Nightlife: a false sense of security for LGBTQIA+ people

In a country where homosexuality is considered a crime, how do LGBTQIA+ people manage to live life to the fullest? In the artistic and nightlife scene, some spaces claim to be - discreetly - open to the LGBTQIA+ community, giving them access to bars and theaters where they can be themselves. Even so, Anas, Imene, Nour, and many other patrons still feel unsafe.
Written by | 14 March 2023 | reading-duration 20 minutes

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The early 2000's. Sitting in front of the family computer, Imene, barely 20 years old, was passively surfing the internet until she stumbled upon an online dating site. She then started chatting with several anonymous internet users as a way to pass the time.

Suddenly, a profile caught her eye: to her surprise, she discovered another lesbian woman on these sites. Born in a rather conservative family, Imene had never heard of homosexuality until that moment. "It was like a miracle for me. The community wasn't visible at all. I thought I was the only lesbian in the world", she said mockingly years later. Thanks to this encounter, a whole new world opened up for Imene: she started learning about places in Tunis that she had never heard of before and where she could express herself more freely and live her sexuality the way she wanted to. 

Cafés, theaters, bars... Some places constitute the main socialization spots for the LGBTQIA+ community given the danger they face in public areas and often in their family homes. Homosexuality is still criminalized in Tunisia and is punishable by a prison sentence of one to three years. According to the Damj association, nearly 1 500 people have been imprisoned under article 230. 

Still, despite the existence of such spaces, LGBTQIA+ people are far from being safe. Several people have regularly denounced the violence and discrimination they have endured, even in these places. The LGBTQIA+ community has generally become, according to them, something of a "scapegoat", a simple distraction from the country's economic hardships. "Milk is out of stock, but look at these nightclubs, filled with satanists," said one bar manager ironically.

With staff discriminatory attitudes, sometimes indifferent managers, and police threats, the noose keeps tightening, jeopardizing the few safe spaces that have sprung up in recent years. 

Nightlife, an escape from reality 

As she met people, Imene became aware of LGBTQIA+ friendly spaces in Tunisia. "I met a lot of people who didn't look like me, who didn't speak or gesture the same way as me. This is where the process of accepting differences started," she said. Imene gradually began to learn how to accept herself and deconstruct her internalized homophobia. Back then, these places weren't openly "gay-friendly"* and "weren't as visible and monitored", in her words. The shift started in 2011: several activists who were interviewed explained that it was after the revolution that certain bars and nightclubs became emblematic of LGBTQIA+ struggles. 

"The unprecedented liberality of some of them [the spaces] makes a lasting impression on the minds of their young clientele. These places also play a role in making decriminalization a conceivable possibility," explained researcher Abir Kréfa. 

The latter believes that these spaces play a crucial part in bringing people together and creating solidarity nets. This sentiment was shared by several interviewees, including bar managers and event organizers. Khaled, manager of a bar in Tunis, believes that "talking about it and showcasing the queer community helps deconstruct taboos, despite the initial shock. "But we must be careful not to put people in danger", he added. 

 These spaces have been increasingly gaining popularity through word of mouth. For some, the "gay-friendly" label wasn't intentional. "The community simply came because the staff in other places were disrespectful to them," said Adam, former manager of a bar in Sousse.

Other recent venues, however, would use subtle but targeted marketing. The color schemes, the guest and staff selection, etc.: all sorts of strategies are used to appeal to the Tunisian LGBTQIA+ community, revealed a bar manager. This makes some people perceive this "gay or queer friendly" or "safe space" label dangerous. 

"Why talk about it that much? It doesn't attract the right people. It's like shouting in the street: this is where the gays hang out. So what do they [the managers] expect?" denounced Hadhemi, a young lesbian woman.

Underlying this openness, many incidents have taken place which cast doubt on the real safety of these spaces. “After a while, many people just didn't feel safe anymore," commented Anas, 23, one of the few people who came out on social networks. 

He used to go to these places regularly when he was a student. "At first, it was the gathering spot for LGBTQIA+ people", he said about a bar in Tunis. " But now, after many incidents, I only hang out at my friends' houses, in the privacy of their homes."  

Anas recognizes how lucky he is to have freedom in his home. A privilege that many members of the community do not have, in a country where only 7% of the population accepts homosexuality, according to a survey conducted by the Arab Barometer.

"These are long-lasting traumas" 

One evening, Imene and a couple of her friends went to a supposedly LGBTQIA+ safe bar. As they talked, her two friends were exchanging discreet signs of affection. All of sudden, a man sitting across from them noticed their gestures, stood up, and walked over to their table. "He was holding a beer and threatening us with it," Imene recounted. 

The security guards then stepped in and restrained the man. But their intervention ended there. The man went back to his table, without any consequences. Imene and her friends then had to find another spot. "They can't ask a customer who's paying for a bottle to change places", said the young lady ironically.  

"These incidents happen all the time [...] These are long-lasting traumas. I can't feel safe even when I'm abroad," she confessed.

Anas was also subjected to this type of violence. The most traumatic incident happened to him one winter evening in 2020. He was dancing peacefully when two security guards suddenly lifted him up by his shoulders. They carried him and violently threw him out, threatening and keeping him from getting his bag back. He lost his phone, his keys, his wallet, and all his belongings that night. "When I see all the things they are recommending people to do on social networks... But the moment you do them, you get called names by the security", he protested, referring to the posts made by these nightclubs on social networks encouraging individuals to express themselves, dance, and be who they really are. 

Even though the bar is labeled as gay-friendly, customers often complained about the staff's intolerance and sometimes violence, especially the security agents. Anas stated that he had to bribe a security guard several times to be allowed into the bar. He has no doubt that this was due to the fact that he’s gay.

"Just because I'm gay, in a supposedly gay-friendly bar [...] The managers are turning a blind eye, even though they're responsible," he said indignantly. 

Several managers claimed to be mindful of their staff's behavior and to include screening criteria to ensure that their employees respect all differences. "If an employee exhibits hateful behavior, they are asked to correct their attitude. Otherwise, they can be fired," said one manager. But many admitted to struggling to find adequate security guards. One of them even went so far as to install security cameras to keep a closer eye on his security guards' behaviour. However, in the case of Anas, when he complained to management, nothing was done.

Police pressure 

Aside from discrimination by staff and customers, police threats are also a problem. After spending the evening at a bar, Nour - who identifies as genderfluid* - recalled being searched by a plainclothes police officer as they left the bar because of their female attire. The police noticed two of their friends while they were dancing. As soon as they left, one was arrested and spent the night at the police station under the pretense that he was wearing a backless t-shirt, while the other had to hide under a car to avoid getting arrested.

"There is a set of practices and a predominant mentality among police officers that allow them to arrest a person from the LGBTQIA+ community on the street, or anywhere, simply based on their physical appearance," says lawyer Hammadi Henchiri, who pointed out that police officers resort to vague laws, such as indecent assault. 

These bars and nightclubs have been instrumental in Nour's self-discovery and queer relationships in general. But today, they no longer see the point. 

"They robbed us of this little routine we had. Not much in itself but one of the only things we had left", they lamented.  

Like Imene, Nour and Anas, Yosra, an activist for individual freedoms, recounted a bad experience in one of these supposedly safe bars. The young woman went out one evening with two friends. The moment they kissed, security suddenly intervened to make them leave.

Shaken, she went directly to the manager: "I thought I was in a safe place", she complained. He explained to her that this was due to a police search that had taken place two weeks earlier, after a video had been posted on social networks. Since then, the bar has been on the authorities' radar and security guards have been keeping watch because of police pressure. 

Police officers usually enter these spaces in plain clothes. As a result, it is much more difficult for managers to understand their rights and duties. "It's always the same faces. We see them so often that we recognize all of them, and we are obliged to let them in," said Wejih, manager of a bar in an upscale neighborhood of Tunis.

Managers have no control over the presence of plainclothes police officers, but according to them, the officers cannot arrest people on the premises without informing the manager first. Besides, the Code of Procedure stipulates that police officers may not enter a private space without a warrant from the Public Prosecutor. 

 However, "in practice, if a police officer obtains concrete evidence of an offense, the judge may consider the fact that it was an illegal search as a minor detail," says human rights activist Mehdi

This persecution is a daily occurrence in some spaces, and the administrative chaos only makes it worse. "The laws are so vague that you could get arrested for anything. It's a police state. They have the authority to do whatever they want," said one manager indignantly. 

Affront to public decency, indecency, prostitution... All sorts of articles of law are used today to arrest members of the community, according to the lawyer Hammadi Henchiri.

"It's a form of harassment," said Imene. For the managers, these incidents are proof of the ambiguity surrounding the laws, which allows the police to intimidate them. "For the bar to keep running, it is essential to have very good relations with the police," said Adam, former manager of a bar in Sousse.

"If you bribe the police officer, he'll leave you alone. If you don't, he'll just focus on all the little problems he can always find," he adds.

Most agree that bribes are a common practice for bars, even without the gay-friendly label. Jamil has opened several establishments in the capital and has always had to deal with the police. For a while, one of his bars was known to be open to the LGBTQIA+ community. At that time, he reported receiving threats that reached his family, which had never happened before.

For Wajih, however, the police don't specifically target the LGBTQIA+ community. According to the 40-year-old, who has managed several bars, "there is no such thing as police persecution of the LGBT community". According to him, it depends on the bar's relationship with the authorities, its age, and its establishment. While he acknowledges that "the police are often more present at parties that cater to the LGBTQIA+ community," he believes that the key to a bar's survival lies primarily in its manager's ability to "know how to deal with the police." 

"Some people use police persecution against the LGBTQIA+ community to justify and make excuses for their failures," said Wajih. He added, however, that he keeps about 15 lawyers' numbers in his phone in anticipation of any problems that might occur with law enforcement. 

In this climate, many managers are playing with the limits, trying to compromise between the survival of these free spaces and the safety of their clients. 

How do managers protect their clients? 

 However, many clients believe that safety is only secondary to the managers. Some respondents think that these spaces attract the LGBTQIA+ community, purely for economic gain. These people are accused of "rainbow-washing*": they would target the LGBTQIA+ community with their marketing strategies in order to make a profit.

"We bring the gays in to spend their money and when they've spent enough, we kick them out. Because it's my bar, and having only fags in it doesn't really work for me," one manager reportedly told Anas.

"Making a gay-friendly space was never the primary focus [for the managers]. It was mostly about standing out," said Radhia, a former waitress. 

It could also help them attract a more affluent clientele. "The managers of these places don't need money, they want to put on a show, which attracts a lot of straight people. We're just freaks to them. It's voyeurism", denounced Imene. 

 "Our existence is a performance to them," confirms Nour. 

Faced with such criticism, managers defended themselves by saying that these community-focused events wouldn't generate much profit. "These events are targeted at 18-25 year olds. An electronic event would bring me double what I make from these parties," said Wejih. 

A form of activism 

In contrast, others are more committed to the cause: organizing this kind of parties for LGBTQIA+ people is described as an act of activism. They are offering a space of freedom and fulfillment through these events.

Before becoming a bar manager, Aymen, for instance, worked in the associative field for a long time. He then decided to change his career and to turn to nightlife. He is now trying "to get a message across and to normalize certain things", notably by setting up awareness and education stands. 

Creating a safe space for members of the LGBTQIA+ community in Tunisia is a daunting challenge. For that reason, several managers we interviewed said that they were taking additional measures to ensure the safety and protection of their clientele. 

"For me, the simple fact of founding this bar is in itself a proclamation. It's the main reason why I work here," said one manager, who prefers to remain anonymous. 

Wajih regularly organizes parties attended by several members of the community at his establishment. To prepare for these events, "I have to inform everyone and the management of the space so that things don't get out of hand," he explained. He also shares the details of these events through a private Facebook group to avoid spreading the word on social networks.

 "These are niche parties, so we don't need to advertise excessively. It keeps us out of trouble," he explains. 

By limiting distribution through private facebook groups, he can "verify who wants to attend." However, for human rights activist Mehdi, "no Facebook group is completely safe. Information can be leaked in various ways." 

Other measures involve screening at the entrance and limiting cell phone use. "We're always monitoring social networks. As soon as a problematic video is posted, we have a community of people who help us take it down," insisted another manager. 

Several interviewees recalled a wave of cyber-harassment against a particular bar, after a homophobic politician had posted about it on his account. All sorts of insults, even death threats, were hurled at the bar. Due to this surge of hatred, the managers of the said bar were put under a lot of pressure. They were summoned to the police station several times a week for a few months, they were raided by plainclothes policemen and had several confrontations with them. They repeatedly had to accompany clients who had been arrested in their establishment to the police station. 

A couple of years earlier, a similar incident took place in another bar in the capital. Some witnesses reported that there were a number of unruly incidents involving members of the LGBTQIA+ community at a party. The next day, the authorities shut down the bar for several days. When questioned by inkyfada, the managers in question were not willing to comment on the matter. 

Despite the efforts made by the managers to create a welcoming and safe environment for their clientele, Aymen chose to use the term "inclusive space*" rather than "safe space" to describe his establishment. The difference between the two concepts is subtle, but he believes it can help attract less negative attention. 

Like Aymen, Yosra is careful about the words she uses when organizing events. A few years ago, she helped organize an arts festival. To steer clear of any potential problems, the organizers decided to define it as a feminist festival rather than LGBTQIA+. "We wanted to take the mental burden of security off our shoulders and allow people to come and feel safe," she explained. Yosra often selects the venue in which to hold events based on its managers, be it a private or public space.

A double-edged visibility 

This dilemma between visibility and safety generally affects the entire Tunisian LGBTQIA+ struggle. As such, the visibility of these spaces represents both a strength and a weakness for the various activists interviewed.

Although this visibility helps to normalize the struggle and "to contemplate decriminalization", especially for post-revolutionary activists, it also poses a security risk to them. Yosra is also involved in a number of projects related to individual freedoms. "We need to seize the opportunity to showcase the community and create safe spaces. But there's also a risk of having too much visibility, which could be a dangerous thing," she stressed.

"In the past, even talking about this matter was out of the question, it was forbidden [...] It was impossible to picture a group of openly gay people together in a public space. But with this visibility and the demand for rights, repression has also intensified," added Imene. 

Sexual minorities have gained much more visibility in the post-2011 period. Abir Kréfa explained that this increased visibility comes with its share of repression and violence, including the murder of several trans people. A number of associations were created in 2011 and 2012 to combat this violence. In 2015, activists decided to speak out openly and in the media for the first time. Since then, the activists' visibility has increased and so have the arrests, going from 50 arrests per year in 2013 to 78 in 2015, according to the Shams organization. 

In 2021, a wave of arrests and harassment against several activists affected the community. Photos, names, and personal information of some LGBTQIA+ activists were posted on social networks by police unions. This has led many people to go into exile. "Every time a movement with clear demands and identifiable people takes place, a huge backlash follows. Almost all of the activists who were visible in 2011/2012 have now left," noted Yasmine Ben Ammar, who wrote a thesis on the LGBTQIA+ struggle in Tunisia. But the researcher believes that this visibility remains crucial. Thus, the ideal way to advance the struggle would be to combine visibility with in-depth work in order to change mentalities. 

Today, Anas and other social media influencers prefer to limit their visibility and stress the importance of being aware of the dangers that a simple Instagram story might represent. 

"This was the mistake I used to make. I took part in promoting some bars as gay bars at one point, which attracted people who shouldn't be there," lamented Anas, who assured that he no longer gives the names of the places he frequents today. 

These past few years, Imene has been going out less and less in the evening. The few times she dares to go out, she is categorical: "I ask everyone to be discreet, no matter where we go". A recent wariness that she has developed because of the frequent incidents that occurred in places that were supposed to be safe. 

Others continue to go out but choose to fit into the heteronormative mold. 

"I don't behave at all like I used to, like myself. It's horrible but I'd rather that than nothing, because I don't want the police to win," concluded Nour.