“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)