"Shams" vice president Ahmed Ben Amor is campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tunisia
"Shams" vice president Ahmed Ben Amor is campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tunisia © Fethi Belaid - AFP
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Kaouther Larbi and Akim Rezgui, AFP
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Tunisian gays live in limbo shadowland

As the world marks the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on Tuesday, in Tunisia the issue may have emerged from the shadows but many of those it affects have not.

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.

And after the uprising resulted in greater freedom of speech, several associations emerged 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 debate burst onto the public scene last spring with calls for homosexuality to be decriminalised. Under Section 230 of the country's Penal Code, 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 Article 230 to be scrapped.

This was cited as one reason for his sacking the following month.

"I don't see why we have to live in hiding. Our private life is our own business," Shams vice president Ahmed Ben Amor told AFP.

At the age of 19 he was ostracised by his family and expelled from high school for declaring his homosexuality.

- 'Get out of here!' -

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: dozens of people shouted at the marchers to "Get out of here!" 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 Defence 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.

"When you're gay in Tunisia, you live with two faces," a young homosexual in the northern city of Bizerte told AFP.

"When you are with straight people, you don't show that you are different because of the risk of violence. And of course there is also another risk -- the law."

In December, 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 have denounced the use of such tests as cruel, inhuman and degrading.

- 'Forced to dance naked' -

In March, 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.

If President Beji Caid Essebsi judged the five-year ban to be archaic, before it was lifted, he did not speak out against the original prison sentence and categorically ruled out decriminalising homosexuality.

"That will not happen," he said in an interview with Egyptian television. "I reject it," he said of Article 230 being repealed.

Every day, homosexuals in Tunisia suffer from profound social rejection and hostility.

"Being gay in Tunisia is worse than having the plague," said Mohamed Ali, 22, one of the six students in the Kairouan case.

He is still traumatised by the anal examination he underwent in the presence of two police officers, as well as his treatment in prison in Sousse where he said he was attacked and ridiculed.

"Inmates forced me to dance naked while amused guards looked on, doing nothing," he said.

The debate in Tunisia may now itself have come out of the closet, but reactions to it show there is a long way to go to the end of the rainbow.

One video circulating on the Internet shows an imam in Sfax, the country's second largest city, saying in a sermon that men convicted of sodomy should be sentenced to death and executed by throwing them off a tall building and then stoning them.

In parliament, one lawmaker from the Islamist party Ennahda, Abdellatif Mekki, defended homosexuality being illegal and said authorising the Shams association endangered the social peace and was "a major sin".

And progressive parties -- when they do not oppose homosexuality outright -- are ultra-cautious, fearing the impact of public opinion.

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