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Being Gay In Tunisia

18 May 2016

This week, the world marked International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on Tuesday, but in Tunisia LGBTQ folk still live fearfully in the shadows.

Despite the rainbow flag flying briefly on the main avenue in the capital recently, homosexuals are the subject of both social and legal discrimination.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, long taboo in the conservative Muslim state, have improved gradually since the 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab Spring which after the uprising resulted in greater freedom of speech with several activist associations emerging including Mawjoudin (We exist) and Shams (Sun).

However, being openly gay in Tunisia is still a no-no for most homosexuals in a country that hands down lengthy prison sentences for the "offence".

The LGBT issue went public last year with calls for homosexuality to be decriminalised. Currently in Tunisia those convicted of sodomy or lesbianism face up to three years in jail.

After a court last September sentenced a youth to a year behind bars for homosexuality, then-justice minister Salah Ben Aissa made a controversial call for the anti-gay laws to be scrapped which resulted in him being fired the following month.

Braving the open hostility of a large segment of the population, LGBT associations have now begun to emerge into public view and even hold open meetings.

Rainbow flag in hand, activists marched in Tunis on January 14, the anniversary of the 2011 revolution.

But their presence was not welcomed by all as dozens of people became violent and police had to escort the activists to safety.

Today, homosexuality has become a recurring topic in Tunisian media. To hear people speak publicly of homosexuality was "unthinkable some time ago", said academic Wahid Ferchichi, who heads the Tunisian Association for the Defense of Individual Liberties.

According to sociologist Mohamed Jouiri, "the post-revolution context allowed a minority to express and assert its existence".

He said that "the situation for homosexuals in Tunisia is much better than in other Arab countries", despite remaining very difficult.

In December last year, rights groups called on Tunisia to repeal anti-homosexuality laws after six students were jailed for three years after being forced to undergo anal examinations. NGOs and Western governments have denounced the use of such tests as cruel, inhuman and degrading.

In March this year, an appeals court reduced the sentence to one month in jail and also overturned a five-year ban on them entering the central city of Kairouan where they were first convicted.

Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi categorically rules out decriminalising homosexuality.

"That will not happen," he said in an interview with Egyptian television. "I reject it."

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