The month of June is celebrated by the LGBTQ community and its allies around the world as Pride Month. As the month comes to a close, we take a closer look at the LGBTQ community in the Arab world.
While the typical Western narrative highlights this community as oppressed, abused and even killed due to conservative societal and religious norms, the complete story is much more nuanced.
Last month, a week-long Pride event was held in Lebanon, drawing wide local and international media attention. While this was not the first Pride event to ever be held in the country, to many, it signaled a growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
Similarly, the massive popularity throughout the Arab world of the Lebanese indie band Mashrou' Leila, which sings about LGBTQ themes and has an openly gay lead singer, can be interpreted as a sign that Arab youth are more accepting of a nuanced view of gender and sexual identity.
In the UAE, gender reassignment surgery was legalized in 2016, although the legality of changing one's gender on official documents is still unclear. From Iraq, to Jordan and Tunisia, LGBTQ groups and organizations are raising awareness and challenging societal misconceptions.
Certainly, just as in most countries throughout the world, the community faces struggles and oppression but LGBTQ individuals are also making progress toward social acceptance.
A look at Jordan
Khalid Abdel-Hadi, the founder of the Jordan-based non-profit LGBTQ inclusive webzine My Kali Magazine , told StepFeed that he has seen things improve in some ways and get worse in others.
Relatively speaking, he said things have gotten better as there is now a conversation about "orientation and sexuality" in Jordan. At the same time, he believes the media readily misrepresents the community.
"Portrayals of LGBT people in the media often reflect misinformation, stereotypes, and sensationalism," he said.
"I think there's a huge false notion created by the media, specifically in our region, that LGBT is a social plague, created and imported from the west to corrupt our cultures, customs and traditions, or that the LGBT community in the MENA region would want to follow in the footsteps of other LGBT communities and fight for the right to marry."
While Jordan does not criminalize homosexuality as other Arab countries do, Abdel-Khalid points out that the tribal nature of the society makes it difficult for LGBTQ individuals.
"The comfort of being LGBT in Jordan is for sure elitist," he said. "One could face being socially stigmatized for being LGBT or expressing sexuality, different orientations, even different beliefs and ideologies."
A look at Egypt
In Egypt, however, things look a bit bleaker. A 34-year-old Egyptian man, who identifies as gay but wished to remain anonymous, told StepFeed that he has to deny his sexual orientation "all the time."
"In certain classes it's becoming more acceptable. Upper classes or intellectuals," he said, echoing what Abdel-Hadi said in regards to Jordan.The anonymous Egyptian man too fears he could get arrested if his sexual identity is revealed.
While homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, according to The Guardian, police routinely arrest individuals using decades-old prostitution and debauchery laws. According to media reports from earlier this year, Egyptian police have even been targeting gay men through hookup apps like Grindr.
The Egyptian man who talked to StepFeed said that many within the country's LGBTQ community are living in fear especially since "there are no places to seek protection." He believes "education" is the most important tool in combatting the problems and social stigma.
A look at Lebanon
When it comes to Lebanon, LGBTQ individuals are sometimes prosecuted under the controversial Article 534, which says sexual acts that "contradict the laws of nature" can be punished by up to one year in prison. However, court rulings in recent years have challenged the use of the law.
The most recent ruling was handed down by Lebanese judge Rabih Maalouf on Jan. 26. In the decision, he said, "homosexuality is a personal choice, and not a punishable offense."
With this year's Beirut Pride Week in May following a March LGBTQ sexual health week coordinated by The Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health (LebMASH), a great deal of effort to support and raise awareness about the community has been making waves in the country.
"I'm comfortable with my sexuality. I talk about it with my gay friends," a young gay Lebanese woman told StepFeed. At the same time, she said she "carefully" chooses the people she will open up to.
"The topic is still a taboo in our society," she said.
A young Lebanese gay man told StepFeed that he believes gay bars and clubs have helped him build a community. He has also come to accept himself and his identity, opening up to friends and family.
"I go with friends," he said, referring to gay party spots. "We are a group of people but often, more than not, my straight friends tag along because of the good music and great people."
Hope for the future
The reality for LGBTQ individuals within the Middle East and North Africa varies greatly depending on the country, the religious and social values of an individual's family and of course, as several people told StepFeed, social class.
While many in the community continue to struggle for societal acceptance throughout the region, progress is being made and awareness is increasing.
"Each country deals with the issue differently, and the struggle is one, we're often faced with similar oppressions," Abdel-Hadi said.
Referencing how things have changed following the so-called Arab Spring Abdel-Hadi feels the effects on the LGBTQ community have happened differently, depending on the country.
"It took a bad turn for Syria and Egypt, where the LGBT became more enveloped, while in other countries like Jordan, Tunis and Lebanon, arts provided safe spaces for the LGBT community," he said.
While the community continues to face difficulties, Hadi Damien, the founder of Beirut Pride, has an optimistic perspective for the future.
"Upcoming generations are empowered, are strong, are consistent, they know what they want, and we are getting to a place where people want to be on good terms with every other person," Damien said.
"They just want to live."