While LGBTQ+ Americans have been subjected to numerous legislative attacks by Republican politicians recently, being queer is also a challenge in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as most countries enact laws and policies that criminalize, stigmatize, and discriminate against queer people.
However, laws and policies are not the only problems, as being anti-LGBTQ+ has become an integral part of the cultural identity of many people in the MENA region. Like the American far-right, hating queer people has become a badge of honor.
Between 2018 and 2019, the Arab Barometer surveyed six MENA countries asking, “Is homosexuality an acceptable practice?” The highest country answering “yes” was Algeria at only 27%, with the rest ranging from 5% to 20%.
In recent years, MENA countries have been working on increasing this social discontent against queer people by detaching LGBTQ+ rights from the human rights discourse by framing it as a cultural issue. By doing so, those countries hope to absolve themselves from their human rights obligations towards their queer populations. While human rights are not negotiable, culture is relevant and diverse and must be respected.
The patriarchs of this framing always claim that fundamental human rights are protected for all, saying they do not promote violence or discrimination against LGBTQ+ people; instead, they only safeguard their societies’ cultural values. In this cultural framing, queer identities are labeled as part of a “Western agenda” that corrupts the region’s youth and introduces foreign concepts to MENA societies.
In 2022, this framing and narrative evolved to co-opt decolonization’s terminologies, as LGBTQ+ people are now considered part of a cultural battle between the West and MENA countries, where “the white man” is culturally colonizing the MENA societies with “ideology.”
In 2022, MENA countries banned several movies depicting queer characters, such as Disney’s Lightyear because it had a brief lesbian kiss. Banning LGBTQ+ films is not new for the region, but authorities used to ban movies without much social notice. This time, there was a massive social outcry. Like in other global anti-LGBTQ+ narratives, this outcry focused on protecting children from the corrupt queer ideology, as Disney’s movies are mainly viewed by children. Other countries like Saudi Arabia also banned “rainbow toys,” fearing it would influence the children to be LGBTQ+.
The uproar around Lightyear resulted in “Fetrah,” an anti-LGBTQ+ social media campaign that originated in Egypt to defend Middle Eastern culture and tradition from Western invasion. Before being banned on Facebook for promoting hate speech, the movement gained millions of followers across the MENA region. The campaign still operates on other social media platforms, and its ideology is prevalent among the people. The social pressure forced Disney to issue a statement vowing not to show any LGBTQ+ content in MENA countries.
Later, several countries issued policies to combat “Western LGBTQ+ ideology” in schools.
In Egypt, the Ministry of Education issued a general directive to “combat the promotion of homosexuality and its ideas in different media outlets,” instructing officials to implement anti-LGBTQ+ awareness campaigns in schools to protect the children and youth from this Western agenda. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Ministry of Education issued a new code of conduct prohibiting “discussing gender identity, homosexuality or any other behavior deemed unacceptable to UAE society.” In Morocco, the Ministry of Education investigated and issued disciplinary actions against officials after the word “sexual orientation” appeared in textbooks.
Authorities also support or incite anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments to distract the public from their social, economic, and political failures.
In Lebanon, where an economic and political crisis is ongoing, “Soldiers of God,” a right-wing Christian group, destroyed a rainbow billboard and vowed to attack any queer persons they could identify. The Lebanese authorities decided to ban all events promoting “LGBTQ+ ideology”, siding with the aggressors. In Iraq, another country with an ongoing crisis, several MPs and political leaders tried to distract the public by introducing new laws that criminalize homosexuality. Those attempts are happening both on the federal level and in the autonomous region of Kurdistan.
Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments skyrocketed before, during, and after Qatar’s World Cup.
The region’s anti-LGBTQ+ actors benefited greatly from the ill-informed discussion around LGBTQ+ people at the event, as the conversation was characterized by Western-centric performative activism and unprofessional and sometimes outright racist coverage by Western media. This discussion enforced the ongoing narrative that queer rights are a cultural ideology the West is trying to force on MENA countries, which harms the region’s LGBTQ+ people the most.
The year ended with Kuwait and Iraq being the first two countries to directly respond to the World Cup’s LGBTQ+ discussions. In Kuwait, authorities launched a nationwide anti-LGBTQ+ campaign. They later announced they had deported 3000 ex-pats for being transgender or crossdressing in 2022, despite the Supreme Court decriminalizing such acts earlier that year. In Iraq, a prominent Shita cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, called on his supporters to unite against corrupt queer ideology.
Not even a month into 2023, several anti-LGBTQ+ incidents have already occured. In Algeria, the Ministry of Commerce announced it would ban all rainbow-colored products to “protect society from homosexuality.” In Lebanon, despite removing the ban on queer events, news emerged of rogue members of the security agencies extorting LGBTQ+ people, hunting them online and offline, and requesting a bribe or else they would arrest them.
Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments will likely continue to rise in the region, with anti-queer figures dominating public speech and mobilizing the cultural framing of LGBTQ+ issues in their favor.
Anti-LGBTQ+ actors seem to have been successful in their goals for now, as LGBTQ+ identities are viewed by a large portion of the MENA societies as an evil corrupt Western ideology. The region’s anti-LGBTQ+ actors are an active part of the global anti-LGBTQ+ rights movement, as seen in the similarities in their discourse. Both capitalize on conspiracy theories feeding into a public moral panic that there is an LGBTQ+ cult attempting to recruit children into their ideology.
As anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments continue to grow, it reflects the need for new advocacy strategies for LGBTQ+ rights in the region.
Some activists have already criticized the current strategies for being overly Western and called for reform based on critical analysis of the region’s context to produce more applicable strategies. Others point out that the region’s LGBTQ+ movement is still relatively new and only emerged in the past twenty years and needs more support to grow to combat the region’s anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.
According to the Global Philanthropy Project (GPP), a philanthropy group that monitors global LGBTQ+ funding, the MENA region was the least funded globally at only $8.7 million annually in 2020. For comparison, this is the same price of one unit of an M1 Abrams tank, of which the US sold thousands, to MENA countries.
What LGBTQ+ people in the region need is a mix of reformed strategies and increased support to assist them with combating the ever-increasing anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments in their countries. That’s what American LGBTQ+ people need too.