Ramy Ayari, 25, is from Tunisia. He has been living in exile in Montreal since 2016. An activist and spokesperson in the LGBTQ+ community, he fled his country because it was no longer safe for him to keep fighting for the cause. Here, he reflects on an activist journey that has been anything but ordinary.
I never hid the fact that I was gay. On the contrary, I’ve always been out. But for a long time, i didn’t understand what being out really implied.
In the beginning, I was nothing more than a computer science student in Tunis who happened to be gay. I wasn’t an activist. Little by little, though, things began to change. I started fighting — not only for me, for others as well.
As a result, I never finished my degree. Over time, I became too visible to keep attending university without being harassed by men and women who felt threatened by my sexual orientation and my activism.
To understand my life as an activist, you need to think back to 2011 and to the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring, which began in my country, leading to the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had led the country since 1987.
For part of the population, the end of his reign was a sign of hope, the first step toward a more just society. But in the first few months there was mainly just enormous political and social confusion.
Islamists took advantage of this uncertainty to take power. Tunisia became a country run by the Muslim Brotherhood.
As far as LGBTQ+ activism was concerned, the situation was pretty paradoxical. Some Tunisian activists were showing willingness to push the boundaries, empowered by the fact that they could finally create independent human rights associations. At the same time, the conservative political context didn’t help (link in French).
In 2011, the first issue of Gayday Magazine came out. Entirely dedicated to the LGBTQ+ communities of the Middle East and North Africa, the magazine was a huge step forward. But just after the magazine was founded, its creators had to leave Tunisia because of pressure from the authorities.
For me, things happened gradually. I worked until 2014 as a volunteer with informal LGBTQ+ groups that I had connected with on social media. Our actions were very limited; we had to keep a low profile because we couldn’t afford to attract too much attention as we discreetly organized fundraisers and encouraged meetings between members of the community.
From the closet to the front of the march
That same year, I gave an interview to the German magazine Café Babel, titled “C’est quoi être gay en Tunisie ?” (“What is it to be gay in Tunisia?”) (link in French). I knew I was taking risks by making my sexual orientation public, but I thought the risks were worth taking and could help move things along.
That article started a conversation and gave me some visibility. Very quickly, I started using Facebook as a blog. As my influence grew, so did my desire to create a movement.
That’s how the association Without Restrictions was born, created in January 2015 by me and my friend Mariem.
Our objective was simple: we wanted to oppose the criminalization of homosexuality, and by extension, support the abolition of article 230 of the Penal Code of 1913 (link in French), which criminalizes homsexuality for men and women (in the Arabic version of the text) and sodomy (in the French version).
Very quickly, we attracted unwanted attention from the government and began to feel the heat of their pressure tactics. Our communications were monitored, and our phones, our email addresses and our organization’s Facebook account were hacked. We were all under pressure. I myself have been on the receiving end of violence from the authorities, but also from ordinary Tunisian men and women who had a hostile attitude toward what I had to say. Some people didn’t hesitate to give me a piece of their minds, sometimes brutally, in bars, in the street or on social media.
The “Marwan affair”
In 2015, the “Marwan affair” made headlines: A French man was killed in the town of Sousse and the police found the phone number of a man named Marwan on the victim’s body. The young man was the French victim’s lover — which was enough to send him to prison.
This affair was widely covered in the media and gave part of the public an idea of how the authorities treated gays and lesbians. Some practices were denounced, particularly the “anal tests” that were often practiced on people suspected of being gay.
All of the LGBTQ+ associations in the region (link in French), including mine, came together and launched a petition for the liberation of young Marwan, which gathered more than 400,000 signatures. On Dec. 17, 2015, the court of appeals ruled in favour of Marwan, who was now free.
The power of photos
Because things seemed to be moving forward, I wanted to go further, and I decided to pose for a series of photos. In one of them, I’m kissing another man. In another, I’m wearing a dress.
As I had to expect, after the photos were published, I received more threats, to the point that I had to go into hiding at a friend’s house for two weeks after they came out. My family was looking everywhere for me, but I had to stay in hiding.
The whole situation was devastating for my mother. She thought I needed to stop being an activist. For her, homosexuality brought shame on the family. She pushed me to see a psychologist, who she hoped would “cure” me.
In the streets
On Jan. 14, 2016, in honour of the anniversary of the revolution, we organized one of the first LGBTQ+ pride marches in the country, along Avenue Habib-Bourguiba, the grandest avenue in Tunis. There were only five of us marching, as a much larger group of counter-protesters threw stones.
A month later, I appeared in the documentary Au-delà de l’Ombre (Beyond the Shadows) by the Tunisian producer Nada Mezni Hafaiedh. The film centred around the controversial activist Amina Sboui, vice-president of the Tunisian LGBTQ+ association Shams and a former Femen member (she left the movement in 2013 (link in French), calling some of their actions Islamophobic). The documentaire won a Bronze Tanit at the Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage film festival in 2017.
Broken ribs and exile
Around this time, I started to receive a number of invitations from Quebec organizations inviting me to give public talks in Montreal. There was only one problem: my visa was refused because the immigration officer thought I wouldn’t leave when it expired.
The evening of my visa refusal, while I was at a bar in Tunis at a friend’s birthday party, I was attacked by five men and suffered several broken ribs.
When I went to file a complaint, the police did nothing. I didn’t even have access to medical care. The next morning, I got a Facebook message from one of the police officers who had processed my complaint. His message was clear: what I had gone through the previous night was only the beginning.
Some time later, I was invited to Montreal again, for the 2016 World Social Forum. This time, I was allowed into the country, to speak and share my experience as a front-line activist defending the rights of LGBTQ+ Tunisians on the world stage.
This event gave me the chance to reflect on my activism. I realized that back home, I would be in more danger than ever. I also understood that people could target my family.
I made one of the hardest choices of my life. Despite the fact that my mother had cancer, and despite the fact that I loved my country, I decided to seek political asylum in Canada.
The weight of the battle
Today, I’ve decided to step back from activism for awhile. The weight has become too heavy to carry, not only here, but also back home, where my family has been pressured. My mother had to move and close her beauty salon for her own safety. A few weeks ago, I publicly announced that I was quitting activism for good, which calmed things down in Tunisia.
My association in Tunisia has paused its activities. People are working underground, trying not to make waves; the association no longer has official activities — for good reason. We have faced too much pressure from the government and I couldn’t keep leading the association from Montreal. We are looking for new people to take up the torch.
Right now, about 40 people are taking action for the LGBTQ+ cause in Tunisia, sometimes openly, despite the threats. Also, even though the Tunisian people are still very divided (link in French), mentalities are changing slowly but surely. In January 2018, the first LGBTQ+ film festival in the country was held in Tunis.
Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to go home to Tunisia one day. I’d love to go into politics! I’d really like to see people representing our community in the Tunisian parliament, kind of like Harvey Milk did in the United States when he was elected to San Francisco city council.
By Ramy Ayari with Pauline Bezzina
Translated from the French by Ruby Pratka