LGBT holidays in Morocco


A colourful past & conservative present

Before gaining independence in 1956, Tangier, on Morocco’s northern tip, was declared an International Zone, overseen by nine European countries. At a time when much of Europe and North America imposed particularly conservative laws, Tangier was a liberal haven where alternative travellers could come and indulge in all the things that were taboo back home, including drugs, gay sex and prostitution. Yves Saint Laurent, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were amongst Morocco’s artist fans in the 1950s and 60s, along with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. According to the academic Andrew Hussey, Tangier was “a utopia of dangerous, unknown pleasures.”1 Playwright Joe Orton called it simply the “Costa del Sodomy”.
Morocco may well have had liberal attitudes towards homosexuality in its more distant past, too. Al-Malhoun, for example, is an ancient form of sung poetry; some of the poems are believed to refer to sexual relationships between men2. It has been suggested that the extreme segregation of men and women in Islamic cultures historically led to same sex relationships becoming fairly commonplace3.

Today, however, a combination of religious beliefs and patriarchal Moroccan values means that LGBT people have few rights and little recognition. There are no anti-discrimination laws referring to LGBT people, same sex couples are not recognised by law, and they may not adopt children or use IVF or surrogacy to conceive.
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Sex between men is punishable with between six months and three years in prison, although this law has rarely been enforced. Even kissing between two members of the same sex is illegal. Lesbianism is not believed to exist, and has therefore historically not been punished, although this is now changing. In 2016, two teenage Moroccan girls were detained after police were given a photo of them kissing in Marrakech. They stood trial in an adult court and could have faced up to three years in jail, but were thankfully acquitted. Two men had been imprisoned for kissing earlier that year.
The government crackdown on homosexuality, as well as behaviours such as wearing tight skirts, may partly be due to the somewhat debauched reputation the country earned in its 1950s and 60s heyday. As well as drugs and prostitution, Westerners would come in search of underage boys. While authorities are understandably keen to prevent this activity, we do not believe that shaming and punishing homosexuals is the right way to do so.

1 Source: BBC
2 Source: Reuters
3 Source: Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art & Architecture

Attitudes towards the LGBT community


Despite the country’s homophobic laws, Moroccans are generally tolerant people. LGBT travellers are unlikely to encounter hostile reactions, and gay foreigners are not actively persecuted. This is helped by the country’s conservative culture; couples of any orientation do not demonstrate affection in public here, which keeps sexual preferences ‘hidden’ to a certain extent. If you do see men walking down the street hand in hand (and it is usually men), they are almost certainly straight; holding hands is a sign of friendship. In recent years this has become less common in the cities, however, as men become aware of the association with homosexuality, and want to avoid being considered gay. Family life and traditional gender roles are held in very high regard in Morocco, and so breaking these norms for Moroccan men or women is frowned upon as it goes against local culture. But visitors from outside this culture are not held in the same regard.
While lesbians have fewer legal issues in Morocco, the difficulties they face are different to those of gay men. Women have fewer freedoms and are often expected to be accompanied in public by their husbands or other family members. It is therefore much harder for them to conduct relationships with other women, publicly or in secret.
Morocco’s most high profile LGBT rights organisation is Kif-kif (website not yet available in English), which means ‘same’ in the Berber language. Founded in 2005, the organisation was refused recognition by the Moroccan authorities, and is consequently based in Madrid. Kif-kif is an umbrella organisation with a monthly publication called Mithly and subgroups which aim to protect lesbian women in Morocco, as well as supporting transsexuals and bisexuals. Mithly means ‘like me’ in Arabic, and is also used to mean gay. The word was coined by the LGBT community as an alternative to the Arabic zamel, which is highly derogatory.
Western LGBT travellers are somewhat cocooned from the persecution that Moroccans face; you won’t be stopped or detained simply for being gay. Authorities are likely to turn a blind eye to tourists acting discretely, and visiting riads and bars that are known to be gay-friendly. The exception is if tourists are seen with Moroccans. Moroccans are prohibited from accompanying Westerners to their hotels unless they are authorised to do so, as tour leaders for example.
This was the downfall of British man Ray Cole, who was seen out with a young Moroccan man in 2014. He was sentenced to four months in jail as a result of private texts and photos found on their phones. The outcry at his sentence, and the desire to maintain Morocco’s image as a relaxed, tolerant holiday destination, led to the charges against Cole being dropped, and he was released after three weeks. His Moroccan partner Jamal was held for much longer, despite international pressure to release him.

LGBT travel in Morocco


LGBT culture in Morocco remains fairly well hidden and is not widely acknowledged. You won’t find gay clubs and pride marches; this is a destination to visit for the local culture and impressive landscapes, not for the LGBT scene. However, despite its regressive laws, Morocco remains one of the safest countries in Africa for LGBT travellers, and indeed, one of the most tolerant in the Islamic world.
It may have had a colourful past, but Tangier no longer has any kind of gay scene. Of the cities, Marrakech is considered to be the most open minded. There are no gay clubs and bars per se, but certain areas are known to be gay hangouts, and some clubs attract a more mixed crowd. This is partly due to the number of gay expat couples who have moved here, particularly French. The coastal city of Agadir also has a growing reputation as an LGBT friendly holiday destination.
While all the tour operators we work with describe themselves as LGBT friendly, it is worth asking questions to learn more about how this is put into practice in their Morocco holidays. Are they able to incorporate village tours, homestays and explorations of Morocco’s more traditional cultures into an LGBT-friendly holiday? Do they ask questions of riad hosts to ensure they are welcoming to same sex couples, and that couples can share rooms? Be aware that straight, unmarried couples have at times experienced difficulties when requesting a double room, too, as sex outside of marriage is taboo here. Good operators should be able to share information about customs and beliefs – not just for Morocco as a whole, but for individual cities, regions and cultures across the country.
While we always do our best to call out any discriminatory or other unethical behaviour within the tourism industry, we also recognise that there is a very fine – and at times blurred – line between expressing your identity (whether on the grounds of sexuality, religion or political beliefs, for instance), and being respectful of local customs as a responsible traveller. We would advise all our travellers to Morocco to dress very conservatively, for example, as well as to avoid public displays of affection. This advice applies for all visitors – regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Photo credits: [Top box - Tangier: katiebordner] [Women in Morocco: davide fantino] [Attitudes: Jaguar MENA] [Kif-kif: http://www.kifkif.lgbt/] [Fes streets: Jorge Cancela] [Marrakesh bar: martinvarsavsky] [Mosaic: Pasquale Paolo Cardo]
Written by Vicki Brown
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