Morocco Used to Be a Haven for Gay Artists. It’s a Bit More Complicated Now

Like many other countries, Morocco exists in the liminal space between vibrant LGBTQ culture and a hostile legal framework. What does that mean for travelers?

Villa Majorelle: Yves Saint Laurent mansion

In 2017, two museums jointly opened near the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, Morocco (pictured): the Yves Saint Laurent Museum and the Pierre Bergé Museum of Berber Arts. They are housed in the former residence of partners Laurent and Bergé.

Photo by Marat Lala/Shutterstock

In 1953, American Beat author William Burroughs began work on his third novel, Naked Lunch. The book is a series of semi-autobiographical vignettes, which include sci-fi elements and descriptions of gay sex. While it’s become a classic in queer literature, few know that it was written while the author lived in Tangier, Morocco. Specifically, in Room 9 of the still-operational Hotel el Muniria.

Morocco was no stranger to gay and bisexual men in the mid-20th century, including famously out writers Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Gore Vidal. They spoke and wrote widely about their experiences there; the queer legacy they left behind is still being studied and experienced by scholars and tourists alike.

While LGBTQ presence and tolerance in Morocco once felt imported, nowadays it is more deeply rooted. Modern art and literature includes queer figures such as lesbian writer Fatima Zahra Amzkar and gay writer and filmmaker Abdellah Taïa, whose award-winning novels Salvation Army and My Morocco, among others, describe his youth as a gay man confronting Morocco’s homophobia. There are also non-queer artists, such as Moroccan filmmaker Maryam Touzani, who features LGBTQ characters and themes in her work.

Today’s cities, particularly buzzy Marrakech, are home to several LGBTQ-friendly international brands like Four Seasons and Nobu Hotel. The Jardin Majorelle–Yves Saint Laurent Mansion, a fusion of two museums, opened to the public in 2017—one about Berber history and another dedicated to the gay designer’s work, both housed in the former residence of Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. Slow fashion clothing designer Marrakshi Life riffs on traditional Moroccan fashion with a line of gender-neutral hand-woven garments.

Despite Morocco’s rich queer culture, past and present, the country’s laws suggest otherwise. Homosexuality in the Islamic state—even same-sex kissing—remains illegal and punishable by fines and up to three years in prison. In 2020, dozens of gay men were outed in a country-wide Grindr leak, leading to an uptick in bullying, stigmatization, arrests, violence, and blackmailing. Yet in parts of the country, particularly its more progressive cities, queerness feels not only tolerated but accepted. What does this mean for travelers?

Exterior of Four Seasons Resort Marrakech at night

The Four Seasons Resort in Marrakech

Photo by Agent Wolf/Shutterstock

“Of course there are problems for LGBTQ Moroccans, but foreign travelers in Morocco don’t have to worry as much,” says Taïa, who now lives in Paris. “Western people often see places according to their own principles, to their own culture. No tourist could ever understand the whole complex dynamics of a country in a week, two weeks, or even a month. Rather than go to a place and say, ‘They are not free as we are free in the U.S. or France,’ it’s better to try to understand what the historical, political, economical dynamics are and not judge.”

There are tangible signs of progress in Morocco. In June 2022, the U.S. embassy in Marrakesh flew rainbow flags and openly celebrated Pride Month for the first time. That same month, Ellen DeGeneres was spotted holding hands in Marrakech’s medina with her wife. In February 2023, Touzani’s film The Blue Caftan came out, about a married souk shop owner who falls in love with his young male apprentice.

However, as in many parts of the world, LGBTQ tolerance in Morocco can feel like a yo-yo. Amzkar’s debut novel Lesbian Diaries, which focuses on the struggles the LGBTQ community faces within conservative Moroccan society, was not included in the country’s important Rabat Book Fair in 2022 after a targeted campaign against it. Amnesty International’s 2022 report on Morocco and Western Sahara further highlights the country’s LGBTQ and human rights issues.

But that hasn’t stopped many LGBTQ travelers from going there—it didn’t stop me. I traveled to Morocco twice in the past year as an out cis-gender white gay man. I spent time with locals, regularly talked about my Swiss husband, and didn’t experience any hostility. I met other gay men living there, some closeted, others who were out and felt safe enough to live their lives authentically. Grindr still works in Morocco, but only with a VPN (as in many countries where homosexuality is illegal). I even spied a few rainbow flags, though wearing or flying them is not advised.

For those who are familiar with the Islamic world, what is tolerated by ordinary Moroccans versus what is tolerated by the government are often very different things. “The Islamic world has a discreet approach to sexuality,” says gay Moroccan resident Hassan, whose name was changed to protect his identity. “Kissing in public is a no-no. But it’s also a big no-no for heterosexuals. Romance and sexuality are private matters.” This might seem odd to travelers who witness two men holding hands in some parts of the world, but that is widely accepted as a sign of a platonic friendship, not a romantic one.

While queer travelers are wise to be thoughtful about the risks involved—and certainly be respectful of the broader anti-PDA culture—it would be a shame if LGBTQ travelers never got to experience Morocco’s warm hospitality, or its decorative Islamic architecture and horseshoe arches, or its evocative call to prayer, echoing from mosques and minaret towers across the city.

In the words of Taïa, “Sometimes Westerners forget that we live in Western-dominated world and that makes some people blind, LGBTQ or not. The best way for everyone to travel is to try to understand without judging or imposing our individual values of freedom onto a place. It’s important to remember that freedom can have multiple faces.”

Adam H. Graham is an American journalist and travel writer based in Zürich. He has written for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, BBC and more. Assignments have taken him to over 100 countries to report on travel, sustainability, food, architecture, design, and nature.
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