Tunisia’s human rights minister has attacked an online gay magazine while being interviewed by homophobic TV presenter Samir El-Wafi.

Minister Samir Dilou said ‘freedom of expression has its limits’ and agreed homosexuality was a ‘perversion’ which needed to be ‘treated medically’.

The attack on Gayday magazine, whose editor has faced religiously inspired hatred and death threats, comes after a month of scandals which has brought gay issues to the fore in Tunisia.

But there has been a long build-up to the current situation.

The post-revolutionary electoral campaigns used homosexuality as a political weapon between the various groups vying for power in the new Tunisia.

Supporters of the now ruling Ennahda party used ‘homosexual panic’ tactics to allege that liberal and secular parties would legalise gay rights and marriage if they were to win, they mockingly likened these other parties’ rallies to gay pride parades.

It put the spotlight on Tunisia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community who were used to being overlooked rather than the focus of public debate.

Sex scandals and panic

Despite the uncertain atmosphere, Gayday magazine, which claims to be the first online gay title in Tunisia, launched in March 2011 and initially received little attention other than from LGBT Tunisians.

But two scandals hit prominent members of the interim government lead by the Ennahda party three weeks ago. The first was the release of the brother of the Tunisian Minister of Justice, after an allegation that he raped a young boy. The second, occurring just a few days later was a video posted on the internet by a left wing activist allegedly featuring the current Home Office minister, Ali Laarayedh in an erotic homosexual act with a fellow cellmate during the 1990s.

This gave the opposition more opportunity to use gay hatred to lambast and discredit the ruling Ennahda party. Online homophobic reactions rapidly spread over the Tunisian cyber-space.

Fadi, editor of Gayday magazine told PinkNews.co.uk: ‘It feels like suddenly, the subject of homosexuality is no longer a taboo, judging by the magnitude of homophobic posts across the Tunisian cyberspace. Of course there is some positive side just by raising the issue, but what concerned us was the excessive amount of homophobia as a political weapon.’

Liberty March denies LGBT Rights

A ‘Walk for liberties, all liberties’ attracted nearly 10,000 Tunisians on 28 January. It came after a series of human rights violations, mainly against freedom of expression. Participants chanted ‘We won’t sell our freedom!’

But most of the Tunisian gay, bi and trans people didn’t feel their presence or rights were welcome.

‘I didn’t go simply because I see freedom is portrayed by Islamists as a contradiction to their principles. They interpret it as a license for alcohol, nudity and sex which they oppose firmly,’ said Lilia, a lesbian activist.

And Marwan, a 24-year-old gay engineering student added: ‘There was no point for me to join the march. Gay rights don’t figure on their list, they don’t even consider us humans!’

Still some remained defiant, like Bilel, a 35-year-old gay teacher who told PinkNews.co.uk: ‘I went to the march because I think it’s the right time to demand freedom for all.’

The few who made it were shocked to be greeted by homophobic signs and slogans used by their fellow left wing activists.

One read: ‘0.0% is better than a successful faggot’ [ie it is better to have no support than to be a ‘gay’ like the interior minister]..

Fadi said: ‘It was really disconcerting and alarming to witness those homophobic signs and slogans during a march for human rights. It made us feel that our rights are not included.’

Gay Day Magazine ‘cursed’

Just two days after the march Gayday magazine’s cover stirred a second wave of homophobic attacks. A couple of leading and influential opposition Facebook pages posted it with provocative headlines. For example, the ‘Tunisie’ page for instance, which has almost 900,000 fans, received 423 comments it posted the cover along with the title: ‘A magazine for fags is issued in Tunisia’. This has been shared 116 times so far.

Most of the comments on the page were homophobic. They included: ‘God’s curse on them’, ‘That’s what pro-freedom activist call for, perversion and adultery in the name of freedom of expression’ and ‘The democracy we have is excessive and ridiculous. We are in a Muslim country and a magazine like this is intolerable!’

Then Samir El-Wafi, a journalist and celebrity TV presenter known for his tabloid, ranting interview techniques joined the homophobic bandwagon, posted the cover of the magazine on his Facebook page (with over 75,500 fans) followed by the following description: ‘In the chaos of freedom of expression and freeing the media, a first Tunisian magazine for fags was issued!

‘In the name of freedom and in a conservative country whose people are facing a struggle between modernity and tradition; a magazine for fags dares to come out and challenge all the circumstances, rules, morals, ethics and customs.

‘Do we need a further strife because a very small minority expresses its perversion… not caring about the feelings and the sacred beliefs of a majority?

‘Today a magazine, tomorrow a pride march, then gay marriage… and after that who knows?’

The post got 381 likes, 124 comments and 165 shares.

The next day Fadi, received hateful messages and death threats.

One from someone identifying themselves as ‘Emna’ said: ‘You are a zero. We don’t give a fuck about you. You ought to be out assisting in building the country. This is so immoral, calling to protect dirty people. God will never forgive you. This is very haraam [forbidden], we are Muslims and we can never be proud of your gay shit. You need to go and see psychiatrists and not start a magazine. Shame on you.’

‘Sabrine’ messaged him to say: ‘How could you be so impolite to do this, you belong to a Muslim society. Don’t you know that these things upset God? You’re so sinful and this one of the signs to the end of time. Fucking bitches.’

And Aymen posted on the Gayday magazine Facebook page: ‘You’re dead; don’t come to Tunisia you faggot. Even hell is disgusted to have you!’

There were, however, a few positive comments. One read: ‘I saw the link on Facebook and I was very happy to see the coming out of this magazine. I salute you for challenging and bypassing all the taboos and homophobic prejudices. It’s really a shame to see such a narrow mentality. Anyway, congratulations and good luck.’

Human Rights minister excludes gays

Samir El-Wafi continued his homophobic attack when he hosted Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, Samir Dilou, on his TV show on 4 February.

Dilou told El-Wafi he’s against having such a magazine in Tunisia: ‘This country has its own history, heritage, religion and customs and we need to deal with everything on such a basis.’

El-Wafi asked: ‘We can’t deny that this phenomenon of sexual perversion exists but shall we deny these people from expression mediums?’

And Dilou responded: ‘Yes, freedom of expression has limits.

‘They live as citizens but they must respect the red lines set up by our religion, heritage and civilization.’

When asked if the magazine should be banned, the minister said: ‘I have no knowledge if this magazine have applied for a permit or not but I’m against it even though I’m a minister of human rights.’

They concluded laughing that sexual orientation is not a human right and ‘sexual perversion needs to be treated medically’.

Fadi said: ‘The situation for LGBT people remains hostile in the shadow of all this exaggerated expression on homophobia. A friend of mine and I received couple of online death threats that says we deserve to be hanged or burnt in public.

‘It’s never a good time for anyone to come out at this time but I’m glad the subject is slowly breaking through the taboo shell. A lot of work is ahead of us to repeal the 230 Article [which makes gay sex illegal] and establish equality laws for LGBT individuals in Tunisia. Gayday magazine is only a start that I hope it serves as a medium that portrays us a humans, dispels the myths around us and advocates for our rights.’

See the El-Wafi and Dilou interview here (in Arabic):