Gay marriage and transgender acceptance have been hot topics in the United States recently, with the US Supreme Court voting to legalize gay marriage across all 50 states (Ireland beat us to it though) and transgender celebrities such as Caitlynn Jenner and Laverne Cox gracing magazine covers and headlines. Given that the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) condemn gay marriage, bisexuality and transgender ops, one might assume that these topics are completely taboo and off-limits.
Yes–and no. Homosexual marriage is illegal in Middle Eastern nations, as is homosexual behavior public. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen actually execute people if they are caught performing such behavior; other nations such as Qatar and Afghanistan cite execution in their legislation but do not act on it. Surprisingly, homosexuality itself is not illegal in Bahrain, as long as those involved are over the age of 21; a sexual act performed with a minor can land a person 10 years in prison, with the penalty for sex with someone under the age of 16 is a longer prison sentence or death.
Perhaps as a sign of these international times, people are at least talking about LGBT issues, which is a start. No doubt a response to the U.S. and Irish legislation, Egypt’s two main religious bodies, Al-Azhar (Sunni Islam) and the Coptic Church (Christianity) recently issued statements condemning gay marriage. Egyptian actor Khaled Abou Al Nagar and television host Mona Al-Iraqi both posted rainbow photos on social media, declaring their support for gay marriage. Their moves are pretty bold: although Egypt does not criminalize homosexuality in itself, public “displays” are criminalized (the “Cairo 52” in which 52 men on a boat party were arrested for “debauchery” and the more recent Cairo bathhouse incident are two examples).
Yet having high-profile figures openly supporting gay rights could be a step in the right direction; after all, Arab celebrities often push boundaries in their work and personal life (think daringly bare outfits, provocative dance moves and sexy movie and music video scenes). Lebanon’s Bassem Feghali is a wildly successful drag queen who was recently listedo n New Now Next.com’s “10 Superstar Drag Queens From Around the World.” Bassem, who usually sports a blonde wig in various styles, is perhaps most famous for his impersonations of the legendary Lebanese icon, singer Sabah. He’s celebrated by stars such as Nawal Zoghby; he performed at the Murex D’or 2015 Awards (as Sabah) and gave an absolutely hilarious turn as a woman with a hairdryer stuck in her hair named Antika on AlJadeed TV (I didn’t know what was being said, obviously, but it was still funny). Yup, I was one of Bassem’s 25k+ followers, and I didn’t even know she was, in fact, a he.
Morocco’s most famous belly dancer Noor Talbi, used to be a national star track and field athlete named Noureddine before changing genders. While homosexuality is illegal in Morocco, gender reassignment surgery is not (in fact, the surgery was further developed by George Bouru there in the 50s and 70s) and Noor has enjoyed a high level of success and acceptance, although not by the Moroccan government. Noor’s story really is no different from that of Caitlyn Jenner (born Bruce Jenner, an American Olympic athlete) except for two reasons: one, she lives in a Muslim country and two, she actually came out before Caitlynn, which I find highly interesting as THIS should be the sort of positive news we hear in the US about the Middle East.
Another interesting fact: in its mid-century heyday the city of Tangiers was home to many international gay and bisexual famous writers from Andre Gide to Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac who openly displayed their preferences in the “wild” city, and an “anything goes” mentality persevered.
The fashion world has not shied away from connecting itself with the transgender community: Lebanese fashion designer Charbel Zoe, who designs for Haifa Wehbe et al., has invited transgender model Yasmine Petty to walk in his fashion shows several times. Although Petty is American-born, she is half Lebanese and the mere association with her-likely not lost on his Arab fans-is daring enough. I’ve also come across a model named “Nono” on Instagram @NOoOoONO55 who is Arab and appears to either be transgender or supports transgender rights, as links in her bio lead one to Youtube videos regarding transgender rights. Nono has almost 600K followers and even a fan page, which means that people either accept her or her views (good) or they are haters that just can’t stop following (bad).
LGBTQ activism is slowly starting to emerge, which is encouraging, although groups have a long road ahead of them. Among the Arab nations, Lebanon is the most accepting towards both gays and lesbians as well as transgenders: not only is it the only Arab country that doesn’t have laws against gay behavior on the books, the country is the unofficial capital of transgender surgeries (not illegal) in the region, with thousands traveling to the nation to get gender reassignment surgery. Lebanon is also home to the Arab world’s leading lLGBT group HELEM, which has demonstrated public marches in Beirut. The capital city is also home to gay bars; neighboring Jordan also has gay bars.
Abroad, the LGBTQ Muslim community may have an easier time in regards to the legal side of things, but within their Muslim communties they are still for the most part quite frowned upon. Yet there has been pushes for acceptance: in the UK, activist Tamila Tauqir founded the Safra Project, a group that works to empower Muslim lesbian, bisexual and trans. The Safra Project has “three key aims: to empower Muslim lesbian, bisexual and trans (Muslim LBT) women to deal with the issues they face resulting from their sexual orientation and/or gender identity within the context of their ethnic, cultural and religious background; to raise awareness on the needs of and issues relating to Muslim LBT women in order to make service provision accessible and appropriate; and to eliminate prejudice and discrimination experienced by Muslim LBT women and to promote diversity.”
As a whole, the entire human rights catalogue has a long way to go in the Middle East. The LGBTQ community may be fighting the hardest, and the battle has been and will certainly continue to be difficult. But the fact that there is any sort of presence of such a community in the region is encouraging, and it will be interesting to see, given the advancement of LGBTQ rights elsewhere, how things play out in the Arab world.