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The Middle East—encompassing countries from Jordan and Turkey to Iran—has some of the world’s most restrictive legislation for LGBT+ people.

This briefing describes the legal situation for LGBT+ people in 11 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. It should be read as correct at the time of publication.

According to the International Lesbian Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) in 2020:

  • Of the 11 UN-member states that proscribed the death penalty for consensual same-sex relations, five were in the Middle East (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates).
  • Five places in the region do not criminalise same-sex relations: Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Turkey.
  • Same-sex marriage is not recognised in the region. Israel allows civil partnerships.
  • Except for Israel, there are no constitutional, employment, or other protections for LGBT+ people.

Terminology

We use the acronym LGBT+ in this briefing (except when quoting someone else’s words). This refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The ‘+’ symbol is used to include people who do not identify with typical binary notions of male and female, or who decide to identify themselves using other categories to describe their gender identity or sexuality, such as non-binary or queer. In the countries we focus on, the legislation is largely around same sex sexual activity rather than gender identity.

Legal discrimination

Many states inherited laws criminalising homosexuality from their colonial past, when Britain and France controlled territories in the region. State-sanctioned interpretations of sharia law also inform legal frameworks that criminalise same-sex relations, as in the case in Saudi Arabia, for example.

Globally, Kuwait (under 1960 legislation), the United Arab Emirates (under 1987 legislation) and Oman (in 2018) are some of the few countries which specifically criminalise gender non-conformity.

Two states, Jordan and Bahrain, have repealed colonial-era laws criminalising homosexuality since gaining their independence, in 1951 and 1976, respectively.

In addition to legal discrimination, social discrimination continues against LGBT+ people. Wider laws, including the crimes of offending “morality” and “indecency”, can also be used to harass and detain LGBT+ people in the region.

Activism and NGOs

Restrictions on freedom of association limit LGBT+ activism in many parts of the region. In Kuwait, for example, there are no registered LGBT+ organisations, and those that have attempted to register have found their requests rejected. Activists instead focus on staying safe such as through legal and digital training to reduce risk of prosecution.

Turkish LGBT+ activists have also been subject to restrictions, despite same-sex relationships not being criminalised. While Pride marches were held regularly in Istanbul (PDF) from 2003 to 2014, they have been cancelled in subsequent years. However, opposition run-municipalities have marked Pride days and there have been public protests in favour of LGBT+ rights (PDF).

The UK Government and global LGBT+ rights

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has identified 31 priority countries for UK efforts to “advance human rights” globally. These include Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

Its annual reports on human rights in these countries highlight continuing restrictions on the civic freedoms of groups such as LGBT+ people. The Department says its diplomatic network continues to raise the issue of LGBT+ rights. In 2020, for example, it funded a meeting of multi-faith religious and belief leaders to discuss global discrimination against LGBT+ people.

Successive governments have said that the promotion and protection of the human rights of LGBT+ people internationally is a priority.

The UK Government had planned to host the international conference, Safe to Be Me, in June 2022 to bring together countries, businesses and international civil society organisations to address global LGBT+ inclusion.

However, following the Government’s decision to introduce a ban on conversion therapy for gay or bisexual people but not for transgender people in the 2022 Queen’s Speech, many UK charities withdrew from attending. The Government subsequently announced it would cancel the June 2022 conference.

Further reading


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