“I’m writing articles about LGBT rights, and the situation for LGBT people, in the countries I visit,” I tell the British woman squeezed in beside me in the back of a grand taxi on the way from Tangiers to the small coastal town of Assilah. There are four passengers in the back seat of a normal-sized car, and two passengers in the front along with the driver.
“So are you a lesbian?” she asks me.
“Does that matter?” I retort back, perhaps slightly rudely.
She protests that of course it doesn’t matter to her, she has lots of gay friends, the other people in the car don’t speak English, etc, etc.
But the problem is, in Morocco, as in many countries, it really does matter.
As some of you know, I’ve been travelling to different parts of the world since January, meeting with and interviewing members of the local LGBT communities. I’m slowly pitching and publishing articles to various publications, such as Canada’s Daily Xtra.
I spent nearly the entire month of September in Morocco. It’s a beautiful country, one that I ended up staying in longer than anticipated because I loved it so much.
Morocco is an amazing place to travel, and relatively safe as a solo woman traveller. I’ve had incredible experiences riding a camel in the Sahara and sleeping under the stars. I’ve visited the surreally beautiful blue town of Chefchaouen, and gotten deliciously lost in the souks of Fez medina. I even celebrated Eid in a not so fantastic way when a goat with its throat slit staggered towards me and splattered blood on my feet.
It’s been quite the adventure!
But Morocco is also a country where I’m a criminal for who I’m attracted to. In Morocco, as in over 75 other countries, several of which I’ve visited or will be visiting, homosexuality is illegal.
It’s a bit ironic in that Morocco was a kind of Mecca for gay men in the 1950s.
This has been a really interesting journey for me, as it’s the first time in my life I’ve felt the need to be closeted. I’ve had some people tell me that this shouldn’t bother me, that my sexuality does not define me, and that I don’t have to go around proclaiming that I’m gay.
But the funny thing is, it’s usually straight people who tell me that. And they don’t always realize that, while it’s true I don’t need to proclaim my sexuality wherever I go, when I’m travelling in homophobic countries – where the punishment of being who I am is jail, harassment, or even death – I have to constantly deny a part of my identity.
It’s the times when fellow female travellers want to bond over the cuteness of a nearby man. Or having to constantly invent a husband in some countries to make men stop following me and talking to me (fun fact: this works really well. As soon as I mention a husband, they just leave. Usually without even saying goodbye). Or the fact that it’s really, really difficult to have any holiday romances for fear of outing myself to an unaccepting person.
Or even just the simple knowledge that a lot of the people I’m meeting, who are kind to me or invite me in for tea or give me directions, would feel very differently about me should they know this one piece of information about who I am.
That can be really difficult to live with, day to day, if you think about it too much.
But of course, that’s nothing compared to what the Moroccan LGBT community lives with.
In Morocco, I’ve spoken with about a dozen queer people, as well as a couple of straight allies. The stories they tell are unfortunately not surprising, or really that different from the stories I’ve heard in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Zambia, and Sri Lanka.
They talk about growing up and thinking they were the only gay person in the world, about hiding their sexuality from their families, and about getting kicked out of their home when they did come out. They have to worry about things like blackmail, sexual assault, police harassment, mob violence, and jail time. One young man met up with a man he met on a gay dating app, only to have that man say he wasn’t gay, he hated gays, and then stole his phone, which contains personal and possibly incriminating information on it.
Sometimes I wonder if most of the tourists who come here even think about any of this. When walking through the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, which according to Tripadvisor is the #1 thing to do in that city, do they think about the fact that it was created by a couple who were criminals for loving each other? (That couple would be Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé).
When they go to see the famous Hassan Tower in Rabat, do they know that two Moroccan men were arrested there in June for standing too close together while posing for a photo? They happened to be a gay couple and were each sentenced to four months in prison. Two topless women from the French feminist group Femen had been arrested and immediately deported the day before, after kissing each other at the same tourist attraction. The Moroccan couple deny they were copying that protest.
Now that I’ve left Morocco, I can publicly say these things and share a photo I took of myself at the Hassan Tower in Rabat. I’ve shared this selfie on social media with the hastags #HumanRightsSelfie and #LGBTatHassanTower.
Hopefully, eventually, we will live in a world where no one is criminalized or discriminated against for who they love.
(Originally shared in TSP Times, a congregational newsletter of Trinity St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto)
I feel I am human.
– Justin/Pasha on living in Toronto for the past 6 months
The second movie I saw yesterday was Children 404. Another heavy movie, but one well worth the watch. A film by Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov, and co-presented by Cinema Politica, Children 404 tells the story of LGBTQ youth in Russia, a population made even more invisible by the country’s recent “gay propaganda” law. The film focuses on the stories told through the Children 404 project – an online community started by Elena Klimova, a Russian journalist who wrote a series of articles on LGBTQ youth in Russia last March. It is called Children 404 after the “Error 404 – Page Not Found” on the Internet, the idea being that these children are invisible in Russia, that some people don’t believe they even exist. So they are reclaiming their identity – bolding proclaiming “We’re here and we’re queer” (though maybe not in so many words).
In these months after the Sochi Olympics, the situation of LGBTQ rights in Russia has fallen somewhat off the radar. Even when it was on the international agenda, rarely did LGBTQ-identified youth have a voice in the mainstream media. And so it was incredibly interesting and important to hear from these youth themselves. We heard from a boy who lives in Sochi and describes it as a very homophobic city, who is humiliated every day and had to move from his mother’s house to another district where no one knew him. According to the directors, he doesn’t think anything has changed since the Olympics.
There were stories of youth being thrown out of their homes, of mothers telling their children that they wished they’d miscarried rather than give birth to a sick monster like them. There were stories of social workers and therapists blaming the LGBTQ youth for their own harassment – telling them, for example, that it is because they hate the homophobes that the homophobes hate them back. And that if they loved them, they would receive love in return <insert collective groan from the audience>. Elena and her partner share a bit of their story as well, and about how they were both fired from their job when their relationship became known.
The film also follows Pasha, a 19-year-old young man who is planning to move to Toronto to learn English, become a journalist, and realize his dream of having a family with a male partner. The scene where he sings the Canadian national anthem in his broken English (“We stand on guard for free!!” he sings joyously) inside Lenin’s Mausoleum is one of my favourites.
Pasha’s family is one of the only supportive ones we see in the film. His mother is incredibly loving and protective, and even his somewhat racist (they talk about him having “black children” with a “black woman” in Toronto, who they will then take fishing, etc) grandparents know about his sexuality and actively love him just the same. It made me tear up. A lot made me tear up.
But what really got me was when the Q&A reached its second or third question and it was revealed that Pasha was in the audience, as many of us suspected and hoped. As he came up to the stage, he received a long standing ovation. It was powerful.
He now somewhat jokingly goes by “Justin” as well, an homage to Justin Bieber (who Pasha mournfully refers to as “straight” in the film).
The words “fag” and “faggot” are used quite liberally throughout the film, as we witness the harassment taking place firsthand. It’s a jarring word, and one that I don’t usually encounter in everyday life. One of the most incredible things Pasha does during the film is create a poster regarding a social living index (I’m unsure which one he uses) that reads something along the lines of “Russia is 66th and you can’t be gay here. Canada is 2nd and gays can get married. Maybe we should start focusing on the important things?” He then stands in what I believe is the Red Square in Moscow, enduring the ensuing taunts. One man spits on him and calls him that horrible F word; both are brought to the police station and both are eventually released, Pasha believes, because the police did not want to deal with the other guy.
Many of the questions during the Q&A involved what we could do, here in Toronto, for LGBTQ youth in Russia. All three men – the directors and Justin/Pasha – said that talking about this issue is the most important thing we can do. “You can help us by talking about it,” Justin/Pasha explains. “The problem of children 404 is that society wants to pretend they don’t exist, so we need to bring them out into the open.”
Justin/Pasha will be at World Pride this summer. He is one of the lucky ones, able to get out of Russia. As he repeatedly tells the audience, it’s impossible for 99% of these teenagers to move to a country like Canada. They need money, they need a visa. He hopes that the Canadian government will learn about the issues facing Children 101 and will begin to support them in immigrating.
Last night was the international premier; it was an honour to be one of the first audiences to see this impressive documentary. It did have a small showing in Moscow earlier, the directors told us. It must’ve been only days ago, as they also said they finished the film only the week before. As the screening in Moscow was about to start, Orthodox activists broke into the room with weapons and police, trying to find minors and accuse the non-minors there of gay propaganda. The police checked everyone’s documents; there were no minors there, and the audience chanted “We want to see the film” while the search went on. The directors don’t know what the repercussions will be for having produced this film; they don’t know if it will become banned in Russia. Children 404 became available online last night in Russia, after the screening took place in Toronto. Hopefully many Russians will see it; hopefully it will have an impact.
As Elena said in the film, changes in society’s viewpoints are inevitable. 60 years ago, things were much different in the USA, she says, referring to racial segregation in the South. “And what is 60 years? Only 2 generations!” she exclaims. Elena sees a future as an elderly woman, when children will wonder in amazement at the idea that gay people were discriminated against in her country. Her hope is inspiring – I too believe it is inevitable, but for the sake of the Russian youth struggling today, I pray it comes sooner rather than later.
Check it out – there’s three more screenings!