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.)
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.