Many Faces of Gay in Tunisia
In Tunisia gay life has many faces: from secretive post-marital same-sex-not-gay quickies among straight husbands, to ongoing pre-marital youth same-sex-not-gay with friends, to totally gay friendship networks among different age peers, to monogamous boyfriend couples to discrete liaisons from the internet. It is not easy to label the ‘scene’ here because it is not organized, not open, not admitted, yet it’s cruisy, sexy, internet-connected and quite populous. There is no LGBT organization or office.
During my visit I chatted with two very different gay men, one a young student at a local university and the other a retired Italian resident of Tunis now self-employed. Their gay worlds are similar and different.
A Youthful Student With a Long Future
Ari, a university student studying architecture, and I met at tea time and had creamy thick hot chocolate at a trendy modern coffee shop and later went for pizza across the street.
Ari is a gregarious gay youth of 20 maturing out of his twink years. Thoughtful, expressive, verbal (4 languages), introspective, narcissistic and gay. All of which fuel an adventurous spirit of discovery and wonder and also ennui with the world around him. Part of his ‘curse’ is being gay and privileged in a ‘third-world’ conservative Muslim country. Despite the early hopes of the Tunisian political revolution of 2011 subsequent elections brought an Islamist party to majority power due mostly to the secularists splintering into separate parties and unable to unite. The Islamists won with only 42% of the vote.
More than one gay person believes the former authoritarian government was at least more tolerant of LGBT citizens than the present one. One said the ousted president Ben Ali was privately tolerant of LGBT people as long as they didn’t get involved in politics. “Make sex, not politics,” he was alleged to have commented before his downfall.
Ari feels ‘stuck’ in his own culture, for the time being. He has long range plans to emigrate to Europe–Italy or Belgium–where there are open gay communities. “I want to study there and find a good job and a boyfriend without it being a secret,” he said with a mix of frustration and hope.
He is from a well to-do family who know he is gay and are accepting of him although it’s mostly dealt with by silence: don’t-ask-don’t-tell. But in his private life he does neither. All his friends know he is gay and he has no difficulty finding dates when he’s not putting long hours in at school. Currently he is dating a French telecom technician whom he met online at Manhunt.com, the major gay dating site in Europe and Africa. (French, along with Arabic, is the major language here; sophisticated Tunisians prefer to speak French.)
Ari talks about himself expressively and pensively; restless and eager to tell his story of life from an early age (before 10) when he had his first carnal experience at the hands of a cousin, which Ari at first resisted then quickly liked after a few times. “We did it for years. I wanted it each time. There was no problem because I think I was born gay and my cousin showed me that. If I wasn’t gay I think I would not have felt the pleasure of it.”
This went on until he was ten or eleven. When he finally told his mother she sent him to a psychiatrist who said he could cure him but only if he really wanted to change. “I thought he was crazy. How can I change such a natural part of me? I didn’t stay with him.” The doctor then thought Ari was depressed and gave him Prozac but it made him feel sleepy and buzzed. It was hard to focus so he stopped.
By the time he was twelve, in 2004, he was fully aware of what homosexuality is. The wide world of LGBT life is available to anyone with a computer. A friend of his whom he had known since the age of 10, when the friend was 12, had seduced Ari into the more intimate world of sexuality with kissing, licking and eventually intercourse, which Ari says he liked from the very start.
At no point in our talk did he express any disturbing emotions or trauma from his early sexual encounters. His major complaint is having to hide his truth and feeling negatively judged by society. “Guys talk about girls all the time and are frustrated because society says no sex before marriage. I’m not allowed to talk about guys but I can have all the sex I want before marriage. How funny life is so twisted.” Indeed, it’s a well-known secret within Muslim societies that young straight men are not virgins by the time they get married, having practiced on each other as teenagers. Ari has encountered more than one of these eager learners in his youthful past.
In his later teens he experienced the complexities of love and hurt as he dated some unreliable and deceptive boyfriends, most of whom were foreigners. Seeking a reliable stable relationship with a foreigner is always a risky affair for any native LGBT Tunisian since the expat is very likely to leave after a period of time; most are on professional assignments to Tunisia (from Europe) and must return when they are reassigned or become homesick or lose their job. Even an enduring lover may come and go, for business or personal reasons, with long periods apart when there are temptations to flirt and play which diminishes commitment–another reason why Ari wants to live in Europe with its high density ‘gay cities’ with supportive friendships and communities.
Ari readily admits that he is easily urged to love and passion by his heart: “First by my heart, then my cock then my brain is last,” he said laughing. Such impulses lead him to slippery feelings for other men, with shallow judgments and intense desires. “I feel love with such strong feelings…” All of which sound within normal limits for an active young gay person in a randy and random gay world (real and virtual) with no role models or guiding mature peers. Ari does not know any older gay men, who are hard to find since they are very discrete. Discovering one’s gay self in Tunisia is an uneven and unclear path especially when living singly without a community or tolerant society.
On the other hand, neither he is socially isolated. Outgoing and expressive he does not stay alone long. During our two hour talk his smartphone rang several times from friends at school as well as a couple of messages from his current boyfriend. He has mostly straight friends and a few gay friends with whom he talks, studies, shops, and hangs with when not in class.
Returning to the issue of his ‘confinement’ in Tunisia, at his young age Ari feels the ennui of a privileged child who has been given a liberal early education at private schools, who comes from a family devoid of fundamentalist religious attitudes, who has developed an intelligent and wide-ranging open mindedness toward the West and has a worldliness beyond his peers whom he often finds boring and focused on shallow interests. “I like opera and symphonies as well as pop; some of my peers think I am crazy but I don’t relate completely to this Tunisian culture. I like European and American culture.” Being gay further alienates him from the vast majority of Tunisians and the Arab world: “I don’t feel Arab. I feel more French than Tunisian. This culture is too small for me.”
He plans to move to west Europe to complete his university studies in architecture, a decision that is fortunately supported by his parents. They appear to understand that life for a gay son in Tunisia is restricted and potentially harmful. “I want to make my mother very proud of me. I want to be famous so she can say ‘that’s my son!’. Also I want a husband, a monogamous one”, he said with the urgency of a impatient young gay male in the 21st century who is very aware of the bigger world beyond the shores of the Mediterranean. He has miles and years to go to fulfill his dream and keeping the dream alive will take patience and careful planning.
A Senior Gay Businessman with a Long History
My second interview was with a new friend called Michel (not his real name) about the ‘scene’ here in the Tunisian capital. He has been a European resident of Tunisia for the past seven years. For Michel, things are busy, adventurous, historic and modern. He lives comfortably in a stylish 2-bedroom home fronting the Mediterranean that he shares with a dozen cats.
Although far apart in age, Michel and Ari have similar observations about gay life in Tunisia. Both acknowledge there is considerable same-sex non-gay activity that is easily accessed from the street or the internet. Tunisian society is liberal by Arab standards but far from publicly pro-gay. Both understand (and experience) that young men do not have easy physical access to women before marriage, “which makes them easy to cruise,” said Michel with a smile. “Even with older men, it’s not hard to use ‘gaydar’ to make eye contact with a willing guy. But if you want to take action it’s necessary to have your own place. As much as they want sex, they are afraid of it, of being found out.”
“In my opinion,” Michel continued, “I think 85% percent of the men here are willing to have sex with another man. Before the revolution of 2011, my guess is that 25% of all tourists to Tunisia were gay, Now, tourism is down but it will come back and the pleasure seekers from Europe will come. Why? Because here hormones run high and money talks. Tunisians are motivated by both,” laughing as he spoke.
So began our chat in the dining room of his home with the windows open to the sea. With the sound of waves washing ashore, he spoke from the wisdom of his 72 years. He has lived in Europe, America and northern Africa. “Look at this view,” he said sweeping his hand toward the blue sea fifty feet away. “Can there be any better place to live?” Michel has hosted many gay tourists through his travel agency and is very familiar with Tunisia and its gay subculture.
“To understand the gay culture here you have to forget your western ideas of what is gay. Tunisian men, especially younger unmarried men are willing to play around with same-sex but you cannot call them gay. They will not admit to it and they are not really. Homosexuality carries a strong stigma here and anyone caught will be carry that stigma for a long time.” Michel explained he had a friend once who was merely hinted at being gay because he lived in another man’s house, not as a lover but a friend. A relative reported him to the police who came knocking to inquire. A bit a money sent them away with no evidence but in the family the rumor spread and he has twice been refused marriage by women in his home town. Such is the power of rumor and gossip in Tunisia.
Michel repeated the ‘open secret’ about young men in the Arab Muslim world. Inaccessible women brings alternative outlets for sexual relief. But none of these ‘swingers’ would ever say he was gay. Even most homosexuals will deny they are gay. Only a very small percent are out to friends or family. Despite his opinion that 85% have experimented with other guys at some time, Michel was repeatedly adamant that this does not make them gay or even bisexual. “If same-sex is used for relief outside of marriage that doesn’t mean gay or bisexual. It simple means sexual relief.” (photo right: Bardo Museum of Tunis which houses one of the largest collections of Roman mosaics in the world)
Afterwards, however, reactions vary for these men. It can be a smile of satisfaction with a suggestion of ‘next time’, not unusual among older with younger guys. Or it can be fear and paranoia for having transgressed the strong religious taboo against homosexuality. Michel recounted one man with whom he once tricked who now completely avoids any eye or verbal contact. “He was terrified anyone should ever know, which no one will. We were totally alone in my bedroom with no one here. It’s too bad because he was a nice guy.”
Same-sex is Not Gay
“It’s impossible to make a general truth about same-sex activity in Tunisia,” continued Michel. There are many kinds and many situations. There are actually long-term adult gay couples who live together or near each other (“a few”), depending on how much freedom they have. They are quite difficult to find since they are very secretive except with closest friends. Also, there are young gay guys who hook up daily or weekly or monthly on the internet; it’s very easy now. And some Tunisian guys are willing to be gay-for-pay with foreigners. That’s why 25% of my clients who come to Tunisia are gay–here for that reason. As I said, money and hormones talk.”
As well, there are married guys who get it on with a friend or stranger once in a while out of sexual frustration with their wives. Michel told of a gay friend who brought home a non-gay acquaintance to watch hetero porno together and when the acquaintance got aroused, hot and bothered (and a little drunk) it was easy to invite him the bedroom. “But that was not a homosexual situation for the straight guy since he could think he was drunk or persuaded against his will. It’s not denial really. It’s just a moment of urge. Every one has them.” (photo left: boys selling coconuts in central Tunis)
Michel smiled with a knowing look as he described sex between a Tunisian and a foreigner as not gay when a ‘gift’ is given (to the native guy). “Money is another way to redefine what happens. ‘Gay for pay’ with a foreigner for money is not gay. It’s a business transaction and a man may even brag about it among his friends, although that’s not likely.”
This reminded him to say that Tunisians (and Arabs) are very quiet when they climax as a result of their early life sexual experiences in the same bed with a cousin or a friend. A common social tradition when visiting relatives is a sleep-over with same genders sharimg a bed. “They are very quiet so no one in the next room can hear.”he said with a knowing smile.
But if two Tunisians are known to have willingly engaged in homosexual behavior, especially as adults, that is serious and a person can’t simply brush it off as a ‘deal’. Both male and female same-sex sexual activity are criminal acts (up to three years in jail for private acts of sodomy). It can ruin a reputation, Michel said, reminding me of his story about his refused bachelor friend.
Are gays now more at risk since that revolution and the election of the Islamist party? “Not more at risk,” said Michel, “but there is less tolerance now.” (One recent unverified report said there have been random arrests of gays yet the Ennahda political party has stated that it would decriminalize homosexuality if it were elected to lead the country. (There is no sign of this happening despite their success in the election.)
Then there is the occasional hammam where men undress, get steamy, scrubbed down and perhaps a bit more if the price is met and a private alcove is available. During my visit I did not go to the hamman with a ‘reputation’ but rather to the well known hammam El Kachachine, which was more functional than elegant, for a hot dip, a cold splash and a brief scrub. It was nothing to write home about or include in this story.
Two Voices, Two Ages: One Culture
The two voices in this story are from opposite ends of the gay spectrum in Tunisia: a twenty-tear-old college student and a seventy-two-year-old business man. Their reactions to me were different yet the same. Ari wants to be known and was okay with my using his real first name (which I changed anyway) while Michel did not want any personal reference to his name or business, even though 25% of his travel agency business is LGBT, mainly from Europe.
The ‘macro’ overview of Tunisian gay life as it’s described in the media and from hearsay is one of a forbidden, shameful life in the closet. To talk with Ari and Michel, however, nothing has changed much in the society since the revolution and their gay lives are casual, active and easy. Neither is at a loss for friendships or dates since they use Facebook or Badoo.com or Manhunt.com–or the marketplace–for finding others. (photo right from Tagged.com)
Both receive messages of inquiry (for Michel) or devotion (for Ari) from other Facebook users including foreigners who want to know more or locals who want to do more. Using online social media, the two men have developed a cadre of international and local acquaintances with whom they chat and occasional meet, but only up to a point. Most of Ari’s time is given over to his studies at college and Michel is very busy with his travel business.
Ari is unusual in his discreet openness about his sexuality. But urban Tunis is more liberal, to a limited Arab degree, and secular than the rest of Tunisia–at the present time. Michel has noticed a recent shift to the religious right as more women are wearing hijabs (headscarves), abayas (full length cloaks) and niqābs (veils) and less liquor is served in cafes and restaurants. He also thinks that gays are now less relaxed about cruising in public.
But Ari does not worry about hiding. He knows what he likes and wants from certain other men and does not hide in shadows. Not that he is noticeable in public. He does not ‘look’ gay and quietly conducts his intimate life with discretion and ease. He has a ‘lightness of being’ about himself, assured of his gayness and his right to express that in an individual manner as he sees fit. He feels he has a right to his freedom and to his desiring without shame. There is a young pride edge to his demeanor; it is not flaunting but rather an assuredness and self confidence. Although he would not foolishly walk down a dark alley alone at night, his conversational style is not typically macho and he doesn’t mind if others pick up on that.
Michel is also comfortably gay and has both gay and straight friends, some of whom do not know or care about that aspect of his personality. When a man grows up over several decades masking his full truth he develops a style of sociability that’s cordial and friendly with a veil of caution and discretion about how open to be. If homophobic remarks are made in a social setting he is not likely to confront the person about his bad taste. Rather he will let it go to keep from drawing attention to himself, especially in all-male cafes where the main event is smoking cigarettes and bubbly pipes while watching soccer on a wide-screen TV and drinking espresso coffee or mint tea. Michel operates with a smooth self-censorship that his generation learned well in order to protect itself and ‘pass’ as just another guy in a smokey cafe.
If Ari wants out of Tunisia, Michel has found a reason for staying, a niche that suits him–in a business, with friends, good food, a charming home and an occasional night of pleasure. He is comfortable with his gay life in Tunisia having lived abroad in the West and in Europe. He knows the world and its choices and has come round full circle, as it were. He has had–and still has–many delights and adventures of a modern gay man and is comfortably self-assigned to Tunisia by the sea.
Both men want the intimacy and feel of other men; they are comforted by the touch and kiss of other maleness for reasons deep in their being. Indeed, there are many idealized kinds of lovers, each unique to the emotions and ghosts of desire within. For now, for both of these two gay men, Tunisian life is sufficient while the future is always in motion.
By Richard Ammon
Note: On 18 March 2015, shortly after my visit to there, three terrorists in military uniforms attacked the Bardo National Museum in the Tunisian capital city of Tunis, and took hostages. Twenty-one people, mostly European tourists, were killed at the scene, while an additional victim died ten days later. Around fifty others were injured. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Tunisian history. (Wikipedia) Neither Michel nor Ari was near the museum that day.