Tunisia’s Democratic Gains Have Done Nothing for Its LGBT Community

Last week, five Tunisian civil society associations submitted a report to the United Nations, decrying systemic attacks on members of Tunisia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Despite progress in some areas since the popular overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, many say that discrimination against the LGBT community has worsened over the past five years.

Homophobic sentiment intensified this spring. In April, a prominent Tunisian actor went on television and called homosexuality a “sickness,” while signs banning homosexuals emerged on storefronts. Past appeals by the LGBT community to the political class have largely fallen on deaf ears. In September 2015, then-Justice Minister Salah Ben Aissa called for Article 230 to be repealed, and was subsequently booted from government the following month.

Article 230 allows police to violate the rights of LGBT members with impunity, including by targeting the community’s known hangouts and rounding up individuals who they deem gay. That often leads to so-called homosexuality tests, or forced anal exams, which the U.N. Committee Against Torture condemned in May

In some ways, the gains of Tunisia’s political transition have resulted in a more heated debate over LGBT rights—and an increase in attacks. The freedoms that followed Ben Ali’s fall created an opening for free expression. But that new space has given a platform to those who demand an “end” to homosexuality, deny its existence, and seek to further eliminate the rights of the LGBT community—attitudes that cannot be legislated away. “Discrimination isn’t new, but since the debate on gay rights was raised two years ago, we have noticed more and more street harassment that can often be violent,” says Najma Kousri Labidi of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women. The refusal to repeal discriminatory laws reflects socially entrenched views that legal reform alone will not tackle.

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