The Berber presence predates the Arab conquest of North Africa. However, I was never mistaken for a local. I found it nearly impossible to spot any Tunisian I could identify as gay.
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Nevertheless, same-sex desire, if not a gay identity, is certainly present in Tunisia. The ways in which it is expressed, however, are complicated and sometimes contradictory. In some cases, this adolescent homosexual behavior is considered a stage of life that will soon be left behind, so men who continue the practice into adulthood—or, worse, who still prefer the passive role—are open to criticism, or worse. In more recent times, however, as a result of global media broadcasts via satellite television and the Internet, Tunisians are regularly exposed to Western notions of gay identity.
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Nearly every home in Tunisia has some kind of satellite device, jerry-rigged or otherwise. Though sometimes clumsily censored, Western shows with gay characters—like The OC or the Spanish Un Dos Tres, a Fame-style show about a performing arts school—are easily available via satellite dish, as are gay phone sex ads that made me blush. Because a visible gay identity is often seen in the Islamic world as a product of the West, it is difficult to untangle a rejection of gay identity from a rejection of the West with its profoundly different standards of public behavior and private morality.
By the same token, Muslims in Tunisia and elsewhere are also aware of negative representations of Islam in the Western media. As the late Edward Said pointed out, this awareness gives rise to a defensive reaction against the West and all that it represents.
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Thus, for example, young women in countries like Tunisia who might never have chosen to wear the hijab, or head scarf, are today choosing to wear the more conservative veil as a sign of their faith. In the face of Western hostility to the veil, they feel compelled to adopt this very public signifier of traditionalism.
The fact that gay identity is built precisely upon a public acknowledgment of being gay complicates things in a society where, for example, men are so modest that they shower in their underwear at the gym, or where, until recently, heterosexual couples could not so much as hold hands in public.
Not surprisingly, whatever gay life that exists takes place covertly, while the life in its more public forms is virtually nonexistent. Thanks chiefly to some earlier Western travelers, young Tunisian men tend to assume that any single guy of European heritage is looking for vacation sex and is willing to pay the going rate. I frequented the establishment because it was one of the only places in Tunisia where I could experience some semblance of a gay culture, but I had to learn to cope with the daily propositions.
Even when my partner came to visit me in Tunis, we still found ourselves being propositioned—as a couple. I learned eventually not to make eye contact with any man on the street, as it could be mistaken as an invitation. I tried once to talk with my Tunisian students about these men who propositioned me virtually everywhere I went.
Some of them laughed with embarrassment. I was their teacher, someone whom they always treated with respect, calling me sir, wiping the dust from my chair before I sat down at my desk, giving me their seat on the tram from school. Because Tunisia is effectively a police state run by strongman President Ben Ali, people are reluctant to discuss in public any topic that might be controversial, including one that encompasses sex, corruption, Western exploitation, and several other taboos all rolled into one.
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However, one young woman spoke up, insisting that I would be subjected to the same sexual advances in any big city in the U. While visiting the resort city of Sousse, while walking along the beach one afternoon, I was approached by a boy who seemed no older than fourteen. Instead of simply ignoring him, this time, I scolded him in French , saying that I was old enough to be his father. He apologized. The absence of free speech in Tunisia is such that everyone watches and listens to everyone else discreetly but carefully, and people are especially conscious of interactions between Tunisians and Westerners.
How one dresses, speaks, and interacts with others is always a matter of public scrutiny.
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