By Nadia Rahman, Researcher and Policy Advisor in Amnesty International’s Gender, Sexuality and Identity Team
“You held my hand. Promised me a revolution. How did you forget me? How?” These lyrics by Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila echoed at a Cairo concert on a September evening in 2017. They are perhaps more devastatingly relevant today than they were three years ago.
Sarah Hegazy, a queer feminist in the audience, probably felt a fleeting sense of freedom while watching a popular Arab band with an openly gay frontman sing to a packed audience in a conservative country, and she dared to raise the rainbow flag. Those brief moments of hope where she decided to unapologetically celebrate who she was, changed her life. And three years later, snatched it away too.
“To my siblings – I tried to find redemption and failed, forgive me. To my friends – the experience [journey] was harsh and I am too weak to resist it, forgive me. To the world – you were cruel, to a great extent, but I forgive.”
The handwritten note Sarah left behind when she died on 14 June 2020 speaks of the injustice and discrimination that she faced. But it also applies to deeper structural, patriarchal structures and violent attitudes that continue to affect women, queer women, and other LGBTI people around the world every single day.
A week after the concert, Sarah was arrested along with about 30 other concert attendees and was sexually abused, tortured and arbitrarily detained for three months on charges of “membership in a illegal group” and “promoting the ideas of this group”. The prosecutor ordered Sarah’s detention for 15 days pending investigation related to “membership in an illegal group” and “promoting the ideas of this group” but did not name the group. He kept renewing her detention every 15 days until a judge ordered her release without charge on 2 January 2018.
Sarah was forced to leave for Canada in exile shortly after her release on bail but continued to experience post-traumatic stress. How could she not? Those that had perpetuated the violence against her enjoyed complete impunity, while she was still haunted by the threats, violence, and abuse she had faced. A year after her arrest, she wrote from Canada about how she had suffered from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and severe anxiety and panic attacks. And had felt constantly fearful, isolated, and how she hadn’t been able to return to Egypt to mourn her mother’s death.
And now we find ourselves – activists, LGBTI people, allies – many of us in isolation, all mourning the loss of someone we looked at as a beacon of hope, liberation, and love. Someone who had suffered at the hands of the same structures of power and patriarchy that are present in different parts of the world, impacting lives and violating the rights of marginalised groups every single day. Sarah’s death brings up collective but also individualised grief. At this time of great uncertainty, social distancing, and various stages of COVID-19 lockdown, there are understandable feelings of anger, frustration, and fear, which have only increased since Sarah’s passing. And without being able to mark this Pride month by gathering, marching, celebrating and affirming our identities, mourning Sarah’s loss and that of all the other LGBTI people and activists that have gone before and recently, we find ourselves understandably bereft.
It is at this moment that we must remember the rainbow thread that connects LGBTI people across geographical, racial, ethnic, and other boundaries – offering solidarity, community, and hope. One of the greatest strengths of LGBTI movements across the world has been their ability to offer support, advice, solidarity, and in many thousands of cases, a sense of family to other LGBTI people when they feel abandoned or misunderstood by their biological ones. This sense of community is what many LGBTI people have relied on, and have been nurtured, grounded, and supported by to live their lives truthfully and authentically. It’s a sense of community that other groups are adopting in the COVID-19 response, where neighbourhoods, families, and communities are coming together to offer support, food supplies, and general help.
But that support hasn’t necessarily been extended to LGTBI people as equally in these past few months since the pandemic hit. Many LGBTI people have found themselves in lockdown with people or family members who are hostile, or unaccepting of their sexualities or identities, and are facing mental health challenges as a result. Some might be in countries where same-sex conduct and diverse gender identities are criminalised, making them less able to report violence, harassment and abuse.
To those friends, we want to express our utmost solidarity and remind them that they aren’t alone. Although the support and sense of community may not be as visible as before, it still exists. We join human rights and LGBTI rights organisations around the world in calling for governments to provide protection and reporting mechanisms for LGBTI people facing violence and harassment during lockdown. There are also a number of support and community groups that people can reach out to if they need mental health support.
While there may not be physical manifestations of Pride this year, there are many online ones. Global Pride is a 24-hour digital pride celebration on 27 June featuring a stellar line up of performances, talks, discussions, and a coming-together of most of the world’s city Prides. And on 28 June, Amnesty UK launches its own digital Pride platform with similarly entertaining, informative, affirming content sourced from partner organisations, which will run for a month.
At this time of division, distance, and distress, we affirm our commitment to fighting for a world that not only accepts but celebrates sexual orientation and gender identity-based diversity. A world where Sarah Hegazy and others who have lost their lives to the struggle for LGBTI – or indeed, other – rights, could have lived and thrived. That world of compassion, equality and love is ours, and it can only be achieved if we continue to fight the forces of patriarchy, intolerance, and division together.
Stay safe, remember that we are connected, and happy Pride (inside)!