On the occasion of the anniversary of the infamous Queen Boat case, which took place on May 11, 2001, we have decided to take a look back at the last 19 years and see how the LGBTIQ+ community - and the Egyptian society at large - have evolved. The period was marked by positive events, times where we all hopes were possible and solidarity arouse; but also, unfortunately, by crackdowns, repression, and public shaming. We have listed below some of the important milestones witnessed by the Egyptian LGBTIQ+ community and asked some of its members and defenders to send us their testimonies. We hope that by looking into our recent past, struggles, successes, and failures, we’ll be able to build a stronger community and a better future for all.
Prepared by ANKH
2001: Queen Boat
A police raid on a floating nightclub called the Queen Boat saw 52 men arrested. The proceedings, less of a judicial exercise than extravaganza, accused the men - most of whom did not even know each other until their jailing, not just of dissident desires but of participating in a blasphemous conspiracy. Sensational headlines savaging them as “Satan-worshippers” and “sexual perverts” filled the papers for months. They spread a new image of homosexual conduct: no longer a private matter but a menace to public safety, the code of a cult eroding moral values, a subversive network threatening state security.
At that time, it was the fiercest attacks ever, and what made it even worse was that there was no appropriate means of communication for people to communicate about the danger. Many people of different classes were arrested. After that, Taha Ambaby -The officer in charge- became even more fierce and there were waves of arrests, and newspapers were writing the dirtiest words ever, and kept inventing and fabricating cases only to spread the hate in people's hearts. Until today, I remember so many details and events of these dark days, I have never witnessed darkest times.
2003: Qasr Al-Nil arrests
On 24 September 2003, police set up checkpoints at both sides of the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, which spans the Nile in downtown Cairo and is a popular place for adult men to meet other men for sex, arrested 62 men for homosexuality.
2006: “The Yacoubian Building”
Based on the novel of the same title by author Alaa Al Aswany, it has been reported to be the highest-budgeted film in the history of Egyptian cinema. The movie depicts many different taboos within Egyptian society, including homosexuality, which promoted public calls from social conservatives to censor or ban the film's exhibition.
“I remember very well that day - I was a teenager - when I saw the trailer on TV, my heart was beating really fast and I didn’t understand what was happening on screen. I was scared to go to the cinema to watch the film, but after great thought, I went with some friends of mines. As the movie was playing, I couldn’t help but think what will happen at the end? And when the gay character died in the end, I was crying, but everyone in the room was standing full of joy, happiness, and contentment. Then I knew the real tragedy…”
The development and use of internet platforms reached a turning point in 2009 when the German website Gayromeo became the international platform PlanetRomeo, and the application Grindr was founded. These gay dating platforms, along with the general development of the Internet, social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat…) and smartphones, constituted a revolution for the Egyptian LGBTIQ+ community, who not only had access to more information but were also able to connect and meet other members of the community. In 2009, the Internet penetration rate in Egypt was 24%, reaching 54% in 2020.
"Of course, the Internet, and specially the idea that we have access to the information, had a great impact on me ; for instance, I did not even know at that time that there was a something called 'Bysexuality', but then I was able to search online about my sexual orientation."
2011: Egyptian revolution
The Egyptian revolution of 25 January 2011 provided a political momentum and space for LGBTIQ+ organizing in Egypt that were exceptionally productive in terms of movement building. In the aftermath of the revolution, Egyptian LGBTIQ+ individuals, activists, and organizations started becoming more visible and more eager to be part of the changing political and social landscapes that seemed promising and empowering. Many of the emerging LGBTIQ+ activists, back then, started mobilizing not only LGBTIQ+ rights but other intersecting rights as well. Women's Rights, Gender and sexuality rights, Indigenous people's rights, and civic rights were among the main intersecting struggles that shaped the LGBTIQ+ activism in the post-revolution years. No one can claim that such mobilization resulted in successes that a normative legal perspective could translate into legal reforms; however, it was because of such mobilization and the advocacy that resulted from it that defending the rights of people targeted based on their sexuality by the Egyptian state became more of a collective demand within Human Rights groups and organizations in Egypt. Also, thanks to the revolution, the Egyptian public sphere provided a space for the LGBTIQ+ community, that even at the toughest moments of a state-sponsored crackdown, they still managed to claim it.
"The 25 January revolution did not change anything regarding LGBTQ rights, as the matter has no direct relation to the end of the political regimes, but the matter is more complicated than that، as the change requires a social revolution in which the social and religious dogmas need to fall, which didn't happen during the January revolution, even if hope still exists 9 years after 25 January 2011"
Shahinaz Abdel Salam
2012: Egyptian Day Against Homophobia
In 2012, after the Revolution, Egyptian LGBTIQ+ organizations and activists decided to set up May 11 as the Egyptian Day Against Homophobia, in commemoration of the Queen Boat raid that happened on that date 11 years before. An online campaign took place on that day, raising awareness among Egyptian civil society on LGBTIQ+ rights.
2014: Sisi’s regime
Since general Abdel Fattah El-Sisi rose to power in July 2014, the Egyptian regime has started an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and individual freedoms, targeting activists, journalists, NGOs, minority groups, etc. The LGBTIQ+ community has been specifically targeted during this period, the number of people being arrested annually, and referred to trial in such cases increasing five-fold compared to the precedent period. An intensive media propaganda has been presenting LGBTIQ+ individuals as traitors to the nation and its religious values, laws have been passed forbidding the “promotion of homosexuality”, and massive campaigns, as well as individuals arrests, have happened frequently - many individuals being lured and traped through social applications.
We have never experienced such level of oppression or fear before. After Sisi reached power, the government started playing the LGBT card to turn the mass population against us - to hide big political moves. We all went into hiding. Even our Facebook groups went into secret. They started hunting us on the LGBT dating apps. The police started raiding houses and everyone was absolutely terrified of being publicly prosecuted or scandalized or humiliated. It has never been that bad before his regime. They treated us like animals, impure and unworthy of living.
2014: The “Gay wedding” video
In November 2014, eight men were sentenced to three years in prison for charges of spreading indecent images, following the circulation of a video of a supposed gay marriage ceremony.
2014: Bab El-Bahr
One night in December 2014, officers from the police and Central Security Forces burst into this traditional bathhouse and arrested the 26 people inside, including all the staff, under the camera of a TV program lead by Mona Al-Iraqi, who later released the video of the arrestation. The men were accused of charges of “habitual debauchery” and “indecent public acts," among others; bywords in Egyptian law for the prosecution of homosexuality.
2017: Rainbow Flag
On September 23, 2017, a concert by famous Lebanese group Mashrou’ Leila - the only openly LGBTIQ+ band in the Arab world - was attended by a crowd of thousands of Egyptian youth. On this occasion, rainbow flags were raised publicly for the first time in Egyptian history, and pictures of this shared on social media. In the following months, up to 75 people were arrested in connection with the concert – individuals who raised the flag but also other people who are or were perceived to be LGBTIQ+, and activists seen to be supporting the community. Forced anal examinations were carried out in the crackdown to supposedly determine whether arrested men had engaged in gay sex. International human rights groups condemned this as torture. The Syndicate of Musical Professions later banned Mashrou’ Leila from performing in Egypt, and new legislation was passed a few weeks after criminalizing “LGBT advocacy or propaganda”.
“How has repression affected the LGBTIQ+ community? It increased the fear and the sense of insecurity in our own country and inside our own families because of the patriarchal system that refuses to accept the others.
The presence of homosexuals among you - and maybe in your own family - should be accepted by now. Resist your hatred of us, resist your hatred of anyone different from you, and know that rejection and hatred will not make you a better person nor will get you to heaven.”
2019: Malak El-Kashif
Malak El-Kashif is a transgender activist who was arrested on March 6, 2019, by Egyptian security forces after having posted online criticism to the regime. She was accused of “aiding a terrorist organization” and “misusing social media to commit a crime punishable by law”. Despite her female identity, Malak El-Kashif was placed in a prison for men, where she has suffered from various forms of abuse, violence, inhuman treatment, and discrimination based on her gender identity. After an international support campaign, she was finally released on July 15, 2019. Since then, she has been one of the most recognized local voices campaigning from transsexual, LGBTIQ+, and women’s rights in Egypt.
Hossam Ahmed, a trans-man who was arrested alongside Malak El-Kashif in the same case, has been himself detained for more than 1 year without trial. Despite international pressures and campaigns, the Egyptian government still refuses to release him.
“We need to love ourselves as we are and to accept ourselves as we are, and to take our decisions with strength and steadiness, because the price that we pay to come out might be heavy, but the gain of us coming out, our self-confidence and self-awareness, this is priceless. Because it is important for a person to win themselves, even if they lose everything else.”
2019 Universal Periodic Review
In November 2019, Egypt’s Human Rights situation in the past 5-year period was being reviewed during the Geneva-held 43rd Regular Session of the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) activities, a process called Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Egypt received a record number of 372 recommendations by United Nations Human Rights Council members, including 3 on LGBTIQ+ situation. The Egyptian government rejected these recommendations on the basis that it “does not recognize the terms mentioned in this recommendation,” thus denying the existence of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Recommendation 57 - Iceland: "End the arrest and prosecution of people for their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and repeal laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relations"
Recommendation 61 -
The Netherlands: "End the practice of entrapment and subsequent arrest and prosecution based on sexual orientation and gender identity"
Recommendation 62 -Canada: "Take steps to protect the rights of LGBTI individuals and ensure that they are not subject to discriminatory arrest or prosecution under criminal charges of indecency or debauchery"
2020: Nour Hisham Selim
In an unprecedented public move, film star Hisham Selim acknowledged during an interview on the satellite channel Al-Qahera Wal Nass on May 4, 2020, that his son Nour was a transexual (born as a girl, he has undergone sex-reassignment surgery and is now officially a male). This interview, followed few days after by a second one in the presence of Nour on the DW Arabic channel, opened widely the topic of transexual identity in the Egyptian society, and many praised Hisham Selim for his tolerance and acceptance of his son’s identity.