Amid state-sponsored repression and social stigma, LGBTQ people across in the Middle East and North Africa are speaking out against homophobia and transphobia. Some of them are building national movements, while others are simply sharing their stories.
A new multimedia project from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) is seeking to amplify the voices of these human rights activists. Their initiative includes a 75-page report about the state of LGBTQ activism in the region, titled "Audacity in Adversity," and a video series, titled "No Longer Alone," which includes Arabic-speaking LGBTQ people sharing their personal stories and experiences as activists.
Rashed, a 21-year-old transgender man from northern Jordan, was one of 18 activists from 10 Arabic-speaking countries who participated in the video series.
“We have to be unafraid and express ourselves the way we want. We are this way. And God made us this way. We have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide,” he said in one of the videos.
Rashed, who did not share his last name, said he dropped out of high school due to transphobic bullying and suffered from depression because of the social stigma he faced. He also said he experienced severe physical pain after taking hormones with no medical supervision. The pressing need for better transgender health care, according to Rashed, was what motivated him to become an activist.
Hajar El Moutaouakil, a Moroccan lesbian activist, acknowledged in her video interview how she was at war with herself at one time and how she desperately tried to change who she was.
"I looked into it, how could I cure myself," Hajar said. "In reality, it's not a choice, I cannot change. The only option is to come to terms with yourself, and embrace yourself."
Hajar explained how authorities in Morocco play on family dynamics to intimidate activists, using "family as a tool of repression." Hajar said she recently relocated to Europe after receiving death threats for being involved in LGBTQ activism.
Hamed Sinno, a 30-year old gay musician from Lebanon, sent a message of hope to young LGBTQ people in the Mideast and North Africa in his video.
"It's hard when you are young," he said. "It stays hard, but it gets easier."
Sinno is the lead singer of Lebanese rock band Mashrou' Leila. In his video, he admitted to being bullied and mocked growing up for his interests in music and singing.
"I didn't understand at the time there was nothing wrong with me, but with the people around me," he said. Sinno, whose performances are pro-LGBTQ and politically charged, has become an icon in the region.
Many of the countries where the interviewees hail from criminalize homosexuality. Due to safety concerns, some of the activists who shared their stories in the "No Longer Alone" video series hid their faces, used pseudonyms or altered their voices to protect their identities.
One of them is Ahmed B., a gay activist from Libya. He said his activism includes raising awareness about sexual identity and gender expression in closed and private groups on social media.
“The LGBT community concept does not really exist," he said, speaking about the region where he lives, "so it’s important to raise awareness of community itself and taking care of each other."
Human Rights Watch and the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality hope their multimedia initiative will embolden and empower LGBTQ people throughout the region and encourage them to reach out to organizations that can provide additional support.