Behind the #WeWillRespectHomosexualRights campaign in the Middle East

Last week, the hashtag سنحترم_حقوق_المثليين#, Arabic for “we will respect homosexual rights,” took the Arab world by storm, trending in several Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Algeria. With over a hundred thousand tweets, I became curious about how the conversation it sparked came about. Through a network of young social organizers and activists, I managed to find the group behind the campaign.

It began with a group of Saudi LGBTQ+ youth watching an episode of Al-Fe’a Al-Fala, a Saudi entertainment show anchored by YouTubers Ammar and Mahmoud Ramadan, and part of the larger talent and entertainment UTURN company. According to the company’s website, their shows reach over 84 million viewers per month.

The episode, which was released on February 4 and later removed from the show’s YouTube channel, covers the “success” of Saudi religious authorities in shutting down and arresting guests at a gay wedding in Riyadh. While news about this particular incident are scarce, the hashtag “deviant marriage in Riyadh” reached nearly 40,000 tweets in Saudi Arabia a week earlier. The Saudi government-sanctioned Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice later confirmed the incident.

“They smacked them down,” the YouTubers jubilantly said, referring to “deviant” homosexuals. “The 3-minutes long assault against Arab LGBTQ+ individuals only got more painful as we continued watching,” I was told by a member of the LGBTQ+ group who requested to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

“It wasn’t enough that the hosts mocked our rights as human beings and citizens who contribute to our communities while living under repressive regimes, they explicitly encouraged our execution ‘in the most horrific ways, execution by impalement,’” he added.

“Our initial reaction was simple: this episode is disgusting. We began reporting it in line with YouTube’s community standards, and we later saw it removed, which was great news,” said the activist.

Nonetheless, a depressing reality overturned that sense of accomplishment. “We still couldn’t talk about the horrific episode publicly. It was then that we launched the hashtag through anonymous accounts,” the activist continued.

Within 72 hours, the campaign generated over a hundred thousand tweets. Skeptics and worshipers alike shared their views, ranging from support to violent threats countering with the hashtag “suggest a way to kill faggots.”

“We believe people felt strongly about the call to kill homosexuals, especially nowadays when most Arabs look around them only to find terror, death, and destruction,” the activist said. It wasn’t too long before supporters pointed out that such vile hate only propagates the agenda of Daesh — the Arabic acronym we use to describe ISIS — whose social media tactics and religious interpretations are vehemently rejected and condemned across the Arab world.

When I asked him about the purpose of the campaign and the reaction it drove, he acknowledged that “while much of the hashtag activity was negative, to merely bring LGBTQ+ matters to the surface in the manner we did is a success.” After all, it is a rarity that people in the Middle East, let alone Saudi Arabia, address long held taboos about sexuality and human rights.

According to another member of the group behind the campaign, “this success is not a virtual one confined to the online world or a distant claim from the difficult realities facing LGBTQ+ individuals in the region. In fact, as a local reaction to homophobia, our campaign revealed a rare encounter with people’s willingness to critically participate in these issues.”

Perhaps most curious is that the epicenter of this campaign is Saudi Arabia. While the Kingdom is frequently the subject of conversation concerning its abysmal record on human rights in general, and especially LGBTQ+ rights, the group’s reaction highlights a refreshing local effort. “We didn’t imagine that the campaign would lead to such a massive and diverse response around the region,” said both members. Often, discussing LGBTQ+ rights in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East at international forums is marginal at best. That’s why the activists believe the “campaign’s explicit goal to respect homosexuals is truly unprecedented in the country.”

As with many minority groups, life for the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East in general, is not simple. LGBTQ+ youths face insults and severely bad treatment on a daily basis. Both men expressed concern that “many homosexuals, because we do not get the right information about ourselves, get exploited by pedophiles, or raped, usually without being able to ask for help because of the shame the society has imposed on us.” The challenges persist even with their closest allies in a culture that praises good familial relations.

“We might face repudiation from our families, continuous psychological and emotional harm, where it will not be much of a surprise to know that many of us have attempted to commit suicide. This is not to mention the high rate of physical violence and murder threatening us continually,” they added.

Recently, Twitter got serious about closing accounts that incite violence; as a result, more than 125,000 accounts, “primarily related to ISIS,” have been stopped. For their part, the young activists are reporting accounts that threatened their lives, and a good number of accounts with tens of thousands of followers were suspended.

I asked the group members what’s next? While their response exposed a sense of insecurity, they appeared determined to drive the conversation forward.

“We can’t know for sure where this conversation will take us,” an activist said. “It may come to a halt or advance our humanity. But one thing we now certainly know is that, for better or worse, people in the region are gradually becoming more willing to engage in conversations about long marginalized issues like sexuality and human rights.”

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