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Breaking Taboos: Tunisians Speak Up Against Homophobia

Many Tunisians took to their keyboards to lash out against homophobia after the country hosted its first conference on homosexuality. The conference was held on Friday (September 27, 2013), at the Ministry of Human Rights in the capital Tunis. It was led by psychology experts and leading Tunisian sexologist, Haithem Sherif. On Twitter, the hashtag #TnGay was trending. It ranked fifth, two spots behind Justin Bieber. Close call.

A screenshot of Twitter trending topics on Sunday, 28th.

A screenshot of Twitter trending topics on Saturday (Sept 28).

Not to be confused, the role of the conference was to study “family perspectives with regards to early-age homosexuality.” The conference organizers asserted the event was not to diss homosexuality, but rather to open debate. The experts wanted to navigate with the attendees whether families play an active role in shaping the sexual orientation of their young children. Unfortunately, the Facebook page, set up for the event and which was quickly populated with comments and posts about the topic, was deleted a few hours after the end of the conference.

This did not stop Tunisians from expressing their opinion on the topic. Many turned to Twitter to vent off. Blogger Emna El Hammi tweets in disbelief [fr]:

A homophobic conference at the ministry of human rights. We have seen it all in this country.

The “normal” is to feel good about oneself and live in a balanced, tolerant society.

Another Tunisian twitter user has different views

You're going way too far here. This is a MUSLIM country.

The conference featured a video about early-age homosexuality, featuring Tunisia's Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice Samir Dilou. Monia Ben Hamadi quotes Dilou as saying:

Dilou: In an Arab country whose religion is Islam, family is a man, a woman and their children.

Dilou reiterated his views about homosexuality. Early in 2012 and only a few months after he was sworn in as minister, he referred to homosexuality, on a Tunisian talk show, as “psychological perverseness that ought to be treated.” Those statements have stirred outrage from LGBT groups in Tunisia at the time.

Other Twitter users lashed out on Islamist leaders, and their stance on homosexuality. Morsi Chaari tweets [fr]:

The human rights of Islamists is the right to pity, clemency, understanding, non-violence….a medical treatment.

The conference also helped some LGBT rights advocacy Twitter users rise to prominence. @TNLGBT who was also present at the conference did not miss out the opportunity to react with those who were curious about the conference or had different opinions. These Twitter users still withhold their anonymity due to public pressure and state harassment of homosexual practices.

It is hard to recapture the overall reaction over social media regarding such a topic, which is still taboo in Tunisia. Global Voices Online spoke to Tunisia Live journalist Farah Samti, who attended the conference, and who writes frequently about the topic. We asked her if the conference was successful in stirring any kind of meaningful debate around the topic. She did not think so.

“I think the purpose behind holding such a conference was probably to try to show that the topic is being addressed and that it's no longer a taboo. But it wasn't particularly efficient or useful. It was one-sided and the speakers did not answer questions of those who opposed their views,” she replied on Facebook.

Is the topic being addressed enough, one might wonders. Can social media be effective platforms for such debate?

“Absolutely not. People are still scared, obviously. And that's why it's hard to speak for the LGBTQ community itself. And, that's why social media is the main way to speak their minds,” asserts Samti.

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