Coming Out in Lebanon

Openly gay, lesbian and transgender people face persecution across the Arab world. The exception may be in Lebanon, which has slowly grown more tolerant thanks to the work of activists.

Throughout the Arab world, gay, lesbian and transgender people face formidable obstacles to living a life of openness and acceptance in conservative societies.

Although Jordan decriminalized same-sex behavior in 1951, the gay community remains marginalized. Qatar, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen all outlaw same-sex relations. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality can be punished by flogging or death.

In Egypt, at least 76 people have been arrested in a crackdown since September, when a fan waved a rainbow flag during a concert by Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band with an openly gay singer.

If there is one exception, it has been Lebanon. While the law can still penalize homosexual acts, Lebanese society has slowly grown more tolerant as activists have worked for more rights and visibility.

In 2013, the Lebanese Psychiatric Society said homosexuality did not need to be treated as a mental disorder. Judges have rejected cases being prosecuted under a law that makes sex “contrary to nature” illegal. And this year, Lebanon held its first ever Beirut Pride Week, full of events, if not an actual parade.

What has helped make the difference is a culturally diverse society, a mostly independent media and the relative ease of registering nongovernmental organizations, says Georges Azzi, who runs the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, an advocacy group.

But members of the community have themselves served as pioneers in a region where coming out is always risky. They have all crossed difficult personal thresholds. Their views differ on how far Lebanon has actually come and how to further push change.

Some live discreetly. Some openly. And some have become activists so that others can come out. Here are some of their stories.

Alexander Paulikevitch first came out to his classmates and friends when he was 16. Now 35, he is a choreographer and dancer specializing in contemporary baladi, a type of belly dancing.

An old dance form, it was traditionally performed by women for women. More recently, it has been viewed as a dance by women to seduce men. When Mr. Paulikevitch first performed it, members of the audience jeered, laughed or left the show.

Today, he has performed in a number of places, including Lebanon, but scheduled performances as part of a cultural festival in Cairo and Amman were canceled. “They wouldn’t let me perform, saying ‘He’s too much.’”

Mr. Paulikevitch doesn’t see himself an activist. But he is proudly outspoken. “I have a strong personality. I don’t hide.”

An event that was to be part of Lebanon’s first gay pride week was canceled after it was condemned by an association of Muslim scholars. Mr. Paulikevitch believes the community should have faced down the threat, instead.

“I know what I want, and I know what needs to be done for gay rights,” he said. “Less fear. More confrontation.”

Joyce Kammoun, 33, didn’t have access to the relative openness of Beirut. She grew up in Tripoli, in Lebanon’s traditionally conservative north.

Defining her sexual and gender identity was a struggle and a slow process. “Internal homophobia, I think, is worse than anything because it’s the virus within,” she said.

She found gender norms around clothing both oppressive and confusing. Retail shopping was like going into battle. “Figuring that piece out would have really helped me, I think, embrace my sexual orientation faster.”

Now she wears suits to work, where she is a legal manager at Pepsi-Cola International. She lived for 10 years in the United States and went back to Lebanon in 2012.

Even in Beirut, life is not always easy, however. “The way to survive is to be flexible — highly capable of adaptation, figuring out which fights you can win, which fights you can’t.”

She believes that laws needs to change to allow gays and lesbians to build a supportive community in a tolerant country. “And if it doesn’t exist, I’m going to help build it up.”

Rayyan, 30, is a manager for economic development projects for youth and female empowerment for the United Nations in Lebanon.

He is out to his family, friends and colleagues. He even has a profile on a popular dating app, but he is still discreet about his sexual identity and did not want his full name published or his face shown.

“In Lebanon, in general, you have to be careful,” he said.

He was primarily concerned about the fallout for his family, but he was also thinking about his future. While working at the United Nations, he is protected by anti-discrimination policies. But it is unclear how much Lebanon’s laws would protect him with future employers.

“There are a lot of contradictions in this country,” he said.

“You live in your own bubble, which is a safe one. I’m surrounded by gay and gay-friendly people and I live in Beirut, the capital. As soon as you get out of Beirut, the situation changes. In my daily life I’m very comfortable. I’m not scared, but I’m cautious.”

Georges Azzi, 38, studied and lived in France for five years. At one time, he felt his choices were either to stay there and live as an openly gay man, or move back to Lebanon and hide his sexuality. Instead, he decided to be openly gay in Lebanon.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he remembers thinking.

In 2004, he became the legal representative of Helem, Lebanon’s first nonprofit advocacy group for gay, bisexual and transgender rights. He was the first such activist to speak openly on television.

For years, he faced harassment. He was interrogated by the police several times. His mother received phone calls from people she did not know, shaming her and her son.

Today, he lives with his partner, Carl Bou Abdallah, and most of their neighbors know they are gay. It would not be the same, however, in a more conservative neighborhood.

If he is asked about his sexuality, he doesn’t hide it, and his attitude is, “I’m not telling you to accept me.”

Mr. Azzi believes that activism has been a kind of shock therapy for Lebanon, but that it was necessary to give the community a voice so that it would be taken seriously.

While much more work needs to be done to encourage tolerance in other cities, “being gay in Beirut is no longer a scary thing.”

When Steph was younger, she struggled with gender identity without really knowing what that meant.

“Girls grow up to marry boys, and boys grow up to marry girls,” she explained. “I didn’t feel I liked boys. When I imagined myself in the future, I would think of myself with a woman and I didn’t know what it would be called. It was just a feeling.”

At 17, she was introduced to Helem and became an activist. Today, at 30, she is a community program coordinator at the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality. She helps others who have the same questions she once did, and shows them they are not alone.

Still, she does not believe Lebanon is entirely safe for gays and lesbians, and she did not want her full name used.

She is often asked if she is a boy or a girl. “I get weird looks,” she said. “I try not to go to places where I might be harassed.”

Steph sees herself as a queer person, born female, but one who has no rights in the country. “I have this stain that I can’t get rid of, being here in Lebanon.”

Sasha, 21, is a fashion model and an activist who studied information technology. She is also transgender.

She took a big risk and appeared in a fashion show that aired on television; in a way, that was her coming out.

Sasha, who uses one name, suffered at first, but today many see her as an inspiration, not just for transgender people, but for others in the community who don’t have a voice.

It was not always that way. At school she was bullied for being different. In the streets, she is often still harassed.

“If I want to stand and face the world for my own rights, I’m ready to do that. It is my freedom, my self-expression. If I don’t fight for that, then why am I living here?”

But she sees societal perceptions changing for the better. At this stage, she feels she is learning about patience and compassion.

“If you have compassion toward something, you must have patience for it to happen,” she said.

She hopes that one day people won’t think about gay and transgender issues, and will just let humans be humans.

“Step by step, I started to understand myself more,” she said. “I’m self-taught through this journey, and I do look up at trans people and how they went through their journey.”

“Everyone has a story to tell.”

by Laura Boushnak and Mona Boshnaq
Source – The New York Times