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Thursday 12 September 2019

Civil rights

The contender

Running for president while gay was never going to be easy, especially in Tunisia

By Ian Birrell

Mounir Baatour does not dare drink in bars or dine in restaurants, watch films at the cinema or attend plays at the theatre. He does not even go to his local shops, sending out his partner when they need provisions. “I am afraid – yes, it is terrible,” he tells me. “But my image is known, so it is me they might attack. This is the price I must pay. It has become normal for me.” When I ask what would happen if we went together for a coffee in a nearby cafe, he shrugs. “They might attack us, both of us.”

The reason is simple. Baatour is a gay man in a place where homosexuality is a criminal offence, as he knows to his personal cost from a spell behind bars. Yet instead of crumbling in the face of bigotry he has opted to confront it in the most public way possible, by challenging for the presidency of Tunisia.

Baatour is the first openly gay person to stand for highest office in North Africa and the Middle East, a desert of intolerance for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual people. From Morocco to the Gulf states, they suffer abuse, beatings, executions, honour killings, prison and torture, while family rejection is also commonplace for those courageous enough to come out.

Mounir Baatour at the the opening of the ‘Shams’ radio station in 2017

Baatour’s candidacy was, this time at least, short-lived – Tunisia’s judges blocked it on spurious grounds. But his decision to stand was nonetheless powerfully symbolic. Life is oppressively bleak for many LGBT Tunisians, forced to co-exist with a culture of the most toxic masculinity; one gay teenager told me how his own father tried to set him on fire. Yet as this country prepares for its first democratic transfer of power, Baatour highlights some of the positive changes that have taken place in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, which for all its struggles remains the one bright spot still glowing after that extraordinary explosion of dissent at the start of this decade.

“My campaign for the presidency was a big opportunity to speak out about LGBT issues and pester the media to discuss them,” he told me in his Tunis office, showing me some of the abuse he receives on social media. “My goal was not to win but to show that we are natural people.” When I suggest he should take pride in his stance, he brushes aside the idea. “It is not a question of being proud – it is a question of fighting for our rights. I don’t want to live like a mouse, living in the underground of my own country.”

Mounir Baatour grew up in the northern Tunisian port of Bizerte

Brought up by his Berber family in Bizerte, Africa’s northernmost city, Baatour’s parents were both teachers. (His mother suffered from severe mental health problems and was in and out of hospital.) He knew he was gay from the age of 14, but the following year the family moved to the holiday island of Djerba, which had a more conservative culture. “It was very bad, a very religious island. There was no culture, no theatre – I tried to start a troupe but it was not successful,” he recalled, adding that he buried himself instead in books. “I regretted my homosexuality because it was forbidden by God. I thought I was sick, abnormal.”

He became an atheist while still a teenager, hiding his homosexuality with a string of girlfriends during four years attending university in Morocco. Then he went to study for a masters in Grenoble, France, where one night he discovered a friend was also gay and they became a couple. “It was beautiful, wonderful, like a dream. It was something new in my life, the happiness of being myself and being able to live my natural sexuality.”

The pair stayed together for 15 years. After returning to Tunisia, they pretended to be just two young men about town sharing an apartment; persecution of LGBT people was intense, and under the repressive Ben Ali dictatorship there was no freedom of expression providing space for campaigning against it.

That changed in December 2010. Mohamed Bouazizi, a street trader in the provincial capital of Sidi Bouzid, burned himself alive out of frustration with local corruption. Mass protests followed, and the Arab Spring was born.

Like many others, Baatour was filled with optimism – although for all its progress in building a more pluralistic society, recognised with the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, Tunisia remains plagued by inflation, low growth and high youth unemployment. “My hope was that we would have a better country with freedom of expression, respect for human rights and an end to torture,” he said. “It has got better in some respects, such as with the freedoms for the media and in expression, but not in the economic sphere and certainly not for LGBT.”

“No to the anal test.” Tunisian gay rights activists protest against a particularly invasive police examination

Baatour had established himself as a human rights lawyer. When I asked about the sort of cases he took on, he told me of a recent effort to free a young woman from a psychiatric hospital after she had been locked up by her father for atheism. As a stand against such intolerance, he formed a liberal political party in 2011 to exploit Tunisia’s opening for civil society. Two years later he started to attack Islam and promote LGBT rights on social media. “Lots of people said they would kill me, that I would go to Hell, that I was going against God,” he recalled. “I was not scared. Maybe they can kill me but I will die one day whatever.”

The police began following him. Under Article 230 of the penal code, a legacy of French colonial rule, homosexual acts are punishable with up to three years in prison, while suspects can be subjected to anal examinations – an infamous police practice condemned as torture by human rights groups. One night he and Aziz, his current 25-year-old boyfriend, were in a bar. Baatour says that police came in, checked their identity papers and carried Aziz off to a police station where he confessed to their relationship after a brutal beating. Baatour served three months in prison, sharing a cell with seven others who taunted him for “not being a man”, leading to treatment for depression. Aziz was sentenced to four months, during which he was bullied and forced to clean the prison toilets.

Baatour’s determination to fight for reform was only strengthened. He co-founded Shams, a campaign group that has had to fight off closure attempts by the state, and then came his quixotic tilt at the presidency. Last month he presented candidacy papers claiming to have almost 20,000 signatures – double the required number – in his bid to contest the 15 September election to succeed Beji Caid Essebsi, who died aged 92 in late July. “This enthusiasm already testifies to the immense will of the Tunisian people, and especially its youth, to see new a political wind blowing on the country,” he declared on Facebook.

Tunisia’s election is to replace its last president, Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in July aged 92

It was perhaps more a breeze than a wind. An Arab Barometer poll this year that found only seven per cent of Tunisians accept same-sex relationships – fewer than in Egypt, Iraq or Sudan, none renowned as bastions of social liberalism. One of the favourites for the presidency, a prominent law professor, has called homosexuality a foreign plot, and there were protests from Islamists last year after a government commission suggested replacing jail for sodomy with a fine. So it was no surprise Baatour found himself among 71 rejected candidates. He then saw his legal appeals dismissed this month. The electoral commission told a news agency he had not collected enough signatures.

Shams says arrests under the anti-sodomy law rose from 79 cases in 2017 to 127 last year. Its repeal is one of Baatour’s core aims, along with enshrining LGBT equality in law, ending anal examinations by police and stopping them accessing phone data to secure convictions. His candidacy sparked worldwide interest. The day we met he had a letter published in the French newspaper Libération demanding the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tunisia, co-signed by Juliette Binoche, the footballer Lilian Thuram and France’s former culture minister Jack Lang.

Yet the fiercest opposition to Baatour’s candidacy has come not from conservatives but other civil liberties groups – including some pushing for gay and transgender rights – which circulated a statement calling him “a big danger to our community”. They claim he has harassed vulnerable minors, shared private information to gain publicity and endangered individuals by outing them, which sources told me involved leaking footage from a drag party that forced some citizens to flee the country. Baatour denies the charges, insisting all the accusations are unfounded and lack evidence. The letter also accused him of seeking to normalise relations with “the Zionist entity”. To this he responded that he was “a man of peace”.

Social conservatives have demonstrated against implementation of the new Tunisian constitution

Tunisia is among 70 nations, many in Africa and the Middle East, that still criminalise same-sex consensual activity, according to the annual ‘State-Sponsored Homophobia’ study – yet this is a fall from the 92 countries deeming such actions a breach of the law when it started compiling such data in 2006. Last year’s decision by India’s supreme court to decriminalise homosexuality was a major advance given the massive size of its population, while, more recently, Taiwan became the first Asian nation to sanction same-sex marriage.

Such progress brings little solace to those suffering torment in Tunisia. One 18-year-old school pupil, the son of two military veterans, told me that after his father found out he was gay he was dragged into a room and doused in petrol for burning, his life saved only by sudden intervention of his screaming mother. “They were telling me I had bought shame on their family,” he said. Later he was locked in a room for a week with just a bowl of water and ordered to write out the Koran three times “to remind me I was a sinner”. An atheist, he argues that Islam reinforces a traditional culture of contempt towards gay men, who are viewed, like women, as lesser beings.

Or take Ramy, 24, whom I met at a crowded cafe in a Tunis square. He was with another man, who described himself as bisexual, and a pair of female friends, one of whom said she was lesbian and the other declared herself “confused” when she briefly looked up from her phone. They could have been a group of millennials from almost anywhere – until this affable young man began telling me his personal horror story of growing up gay in Tunisia.

Gay rights have been hard won in the developing world – including India, where homosexuality was partly decriminalised in 2018

Ramy knew he liked boys from the age of eight, when he began wanting to hold hands with them, but his problems really started after puberty. “I was not very masculine like the other pupils, a bit softer and different, so I was bullied by my classmates as the gay kid at high school. It was so bad, people came from other schools just to bully me. It began with verbal abuse – you’re a faggot, you’re a bitch, you don’t belong here in God’s world. Then it got physical. I felt so defenceless.”

He did not dare to tell his father, a devoutly religious taxi driver, but finally unburdened himself to his mother. She was sympathetic, even allowing him to fulfil a desire to dress as a girl at home. He had a boyfriend, a classmate who “was lucky because he looked straight”. But the abuse grew worse and one awful beating with baseball bats and fists almost led to loss of an eye. “I would not wish anyone on earth to go through what I went through,” he said.

During Ramy’s second year at university his father discovered his sexuality after researching his online activities. “He abused me, he hit me and he disowned me,” Ramy said. “This left me lost since in our country all you have is family support.” Because his father was paying his university fees, Ramy had to drop his studies and has since been without steady work. “If they think you are a bit feminine or gay they never call you back,” he said. “It’s really bad.”

Eventually he tried to drown himself, only to be pulled unconscious from the water. When his family explained why they wanted nothing to do with him, the hospital to which he had been taken called the police. Officers appeared at his bedside and dragged him away. He considers himself lucky to have been released after a night in the cells rather than charged with any offences. He calls his life a nightmare and says he was delighted to see Baatour’s candidacy: “It could have been revolutionary for a country such as ours. It would change just to get the issues discussed so they can’t deny we exist.”

It seems easier – on this front at least – for women in Tunisia. “It is much harder for a gay man,” said his friend Asma, 27, who works at a non-governmental organisation. “They have to be masculine and not show anything weak.” Yet this confident woman who called herself a rebel admitted that she had not come out to her own mother – “she would be devastated” – and declared she was no longer dating Tunisians after three former female partners succumbed to family pressure to get married.

Hana, 22, a finance student who describes herself as pansexual, told me she was saddened to have to live a double life. Her middle-class family “will soon start questioning why I don’t have a boyfriend and want to get married”. She hopes to start earning enough to be independent before telling them the truth. “Is it true that in America women can earn less than men?” she asks. Touché.

The Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival in Tunis is a sign of some progress

Hana works part-time with Mawjoudin (We Exist), an officially-recognised LGBT activist group whose existence is at least an indicator of progress. It runs advice services, offers counselling and hosts events including a Queer Film Festival in Tunis. The group has to be strict about security, yet still encounters problems: the lighting technician at a drag show who refused to work when he discovered the nature of the entertainment; the bank that tried to freeze the group’s accounts.

About 20 similar groups fighting for sexual freedom now operate in the region, but the experience of other countries is that any advances can be fragile. Egypt has regressed after returning to brutal repression under General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Sex reassignment surgery has been banned and a television presenter was jailed for a year, in January, simply for interviewing a gay man. Lebanon was seen as allowing slightly more space than most, yet an LGBT conference was shut down last year and all 80 attendees were barred from returning to the country.

“Religious fundamentalist groups find out about events and then pressure the police or authorities to take action,” said Neela Ghoshal, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.

Behind everything lurks the big question facing Tunisia as it goes to the polls for a new president and parliament: how stable is this fledgling democracy, the solitary surviving success of the 2011 revolutions? One analyst put it to me that this is a nation is trying to build its ship of state while sailing. Its constitution is progressive but still to be implemented. Its parliament is dysfunctional, its judiciary unreformed and its economy in dire need of structural reform. Its bloated public sector wage bill, for instance, is among the highest in the world as a share of the economy, after efforts to buy off discontent with government jobs.

There is an immense mistrust of politicians and party politics. Turnout has fallen in each of the last three elections and young voters especially operate under the assumption that corruption is rampant. Young people are among the region’s least interested in political debate and religion. Their frustration, fuelled by unemployment, sparked the 2011 uprising but has since led to a near-doubling of suicide rates, a huge brain drain, mass flight over the Mediterranean to Italy, and the highest rate of foreign enlistment in the ranks of the Islamic State. There were 10,000 protests last year, and one poll found that eight in ten people feared their country was heading in the wrong direction.

Amina Sboui, who hosts a feminist radio show in Tunis when not detained by police

At least there is pressure for change. “The democratic culture has not yet really fully taken hold, although Tunisia has dispelled the myth that democracy is not compatible with the Arab world, becoming a beacon of hope for the region,” says Sarah Yerkes, a Tunisia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “You do have a civil society and a media that tries to hold the institutions to account. In the LGBT arena things that you could never talk about are now being debated with legal NGOs and even a radio station. These things are unheard of in the Arab world.”

And now an openly gay man has bid to run for Tunisia’s highest political office – a first for North Africa, and something we have yet to see in Britain.

Some names have been changed to protect identities 

Photography by Getty Images, Shutterstock

Further reading

Human Rights Watch has published some insightful material on the experiences of LGBT people in the Middle East and North Africa, including this report on activism in the area and this video dispelling some of the myths.

Eight years after Tunisia’s revolution, Agence France-Presse asked some of its younger voters what it had brought them. They weren’t exactly content.

Disappointment still tips over into despair, which can find a harrowing outlet in public acts of self-harm, as the New York Times reported (£) two years ago.