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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Popular Uprisings: Marriage Equality and Gay Rights in Egypt - Global Post

Photo is taken from Gender Across Borders.

The most talked about issue in the gay rights movement in America is marriage equality. And Wednesday signified a historic moment for the LGBTQ community, when the Obama administration announced that, “Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages — is unconstitutional and [we] will ask the Justice Department to stop defending the law.” (I agree with others that this should have come sooner. But it is something.)
For me, marriage equality is less about a burning desire to sign a legally enforceable marriage contract with the one I love and more about an expression of my personal freedoms and liberties. I believe every person should have the right to choose whether or not they want to enter into marriage (and have access to the 1,138 federal benefits that come with a marriage contract).

Yet, just like reproductive rights do not encapsulate the entirety of women’s rights, marriage equality is not synonymous with gay rights. Marriage is, in fact, a relatively recent strategic focus (and, some might argue, not necessarily the most important). The issues that we—LGBTQ folks and allies—mobilize around have inevitably changed with time. In America, today our issue is marriage equality; in the past it was decriminalizing sodomy, fighting housing discrimination, etc.. etc., etc.

In the face of changing times and evolving issues, a consistent basis for the LGBTQ movement, and any social movement, is our freedom of association—the individual right to come together with other individuals and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests.

I found myself thinking a lot about this right as I watched the protest movement in Egypt unfolding. And now that the revolutionary masses have left Tahrir Square, I wonder: When people talk about the future of human rights in Egypt does this include equal rights for gays and lesbians? What are the most pressing issues facing the Egyptian LGBTQ community—the issues a movement could be built around (and, perhaps, the issues already being discussed in hiding)?

To date, although Egypt does not have an anti-sodomy law on the books, other laws have been used to target and arrest gays and lesbians, including claims of violations of the “Public Order & Public Morals” code and “violating the teachings of religion and propagating depraved ideas and moral depravity.” The most widely known attack on homosexuals occurred in 2001 and was dubbed “The Cairo 52” — 52 gay men aboard a floating nightclub called the Queen Boat were arrested. The detainees were subjected to forensic examinations, apparently in order to determine whether they had engaged in anal intercourse. They were also forced to say “my name, my job, my address and say ‘I am gay.’” Despite the pleas of international humanitarian organizations, 23 of these men were imprisoned.

I am not the only one wondering “what now?” for the LBGTQ community in Egypt. Last week in the Huffington Post, Keli Goff posted an article in which she expressed skepticism about what the regime’s demise would mean for gays and lesbians. Goff wrote,

“While I hate to be a “Debbie Downer,” it must be said that amid the worldwide jubilation that greeted the news of Hosni Mubarak’s retirement from his chosen profession of dictator, not all are celebrating. A big question mark remains regarding what this new era in Egypt will mean for gays and lesbians.”
And in light of last week’s announcement that the state’s emergency laws might be lifted in six months Katherine Franke offered a thoughtful perspective on the “Gay Rights Angle on the Egyptian Revolution?” Franke wrote,

“As Egypt and its supporters begin to dismantle the decades-old institutionalization of the State of Emergency, it is important to bear in mind the ways in which the denial of basic civil and human rights for sexual minorities can be used to undermine larger projects of democratization that seem not to “be about” gay rights at all.”

On a slightly more optimistic note, the website Gay Middle East (GME) featured an interview with the well-known Egyptian gay blogger IceQueer, in which he stated:

GME: “I suppose it’s too risky and even counter productive to ask directly for LGBT rights in the protests, but how do you see these issues in the context of the revolution and a larger human rights agenda?”
IQ: “You can’t ask for lots of changes that have different affect on people. I mean already asking for “freedom” and “fall of regime” bedazzled the whole country and its people. So imagine what would happen if we asked for LGBT rights?
“I believe that Egypt’s LGBT community can only have its rights when Egypt becomes a real secular country.”

To date, no organization exists in Egypt whose explicit aim is to improve the legal or social position of LGBTQ Egyptians. Furthermore, Egyptian human rights organizations have largely avoided LGBTQ-rights issues for fear of a backlash from the government or socially conservative citizens.

Hopefully, this can and will change now.

Rasha Moumneh—a researcher with Human Rights Watch who works with feminist and LGBT groups in the Middle East—was interviewed on The Gist and provided a nuanced description of what the protests might mean for LGBTQ Egyptians.

“I think the key issue to look at going forward is if there is a democratic transition and if there is a popular government that is truly representative and that does respect human rights. I think the most important thing to look at is whether freedom of expression and freedom of association are going to be guaranteed. I think those are going to be the most indicative things moving forward to see whether work on sexual rights or gender rights is going to be pushed forward.”
It remains to be seen what the popular uprising will mean for every sector of Egyptian society, including gays and lesbians. Whatever it is, it seems likely that meaningful change will be slow to emerge. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Evolution is more complex than a revolution.”

Something that went largely unmentioned in all of the reporting on the recent uprising in Egypt is that before Tahrir Square was the center of the pro-democracy movement it was the most popular place for gay cruising in Cairo. Let’s hope that now it can be home to both democracy and the LGBTQ community.

And as change unfolds, let’s—as an international LGBTQ community—actively support Egyptians. Our issues may be different but our right to express our sexuality and the freedom to collectively promote, pursue and defend common interests is the same.


  1. It's exceptionally naieve to think that now that the former regime is gone that the stance of homosexuality will be different. This is a civil issue and Egypt's civil law is based on islamic sharia law. I doubt very much the new Egyptian constitution is not going to have an islamic bias with the number of muslim brotherhood reps on the constitutional reform board.

  2. Of course stance of homosexuality is still the same and it won't be changed in one night. We need to get our basic freedom and human rights first before we even think about lgbt rights!

  3. I completely agree that mentioning LGBTQ rights now would be counterproductive.

    But Egypt went through a change that no one saw coming.
    So I think we should be patient and fight for Human rights, for the time being.

  4. Well we should be patient but active not passive! =)

    Btw, I didn't approve ur other comment for ur privacy so check ur email inbox =)

  5. Hey there!

    Just wanted to say this is a great article, and to tie together the gay marriage issue in the US with basic LGBTQ rights in Egypt, know that once marriage equality becomes reality in US, many LGBTQ's here fighting for such equality recognize the beacon of hope it will represent for the entire worldwide LGBTQ community...not just the US, and not just Egypt...but the entire world!

    Keep the faith! We're working as hard and fast as we can to change hearts and minds here, and as those stories are communicated (especially on Twitter), you can be certain hearts and minds of people all over the globe will soon follow in regards to the fact that gay rights really ARE Human Rights!

    God's blessings upon all the people of EGYPT, and especially the LGBTQ community!


  6. Thank u for ur very nice comment =)))


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