Remembering Sara Hegazy: Arab LGBT community mourns the loss of a 'beacon of hope'

Remembering Sara Hegazy: Arab LGBT community mourns the loss of a 'beacon of hope'
The death of Egyptian activist Sara Hegazy sent shockwaves through the Arab LGBT community.
7 min read
19 June, 2020
Sara Hegazy was an icon for Egypt's LGBTQ+ community. [Instagram]

June is Pride Month and for the LGBTQ+ community a time to celebrate the strides the world has made towards ending discrimination based on sexual orientation. 

However, this year for the Arab and more specifically the Egyptian LGBTQ+ community, Pride Month has been struck by tragedy. News of the death of Egyptian activist Sara Hegazy, who died by suicide last week in Canada aged 30, has sent shockwaves through the community. 

Sara made international headlines in 2017 when she was arrested for raising a rainbow flag at the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila's concert in Egypt. After three months of torture in an Egyptian prison, she was freed in January 2018, seeking asylum soon afterwards in Canada. 

The Arab LGBTQ+ community across the United States, Canada and in London held vigils this week to pay their respects to Sara and to remember a life so cruelly and prematurely stolen as a result of the torture she suffered at the hands of the Egyptian government.

"The past couple of days have been hard. Our community has been mourning the death of someone who was a beacon of hope. So many of us are heartbroken that she's not here with us anymore," Mina Gerges, an Egyptian model and activist who lives in Canada, told The New Arab.

"It was a revolutionary moment against an oppressive culture that forces us into silence and shame. She didn't deserve to be attacked, ridiculed, and assaulted for simply existing. I think a lot of us see ourselves in her because the violence she faced is something we've all faced in our community."

The past couple of days have been hard. Our community has been mourning the death of someone who was a beacon of hope

Australian-Palestinian writer Elias Jahshan explained why the death of Sara has hit the Arab LGBTQ+ community particularly hard. "I think it brought us together because of that 'it hits close to home' feeling, and the realisation that it could've been any one of us," Elias told The New Arab

"It's also a wakeup call that our mere existence is political and a form of resistance in the Arab world. I think this idea of coming together in grief also stems from the fact that our home countries won't make room for us to grieve for her. Some people in those countries go so far as to spit on her memory, so we take it upon ourselves to make sure there is space for it, and to make sure Sara is remembered with respect."

Sara's death has brought home the difficult truth that things have not gotten any better for the LGBTQ+ community in Egypt. If you are LGBTQ+ you are under the constant threat of arrest, imprisonment and torture. 

For Sarah Hegazy: In rage, in grief, in exhaustion

There is no law outlawing homosexuality or being transsexual in Egypt. Arrests and charges are made using the Law on Combating Prostitution (1961), a piece of legislation from Gamal Abdel Nasser's era, forbidding fujur, or debauchery, and di'ara, commercial sex.

This law was made in a newly independent Egypt, a backlash to British colonialism which instated brothels and prostitution. While the law explicitly forbids commercial sex, there is nothing in it to outlaw homosexuality. 

The Egyptian government recently updated this law following Mashrou' Leila's concert in 2017, to include using the internet or social media to practice debauchery and prostitution, with a penalty of seven years in prison, but again, no mention of homosexuality or being transsexual.

The Egyptian government stated that it updated the 1961 law in order to cover "modern developments in society." This law has enabled police to enter Internet chat rooms and gay dating apps, posing as gay men and women, arranging fake dates and arresting members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Dictators of Egypt past and present have treated the LGBTQ+ community as a national security threat, one that wins approval from the population, unites opposing political parties and brings together religious figures, both Muslim and Coptic Christian. The major drivers behind this hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community in Egypt are state-controlled media outlets that openly declare "war against Egypt's homosexuals". 

It's a wakeup call that our mere existence is political and a form of resistance in the Arab world

The persecution of the LGBTQ+ community reached its heights under the presidency of Hosni Mubarak. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s state police regularly raided bars and discotheques, arresting men on the suspicion of being gay, as well as making street arrests with the help of a vast network of informers. 

The Queen Boat case in 2001 was the first time that the world paid attention to the plight of the Egyptian LGBTQ+ community. On 11 May, 2001, 52 men were arrested while on The Queen Boat, a floating discotheque moored on the Nile. All 52 were imprisoned and put on trial, becoming known as the Cairo 52. 

The state media made far-fetched claims that the men were Satanists and collaborators with the Israeli government and went as far as to publish all 52 men's faces, along with their names and addresses, something that goes against Egypt's Press Law (1996) and Code of Ethics in Journalism. The men were tried in the Emergency State Court for Misdemeanours, set up soon after President Anwar Sadat's assassination, a court in which rulings cannot be appealed.

 'We are human and we have rights': LGBT activists speak out across the Middle East

While in detention, the men were subjected to forced anal examinations, a degrading practice of inserting foreign objects into the anus to determine whether or not a man has had anal sex. This intrusive practice which continues in Egypt today is deemed baseless by much of the rest of the world.

The Egyptian Forensic Authority's justification is that consent from a detainee can be "implicit" and the mere fact that a detainee is referred to them by the prosecutor's office is consent in itself.

A new phase of terror began when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became president and was ramped up following Mashrou' Leila's concert in 2017. Over 300 arrests were made in the days following the concert and according to LGBTQ+ organisation Bedaya, 92 people were arrested in Egypt last year in relation to being homosexual or transsexual, 50 of which received prison sentences.

Knowing how our culture enables and even encourages the Egyptian public to feel entitled to harm us feels like a constant fight for our lives

Laura is a bisexual Egyptian who lives in the Gulf. The persecution of the LGBTQ+ community in Egypt is one of many reasons why she says she feels she cannot go back.

"Knowing how our culture enables and even encourages the Egyptian public to feel entitled to harm us feels like a constant fight for our lives," she says.

"It's absolutely terrifying. You'd need thick skin and a lot of courage to display your identity proudly. Seeing so many Egyptians celebrating Sara Hegazy's suicide and wishing eternal damnation upon her is something I have yet to find words for. As a bisexual person myself, I feel like this added to my fear of ever returning to my country."

 'We are here': The LGBT activists on the frontline of
Iraq's revolution

"I've heard from many LGBT people [in Egypt] that in order to be safe, it's better to leave the country," Mina tells The New Arab. "It makes me so devastated and defeated to know that so many of us can't live in our own countries because of how intolerant and violent it is." 

While the current situation in Egypt for its LGBTQ+ community is bleak, the community still holds hope for change. They agree that one of the most important stepping stones towards change is allyship from straight Arabs.

"The global shake up that we are witnessing, and the outpouring of allies does give me some hope," says Mena Kamel, Egyptian founder of Coptic Queer Stories on Instagram. 

"We need to take our lead from people on the ground in Egypt; there are many people there doing amazing work. We need to support and uplift these networks so that we can learn from each other as we all fight for our lives." 

"If there's one thing we saw from Sara's death, it's that the Arab LGBT community is huge, loud, vibrant, and ready to fight," says Mina Gerges.

"We are resilient, we will continue advocating and pushing for progress, and we will not give up. We are sick and tired of being murdered and living in fear, and we refuse to continue being oppressed and killed. For us to see change, we need straight Arabs to start adding their voice to the conversation. We need them to fight for us, protect us, and advocate for us."

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, being published by Hashtag Press in the UK in October 2020

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA