Tunisia’s Baatour is good news for the LBTQ community

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LGBTQ activist Mounir Baatour holds a rainbow flag after submitting his candidacy for the upcoming early presidential elections in Tunisia. (Hassene Dridi/AP)
Good news for LBTQ community and the world as an openly gay candidate runs for president in Tunisia

An openly gay candidate is running for president in Tunisia, a milestone for the Arab world

By Claire Parker Washington Post

Lawyer Mounir Baatour officially announced his candidacy for the Tunisian presidency Thursday, becoming the first known openly gay presidential candidate in the Arab world and heralding a major step forward for LGBT rights in a country that still criminalizes gay sex.

Baatour, the president of Tunisia’s Liberal Party, presented his candidacy to the country’s election commission a day ahead of a Friday deadline to qualify for the Sept. 15 election. He received nearly 20,000 signatures in support of his candidacy — double the required number — according to a news release posted to his Facebook page.

“This enthusiasm already testifies to the immense will of the Tunisian people, and especially its youth, to see new a political wind blowing on the country and to concretely nourish its democracy,” the statement said, calling Baatour’s candidacy “historic.”

The election was moved up by two months after the death of former president Beji Caid Essebsi in late July. Baatour insists that his personal sexual identity did not drive his decision to enter the race, nor will it “interfere” in his candidacy. He said in an interview his record as a lawyer and human rights activist qualifies him for the country’s top job.

“I presented my candidacy for the presidency of the Republic of Tunisia because for years, I have been a defender of human rights, a defender of minorities, a defender of individual liberties,” he said.

“I believe that I am the person best positioned to make a positive change in realizing greater individual liberties in Tunisia.” Tunisia, widely considered the Arab Spring’s only democratic success story, has seen civil liberties blossom since the 2011 revolution ended half a century of authoritarian rule.

Freedom of expression has expanded significantly in the new democracy and previously repressed political groups have burst onto the national stage. But LGBT Tunisians remain marginalized, and authorities have continued to prosecute Tunisians for engaging in gay sex — a crime punishable by up to three years in prison under Article 230 of Tunisia’s criminal code.

Authorities arrested more than a hundred people last year based on their perceived gender identity or sexual orientation, according to human rights groups. Baatour, 48, has made a name for himself in the small North African country as a champion of gay rights.

Rainbow flags adorn his social media accounts, and he has talked openly about his sexuality and written op-eds demanding the repeal of Article 230.

In 2015, Baatour founded the advocacy organization Shams — “sun” in Arabic — which has pushed for the decriminalization of gay sex and fought the ongoing practice of authorities forcing men they suspect of having sex with other men to submit to anal examinations.

The Tunisian government has repeatedly tried to shut Shams down — most recently in February, when the government petitioned an appeals court to overturn a ruling in the organization’s favor. In its petition to the court, the government wrote that homosexuality is “contrary to Islam” and that “this association offends the Arab-Muslim sensibility of the Tunisian people,” according to an op-ed Baatour published in HuffPost Maghreb.

Baatour’s candidacy is no small feat in a region where tolerance of homosexuality remains low across the board. A 2019 Arab Barometer survey of more than 25,000 people across the Arab world found that in Algeria — the country most tolerant of gay people — only 26 percent of respondents reported finding homosexuality acceptable. In Tunisia, that proportion was 7 percent.

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