Across the vast Muslim world, LGBTQ people remain marginalized

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YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia — On the outskirts of Yogyakarta, an Indonesian city that is home to many universities, there is a small boarding school with a mission that seems out of place in a nation with more Muslim citizens than any other. Her students are transgender women.

It’s a rare oasis of LGBTQ acceptance, not just in Indonesia, but throughout the Muslim world. Many Muslim nations criminalize gay sex, even Qatar, host of the World Cup. LGBTQ people are often shunned by their families, denounced by Islamic authorities, harassed by security forces, and confined to clandestine social lives. Calls for change from LGBTQ friendly nations are routinely dismissed as unwarranted outside interference.

Yogyakarta’s Al-Fatah Islamic School was founded 14 years ago by Shinta Ratri, a trans woman who struggled with self-doubt in her youth, wondering if her gender transition was sinful.

She then earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and later dedicated herself to enabling other trans women to study Islam. Initially, there were 20 students at the school and now about 60, many of them middle-aged.

Among them is YS Al Buchory, 55, who struggled for years to cope with the lack of acceptance from the people around her, but now feels at home at the school and hopes tolerance will spread across her country. .

“Like a rainbow, if you combine the colors red, yellow and green, it becomes more beautiful, rather than just black and white,” he said. “We must be able to respect each other, tolerate each other, not interfere with each other.”

Compared to many Muslim nations, Indonesia is relatively tolerant. Dozens of LGBTQ organizations operate openly, advocating for equal rights, offering counseling, and in contact with religious leaders. Only one conservative province, Aceh, which practices Sharia law, explicitly criminalizes same-sex relationships.

in Aceh, two men were publicly flogged last year – 77 blows each, after the neighbors reported them to the religious police for having sexual relations. Earlier this year, Indonesian Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, in a speech to Muslim teachers, said that LGBTQ people were engaging in “deviant behavior” that should be banned.

“Parliament should be required to make this law,” said Ma’ruf Amin, a Muslim cleric. “Ask them to ban LGBT.”

That attitude was reinforced last week when the United States canceled a trip to Indonesia by a special envoy on LGBTQ rights after the country’s most influential Islamic group objected.

“We cannot accept guests whose purpose of coming here is to harm and spoil the noble values ​​of our nation’s religion and culture,” said Anwar Abbas, vice president of the Indonesian Council of Ulema.

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Dédé Oetomo, founder of the LGBTQ rights organization GAYa NUSANTARA, said the acceptance of his community varies from one region of Indonesia to another. He cited some examples of public support, such as a trans woman elected as a village council leader, but said there was little hope of meaningful government support.

“We still can’t imagine if there would be a law for protection against discrimination,” Oetomo said.

That’s the norm in the Arab and Muslim worlds: either government neglect or outright hostility toward LGBTQ people, said Rasha Younes, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch investigating anti-LGBTQ abuses in the Middle East and North Africa.

In some countries, LGBTQ-friendly cafes have sprung up and activists have been able to organize themselves, offering social services and, if possible, campaigning for reform, Younes said.

“But the results are as weak as ever,” Younes said, noting that anti-LGBTQ laws remain in place and activists often face repression from security forces.

“There is some solidarity and change in social attitudes,” he said. “But the responsibility lies with the government. LGBTQ people will continue to live on the fringes unless governments repeal these laws.”

In many cases, the religious underpinnings of anti-LGBTQ attitudes are combined with resentment of external pressure from nations that have embraced LGBTQ inclusion. More than a dozen Muslim nations recently banned Disney’s latest animated film “Lightyear” from theaters for the inclusion of a brief kiss between a lesbian couple. In Qatar, authorities have urged visiting World Cup fans to respect the local culture, in which LGBTQ activism is taboo.

In some countries, apparent gains for LGBTQ people have been followed by setbacks. Lebanon is an example. In recent years, its LGBTQ community was widely seen as the most vibrant and visible in the Arab world, with some groups and gay bars advocating for greater rights by hosting events such as drag shows.

However, many in the community have been recovering from a wave of hostility this year that included a Home Office ban on events described as intended to promote “sexual perversion”.

Online, some people have criticized Pride events, sometimes citing religious beliefs, both Muslim and Christian, to denounce LGBTQ activism. Someone posted an image of a knife cutting through a rainbow flag.

At one point, members of the security forces showed up at the Beirut office of the LGBTQ rights organization Helem, executive director Tarek Zeidan said.

Some LGBTQ activists called a protest and distributed an invitation that read: “We will continue to love and live as we wish.” But the rally was postponed, with organizers citing security concerns.

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The crackdown has shaken LGBTQ people who are already under pressure from Lebanon’s economic crisis, which activists say has disproportionately increased unemployment and homelessness among vulnerable groups.

In November, activist groups reported with relief that the Home Office ban on LGBTQ events had been lifted.

“We are on the battlefield and we are part of the conversation,” Zeidan said. “In Lebanon, the conversation is fiercely debated. In other parts of the region, the conversation has died down entirely.”

Sahar Mandour, Amnesty International’s researcher on Lebanon, explained.

“There is a space. We have organizations. The nightlife exists,” Mandour said. “But it is always in negotiation, where and when. There is no protection, but there is existence.

In Turkey, which is majority Muslim, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown increasing intolerance of any expression of LGBTQ rights, banning Pride marches and suppressing the display of rainbow symbols.

It’s a marked shift for Erdogan, who, before taking power in 2003, called mistreatment of gay people inhumane and called for legal protections.

A Pride march in Istanbul, which had been taking place since 2003 and drew large crowds, was canceled in 2014. In contrast, the government recently allowed a large anti-LGBTQ demonstration proceed without police intervention.

The ruling party is expected to propose constitutional amendments that would protect family values ​​from what Erdogan describes as “perverted currents.” Activists fear the amendments will limit LGBTQ rights and discourage same-sex relationships.

Among the Arab nations, the most explicitly outlaw gay sex, including Qatar. He has faced intense international scrutiny and criticism leading up to and during the World Cup over rights issues, including questions about whether LGBTQ visitors would feel safe and welcome.

Other Arab countries, such as Egypt, prosecute LGBTQ people on charges of immorality or debauchery. the situation is similar in iraq; Human Rights Watch says the lack of an explicit ban on gay sex has not protected LGBTQ people from violence and discrimination, nor from the occasional charge of immorality or public indecency.

An Iraqi transgender woman who identifies as Kween B told The Associated Press her life felt precarious, like being in the middle of a busy highway.

“You can be crushed at any second,” said Kween, who lives in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah.

In her case, that has meant being bullied as a child and suppressing her feminine identity while in high school and college. Now, at 33, she believes she would be rejected, or even physically harmed, if she told her family. But in recent years, she has increasingly pushed her limits, donning a rainbow bracelet in public or putting on makeup for a party.

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Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch alleged that armed groups in Iraq kidnap, rape, torture, and kill LGBTQ people with impunity and that police arrest and use violence against them.

Iraqi officials deny any attack by security forces against gay people; A commander affiliated with an umbrella militia group denied the allegation, saying the violence suffered by the homosexuals likely stemmed from their families.

For Kween, her apartment is her safe space. A few years ago, she began hosting get-togethers that initially included a few close LGBTQ friends, but has since grown. At such meetings, she can fully express herself, putting on a wig and a dress.

“We have to be who we are,” he said. “If we don’t fight ourselves, no one will fight for us.”

Looking ahead, leading LGBTQ rights advocates hail the courage of activists trying to operate publicly in countries like Lebanon and Tunisia. But they are not optimistic about major LGBTQ developments in the near term in most of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

“In many countries, where civil society is not allowed, where there is a total lack of rights and free association, activism cannot be seen in the public realm,” Younes said. “People can’t protest or express support online for LGBTQ rights, so there’s a complete crackdown on LGBTQ rights.”

Kevin Schumacher, whose current work focuses on advancing women’s rights in Afghanistan, spent seven years as the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for OutRight Action International, a global LGBTQ rights organization.

He is skeptical that the LGBTQ cause can rise to the forefront in the region’s many authoritarian countries, where women and political dissidents, as well as LGBTQ people, are often repressed. He sees the current widespread anti-government protests in Iran, where homosexual acts can be punished by death, as a possible model for how change might come about.

“You can’t just talk about LGBTQ rights if straight people are oppressed, if women don’t have rights,” she said. “The discourse must be about bodily autonomy: the right over your body and the decisions about your sexual rights, not specific to men, women, homosexuals, heterosexuals.”

Fam reported from Cairo, Crary from New York. Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey.

Associated Press religious coverage is supported through the AP partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.