How we express ourselves and the mediums we choose is an intensely intimate process. Artists, writers, dancers, actors and musicians think very hard about what they wish to convey and how they wish to convey it.
Creativity and freedom of expression go hand in hand. To curtail one imperils the other. Creativity that is confined is censorship and when freedom of expression is under threat, self-censorship in art and culture becomes more prevalent.
All of us who value our voices and our freedoms have a duty to promote and protect creativity and ensure that everyone can tell their stories – however challenging they may be – in whatever medium they choose.
We expect these challenging but universal rights to be upheld in every nation – and especially those that claim to share our democratic values. And you would have thought they would be a given within the European Union member states. Yet, it seems all too often we are likely to be disappointed.
Victor Orbán’s government of Hungary is a case in point. A member of the European Union, Hungary is seemingly on a path leading further away from the democratic norms we all hold dear and venturing off to the dark recesses of oppression.
This week, the target of Hungary’s increasing authoritarianism is the World Press Photo exhibition and specifically the work of Hannah Reyes Morales.
Reyes Morales is a widely respected artist who uses her art and her skill to tell the story of LGBTQI+ life in the Philippines based on her own lived experience. She explores the joy, the optimism, the heartache and the sorrow that modern life brings to everyone.
Her artwork is a canvas in which her representation of emotion is weaved delicately against her own experiences. It is a celebration of what it is to be human and a stark reminder of the fragility of what we all hold dear.
So, a celebrated artist of international standing showcasing her work in a European Country. That’s all good then, yes?
Orbán’s government not only sought to censor the World Press Photo exhibition – they sought to ban any and all works which featured LGBTQI+ works.
The head of Hungary’s National Museum, Laszlo Simon, has now also been sacked for his curation of the exhibition. He is accused of providing access to material to under 18s which ‘promotes’ homosexuality under the controversial Hungarian law that bans the “display and promotion of homosexuality” in materials accessible to children, such as books and films.
While the head of the museum is clear that no laws were intentionally broken, the compliance with the rule is not the issue. It is the law itself which is an affront to freedoms. And the fact that for the first time on European soil the World Press Photo exhibition has been censored.
LGBTQI+ rights in Hungary are under attack and those who speak out are ostracised. Artistic freedom is under attack and those that challenge it do so at the fear of losing their jobs.
This is yet another attempt by the repressive regime of Viktor Orbán to erase minority voices, silence campaigns and censor anything that does not fit into his narrow world view.
The European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has already called Orbán’s legislation a ‘disgrace’. Human rights organisations around the world have marked Hungary’s lurch to the populist right as a defining moment in European history and should pose the question to other EU members about the sort of leaders they want in their club.
But it also exposes the ease with which authoritarianism and censorship can spread. Curtailing creativity today will lead to greater censorship tomorrow.
Index on Censorship continues to – and always will – share the stories of those silenced by Orbán. And we stand with Simon and Reyes-Morales as they try to make sure that all voices are heard and celebrated.
The Autumn 2023 issue of Index looks at blasphemy laws, and how they are being weaponised by the religious right as a means of imposing intolerance. We wanted to understand the ways in which religion is being used by states as an excuse for censorship, and how this has played out in a global context.
The writers in this issue have examined blasphemy laws in countries all over the world, shining a light on the those who have been left voiceless or have been persecuted in the name of religion. These worrying stories paint a picture of a growing movement amongst the religious right that threatens to suppress those who do not conform to increasingly strict cultures and norms.
It has been a cold, dark road towards dismantling the shackles of homophobia and rebuking the spirit of prejudice and blasphemy that curtains the small society of Botswana. And for transgender activists finding ways to make their voices heard and fight stigmas, art has become an important tool.
In June this year, prominent trans activist Katlego Kolanyane-Kesupile was part of the team that launched the second iteration of the Banana Club Artist Fund, enrolling several LGBTQ+ artists in Botswana for a three month residency aimed at amplifying the voices of marginalised communities through creativity.
Kolanyane-Kesupile is a cultural architect and artivist (or artist-activist), and alongside the Banana Club is also the founder of the Queer Shorts Showcase Festival, an LGBTQ+ themed theatre festival. She uses art to communicate on gender issues and to bring human rights to the fore in Botswana, using creativity as a catalyst for social transformation and mind-set change.
Expressing herself through artivism is the “merging of age-old traditions of storytelling, education and community building,” she told Index.
As part of the PlayCo Black Women Theatre Maker residency in New York, she wrote and produced an Afro-futuristic play. Her work “focuses on marginalised communities and the outputs are focused on creative educational products,” she said, and believes that an artist can also be a critical scholar of human rights and social justice. In fact, she holds a master’s degree in Human Rights, Culture and Social Justice.
At the heart of her craft and expression is a desire to showcase the validity and essence of LGBTQ+ individuals in society and why their experiences matter. Botswana is a country that has made leaps towards acceptance, but where prejudice still runs wild.
Two landmark cases in recent years went a long way to challenging homophobic stances in the country. The first was in 2017, when activist Tshepo Ricki Kgositau became the first trans woman to be allowed to change her gender marker to female on her identity card, after a high court ruling. The second was when same-sex relations were decriminalised at the country’s highest court in 2019. But pushing for more rights and acceptance for LGBTQ+ people has proven difficult.
Botswana has experienced a face-off between the LGBTQ+ community and religious entities, which culminated in a spat during a protest march in the country’s capital city, Gaborone, in July this year. Members of the Evangelical Church community organised the march against a bill that would comply with the 2019 ruling, and make homosexuality legal. Those on the march handed a petition to Parliament, and asked legislators to vote against the bill. The chairperson of the Evangelical Fellowships of Botswana (EFB), Pulafela Siele, said that allowing same-sex relations in Botswana “open[s] the floodgates of immorality and abomination in society”.
Legislator Wynter Mmolotsi, who received the petition on behalf of the National Assembly, said that Parliament is dictated to by the people.
“The only thing that Parliament can do is to make laws that are guided by the values of the country; the values of the people. Parliament can agree or disagree – and make laws that reflect the values of the nation,” he said.
The chief executive director of the organisation of Lesbians Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO), Thato Moruti, said that the church’s advocacy not only crippled human rights but also harmed the democracy that Botswana is known to value and prioritise. “The church is setting a dangerous trend of manipulating legislators and the courts. This could cause destabilisation of democracy as they are not only pushing Christian fundamentalism, but also sowing seeds of social discord based on gender and sexual orientation,” he said.
Moruti echoed the need to find common ground and respect the rights of all people, calling for dialogue instead of “combative approaches”.
Kolanyane-Kesupile is not the only trans activist in Botswana using creativity to push for acceptance and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. Melino Carl is considered Botswana’s first transgender model, and has walked catwalks in Johannesburg, New York and Paris. Fashion is her first love, but growing her artistry and coming out publicly wasn’t easy. She has been assaulted five times and has dealt with being systematically humiliated and ridiculed because of her gender identity and sexual
“Homophobia is not taken seriously. So many members of the LGBTQ+ community face discrimination and violence,” Carl told Index.
She said it’s important to highlight the validity of their identity: “Since there are not enough platforms to speak, I express my activism through fashion. I believe that it is a vehicle to inspire and uplift members of the LGBTI community and make them feel validated and boost their self-esteem and confidence.”
A note from the authors: The piece published below was originally written for and pitched to Vice World News, who wanted exclusive publishing rights for it. Subsequently, the piece was delayed for weeks on end, while the editorial staff informed us that this was because the publication maintained a team in Saudi Arabia and they were worried about safety.
We were concerned privately that this could amount to a case of catch-and-kill, so asked to be released from the contract to find another publisher. We were then told from a senior executive that they still wanted to publish the piece, and that it would be out within the next two weeks following this discussion. After this period, we were let go from our contract, with the piece not being published and with no more concrete update as to the precise nature of the problem. Following that, the story behind our piece was among those picked up by the Guardian, as part of an investigation into a pattern of behaviour at Vice with regards to Saudi Arabia.
The resulting noise created by the publication of the Guardian article helped us make the connections and get enough attention to be able to help place this important piece instead with Index on Censorship.
In the wake of the tragic death of a Saudi trans woman who was coerced back to the country before taking her own life, LGTBQ Saudis are speaking out against threats they receive from their families and their fear of state authorities.
Gay, trans, and queer Saudis living in the UK and US spoke to XXXX [see note at the end of this article] about growing pressure from back home, including fear of issues such as digital surveillance, paid informants and the involvement of Saudi officials.
Many of those interviewed about their experiences claimed that the Saudi state is actively helping families to harass and threaten their children, even after they have claimed asylum in the West.
“Accepting yourself as a member of the LGBT community, the day that you admit yourself that you are a gay Saudi or a trans Saudi is the same day that you accept that you can get killed at any minute, whether you are in Saudi Arabia or outside,” Kansas-based LGBTQ dissident Abdulrahman Alkhiary, professionally known as Wajeeh Lion, told XXXX over Zoom. Under Saudi law, homosexuality is an offence that can result in the death penalty.
Suhail al-Jameel said they were sentenced to three years in jail for posting this photo. Credit: Suhail-al-Jameel/X (Twitter)
For LGBTQ Saudis, online visibility can be dangerous. A gay Saudi influencer (Suhail al-Jameel, pictured) was given three years in jail for posting a photo of himself wearing shorts on a beach in 2019. A TikTok creator was arrested in 2022 for a video with ‘lesbian undertones’; two male journalists were outed as gay in retaliation for contact with foreign media; and authorities have even seized rainbow-coloured toys, claiming they encourage homosexuality.
In another recent video, nonbinary Saudi citizen Tariq Ali described how they had been arrested and charged with a “cyber information crime, for creating, sharing and sending content that hurts the national system, religious values and social morals, using the internet". Ali claims that Saudi authorities “violated my privacy completely, stole my videos and photos and watched them, then prosecuted me for it.”
These incidents contradict Saudi Arabia’s efforts to present itself as more progressive to the outside world, including by relaxing female guardianship laws and allowing women to drive. The Saudi tourism authority recently updated its website to claim that LGBTQ travellers would be welcome to visit the country.
The dangers facing LGBTQ people born in Saudi came into sharp focus following the death of a young transgender Saudi woman named Eden Knight in March 2023. Knight’s suicide note said that her family hired US private investigators, with assistance from a Saudi official, to coerce her back to the country. There, she was forced to de-transition, and later died by suicide. Her family is wealthy and well-connected to the regime. Her father, Fahad al-Shathri, is a deputy governor at SAMA, the Saudi Central Bank. We reached out to the al-Shathri family ahead of this article being published for comment but received no response.
After Knight’s case made international news, LGBTQ Saudis in the UK organised a protest outside the Saudi embassy, where a number of people spoke to XXXX about their experiences. Many of those who spoke agreed to do so on condition of anonymity fearing repercussions from their families or the Saudi state. Most used their chosen names rather than their birth names.
Yara, an 18-year-old trans woman from Riyadh, has been in the UK for nine months and received asylum status. She says her family used to lock her in her room and forbid her from seeing friends, determined for her to get married and follow a traditional lifestyle. “They tried to kill me but I escaped,” Yara says. After she left, they called her daily, telling her to return. “A lot of people I know here, their family came to the UK to chase them,” Yara told us.
Fear of the Saudi state is referenced frequently by LGBTQ dissidents living outside the country. “It’s happening for all of us. Sometimes they go to our friends and offer them a large amount of money to give them our information,” said Prati, 23, a nonbinary Saudi protester. They added that families lie to their children to make them return, but “it’s always the same lie because the government or the embassy is saying ‘that’s what to say’ to their children.”
Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, the Al Saud, who gave the country its name, sit on top of the state’s patriarchal system. Yet the male control of power extends to most other Saudi families, and it is the men in these families who are responsible for the abuse reported by those interviewed for this article.
Dave, 37, who grew up in the Saudi city of Jeddah and the UK, told XXXXthat he was subjected to serious abuse as a child. “My dad once took me to an industrial slaughterhouse when I was 10-11 years old to make me more ‘man’ and less ‘girly.’ He forced me to slaughter sheep in that place,” he said. “I had nightmares for weeks.”
Dave said his family “tried to lure me in many ways and gave me a couple of ultimatums to get married to a woman. My father once secretly colluded with the head of a hospital and a psychiatrist to coax me into conversion therapy. The psychiatrist deceptively befriended me and tried to convince me that he could cure most gay men, except if they were bottoms.” In some Middle Eastern cultures, playing a submissive or ‘female’ role in sex as a man is seen as more shameful than being a ‘top’.
Dave also claimed that another of his father’s friends, who worked for the Saudi state, allegedly threatened him. “I said I wanted to seek asylum, I couldn’t say I was gay. The guy threatened me, saying ‘we can get you back from any place in the world’.” Dave’s experiences resemble those of LGBT Saudis interviewed by The Athletic in 2021, which reported “multiple allegations of attempted cure therapy in some of the country’s celebrated “mental health” hospitals”.
Knight’s note, as well as messages reviewed by XXXX, said her family had hired “fixers” and a lawyer in the USA to pressure her to detransition.
“I cut my hair, I stopped taking oestrogen, I changed my wardrobe, I met my dad. And then had another breakdown. My mom kept telling me to repent or I was going to hell,” she wrote in the note.
The US government is now investigating Knight’s death and its connection to both US operatives and Saudi state-linked officials, telling VICE News: “We have seen these reports and are studying these allegations”.
Vague Saudi laws criminalising parental ‘disobedience’, cross dressing, and “disrupt[ing] the order and fabric of society,” mean that LGBTQ Saudis are vulnerable to abuse by family members because of their sexuality and gender identity.
Laura, 25, a trans Saudi refugee who lives in the UK, told XXXX she had endured terrible hardships growing up in Saudi Arabia. “My family found out that I am transgender, so they started to oppress me with all kinds of abuse that you can imagine,” she said, speaking to us at the protest “I was sexually harassed and assaulted, one of my uncles sexually assaulted me.”
Other attendees at the protest described their inability to trust people after being abused by family members because of their sexuality or gender identity. Emma, age 17, a nonbinary Saudi who has claimed asylum in the UK, told XXXXthat following the protest at the Saudi embassy which they attended, bounties issued by anonymous Saudi accounts on Twitter were put on people who took part in the protest offering money for information about them. Several other attendees said they had had the same experience.
Saudi attempts to control Twitter discourse have been widely reported, with the use of bot armies, and even a spy who infiltrated the company to gain access to users’ private information. In 2022 a Saudi student who was studying at Leeds University in the UK was given a 34 year prison sentence after returning to Saudi Arabia to visit family, her only crime being a Twitter account where she followed and retweeted Saudi dissidents.
XXXXspoke to Micro Rainbow, a social enterprise supporting LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.
“When it comes to people from Saudi Arabia, there is definitely a sense of anxiety around being connected to people from their communities… coming from the fact that they fear that their family members have sent someone to find where they are,” CEO Sebastian Rocca said.
“We had a case of someone [from Saudi Arabia] who had to change their phone number three times because people from the community found it out…we had another where someone told us that their friends were offered an insane amount of money if they had disclosed their location…the pressure from the families is very, very real.”
“The people we support often come from very wealthy families and because of that their families have the means to send an investigator to the UK or to come themselves and look for the people we are supporting.”
For LGBTQ Saudi refugees who have reached the UK, the key, Rocca said, is to get in contact with an aid organisation for safe housing or specialist legal advice. He urges any LGBTQ Saudi refugees and asylum seekers to contact a relevant organisation as quickly as possible due to recent legislative changes in the asylum-seeking process, any delay will work against them in their case.
At the protest for Eden Knight, Yara told XXXX that “I would like to get a word to Saudis who claim asylum here… You are so strong, you are worthy. Don’t let your family let you down. Just continue your life, continue to love. Everything will get better.”
This article was originally meant to appear on Vice and we decided against inserting Index to interviews and stuck with XXXX. We contacted Vice for comment but they have not responded. However, the Vice Union have since issued a statement in response to the Guardian story, which you can read here.