LGBTQ+ Advocacy in the Middle East Backfires

Peter Tatchell’s protest made headlines around the world. The British human rights defender traveled to Doha before the start of the World Cup to stage what he dubbed the “first-ever public LGBTQ+ protest” in the Gulf. While he won approval from Western audiences for its bravery, local activists expressed shock and dismay. “When Tatchell told us his plans on WhatsApp, we all urged him not to go ahead with it,” a Jordanian member of a group for LGBTQ+ activists in the Middle East said in an interview with the author. Tatchell ignored them and did it anyway.

Western displays of solidarity with LGBTQ+ communities in the Middle East may be well-intentioned, but they are not constructive. They help build solidarity among activists in Western countries, but they are making the very people they claim to be helping in Middle Eastern countries feel more vulnerable. These protests come at a time when leaders across the region are increasingly instrumentalizing homophobia for political gain, and they fuel Middle Eastern political and religious leaders’ claims that LGBTQ+ rights advocacy is part of a foreign agenda to subjugate the region. Western actors who claim to be advancing the interests of LGBTQ+ communities in the Middle East need to do a better job listening to those communities.

Before the World Cup began in Qatar, homophobia was on the rise across the Middle East and North Africa. In June, 11 countries across the region banned a Disney film that featured a same-sex kiss, while Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Bahraini officials launched campaigns against rainbow symbols that “violate public morals.” Even in more liberal Arab states, threats against LGBTQ+ communities have increased. The Lebanese minister of the interior ordered security services to prevent all gatherings that “promote homosexuality” and Mashrou Leila, the popular Lebanese band with an openly queer lead singer, disbanded, citing increasing intolerance from the public and restrictions from Middle Eastern governments.

Political leaders in the Middle East have various motives for instrumentalizing homophobia. Governments that are otherwise failing in their duties portray themselves as effective defenders of children from homosexual activists’ “poisonous messages.” Politicians who fear marginalization seek populist tropes that appeal to discontented majorities—as when Iraqi politician and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr blamed same-sex marriage for Covid-19 infections in Iraq, and when his response to a year-long deadlock after parliamentary elections was to propose criminalizing homosexuality. For conservative states that are liberalizing in other regards, anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns serve to highlight the government’s supposed moral and religious legitimacy. And across the region, states have found value in depicting LGBTQ+ rights as a symbol of Western domination imposing its corrupt values on a region that is struggling to maintain its morality and sovereignty. In so doing, they win public support for pushing back on a whole host of Western liberal ideas, including freedom of speech, democratization, and rule of law. Russia has been quick to capitalize on these grievances, never missing the opportunity to wade into culture wars on the side of authoritarian intolerance. On social media, Russian diplomats pledged their support for Middle Eastern states’ “traditions and values.”

In this context, Western protests to support the LGBTQ+ community have grown increasingly prominent. Several U.S. embassies in the Gulf flew the rainbow flag or posted on social media to celebrate Pride month this summer. And as well as Peter Tatchell’s one-man protest in Doha, the World Cup saw several pro-LGBTQ+ protests. After World Cup organizers prevented seven European captains from wearing rainbow armbands, the entire German team covered their mouths in protest and then a pitch invader brandished a rainbow flag.

While well-intentioned and welcomed by some in the region, these protests have played into politicians’ efforts to make LGBTQ+ rights a wedge issue. In Iraq, politicians have continued to wage a culture war against homosexuals. Al-Sadr launched a petition to gather one million signatures committed to “combatting sexual deviants” (author’s translation), and parliamentarians are pushing a bill to criminalize “anyone who would for any reason ‘publish or promote’ homosexuality.” LGBTQ+ people in Jordan, Lebanon, and Qatar reported growing public hostility to rainbow flags, increasing harassment in the street, and growing safety fears. In order to rebuild trust in their communities, they are now working to distance themselves from "white savior” activists in the West and align themselves more closely with general public opinion in the Arab world, showing themselves as loyal to their countries rather than to foreign powers. For example, several LGBTQ+ Arab activists vocally supported the Moroccan team in the World Cup to demonstrate Arab solidarity and a rejection of international criticism of Morocco’s human rights record.

For Western governments seeking to advance equality and human rights around the world, refraining from public expressions of solidarity with LGBTQ+ communities may seem like a capitulation to homophobic forces. Defiant and disruptive public protests have certainly been a key factor of the success of civil rights movements around the world. But when successful—in South Africa, in eastern Europe, and elsewhere—they have been launched by domestic actors themselves, at the times and places that the affected people themselves have decided are appropriate.

There are a whole host of things people who care about LGBTQ+ communities can do. First, Western actors can increase their support to local groups. These groups know how to navigate the constraints of the local political context and advocate on their own terms. Second, Western states can push for accountability in security services. Many LGBTQ+ individuals face harassment by police forces, some of which receive funding from Western governments. Training these security partners to end harassment—and reacting more strongly to abuses—could go a long way to address the trust deficit between LGBTQ+ communities and security services.

When the temperature of homophobic rhetoric has lowered in the region, and LGBTQ+ activists have rebuilt trust with their communities, the time may come when a boost of external support could be constructive. “If we ask for public support at some point in the future, it could be great,” a LGBTQ+ activist from Qatar said in an interview with the author. But in current conditions, a burst of attention risks fanning the flames of intolerance and driving the community deeper into the shadows.

The foreign protestors can go home, if they ever traveled to the region in the first place. Their futures are not shaped by a rising tide of intolerance or by accusations of disloyalty. Arab LGBTQ+ individuals are home, but they are finding their homes increasingly inhospitable. Their interests are advanced when the international community pays more attention to them, and less attention to the clamor of those who claim to be acting on their behalf.

Will Todman is a fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program