What I Learned Living Where My Sexuality is Illegal


I remember when I first told my parents that I’d be leaving France to live and work in Morocco while I waited for my days in the Schengen to refill. They had some nervousness, but were also excited and fascinated. At how exotic it seemed, at the fact that I managed to find something that paid (even if it wasn’t that much), at all the stories I would come back with, and how my travels seemed to be getting more and more unpredictable. But what I think they didn’t know, and what I never mentioned to them, is how homosexuality is illegal, and technically punishable by imprisonment, in the kingdom of Morocco.  I’m not one to be afraid of traveling to certain countries due to my sexuality, because honestly it would just be too restricting. If I were to avoid all nations that have some trouble with the LGBTQ community then I would be crossing out most all of Africa, most all of the middle east, sections of Europe, and many American states off my potential travel list. And that’s not the kind of life I want to live. That being said, I would never jump into such a country blindly either. I spent my last spare moments in France researching history, old news articles, and other travelers’ stories to educate myself on the situation of LGBTQ life in Morocco. And what I found was…confusing. Not in that I didn’t understand it, but rather in that the attitudes towards it contradict drastically.

From what I gleaned in my early research, the overall attitude towards homosexuality is still negative, as it is for essentially all modern muslim nations. LGBTQ citizens of Morocco who are exposed or outed can be at risk of their family disowning them, their community publicly shaming them and their family, or being brought to the authorities where they can be imprisoned. And while these attitudes tend to be much more prominent and conservative in smaller towns and rural areas, larger cities aren’t immune to them, and most people still remain publically closeted, with their only places of solace being their own homes or a handful of clubs and bars where they can mingle under dimmed lights.

If Moroccans want to be fully free with their sexuality, their only real option is to flee to Europe – many use the Spanish enclave cities of Melilla and Ceuta to gain asylum and then continue to the mainland, some sneak across the strait of Gibraltar, and others who manage to get an education or work opportunity in Europe just never come back. Such is the story of the openly gay writer and filmmaker Abdellah Taïa, who fled to Paris in the 90s from his life in the capital city Rabat, and now in his distance has the safety to critique intersecting homophobia and racism in both his homeland and France.

And notice how I specifically mentioned all of these challenges for Moroccan citizens. Because if you’re a traveler, specifically if you’re a white traveler and have money to spend, the rules don’t really apply. From what I read in my research, as long as you aren’t blatantly groping each other in a public space, travelers can more or less do what they please. Two men or two women can book a shared hotel room together. They can sit close in bars and restaurants. They can wear their small european swimsuits on the beaches. And this isn’t a product of recent tourism trends, either. In the 1950s and 60s Tangier became a hot spot for gay westerners, with creatives from Europe and America alternating between sultry cafes during the day and hashish binges at night. Renowned fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent was born and raised in Algeria to French expat parents, and kept a fondness towards North Africa ever since, eventually buying the Majorelle Garden complex in the middle of the Marrakech medina which he frequented until his death. His ashes were even scattered amongst the gardens and the complex now houses a museum to YSL and his work.

The only recent case where a non-Moroccan was punished for homosexuality that I could find was in 2014 when a gay British tourist was meeting with a younger Moroccan man, and were both arrested after locals clued in the authorities. The man’s family was contacted and a British legal team had him out of the prison within a couple of days to return back to the UK; what inevitably happened to the Moroccan man wasn’t reported. And it was only because the Moroccan was involved that the police were even informed in the first place. Such a risk is constant, and even goes beyond just gay men, as to this day underground male prostitution is not an uncommon side hustle, the largest network of which being in Marrakech. Young Moroccan men that may or may not even be gay offer themselves to travelers, tapping into white fetishes of exoticizing north Africans as an unfortunately lucrative way to make ends meet.

So with this amount of information in my mind, I still felt like I was leaping into the unknown. The strong contrasts of how locals and foreigners are treated made me wonder how my experience would be, as a non Moroccan living there for much longer than the standard tourist. But there was only one way to find out. And on my last day in the Schengen, I hauled my things onto a Ryanair flight in L’aéroport de Marseille, and embarked on my first trip to Africa.

My time in Morocco was mainly based in the coastal city of Essaouira, which due to a number of influences through history that I may discuss another time, is not like other cities in the country. It’s culture has notably cosmopolitan and modern flavor, and because of that, seems to be less conservative. It’s not uncommon in the city to see women or girls with their heads uncovered, young men and boys in shorts, and for people to continue about their day despite a call to prayer blaring from every minaret in the city. I quickly noted the city’s relaxed attitudes, but still out of caution didn’t mention anything about my sexuality, attractions, or dating for weeks after arriving.

Only once I was certain that my friends and colleagues were good and trustworthy people I let slip in conversations that I was gay when subjects of dating came up. To my relief, not one of them had a problem with it, and I would even go on to have regular conversations with my good female friend about our dating past, who we thought was attractive, and the like. But while I felt reassured in the privacy of my workplace and get-togethers with my friends, I also had to remind myself that they were also all young twenty-somethings that worked in the tourism industry, with a mainly European clientele, in this liberal coastal city. So outside of those private settings I still felt pressure to be cautious. It was like going back into the closet, as I would walk down the street and regularly hope I didn’t accidentally do something too attention drawing.

Eventually, my innate curiosity came bubbling up. I wanted to learn more, which meant I had to dive beneath the surface. So one evening, I opened up Grindr. And for better or worse, it was kind of what I expected to see: an entire list of faceless profiles, most of them having the bare minimum of physical description. My inbox quickly flooded with messages, and of the young men I attempted to speak with, many would either be very timid and barely push a conversation forward, or extremely blunt and in-my-face about hooking up, to the point that it felt transactional. Both of which, I hypothesized, are very likely the result of living their entire lives in the closet and not really knowing how to talk to a boy in an openly casual dating context. The few that I was able to have reasonable conversations with would insist to me that the anti-gay sentiment wasn’t that bad, but I was hesitant to fully agree.

As the weeks went on I started to frequent the city’s main bar at night, partly because a man needs wine, but also to take mental notes. French expats, of which there are a large amount in Essaouira and a notable number of which are gay, would make almost no effort to conceal their sexuality, sending flirty eyes across the room as they giggled with their European friends. In contrast, I would occasionally see a handsome Moroccan amongst a group of his friends and he could only subtly give me the look – any gays reading this, you know the look I’m referring to. But of course, this was the only communication they were ever able to send in such a public setting. Flirting in any other way wasn’t an option. Only once did I get a direct confrontation from a local: I was walking back to my apartment deep in the Medina after a night out, and from a small side street a young man approached me and started making conversation (which sounds sketch, but I was bigger than him, we were alone, and by that point I knew my way around the Medina like the back of my hand, so I didn’t feel threatened). We walked and talked, until eventually he quietly slipped a “so, you looking for sex?” to which I politely declined and we both went on our ways.

During my entire time in the country, I never ended up getting together or hooking up with a local Moroccan. And not because I didn’t find them attractive or was avoiding them, but because inevitably when I did find young men that I could speak with and I would have been willing to meet, I always ended up feeling a well of guilt before I could commit. About how they have to hide so much more than I do, about how much they could put at risk just to connect with someone they were attracted to, and how no matter what I did, I would probably get away with it. The only people I would end up hooking up with were other travelers, because I knew neither of us would be in overt danger. Perhaps my guilt and paranoia were overly high, but I just felt wrong about the possibility of putting someone at risk. This point was really driven home after I hooked up with a Welsh guy one morning before my shift at my job, after which he offered to walk me there. The entire way he both held me by the waist and very openly and loudly talked about the things we just did without a bit of restraint. Had a Moroccan been doing that with me, he would more than likely be getting looks from the people in the street. And Essaouira is one of those small enough cities where everyone knows everyone; were something to happen with a local, it could spread like wildfire.

I want to be clear that this isn’t me trying to paint Morocco as an inherently sinister or dangerous place. My time in Morocco was overwhelmingly positive and is something I’ll never forget. As I mentioned earlier, none of my friends or colleagues thought less of me due to my sexuality, I never felt overtly in danger, and I would inevitably have the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had there. Younger generations of Moroccans are increasingly open to the LGBTQ community arguably more than any other modern muslim nation that I’ve researched, and I’m sure every large city will have plenty of people who will welcome you with open arms. Yet also in saying this, I’m very aware of the place of privilege I come from and how it very probably affected my personal treatment in the country. I’m a white, cis-gendered American male. I’m not really “outwardly” gay. My voice is deeper. I’m naturally calm and reserved. If necessary, it wouldn’t be difficult for me to pass for straight. And I understand what luxuries these can be, not only as someone who travels internationally but also in day to day life in the United States and Europe. Many people within the LGBTQ community have aspects of themselves that are either difficult to conceal or they don’t want to conceal anymore: mannerisms, voice pitch, outward gender expression, way of dress, and these factors are inevitably what leads them to be more chastised against.

And as unfortunate as it is, the disparity between what white travelers or expats like myself can easily get away with, and what locals can’t, is blatant. While there was no vocal backlash as a man literally held my waist and talked about sex walking down a main street in the middle of the day, local gay men being publically outed, and then mistreated, is a persisting problem. Quite literally as I began to draft this article in April 2020, not even two months after I left, over 100 gay men across the country were outed online via various hook up and dating apps due to a scandal with a Moroccan trans woman in Turkey (which is a whole other story in itself, and if you’re interested I highly recommend you google the news covering the incident). Photos that revealed mens’ identities were circulated across the internet and at least three known cases resulted in men being kicked out of their homes, and likely more since then. Such contrast can clearly be seen as a result of past European colonialism, where whiteness and European-ness is still associated with wealth, power, and influence that overrides even the rights of natives in their own country.

So at the end of it all, the question remains…what do we do about it? Should we in the LGBTQ community bother to travel to nations that would normally put our kind down? And are we even able to help or make an impact? The answer to both questions, I believe, is yes. As queer people from western nations it’s important for us to travel to such places so we can learn first hand from history and culture why the attitudes towards LGBTQ people are like that, if they’re even true in the current population, or how things could be changed in the future. Had I never went to Morocco myself, I would have never learned that there are notable amounts of young people open to our community, nor would I have experienced how the lasting effects of French colonialism influence how gays are treated in the country today. And in regards to making an impact? Presence alone is one form of educating, and as we interact with or befriend locals we have the ability to show people what queer people are really like in ways they may not be able to otherwise. Along with this, we can amplify the LGBTQ voices from those countries, the artists, writers, and activists who we as white people or western foreigners need to be listening to.

I left Morocco on the last day of February in 2020 with a complex mixture of sadness, happiness, and enlightenment. The memories and friends I made in those three months are some that I’ll neve forget, and reminded me that, more often than not, people are inherently good, curious, and willing to learn. Many places in the world still have a long way to go before LGBTQ people are fully free. But the least we can do is research fervently, travel to those places, and take the time to learn from each other so we can move forward to a future where we can all love. Inshallah.

Meet Austin:a 25 year old from California chasing the dream of living in Europe. Keep up with his writing and adventures on IG. 

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