LGBT in the Middle East

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Middle East Homosexuality
Middle East (orthographic projection) (Homosexuality).svg
     Homosexuality is legal     Homosexuality is illegal (penalties and/or fines)      Homosexuality is illegal (punished by death)
Legal in:Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Bahrain
Illegal in:Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Yemen

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens generally have limited or highly restrictive rights in most parts of the Middle East, and are open to hostility in others. Homosexuality is illegal in 10 of the 18 countries that make up the region since Iraq homosexuality is legal but the law is ignored with killings happening regardless; and punishable by death in six of these. The rights and freedoms of LGBT citizens are strongly influenced by the prevailing cultural traditions and religious mores of people living in the region - particularly Islam.

All sexual orientations are legal in Bahrain, Cyprus, Northern Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. Female homosexual activity is legal in the Palestinian territories and Kuwait; however female homosexuality is unclear in Egypt[1]. Even though female homosexuality is less strict, few of these countries recognise legal rights and provisions. Male homosexual activity is illegal and punishable by imprisonment in Kuwait, Egypt, Oman, Qatar, and Syria. It is punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE. In Yemen or the Palestinian territories the punishment might differ between death and imprisonment depending on the act committed.

Several Middle Eastern countries have received strong international criticism for persecuting homosexuality and transsexuals by fines, imprisonment and death.


Evidence of homosexuality in the Middle East can be traced back at least until the time of Ancient Egypt[2] and Mesopotamia. In ancient Assyria, sex crimes were punished identically whether they were homosexual or heterosexual.[3] An individual faced no punishment for penetrating someone of equal social class, a cult prostitute, or with someone whose gender roles were not considered solidly masculine.[3][4] In an Akkadian tablet, the Šumma ālu, it states, "If a man copulates with his equal from the rear, he becomes the leader among his peers and brothers".[5][6] However, homosexual relationships with fellow soldiers, slaves, royal attendants, or those where a social better was submissive or penetrated, were treated as bad omens.[7][8] A Middle Assyrian Law Codes dating from 1075 BC has a rather harsh law for homosexuality in the military, which reads: "If a man have intercourse with his brother-in-arms, they shall turn him into a eunuch."[9][10][11]

During the medieval period and the early modern age, Middle Eastern societies saw a flourishing of homo-erotic literature. Shusha Guppy of the Times Higher Education Supplement has argued that although it "has long been assumed that the Arab-Islamic societies have always been less tolerant of homosexuality than the West", in "the pre-modern era, Western travellers were amazed to find Islam 'a sex-positive religion' and men openly expressing their love for young boys in words and gestures."[12]

In the 19th and early 20th century, homosexual activity was relatively common in the Middle East, owing in part to widespread sex segregation, which made heterosexual encounters outside marriage more difficult. Georg Klauda writes that "Countless writers and artists such as André Gide, Oscar Wilde, Edward M. Forster, and Jean Genet made pilgrimages in the 19th and 20th centuries from homophobic Europe to Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, and various other Arab countries, where homosexual sex was not only met without any discrimination or subcultural ghettoization whatsoever, but rather, additionally as a result of rigid segregation of the sexes, seemed to be available on every corner."[13]

The Middle East today[edit]

In Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, the laws state that if a person is found of engaging in same gender sexual behavior, the death penalty would be applied.[14] According to Country Reports of the US Department of State, in Saudi Arabia there are no established LGBT organizations. Furthermore, reports of official and social discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation remains unclear because of strong social pressure of not to discuss LGBT matters.[15]

Jordan, Bahrain, and Iraq are the only Arab countries where homosexuality is legal;[16] however, there is some stigma in the Iraqi society which sometimes leads to vigilante executions.[17] ISIS does not tolerate homosexuality.[18] Some Middle Eastern nations have some tolerance and legal protections for transsexual and transgender people. For example, the Iranian government has approved sex change operations under medical approval. The Syrian government has approved similar operations back in 2011.[19] In some other Middle Eastern nations, like Turkey, changes in social attitudes and laws have slowly come about, as a part of a larger campaign for greater tolerance, pluralist democracy and respect for human rights. LGBT rights movements have existed in other Middle Eastern nations, including Turkey and Lebanon. In Lebanon, changes have been slow and recent crackdown on LGBT oriented events have raised concerns about the freedom of association and expression of LGBT people and organizations.[20][21]

Israel is a notable exception, being the most progressive concerning LGBT rights and recognizing unregistered cohabitation. Same-sex marriage is not legal in the country but there is public support for recognizing and registering same-sex marriages performed in other countries.[22] Israel also allows transgender individuals to legally change their gender without surgery.[23] Transgender individuals can serve openly in the Israel Defense Forces.[24]

However, there are different legal systems in occupied Palestinian Territory. A report of Human Rights Watch in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity in the Middle East notes:

The British Mandate Criminal Code Ordinance, No. 74 of 1936 is in force in Gaza. In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Jordanian Penal Code of 1960 applies, and does not contain provisions prohibiting adult consensual same-sex conduct. In Gaza, having “unnatural intercourse” of a sexual nature, understood to include same-sex relationships, is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. In February 2016, Hamas’s armed wing executed one of its fighters ostensibly for “behavioral and moral violations,” which Hamas officials acknowledged meant same-sex relations.[25]

Arab and Muslim views of homosexuality as a purely "Western" creation have been explored in the film Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World. The starting line of the dialogue spoken by an as yet unseen gay Egyptian man stating "I was accused of being Westernized."[26]

A report of Human Rights Watch in relation to LGBT rights in the Middle East notes:

In a few places, like Egypt and Morocco, sexual orientation and gender identity issues have begun to enter the agendas of some mainstream human rights movements. Now, unlike in earlier years, there are lawyers to defend people when they are arrested, and voices to speak up in the press. These vital developments were not won through identity politics. Those have misfired disastrously as a way of claiming rights in much of the Middle East; the urge of some western LGBT activists to unearth and foster ‘gay’ politics in the region is potentially deeply counterproductive. Rather, the mainstreaming was won largely by framing the situations of LGBT (or otherwise-identified) people in terms of the rights violations, and protections, that existing human rights movements understand. (Human Rights Watch 2009, p. 18)[27]

In Iran there is a strict gender binary. The government enforces the gender binary by suppressing information about homosexuality and encouraging people questioning their sexuality to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Since the sex reassignment surgery is accepted by the government and religious institutions along with obtaining funding from the government for the surgery many Iranians who are attracted to the same sex see this as a way to be public about their sexual orientation without being persecuted by the government.[28] Iran has legalized sex change operations. This has led to a bolstering Transsexual community in Iran as homosexuality has been removed from society as an identity leading homosexuals and transsexuals to all seek gender reassignment surgery. The people who undergo these surgeries are fully accepted by the government but families still often reject family members who undergo gender reassignment surgery. Family members are an primary resource for job acquisition in Iran. Without a social network to call on for job leads it is increasingly difficult to find work, and transsexuals are discriminated against in the job market forcing them into sex work.[29].

See also[edit]

LGBT rights by country[edit]


  1. ^ "EGYPT (Law) - ILGA". 2014-07-11. Retrieved 2018-04-18.
  2. ^ Williams, Sean (2010-02-22). "Alternative sexuality in ancient Egypt? Follow the LGBT Trail at the Petrie Museum - History - Life & Style". The Independent. Retrieved 2014-06-30.
  3. ^ a b Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, by Martti Nissinen, Fortress Press, 2004, p. 24–28
  4. ^ The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies, by James Neill, McFarland, 27 Oct 2008, p.83
  5. ^ The Construction of Homosexuality, authored by David Greenberg, University of Chicago Press, 1990
  6. ^ "Homosexuality in the Ancient Near East, beyond Egypt by Bruce Gerig in the Ancient Near East, beyond Egypt".
  7. ^ Pritchard, p. 181.
  8. ^ Gay Rights Or Wrongs: A Christian's Guide to Homosexual Issues and Ministry, by Mike Mazzalonga, 1996, p.11
  9. ^ Halsall, Paul. "The Code of the Assura". Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Fordham University. Archived from the original on 11 September 2015. Retrieved 16 November 2015.
  10. ^ The Nature Of Homosexuality, Erik Holland, page 334, 2004
  11. ^ Wilhelm, Amara Das (2010-05-18). Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex. ISBN 9781453503164.
  12. ^ Guppy, Shusha. "Veiled might of the harem.(American University Press)(Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800)(Book review)" (Archive only available to researchers and legal). Times Higher Education Supplement, June 9, 2006, Vol.0(1746), p.33(1). ISSN 0049-3929. Source: Cengage Learning, Inc.
  13. ^ Klauda, Georg (English translation by Angelus Novus). "Globalizing Homophobia Archived 2014-06-20 at WebCite" (Archive). MRZine, Monthly Review. 08.12.10. Previous version appeared in Phase 2 No. 10 (December 2003). Also published as the first chapter of Die Vertreibung aus dem Serail: Europa und die Heteronormalisierung der islamischen Welt (Berlin: Männerschwarm-Verlag, 2008). Start page 15.Retrieved on June 26, 2014.
  14. ^ Linda A. Mooney; David Knox; Caroline Schacht. Understanding Social Problems, 8th ed. Cengage. p. 373.
  15. ^ Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2009, p. 2414
  16. ^ "Despite legality, Jordan's LGBT communities are still facing backlash". 28 May 2015.
  17. ^ "Victims in hiding". BBC News.
  18. ^ "The Islamic State's Views on Homosexuality". Retrieved 2018-04-19.
  19. ^ ""Syria: Cleric saves transsexual"".
  20. ^ "Activists: Lebanese officials try to shut gender conference". AP NEWS. 2018-10-02. Retrieved 2018-10-31.
  21. ^ "Lebanon votes against international gay rights bill - Georgi Azar". An-Nahar. 2018-10-18. Retrieved 2018-10-31.
  22. ^ "Three-in-Five Israelis Back Same-Sex Marriage". Angus Reid Public Opinion. Retrieved 1 June 2011
  23. ^ Hovel, Revital (2015). "Israel Recognizes Sex Changes Without Operation". Haaretz. Retrieved 2017-07-04.
  24. ^ Aviv, Yardena Schwartz/Tel. "What the U.S. Is Learning From How Israel Treats Transgender Soldiers". Time. Retrieved 2017-07-04.
  25. ^ "Human Rights Watch Country Profiles: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity". Human Rights Watch. 2017-06-23. Retrieved 2018-03-14.
  26. ^ Pullen, Christopher (2012). LGBT Transnational Identity and the Media. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 44.
  27. ^ "The use of equality and anti-discrimination law in advancing LGBT rights", by Dimitrina Petrova. PDF Archived 2014-07-07 at WebCite (Archive) - Chapter 18, Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity, p. 477-505
  28. ^ Ali Hamedani (2014-11-13), BBC World- Iran's "sex-change" solution ( long version), retrieved 2019-05-17
  29. ^ Afsaneh Najmabadi (2008). "Transing and Transpassing across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran". WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly. 36 (3–4): 23–42. doi:10.1353/wsq.0.0117. ISSN 1934-1520.

Further reading[edit]