Demonstration seeking reforms in Tunisia in 2013. (Amine Ghrabi photo courtesy of World Politics Review)
Demonstration seeking reforms in Tunisia in 2013. (Amine Ghrabi photo courtesy of World Politics Review)

… Tunisian civil society associations submitted a report to the United Nations, decrying systemic attacks on members of Tunisia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Despite progress in some areas since the popular overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, many say that discrimination against the LGBT community has worsened over the past five years.

In May 2015, the Tunisian government authorized the country’s first official LGBT advocacy organization, Shams, making it the only country in the region to legalize such an association. But a smear campaign ensued, propelled by some conservative politicians and religious figures. Abdellatif Mekki, a prominent parliamentarian and former health minister, called for the group to be disbanded, arguing that Tunisians “had a revolution for freedom . . . not to found an association to defend gays.” He added that homosexuals are “dangerous for society” and should be punished. Hedi Sahly, Shams’ vice president, received nearly 200 death threats each day, prompting him to flee the country out of fear for his safety.

Shams logo
Logo of Shams

In January, authorities suspended Shams for 30 days under murky charges that were contested by the organization and a number of human rights groups. Shams appealed the decision and resumed activities in February. But the suspension highlights the legal vulnerability of Tunisia’s LGBT community under the country’s penal code. Last December, for instance, six teenage students were given three-year prison sentences under Article 230 of the penal code, which criminalizes sodomy and homosexual acts. The defendants were also banished from their hometown of Kairouan.

“Even in the days of Ben Ali, the courts have never, as I know, pronounced judgment of banishment,” Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunis office of the International Federation for Human Rights, said at the time, adding that the decision violates international conventions that Tunisia has ratified.

Homophobic sentiment intensified this spring. In April, a prominent Tunisian actor went on television and called homosexuality a “sickness,” while signs banning homosexuals emerged on storefronts. Past appeals by the LGBT community to the political class have largely fallen on deaf ears. In September 2015, then-Justice Minister Salah Ben Aissa called for Article 230 to be repealed, and was subsequently booted from government the following month.

Article 230 allows police to violate the rights of LGBT members with impunity, including by targeting the community’s known hangouts and rounding up individuals who they deem gay. That often leads to so-called homosexuality tests, or forced anal exams, which the U.N. Committee Against Torture condemned in May. …

In some ways, the gains of Tunisia’s political transition have resulted in a more heated debate over LGBT rights—and an increase in attacks. The freedoms that followed Ben Ali’s fall created an opening for free expression. But that new space has given a platform to those who demand an “end” to homosexuality, deny its existence, and seek to further eliminate the rights of the LGBT community—attitudes that cannot be legislated away. “Discrimination isn’t new, but since the debate on gay rights was raised two years ago, we have noticed more and more street harassment that can often be violent,” says Najma Kousri Labidi of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women. The refusal to repeal discriminatory laws reflects socially entrenched views that legal reform alone will not tackle. …

Hedi Sahly, vice president of "Shams" (Photo coutesy of
Hedi Sahly, vice president of “Shams,” fled Tunisia to escape from death threats. (Photo coutesy of

In seeking to end discrimination, Tunisia’s LGBT activists must contend with the greater challenge of institutional reform in the country. Tunisia’s political class spent years debating the new constitution, which was finally passed in 2014. But the charter’s guarantees for equal rights cannot be taken seriously when Ben Ali-era legislation, like the penal code, is still intact. That disparity undermines the implementation of protections in the constitution and is a thorn in consolidating Tunisia’s democracy, from the prison system to the fight against terrorism.

The plight of Tunisia’s LGBT community mirrors the situation across North Africa. Morocco’s penal code remains at odds with the constitution that passed by referendum in 2011 in response to popular demands for reform. The charter guarantees the right to protection of “private life,” but the penal code criminalizes “deviant sexual acts with a member of the same sex,” effectively nullifying the constitutional right to privacy. In May 2015, two men were sentenced to prison after being convicted of sodomy. According to the police report from the incident, one of the men “showed signs of homosexuality in his movements, manner of speaking and behavior.” Similarly, “homosexual acts” are criminalized in Algeria, while the constitution prohibits discrimination based on birth, race, gender, language, beliefs or “any other condition or social circumstance.”

Systemic discrimination against Tunisia’s LGBT community will likely take a backseat to pressing economic and security concerns, which have deepened public disillusionment with the political transition. Boosting employment, attracting foreign investment, and fighting terrorism are issues that can be negotiated on the government level; improving the lives of LGBT Tunisians will demand a cultural reckoning that cannot be accomplished in a short timeframe. But that process can’t even begin until laws and practices that directly violate LGBT rights and contradict Tunisia’s hard-earned constitution are undone.

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, and editor / publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]


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