By Hugo Greenhalgh and Abdulla Al-Khal
LONDON/TUNIS, May 13 (Openly) - A transgender Instagram influencer blamed for a wave of homophobic attacks in Morocco apologised on Wednesday for encouraging her followers to download dating apps that were then used to locate and publicly out gay men.
Naoufal Moussa - known online as Sofia Taloni - told her 620,000 followers in Instagram livestreams to download apps to locate gay men, a move she said aimed to show how many people were gay in the Islamic country and "humanize" homosexuality.
But instead Moroccan men on gay dating apps were tricked by potential dates into sharing intimate photos that were posted online, LGBT+ rights groups said, with some bullied, blackmailed and thrown out of family homes during coronavirus lockdowns.
Moussa said she regretted her advice was used to "target gay men instead of bringing them closer to the mainstream society" in Morocco where homosexuality is illegal.
She added her intention was never to out gay men, with increasing numbers using dating apps as the coronavirus pandemic has closed gay bars and other LGBT+ spaces globally.
"My intention was to 'humanize', 'un-demonize' and 'normalize' gay people in Morocco so we stop thinking of them as outcasts," Moussa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email interview.
"I literally wanted people to think of gay people as the man or woman next door and to stop the negative fantasy about who gay people are, how they look like and how they live."
Now based in Turkey, Moussa grew up in Morocco and worked as a model before transitioning from male to female and embarking on a career as an Instagram beauty influencer. Her nightly Instagram broadcasts regularly attracted up to 100,000 viewers.
Moussa's Instagram and Facebook accounts were suspended in April by Facebook, with the social media company saying it would not allow anyone to out members of the LGBT+ community.
Following the outing campaign, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Moroccan government to repeal the section of its constitution that punishes same-sex relations.
"The real problem with such homophobic campaigns, regardless of how they were instigated, is that Morocco's anti-LGBT law encourages them, if not incubates them," HRW spokesman Ahmed Benchemsi said by email on Wednesday.
Local LGBT+ rights groups, including Nassawiyat, set up online resources, such as counselling, to help those at risk.
Reactions to Moussa's apology were mixed
One Moroccan gay man in his early twenties, who did not wish to be identified, said it was "a sign of maturity".
"If she apologized then it is an admission of the suffering of minorities due to her actions," he said.
However, a spokesman for Nassawiyat said Moussa had not gone far enough and she should use her fan base more to "raise awareness about homosexuality and transexuality".
"We aren't against (Moussa) but she harmed a lot of people. We have a real problem with the system and how it builds monsters and internalized homophobia and transphobia," he said.
(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh and Abdulla Al-Khal @AbdullaAlKhal; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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