From Lebanon to Iraq, politicians in the Middle East have stepped up their anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric, raising concerns about an increase in homophobic violence and even tougher penalties for same-sex relations in the region.

Most countries in the Middle East, with few exceptions such as Israel, Jordan and Bahrain, already ban gay sex and curtail the rights of transgender people.

Several – Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – retain the death penalty for same-sex relations, according to a 2020 report by the ILGA World LGBTQIA+ advocacy group.

But rights campaigners fear LGBTQIA+ people’s limited freedoms in the region could be further restricted due to recent developments including proposals in Iraq to introduce the death penalty for gay sex and a crackdown on online discussion of LGBTQIA+ matters in Jordan.

Here is what you should know:

How is the LGBTQIA+ community being targeted?

In Iraq last month, a lawmaker introduced a bill that would make same-sex relations punishable by death or life in prison, while in Lebanon two bills to criminalise gay sex were presented to members of parliament.

The draft Iraqi legislation, which is before parliament, would also make it a crime to be a transgender women due to an article that stipulates a three-year jail term or a fine of up to $7,700 for anyone who “imitates a woman”.

It also includes provisions that seek to punish the promotion of homosexuality with at least seven years in jail.

In another sign of rising anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric in the country, the official media regulator ordered all media and social media companies to use the term “sexual deviance” instead of homosexuality.

In Lebanon, two officials proposed separate bills that would criminalise same-sex relations as LGBTQIA+ groups warned of an upswing in hostile rhetoric by religious groups towards the community.

Members of the Soldiers of God, a domestic anti-LGBTQIA+ Christian movement, screamed homophobic chants as a bar hosted a drag show in the capital, Beirut, last month, prompting the hosts to cut short the event.

In July, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Shi’ite armed group Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful military and political force, said homosexuality posed an “imminent danger” to the country and should be “confronted”.

At the same time in Jordan, parliament approved a widely criticised cybercrime law that expanded the government’s control over the digital flow information and could be used to target those who disseminate content related to gender and sexuality.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called the law a “disaster” for LGBTQIA+ people, warning that it contains vaguely worded provisions that could be used to target members of the community.

What has been the catalyst for these recent events?

Major Iraqi parties have in the past two months stepped up criticism of LGBTQIA+ rights, with rainbow flags frequently being burned in protests by Shi’ite Muslim factions opposed to recent Koran burnings in Sweden and Denmark.

But more widely, campaigners say LGBTQIA+ rights are often used as a scapegoat by politicians in the socially conservative region at times of political turmoil or economic malaise.

“In recent times, especially in crises in these countries, the rights of LGBT people are used as a scapegoat to distract from failures imputable to the government or powerful groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Rasha Younes, a researcher at HRW, told Openly.

Lebanon has been gripped by one of the worst economic collapses in modern history for the last four years, plunging millions of people into poverty and pushing inflation into triple-digits.

In Jordan, youth unemployment is running at close to 50%, according to a 2023 World Bank analysis, while Iraq has been plagued by political instability, sectarian violence and mass protests in recent years.

The rise in homophobic rhetoric and anti-LGBTQIA+ legislative initiatives in Arab countries echoes a global backlash against gay and trans rights by conservatives, Younes said.

“Far from serving the public interest, policing non-violent activity aims to preserve the status quo by upholding these patriarchal social values and justifying state neglect,” Younes said.

How are LGBTQIA+ organisations responding?

The day after the “Soldiers of God” descended on the Beirut bar, Helem – the Arab world’s first LGBTQIA+ rights group – encouraged witnesses to make statements to help it prepare a legal complaint, but none came forward for fear of reprisals, said Doumit Azzi, a communications officer at the organisation.

“There is not trust in the security forces or any public institution,” he said, adding that the group had been reaching out to local and international rights organisations for support.

“What is happening lately is forcing us to unite and to put our efforts together to counter this hate wave,” Azzi said.

Younes said the dearth of protections for LGBTQIA+ people in the region means they often have to defend themselves, with limited resources hampering their ability to launch large-scale campaigns to rally support.

“They remain very much in reactive resistance.”

Reporting by Nazih Osseiran.

GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQIA+ news to a global audience.