Last February, I was summoned for investigation by the criminal unit of the Tipasa district police station in Algeria. The reason behind the investigation, according to the inspector, was offending God in my novel City of the White Shadows. In fact, I could only interpret that as a mere pretext, since the novel had received a good deal of media attention in Algeria - not for the references to God that it contains, but rather for addressing homosexuality in the context of the revolution; namely, the protagonist represents a gay martyr in the Algerian War of Liberation. A few months prior, I had been excessively attacked in one of the largest national Arabic dailies (ach-Chourouq) and on the main Islamist pages in Algeria, which depicted the novel as using homosexuality to insult the revolution and the image of fallen Algerians. The subject was unprecedented in the national cultural and literary scene, and was expected to be in the spotlight, especially as the War of Liberation holds a sacred place in Algerian collective memory, even holier than Islam. The strong argument, which ultimately swayed public debate in favour of my novel, was that I had dedicated it to Jean Sénac, also known by his nom de guerre Yahya al-Ouahrani, a prominent Algerian rebel known for being gay. This was why the inspectors, or those instigating their investigations, refrained from accusing me of insulting the revolution.
I knew from the start that raising the subject of homosexuality in the context of Algeria’s holiest of holies (the War of Independence) would not go unchallenged. Yet it was still striking to discover the official perception of homosexuals as second class citizens, even those who fell during Algeria’s War of Liberation and who were erased from collective memory until my novel City of the White Shadows forced the subject into the public debate.
Some might wonder what the Algerian Revolution had to do with the situation of homosexuals in Algeria. In fact, it is at the heart of the subject and is key to explaining the dismal situation experienced by this minority in the North African country. The main reason for persecuting this category of Algerians based on their sexual orientation is the stereotypical framework within which they are depicted. It draws on Algerian history - or rather, on a fake conception of the past, falsified to represent homosexuals in Algerian media, Arabic cinema, and Islamic culture as ridiculous, idiotic individuals whose sole and only interest in life is to engage in sexual intercourse. Thus, exploring the field of the Algerian War and raising this taboo of gay rebels was a slap in the face of the over-sacralised treatment of the Algerian Revolution, especially as this was customarily bathed in the musk of testosterone and other pheromones of masculinity and virility. Therefore, my novel City of the White Shadows earned the honour of being the first of its kind to be subjected to judicial investigation in the history of the Algerian state. Only one among other neglected topics that remain unspoken, my novel addressing homosexuality can break stereotypes and open up this subject to realistic, critical discussion and renewed study of this Revolution’s history.
So how do homosexuals in Algeria exist with this demeaning and insulting stereotype in mind?
One way or another, the repeated wicked treatment of sexual minorities in Algeria, particularly of male homosexuals, has forced these groups into a sort of acceptance of second-class citizenship. Algerian homosexuals have been conditioned to regard themselves in the same way they are perceived by society: with scorn. This acquiescence to self-loathing has also led in a sense to Algerian society’s acceptance of this minority solely within the confines of their self-hatred. This explains some violent practices against this community, whose members never bother to report any incidents of assault to the police. The first enabling factor for such behaviour remains a lack of awareness among homosexuals of their rights. For many, lack of awareness is even driven by their own belief in the inherent fairness of the mistreatment the broader society reserves for them.
What is the legal perspective on homosexuality? Does the law provide homosexuals with protection?
Algerian law criminalises homosexuality and describes it as sexual deviancy or unnatural behaviour, despite the fact that Algeria is a member of the World Health Organisation, which removed classification of homosexuality as a disease almost three decades ago. Algeria does not want to acknowledge this scientific fact at all, choosing instead to disregard it along with many international conventions safeguarding human rights and fundamental liberties, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Algeria’s national legislature - far from being independent from the executive authority - chooses to overlook such international conventions, which supersede the Algerian constitution. According to article 338 of the Algerian Penal Code, homosexual acts may be punished by a two-month to two-year prison sentence plus a fine.
Thus all homosexuals and the Algerian LGBT community as a whole are outlaws subject to arrest by the Algerian judiciary and law enforcement authorities. This situation is highly absurd and basically irrational; it renders these sanctioning articles of the law anti-constitutional, as the constitution already absolutely forbids any discrimination among citizens regardless of its basis and expressly calls for equality.
Nevertheless, Algeria’s organic law remains supraconstitutional in matters related to gender, religion, or thought in Algeria.
Is there a political will to foster homosexual rights?
It doesn’t seem like it at all. Political will, even though it seems soft on homosexuals to a certain extent by simply refusing to acknowledge their existence, this denial itself is the biggest form of persecution. No political figure in power has ever raised the subject, neither negatively nor positively, except for the new Minister of Religious Affairs, Mohammed Issa, whose Islamic opinion seems quite extreme.
I believe that in the future, Algeria will see itself forced to concede greater legal concessions to this minority in the context of international relations impacting its decision-making, especially considering that a large Algerian diaspora community lives in Europe and is governed by both Algerian and European laws. The country shall keep up with regional and global developments in this field.
Are there associations defending homosexual rights in Algeria?
The struggle for gay rights in Algeria remains on the individual level. Only a tiny number of people, who can be counted on the fingers of one hand, are frankly expressing their opinions on the subject. The conversation is basically elitist and not shared with the public, which has created a discursive gap among the elites and their people; many are actually afraid to be put in the same negative category as homosexuals, if they were to explicitly express their positive opinions about them.
The situation has become extremely corrupt. Nobody honestly thinks about the rights of this marginalised class in Algeria, neither legal associations nor national organisations. There are no reports, official or semi-official, about cases of aggression or any such abuses against this community. All there is are corrupt groups exploiting the situation for their own financial gain and seeking their own funding. In the meantime, Algerian gay activism is still real, and it finds individual expression through art and literature, as well as in penning articles.
Lastly, I want to affirm that the LGBT community in Algeria is experiencing a sexual revolution, but they are in dire need of a parallel intellectual one. The fake liberty they are currently experiencing cannot continue with rise of Islamist currents in the country. The elites should understand this trend, and encourage this weaker and more timid minority community to rise up and defend their rights before the catastrophe and terrible massacres that might befall it in the future happen. This can only be achieved by evolving mindsets and attitudes in Algeria. It is basically a matter of raising awareness, and so there is a role to be played by intellectuals; law and religion cannot defeat scientific facts forever. This sexual apartheid will ultimately end if Algerian elites take up their duty to defend this category of the Algerian people.