Morocco's LGBT community is living in fear

Morocco's LGBT community lives in fear after gay men outed in homophobic online campaign
6 min read
27 May, 2020
A month after gay men were outed in Morocco, Ramadan and the Covid-19 lockdown have only made matters worse for the LGBT community.
Across Morocco, hundreds of men have been blackmailed and threatened after an online campaign. [Getty]

This year's International Day Against Homophobia on 17 May was a particularly sad one in Morocco.

Across the country, gay men continue to be harassed after information about how to identify them was shared online by Moroccan transgender social media influencer Sofia Taloni. 

The scandal began on 13 April when Taloni suggested on Instagram Live that her female followers make fake accounts on apps such as Romeo and Grindr in order to identify gay men

Under Article 489 of the Moroccan penal code, same-sex relations are punishable with up to three years in prison, or a fine of 1000 dirhams (around $100). Because of such restrictions, smartphone apps often represent the only outlet for gay men to connect with one another. 

Taloni has said her intention was to draw attention to the commonplace nature of homosexuality, thus highlighting the hypocrisy of the status quo.

She hoped that when women saw that many of the men who use gay meeting apps were "their husbands and brothers," it could be the spark of social change.

Across the country, gay men continue to be harassed after information about how to identify them was shared online by Moroccan transgender social media influencer Sofia Taloni

However, many followed Taloni's advice with the intention of identifying and punishing LGBT people, leading to the identities of large numbers of gay men being revealed on social media. Across Morocco, hundreds of men have been harassed, blackmailed, threatened, and kicked out of their homes, according to human rights groups. Sofia Taloni, who now lives in Turkey, has since apologised for her actions.

Taloni's intentions have been lauded by some in the Moroccan LGBT community, although many have called for those using the apps in question to delete their accounts for their own safety. Others have bitterly condemned her actions. Speaking to The New Arab, Moroccan novelist, gay rights activist, and film maker Abdellah Taia had harsh words for Taloni. 

Taia, who is the author of books such as L'Armée du Salut (2006), Le Jour du Roi (2010), and La Vie Lente (2019), is the first Arab author to have publicly declared his homosexuality.

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His film 'Salvation Army', based on his experiences growing up as a gay person in Morocco, won critical acclaim. "She has put people into hell," said Taia. "Many of the victims of this situation had difficult lives already, but this is just a new level of horror."

Taia and those like him are angered mainly with the fact that Taloni outed people without their consent. For instance, it is alleged that a 22-year-old man named Yassine, who joined Taloni in her Instagram Live post, was pressured by the transgender model to reveal that he is gay.

Yassine told the New York Times that he was "shocked and very scared," adding that "she destroyed my life." He said that the video has been shared amongst school friends and others in his community, who have now blocked him on social media. His mother also allegedly refuses to talk to him. For Taia, all of this is reminiscent of his own experiences as a young man. 

Perhaps most damagingly, Taloni even described in her video how to track the GPS locations of gay men in Morocco. "Now she has put this in people's minds," Taia told The New Arab. "It opens the way for a witch-hunt against gay people." The writer and filmmaker also speculated that Taloni's reckless and seemingly inexplicable behaviour may be a cry for help, a symptom of her difficulty in adjusting psychologically to her fame.

It is very likely that the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating the already suffocating situation in which gay people find themselves in Morocco. The country is on full lockdown due to the pandemic – only one person per household is permitted to leave home each day, hotels are closed, and travel between cities is not permitted.

Across Morocco, hundreds of men have been harassed, blackmailed, threatened, and kicked out of their homes, according to human rights groups

Many are concerned that the measures mean that many of the "outed" victims will be trapped with family members from whom they may suffer abuse. According to renowned rights activist Omar Radi, a Moroccan student who was recently outed online committed suicide after returning from university in France. 

Making matters worse, the lockdown coincided with the holy month of Ramadan. Speaking to the BBC, Samir el Mouti, who runs a Facebook group called The Moroccan LGBT Community, said: "It's a double-edged sword. You might be in lockdown with a homophobic family, and with Ramadan, people are very concerned about morality, and things might get heated."

Abdellah Taia concurs. "Taloni has a responsibility," he told The New Arab. "She is a huge social media star in Morocco; so huge that even the real stars want to get pictures with her. It's unforgivable what she did – telling bored people, during Ramadan, how to find their gay relatives is horrible, just horrible." 

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Through groups such as Samir el Mouthi's, victims have begun to speak out. "I'm in great trouble," one man told the group. "Everyone knows now that I'm homosexual, and my neighbour sexually harassed me….I have nowhere to go – especially during the lockdown."  

While some are able to make their voices heard in limited ways, the deep concern is that the lockdown renders the suffering of LGBT people invisible. "What we've seen is just the tip of the iceberg," said Mouthi. "Many people are suffering in silence." Abdellah Taia echoes these worries: "I am sure a lot is happening, but we just don't know," he told The New Arab.

Like Mouti and Taia, many activists also worry that victims will not receive support from law enforcement in Morocco, due to the homophobia that pervades the police force. "The law is not on their side," Mouthi warned. "That makes the situation dangerous because people cannot report crimes to the police and ask for protection." 

Moroccan comedian Abdelatif Nhaila, who was also outed, went to the police to report the fact that personal images of him had been stolen and circulated online. Instead of filing a report, the police pressed charges against Nhaila himself, allegedly for violating the lockdown.  

The problem in Morocco has always been that many private citizens and organisations are in favour of gay-rights, but it is the power that stays silent
-Abdellah Taia, writer and filmmaker

Despite the dire situation, Abdellah Taia said there may be reasons for hope. "My own family changed their minds about my sexuality," he said. "The problem in Morocco has always been that many private citizens and organisations are in favour of gay-rights, but it is the power that stays silent."

Indeed, there was a time when Morocco was a relative haven for gay men, who came to the country after fleeing restrictions in their own homelands, including the US and the UK. William Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch, banned in the US for its depictions of gay sex, was written in a Tangier hotel room in the 1950s. 

"The thing with this is that Sofia Taloni is so high profile, that what she is encouraging in the video is dangerous for a lot of powerful people too," continued Taia. "So there is a chance they may take action." Taia also urged activists to capitalise on the international press coverage to give this issue the exposure it so desperately needs. "If any good can come out of this horrible tragedy, it may be that pro-LGBT organisations will get their voices heard," he said. 

While Ramadan came to a close on Friday, 23 May, there is no end in sight for the lockdown. It cannot come soon enough for Morocco's besieged LGBT population, although it may be that the damage has already been done.

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