Unfortunately, there are still many countries where being an identity within the LGBTQ+ community is heavily stigmatized. According to Amnesty International, trans people have felt more “isolated with hostile family members” and face barriers to accessing healthcare or other supports.
In the Middle East and Arab countries, in particular, LGBTQ+ people experience harassment, discrimination, and violence based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Sometimes this violence comes from a fellow family member.
What Is It Like to Be LGBTQ+ in Arab Countries?
A 2020 Human Rights Watch report found that transgender women in the region are often viewed as gay men. As a result, they are targeted and prosecuted under the same law of “having carnal relations against the order of nature” or “imitating women.” In countries like Syria, punishment for gay sex can be imprisonment. In countries like Yemen, Iran, Qatar the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, it can even lead to the death penalty.
The transitioning process itself can be challenging for transgender people in many Arab countries. For instance, obtaining gender-affirming surgery needs approval from a committee of doctors and clerics. However, surgery is only considered if it’s intended to correct a congenital disability in a person’s reproductive organs.
Many people have to transition secretly, putting their lives in danger. For example, many transgender people undergo surgery in unlicensed clinics that are not up to qualified medical standards. In addition, even if a person does transition, getting government identification that reflects a trans man or woman or non-binary person’s name and gender is nearly impossible in the majority of the Arab world.
What Are the Current Laws for LGBTQ+ Rights in Arab Countries?
As previously mentioned, in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, if a person is caught engaging in same-gender sexual behavior, the death penalty would be applied according to law.
In addition, the Country Reports of the US Department of State determined that there are no established LGBTQ+ organizations whatsoever in Saudi Arabia. Reports of official and social discrimination due to sexual orientation are unclear since there is such an intense social pressure never to discuss LGBTQ+ issues.
Is Being Gay Legal in Any Arab Countries and Are There Protections for Transgender People?
The countries where being gay is legal are Jordan, Bahrain, and Iraq. However, there is still much stigma in Iraqi society which can lead to vigilante executions. In addition, ISIS does not tolerate anyone being gay.
Some Middle Eastern countries have some legal protections for transgender people. For instance, the Iranian government has approved gender-affirming procedures subject to medical approval. In addition, the Syrian government has approved similar types of operations since 2011.
Are There LGBTQ+ Rights in Any Middle Eastern Countries?
LGBTQ+ rights movements have existed in Middle Eastern nations like Turkey and Lebanon. However, for both these countries, these changes have been implemented slowly. In addition, there have been recent shutdowns of LGBTQ+-oriented events. As a result, there have been raised concerns about the freedom of LGBTQ+ people and groups in these countries.
A report of Human Rights Watch about LGBTQ+ rights in the Middle East states:
“In a few places, like Egypt and Morocco, sexual orientation and gender identity issues have begun to enter the agendas of some mainstream human rights movements. Now, unlike in earlier years, there are lawyers to defend people when they are arrested, and voices to speak up in the press. These vital developments were not won through identity politics. Those have misfired disastrously as a way of claiming rights in much of the Middle East; the urge of some western LGBT activists to unearth and foster ‘gay’ politics in the region is potentially deeply counterproductive. Rather, the mainstreaming was won largely by framing the situations of LGBT (or otherwise-identified) people in terms of the rights violations, and protections, that existing human rights movements understand.” (Human Rights Watch 2009, p. 18)
However, for more acceptance of LGBTQ+ people and their rights, one country is a notable exception: Israel. This country is one of the most progressive for LGBTQ+ rights and recognizes unregistered cohabitation.
Even though same-sex marriage is not legal in Israel, there is public support for recognizing and registering same-sex marriages in other countries. In addition, Israel allows transgender folks to legally change their gender without undergoing gender confirmation surgery. Lastly, transgender individuals can serve openly in the Israel Defense Forces.
However, some anti-occupation activists have noted that this phenomenon is likely pinkwashing. In essence, pinkwashing is an Israeli government propaganda tool that exploits LGBTQIA+ rights to show a progressive image. Meanwhile, they are actually concealing Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies that oppress Palestinians. You can learn more about this idea on the BDS movement website.
What Are LGBTQ+ Rights Like in Palestine?
Palestine features different legal systems. According to a report of Human Rights Watch in regards to sexual orientation and gender identity in the Middle East:
“The British Mandate Criminal Code Ordinance, No. 74 of 1936 is in force in Gaza. In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Jordanian Penal Code of 1960 applies, and does not contain provisions prohibiting adult consensual same-sex conduct. In Gaza, having “unnatural intercourse” of a sexual nature, understood to include same-sex relationships, is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. In February 2016, Hamas’s armed wing executed one of its fighters ostensibly for “behavioral and moral violations,” which Hamas officials acknowledged meant same-sex relations.”
There are many allies and organizations that support LGBTQ+ people in the Middle East and Arab Countries. These include:
Rainbow Street is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that helps LGBTQ+ people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
OutRight Action International
OutRight is an NGO that supports the human rights of LGBTQ+ people, mainly in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, but has partnered with other LGBTQ+ groups to advocate on their behalf at the United Nations.
Helem (Arabic: حلم) is an NGO in Lebanon that aims to annul article 534 in Lebanon’s Penal Code. This code punishes “unnatural sexual intercourse,” primarily used to target people that do not conform to typical gender binaries in society.