A few days ago, I was in a restaurant in Brooklyn having brunch with some friends and one of them asked me, ”Is Morocco safe for gay couples?" The question didn't startle me because it came up a number of times. I explained that Morocco is safe for everyone. And as long as they don’t engage in PDA, they are free from trouble, which by the way is the case with straight couples as well. But this doesn’t mean that Homophobia doesn’t exist, it does, just like in any other place. What is good to know is that unlike several other countries, members of the LGBTQ community in Morocco are doing their best to spread awareness and fight the stigma associated with them. So how are the conditions today and what are these activists doing to make things better?
Before jumping into the topic of LGBTQ rights, we must establish the fact that Morocco is full of contradictions, and I got just the right story to explain this to you. I was still under the immature impression that my country is built upon pure traditional Muslim values when I first stumbled upon the nightclubs aligned at the coastline in Tangier. It didn’t occur to my teenage self that night time Morocco was, and still is, a shocking parody of what I had learned about the country at school. I grew up in a smaller and relatively conservative city called Tetuan. My slightly older looking appearance allowed me to start uncovering this wild world at an early age, and it took me a while to reconcile the two versions in my head.
I still remember back in 2013 an encounter I had in Rabat’s Centre Ville at 3:00 AM which shook me quite a bit. My friend had just mentioned that we ran out of cigarettes when I saw a girl about to light one across from the train station. I approached her and asked her if she could spare a cigarette. She handed it to me and I decided to start a casual conversation with her while I enjoyed the tobacco taste. It didn’t take long for me to realize that "she" was a guy dressed up in women’s clothes. That was the first time I discovered the whole concept of cross dressing. It wasn’t in some corporate western media platform as many Moroccans suggest today, but right there in the capital. My friend and I ended up spending some time with this person who was generous in explaining to us why he enjoyed cross dressing and hooking up with men during the night. He also told us about his more conventional life in the morning selling vegetables in the market where no one knew about this part of his identity.
Now that I have more or less painted an image of the two coexisting contradictory worlds in Morocco, I would like to go back to our topic. On the surface, the LGBTQ community doesn’t have a lot of recognition in the public sphere. However, on a deeper level, its presence is undeniable in Moroccan reality. Because this community has been rejected from several public spaces and continuously pushed and limited to nightlife spaces, its identity has become heavily stigmatized. But the good news is, there is a strong new generation working on creating new positive associations. This new generation is one of the main factors why LGBTQ+ topics have been raised in the parliament in addition to the both positive and negative vibrant presence of topics related to the community in social media.
Abdellah Taia is considered one of the first Moroccan celebrities who are openly and unapologetically gay. He is also a prominent writer who authored several novels such as The Salvation Army and An Arab Melancholia. In an essay in the form of a letter called Homosexuality Explained to my Mother, Taia explains how his sexuality is an important part of his identity which he is not afraid to share with the rest of the world. But he doesn’t stop there, he explains that beyond his homosexuality, his love for freedom and criticism of politics are also unconventional part of him. In his letter, Abdellah explains that there is a new generation trying to break free and rebel against previous rules. And that one of his responsibilities as a writer is to stand against the clichéd folkloric portrayals of his country. But what strikes the most in the letter is the similarities he draws between himself and his mother. Taia explains that it was his mother, in her ability to assert her opinions and get things done, who inspired him to do the same. Taia’s novels offer a nuanced local perspective of modern Moroccan society free from the folkloric and exotic orientalist image the country has been linked with in the past century.
Another active LGBTQ+ militant is Eden Ghali, the young activist who created a podcast called “Trans Talks in Darija.” He narrates his story with gender dysphoria which started way back when he was a kid. Ghali explains how the idea of transitioning has not been an influence of any external media, but instead, it has always been a dream which sprung from his instinctive knowledge of his true gender. I had the pleasure to ask Ghali a few questions on an Instagram live myself in which he answered the confusion of the viewers, mine included, with great eloquence and gratitude. No wonder why the young activist went on to tell his story and give talks in several international platforms including BBC News. There is a number of videos on all platforms in which he explains with great detail his transition and his support from his family. Ghali also is fierce at exposing all the hate he receives on social platforms and the faulty arguments that are being raised against him.
Besides these two activists who both live abroad, there are numerous others who work anonymously in shedding light on the topic of LGBTQ+ within Morocco. I had the honor of speaking to Zeid who told me about how he collected data for banning homophobic and transphobic slurs on Facebook. He worked on this project a few years ago with a Lebanese organization for information and engagement on queer rights and liberation in South-West Asia and North Africa called Helem. According to Zeid, there are several organizations within Morocco that help the community with housing, therapy, workshops, and legal support at court. He explained how establishing several organizations that work primarily on LGBTQ+ rights is a great success which several other countries have not been able to achieve.
I don’t think Barnaby Rogerson was wrong when he said, “Morocco has always been a nation where tolerance is practiced but not preached,” because Morocco remains one of the most tolerant and liberal countries in the Arab world. There are also several queer aspects engraved in Moroccan culture and history which range from present day cross gender dancers in Jamaa’ El Fanaa to homoerotic medieval poems from the Andalusian period. Not to forget Tangier which was described as a gay haven by several artists and writers who spoke openly about some of their homosexual experiences. On top of them are: Jean Genet, Jane Bowles, and William S. Burroughs. How come these authors left their motherlands to stay in a place like Tangier? Biographers, journalists, and scholars have pondered on this question from multiple angles, but for me, I have a feeling that the perplexing and dazzling contradictions of Morocco might have something to do with it. At the end of the day, Morocco might not be the most LGBTQ+ friendly country in the world, but it seems that we have several reasons to be optimistic about the future.
By Hossame Boudaghia
Hossame Boudaghia is a contributing writer for Inclusive Morocco. Born and raised in Tetouan, Morocco. Hossame is a PhD candidate at the University of Abdelmalek Essaadi. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the English version of Afanine Magazine. He currently lives in Queens, New York City where he works as a part-time ESL teacher.