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 or/and fines)      Homosexuality is illegal (punished by death)
Legal in: Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, 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 open to hostility in others. Homosexuality is illegal in 10 of the 18 countries that make up the region; 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, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. Female homosexuality 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 homosexuality 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 defer between death and imprisonment depending 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.

More recently in 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 "It has long been assumed that the Arab-Islamic societies have always been less tolerant of homosexuality than the West."[3] In the 19th and early 20th century, homosexual sexual contact was considered as relatively common in the Middle East. Not least strengthened by the fact that there was significant sex segregation between men and women, which made heterosexual encounters outside marriage more difficult.[4]

According to Guppy, "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."[3] Georg Klauda wrote 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."[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, and Iraq are the only Arab countries where homosexuality is legal;[7] however, there is some stigma in the Iraqi society which sometimes leads to vigilante executions.[8] ISIS does not tolerate homosexuality.[9] 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 allowed approved similar operation back in 2011[10] In some other Middle Eastern nations, including Turkey and Lebanon, 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. A LGBT rights movement has existed in other Middle Eastern nations, including Turkey and Lebanon. Lebanon is known to have a thriving gay scene, especially in Beirut.

Israel is a notable exception, being the most progressive concerning LGBT rights, recognizing unregistered cohabitation, and having a wide support for same-sex marriage and recognizing and registering same-sex marriages performed in other countries.[11] Israel also allows transgender individuals to legally change their gender without surgery.[12] Transgender individuals can serve openly in the Israel Defense Forces.[13]

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.[14]

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."[15] Nadya Labi wrote in The Atlantic in 2007 that despite the legal and religious prohibitions against same-sex sexual activity in Saudi Arabia, it was still commonplace there due to gender segregation and the view that having sex with others of the same sex does not define one's identity, although the Western view of LGBT identity was beginning to appear in that country.[16]

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)[17]

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 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.
  4. ^ a b 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.
  5. ^ Linda A. Mooney; David Knox; Caroline Schacht. Understanding Social Problems, 8th ed. Cengage. p. 373.
  6. ^ Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2009, p. 2414
  7. ^ "Despite legality, Jordan's LGBT communities are still facing backlash". 28 May 2015.
  8. ^ "Victims in hiding". BBC News.
  9. ^ "The Islamic State's Views on Homosexuality". Retrieved 2018-04-19.
  10. ^ ""Syria: Cleric saves transsexual"".
  11. ^ "Three-in-Five Israelis Back Same-Sex Marriage". Angus Reid Public Opinion. Retrieved 1 June 2011
  12. ^ Hovel, Revital (2015). "Israel Recognizes Sex Changes Without Operation". Haaretz. Retrieved 2017-07-04.
  13. ^ Aviv, Yardena Schwartz/Tel. "What the U.S. Is Learning From How Israel Treats Transgender Soldiers". Time. Retrieved 2017-07-04.
  14. ^ "Human Rights Watch Country Profiles: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity". Human Rights Watch. 2017-06-23. Retrieved 2018-03-14.
  15. ^ Pullen, Christopher (2012). LGBT Transnational Identity and the Media. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 44.
  16. ^ Labi, Nadya (2007-05-01). "The Kingdom in the Closet". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2017-12-23.
  17. ^ "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

Further reading[edit]