‘It’s not safe for them’: Coronavirus lockdowns putting LGBT+ people at risk across Middle East, campaigners warn

‘When they go out alone, they have the freedom to not lie anymore to their families and now they don’t have it,’ activist says

Andy Gregory
Wednesday 18 March 2020 19:34 GMT
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Coronavirus-induced isolation and lockdowns are putting LGBT+ people in the Middle East at risk, campaigners have warned.

Many individuals are – or, due to money worries, fear becoming – trapped with family members hostile to their sexuality or gender, LGBT+ groups say, with government measures to combat the pandemic compromising access to private or safe spaces.

Support groups are scaling up phone counselling services for those who have become isolated. Volunteers are also delivering medicine to people with HIV who are unable to leave their homes.

The rights of sexual and gender minorities are often repressed across the Middle East. Same-sex relationships are illegal in most countries in the region, with individuals sometimes facing detainment, possible torture or the death penalty, according to Amnesty International.

“The environment we live in unfortunately can be aggressive towards LGBT+ people,” Omar Al Khatib, of the Palestinian LGBT+ group alQaws, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Staying at home can eliminate their access to private spaces and increase bullying.”

In the West Bank, same-sex relationships are not officially criminalised, however in Gaza homosexuality can be punished with 10 years imprisonment.

There are more than 40 confirmed coronavirus cases in the West Bank, and Bethlehem has been placed on lockdown, closing schools, restaurants and places of worship.

Mr Al Khatib’s organisation, whose activities have been restricted by Palestinian police, have urged those feeling isolated to call their hotline, as social spaces which typically offer some relief from pressures at home have been forced to close.

“The state of quarantine creates a feeling of isolation and fear, and that they are completely on their own so it’s not safe for them,” he said.

In Tunisia – where the army began to enforce a nightly curfew on Wednesday, with mosques, cafes and markets closed – LGBT+ group Mawjoudin is now offering remote counselling in place of its usual face-to-face services.

Homosexuality is criminalised in Tunisia, and Human Rights Watch alleges “unchecked discrimination prevents LGBT+ people from enjoying their most basic rights to health, education, work, and legal action against abusers”.

Mawjoudin has seen calls to its hotline increase in March, an activist called Hana told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, with the group forced to close its centre in the capital, which typically offers a safe haven for members of the LGBT+ community.

“They have been expressing their frustration,” she said. “When they go out alone, they have the freedom to not lie anymore to their families and now they don’t have it.”

In Lebanon – where same-sex relationships are largely criminalised, despite some recent moves to the contrary – borders and most public places have also closed in response to the pandemic.

Volunteers with Proud Lebanon – which braved violent threats to co-organise the Arab world's first Pride event in 2017 – are delivering medication to those with HIV unable to leave their homes.

“They are afraid to come take their medication,” director Bertho Makso told Thomson Reuters. “They are afraid there will be shortage of medication and they can’t go out because there is no public transport.”

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