In Tunisia, LGBTQ rights groups face the fact that it's still illegal to be gay, and two people of the same gender caught in sexual activity face serious jail time. On top of legal repercussions, LGBTQ Tunisians face widespread stigma, rejection, and violence, which makes organizing around HIV advocacy even harder in the North African country. That's why Badr Baabou is working to make Tunisia a safer place for its queer and transgender citizens.
Baabou is the cofounder of Damj, the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality. He has been targeted for physical attacks, threats, and defamation for his work in Tunisia. In 2018, his home -- also a center for LGBTQ youth -- was vandalized. Baabou spoke to TheBody about LGBTQ rights in Tunisia, the updated Tunisian constitution, and how homophobia and transphobia impact people living with HIV.
Mathew Rodriguez: Can you talk a little bit about why you founded Damj and what led you to create that kind of space in Tunisia?
Badr Baabou: Actually, for our organization, it became legally registered in 2011. But we started earlier. We started in August 2002. So it has been like 17 years now since we had our very first meeting. We started the work because we saw that there was a real need for a safe space for the members of the community. And at that moment, people weren't even talking about, like, "community," even members of the community themselves. So they didn't even think about [it that way]. Our first activity was to create a safe space. We gathered with many, many other members of the queer community, and we started to talk about the problems that they were facing.
One of the things [that] made us think about creating that safe space was the fact that there was a lot of young people between 17 and 21 who were kicked out of their houses. So we were somehow trying to provide them with housing, and a kind of refuge.
MR: What did you do to provide them housing?
BB: Actually, it was my place. I was living in a very big flat. We had like six rooms. So, I offered the space for that. And it's really amazing. We used to call it "the 19 apartment," because it was the number of the apartment. It went really viral. There was no Facebook at the moment, but there was a lot of chat rooms, mostly French chat rooms where gay community can meet and discuss. So it was like virtual cruising, and this apartment was the first place where they can like physically meet and also be safe, especially be safe.
MR: I read online that basically the first time that you applied to be recognized, you were denied. Did they ever give an official reason why you were denied?
BB: No, when we were there as a group of LGBT activists, we had two lawyers with us. And they didn't even take the application. And the second time we went with more lawyers, and they just threatened to call the police to take us. So for two times, we tried to get registered, they denied access for us to deposit the application.
MR: For those who are not familiar with the current situation in Tunisia for LGBTQ people, can you talk a bit about what life is like for queer and transgender people there?
BB: Yeah, actually, for the members that are the community, [it] is like the daily struggle, to an LGBT or queer person. We have a legal frame that is hostile. We have articles that condemn both male and female homosexuality. We have another set of articles that talk about public decency, that talk about sex work. So these articles [are] mostly used to jail and harass transgender women.
It's what we call in French, "They judge you by your peers." So if you are friends with a non-normative person, or a person with different gender expression, or gender identity, you can usually get arrested. There's a lot of rejection also coming from the families and in the schools and in workplaces.
MR: What is it like for people living with HIV In Tunisia? Are there services? Are there organizations there in place to support people living with HIV?
BB: There are a few organizations, what we call "thematic organizations" working on the fight against HIV and AIDS and STDs [sexually transmitted diseases]. And I have to say, it's really hard for queer people living with HIV to identify or to come out as who they are. It's maybe easier to say that I'm gay or a transgender person than to say, "I'm living with HIV." Yeah, so it's really hard. And we're still fighting. For a person living with HIV, they're facing a lot of homophobia, a lot of phobia. And actually, I started to work on fights against stigma and discrimination since 2004. So I was really working on this issue. And I have to say, we are moving forward. But we still have a lot [of] obstacles.
MR: Would you say that HIV is something that's even really discussed in Tunisia?
BB: Actually, it's more complicated, but combined with gender identity, different gender identity, or gender expression, or sexual orientation, it's like, the worst thing that you can say.
MR: Having HIV?
MR: So there's not really sexual health education in school?
BB: In 2019, I think in February, the Minister of Education signed [a] new law to integrate sexual health in the students' curriculum. That's something quite new. There was a lot of organizations fighting to have this cooperation with the Ministry of Education.
But I think it will not be easy. But it's the beginning of the integration of sexual health in schools.
MR: While you're here in New York, you're talking to local people about global issues around LGBTQ rights and HIV. Do you feel like people have a preconceived idea about Tunisia or the Middle East? Is it hard to fight against that?
BB: I think people have no idea about what is happening there, and many people even don't know where Tunisia is. When I speak about North Africa, they think we're talking about Morocco. No, it's not Morocco, but it's not so far from Morocco. Some people don't have any idea about it. And I think it's a really big opportunity to be here at the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and the start of the beginning of the LGBT movement. And I have to say it's really important for me to be here, because it's inspiration for many people in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region, like what's happened in Europe and in the '70s.
MR: Is there an event similar to Stonewall that happened in Tunisia that points to a moment in Tunisian queer history that you would want people to know about?
BB: Yes, I think it was 2014 -- between 2014 and 2015. I think we had a very specific case, a limited case with a young boy whose name is Marwan. And when we talk about the LGBTI+ movement in Tunisia, we talk about "before the Marwan case" and after the Marwan case. Why is it so important for the community? Because this case happened after Tunisia adopted the new constitution on January 27, 2014. And in this constitution, there are more than 29 articles that talk about the public and the private. And there are three articles that I want to talk about. The first one talks about equality between all citizens without any sanction. The second one is Article 23 -- it talks about the physical and the moral integrity of the people, and also about torture, about the fight against torture. The 24th article talks about the fact that the government or the leader of the country has to guarantee the privacy of the individual. And some of these articles are in direct conflict with parts of the penal code.
MR: Are there any laws specifically that penalize or target people with HIV in your country?
BB: No, there is no law against people living with HIV. But I think there is a law that whenever someone says that someone transmitted HIV to them, that person can be jailed for three years. But there's a lot of advocacy work that's being done now to repeal these laws.
MR: What would you say is Damj's biggest issue that you are all working on?
BB: It's decriminalization. But, from my perspective, decriminalization is just one step in recognizing the human rights of the members of the queer community.