Rabat – Tunisia’s Liberal Party leader Mounir Baatour, an openly gay lawyer, announced on Thursday, August 8, that he will be running in the presidential elections, marking a first for the Arab world.
Baatour’s bid for presidency marks “a first which will without a doubt be a benchmark in history,” his Liberal Party said.
Baatour says he intends to pioneer LGBT rights in Tunisia, where practicing homosexuality is punished by law. The presidential candidate is also the co-founder of Shams, a group that campaigns against the criminalization of homosexuality.
According to Shams, which tracks the number the arrests of LGBT people in Tunisia, convictions for same-sex relations rose by 60% last year to 127 from 79 in 2017.
Shams also recorded more than 25 convictions in the first quarter of 2019.
In 2013, Baatour was jailed for three months for “sodomy” with a 17-year-old student, an act he strongly denies committing with a minor.
“I am openly gay,” Baatour told AFP. “I came out 20 years ago. I was jailed for three months for sodomy in 2013. There’s no shame for me. There’s no shame for any of us.”
“The fact that I’m gay doesn’t change anything. It’s a candidacy like all the others.”
“I have an economic, social, cultural, and educational program for everything that affects Tunisians in their daily lives,” he added.
Baatour is one of 53 presidential candidates. The presidential election scheduled for September 15, will give Tunisia successor to Beji Caïd Essebsi, the late president who died on July 25, 2019.
Backlash from the LGBT community
Although Baatour’s bid for the Tunisian presidency is acknowledged internationally as a step towards progressiveness, he has faced backlash from conservatives and Tunisia’s LGBT community alike.
Last month, a petition against his potential candidacy was signed by numerous organizations for LGBT rights.
“We think that Mr Baatour represents not only a threat but also a huge danger for our community,” the petition read.
Tunisian Coalition for LGBT Rights also issued a statement last year distancing itself from Baatour. The presidential candidate attributes this to his support of normalization of ties to Israel, which the left in Tunisia is strongly against.
However, Baatour continues to push himself forward as the face of LGBT rights.
“I think we need to have a debate about homosexuality in Tunisia,” said Baatour, who identifies as Muslim but doesn’t practice.
“I’m not talking about promoting homosexuality, just about decriminalizing it. Gay people don’t do anyone any harm. They should be free to do what they want with their bodies.”
“If homosexuality is a sickness, then – even if I accept that – I have to ask, why are you putting sick people in jail?” he continued
“When you put gay people in jail for three years, what, do they come out straight? No. So they must return to jail for a further three years and then for the rest of their lives.”