Before delivering the keynote address at the Queer and Trans Studies Conference on Saturday, Sa’ed Atshan — assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College — gave a lecture about LGBTQ+ rights and resilience in the Middle East on April 5. The talk was sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) and the Program in Asian and Middle East Studies.
“That’s an area of the world where there are a lot of assumptions about what queer and trans rights look like and what those queer and trans communities deal with,” Assistant Director of ODEI Timothy Bussey said. “We wanted to also make sure that we’re having these very intentionally intersectional conversations on campus.”
During his talk on Friday, Atshan discussed the challenges, accomplishments and resilience of LGBTQ+ communities across the region. Atshan also talked about how social class and gender influence the LGBTQ+ population’s struggle for rights.
Atshan discussed homophobia in the region in a historical and international context. “The homophobia is the legacy of colonial homophobia. The United Kingdom and France tried to justify colonialism in the name of civilizing the population, including the discipline of homosexuality,” he said during the talk. “The United Kingdom and France institutionalized a lot of legislation in Middle East and North Africa.”
Atshan then turned to contemporary homophobia in the Middle East and North African region, noting that it should not only be attributed to colonialism, but that “colonialism built the institutionalization of homophobia with laws that only legitimate the heterosexual marriage.”
Associate Professor of History Nurten Kilic-Schubel agreed with Atshan’s point. “In the past, homosexuality was neither legal nor illegal, but the existing law that illegalizes homosexuality came with the United Kingdom and French and remains even after,” Kilic-Schubel said.
However, the contemporary LGBTQ+ movements in the Middle East and North Africa struggle for rights and visibility. “We have made some progress, and there are 40 non-govermental organizations in this area working with LGBTQ+ populations,” Atshan said. “The LGBTQ+ movement makes more visibility for the population.”
Atshan also briefly explained how the resilience of the LGBTQ+ movement in the Middle East and North Africa was influenced by the cultural and social situation in which it occurred.
He pointed out that men who live in urban areas and have higher social statuses tend to face fewer struggles than lower-class women in rural locations.
“The LGBTQ+ movement is between progress and forward and inspiration, creativity, agency, resilience, and then despair, affection and homophobia. It’s back and forth. It’s constant,” Atshan said. “We still have a long way to go.”