Members of Tunisia’s small drag queen population have reported increasing harassment and surveillance under the country’s post-revolutionary regime.
“The show is currently surviving under an emergency state,” the commercial director of a drag show in Sousse recently told Tunisia Live. “We had to take down our fliers to minimize the risk of the actors being recognized.”
The director, who requested to remain anonymous for security reasons, said she is constantly harassed about the sexual orientation of the show’s actors. While most of the performers indeed represent a gender or sexual minority, some are heterosexual men who were forced into the industry due to unemployment, she explained.
“But for the audience they are simply artists,” she said.
On October 23, 2011, the day the Islamist Ennahdha party was elected, some drag queens left the country as a preventative measure, the director said.
Tunisian Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice Samir Dilou stressed in a January 6 interview that, despite Tunisia signing international anti-discrimination treaties, “it refuses to decriminalize homosexuality … and will not accept blackmail,” according to Al-Jazeera. Under Tunisian law, punishment for “sodomy” ranges from six months to three years in jail.
Earlier in February, Dilou described homosexuality as a “sickness” on national television. Later, the ministry issued a communiqué stating that the Tunisian government is “not inciting anyone against homosexuals.”
Despite the government discouraging violent acts against homosexuals, members of the country’s LGBT community say they are increasingly anxious about their place in society.
The portion of the Criminal Code (Article 230) criminalizing homosexuality was introduced during the French Protectorate, yet under the previous regime its implementation was not prioritized, according to the commercial director.
“The most harassment we received under Ben Ali was from the controlling police that would come to the show and mock the actors,” she said. “They never tried to pull the actors out of the closet.”
New recruits are extremely careful about raising suspicions regarding their sexual orientation; they often do not let family members know about the nature of their job.
The cast of the show is confused about the origin of the increase in monitoring. Some think the government aims to implement Article 230; others think it is due to the ability of religious extremists to voice their opinions after years of silence.
Olfa Youssef, a Tunisian researcher specializing in Linguistics and Arab Civilization, said it is only logical that civilians will target sexual minorities when the government criminalizes homosexuality.
“The government’s speech simply implies it is a citizen’s duty to turn criminals to justice,” Youssef explained.
The Koran does not explicitly condemn homosexuality; rather, the Koran specifically condemns acts of homosexual mass rape as a war mechanism, not consensual intercourse between same-sex adults, Youssef writes in Bewilderment of a Muslim Woman. Thus, she said denying gay rights as a means of protecting Muslim identity is illegitimate.
Some claim that Dilou’s recent description of homosexuality as a sickness to be cured, rather than a sin to be punished, is a step forward toward LGBT acceptance. Yet, Youssef denied this optimistic interpretation. According to her logic, classifying homosexuality as a sickness still leaves the door open for numerous legal abuses.