Also see: Islam and Homosexuality
Gay Middle East Web Site: http://www.gaymiddleeast.com/
More information about Islam & Homosexuality can be found at: www.al-fatiha.org
Other articles of interest can be found at: groups.yahoo.com/group/al-fatiha-news
Queer Muslim magazine: Huriyah
Gay Islam discussion groups:
Reuters, Beruit, Lebanon
http://www.zawya.com/Story.cfm?id=1038535447nL28451849&Section=Industries&pa ge=Legal&channel=Features%2C%20Analysis%20and%20Opinion&objectid=FE783C6C-57 69-11D5-867D00D0B74A0D7C
Beirut newsroom, tel 9611 983885, fax 9611 983889, firstname.lastname@example.org November 29, 2002
Lebanon’s gays find closet door firmly closed
by Lin Noueihed, Beruit
Lebanon may pride itself on being the Arab world’s most open society but as far as its gays and lesbians are concerned the closet door is still firmly closed. "I’m ‘out’ to friends and I eventually know which colleagues to tell, but I can’t be out everywhere and to all," Ghassan said. "It’s hard after going to university abroad to return to Lebanon and go back in the closet. You have to be careful all the time."
Although the Lebanese have a more relaxed attitude to sex than their conservative Arab neighbours, homosexuals say they are routinely picked on and discriminated against in a country where many people regard homosexuality as perverted and immoral.
And while Beirut’s trendy nightspots have, in recent years, come to include a handful of bars and clubs that cater to an openly gay clientele, a recent case of two lesbians charged for having "unnatural sex" was an ugly reminder that homosexuality is not only frowned upon socially but considered a crime.
Lawyers say Lebanese law makes no specific mention of homosexuality but forbids "unnatural sex", which is punishable by up to a year in jail. Lawyers say that article leaves gays and lesbians with no legal recourse if they do face abuse. After a few years in Lebanon, Samer – not his real name – avoids going out and is considering moving back to Europe where he was a student and lived his life as a woman. "The comments people make sometimes are so hurtful. It’s just obscene how people stare, whisper to each other and giggle," he said over a coffee in downtown Beirut, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. "I feel like saying what are you laughing at? I gave up some more flamboyant gay friends because I couldn’t take the reaction any more, even though they’re nice."
Samer, who appears feminine and considers himself a woman trapped in a man’s body, says he eventually plans to have a sex change. In the meantime, he is considering seeking asylum in Europe, where he believes gay rights groups will defend him. "Once, I was walking down the road with a friend and some guys on motorbikes kept driving around us and shouting abuse," he said. "Then they came back and started throwing eggs at us. I like going out but the reaction was just becoming unbearable."
Although homosexuals are unhappy with the situation in Lebanon, they admit attitudes can be more conservative in other parts of the region, such as Egypt, where authorities last year cracked down on a flourishing underground gay scene. Often dressed in the latest European fashions and switching effortlessly between French, English and Arabic, many Lebanese pride themselves on being well-travelled and socially liberated.
But beneath the Western veneer, young people are expected to live at home until they marry and face tremendous pressure to raise a family, forcing many homosexuals to lead double lives. "I try to bring it up with my Mum but she doesn’t understand," said 23-year-old Imad. "I’m an only child and my parents want grandchildren. They’d find it incomprehensible if I tried to explain I can still have a family."
On weekends, young homosexuals crowd into one or two sweaty Beirut nightclubs where they can flirt and swap numbers. Lebanon has its share of dancers and celebrities whose sexual orientation is an open secret. A smattering of the capital’s sleek bars quietly hold "pink nights" when gays who can afford the pricey drinks and smart dress codes mingle openly.
For others, finding sexual partners means nights spent fearfully cruising a seedy seaside strip just north of the capital or prowling notorious beaches for anonymous encounters.
Strict Social Rules
Social scientist Sofian Merabet says there is no cohesive group that can be described as a gay "community" in Lebanon, let alone a gay rights movement. And gay pride? Forget it. "There is even a lot of homophobia even among people who would consider themselves gay," Merabet said. "If there’s something about yourself you’d rather wasn’t there, what do you do when you see that something in someone else?" he said, adding that such "self-hate" was brought about by pressures within Lebanese society to conform to strict mores regarding sexuality.
"There is a certain level of permissiveness that lets people follow a gay orientation to some point," said Merabet. "There are hardly any people who take risks and try to push the limit." Many say it is simply too early to bring gay rights to the political agenda in a country still struggling with painful sectarian divisions following the 1975-1990 civil war.
Lebanon’s handful of gay rights activists say they cannot wait forever. They believe a change in the law is needed to give the fledgling movement the push it needs to come into the open. "Once the law changes, things will change," said one activist. "We need a push from the law first because once something is legal people begin to get used to it."
Nizar Saghiyeh, a lawyer who works on rights issues, said any campaign to legalise homosexuality would face strong resistance from politicians and religious leaders, comparing it to an ill-fated movement to introduce civil marriage. In Lebanon, no legal procedures exist to allow individuals from different religions to marry, let alone members of the same gender.
Saghiyeh said cases of "unnatural sex" typically were prosecuted linked to other crimes – as local media reported was the case with the arrested lesbians – in order to preclude public debate on the issue. "If its only homosexuality, you can get sympathy for a couple as imprisoned for love, but if they are also charged with theft the human rights groups won’t touch it," Saghiyeh said.
Pride and war protests mix in Mexico and Lebanon
While many GLBT activists participate in anti-war demonstrations in the United States and Europe, gays and lesbians in other parts of the world are breaking new ground as they publicly protest the war in Iraq. On Friday, about 500 lesbians marched in Mexico City to protest the war, according to an Associated Press report. The event was also reportedly the first public Pride march for the city. Led by Mexico City independent lawmaker Enoe Uranga, the group marched through the city’s main streets to the central plaza, where they celebrated gay pride and voiced opposition to the war.
On March 15 in Lebanon, a group of 10 gay people participated in an anti-war demonstration while displaying the rainbow flag. It was the first time gays participated in such an event while publicly stating their identity, the newspaper An-Nahar reported. In addition to the rainbow flag, gay participants in the Beirut demonstration carried a sign that read: "Out against war." When asked if he feared being harassed, one of the group’s members said, "Absolutely not. We have the right to unite and reveal our identity just like the others."
25 July 2003
Dunkin’ Donuts accused of discriminating against gay customers
Activists say chain refuses to serve those who break ‘norms’
by Hussain Abdul-Hussain, Daily Star staff
Dunkin’ Donuts has once again come under fire from gay groups who invited people to sign an online petition to protest what they described the franchise’s "Nazi policies" in its Beirut branches. In a statement posted at beirut.indymedia.org, activist Ghassan Makarem wrote that for the past two years, "Dunkin’ Donuts’ Beirut branches have been denying service to gay and ‘gay-looking’ customers under the pretext of protecting their version of ‘family values.’" In its Achrafieh and Downtown Beirut branches, Dunkin’ Donuts posted a note which read as follows: "We ask our dear clients to conform to decent appearance and to comply with our supervisor’s directions on this matter."
Elie Tanios, the franchise’s spokesperson in Beirut, told The Daily Star that the note was posted eight months ago. "By decent appearance we mean behavior," he said, adding that some of their male customers in Achrafieh and Downtown Beirut caused chaos during their visits. "They talk loudly and invade other customers’ privacy," said Tanios, who argued that they were not trying to impose a dress code on customers. When asked whether a person who has dyed his or her hair red, for example, was welcome in Dunkin” Donuts, Tanios answered that such people "were most welcome" at their branches.
"We only want some customers to behave." But members of Beirut’s gay community claimed that they were repeatedly asked to leave the Dunkin’ Donuts’ premises for no obvious reason, and demanded that they be treated the same as other customers. "All humans are equal, thus gay community members – who have been regular customers of Dunkin” Donuts Beirut – are entitled to the same service as any other customer," Makarem wrote in his online petition. An employee at Dunkin’ Donuts who refused to give her name said that gay customers went far beyond local social norms.
"In several instances, these customers displayed homosexual affection. They held hands, hugged and sometimes even kissed while they were on the premises," she said. "Personally, I’m not offended by such demeanor. But for Lebanese social norms, their behavior was not acceptable to other customers, who threatened to call the police," she added.
The Dunkin’ Donuts employee also said that if homosexuals intend to fight the government and Lebanese society for "freedom to come out of the closet," then the coffeehouse should not be the battleground for this fight. She added that the probability that a gay would enter a Dunkin’ Donuts shop and get served was high "if he behaves well."
She also said that it was hard to identify homosexuals in Lebanon, but "those who insist on coming out of the closet" have to face the consequences. But all Dunkin’ Donuts justifications did not convince the gay community, which insisted that they be treated fairly, and not discriminated against. "We demand a press release from the mother company and the Lebanese local branches clarifying the issue and stating that homosexuals are welcome on the premises of Dunkin’ Donuts worldwide, including Beirut, and will be offered the same services . just like any other customer."
Until then, the petition added, the gay community would lead a campaign to boycott the franchise. Leftist activists launched a campaign to boycott American multinationals supporting or maintaining branches in Israel in March 2002 but spared Dunkin’ Donuts, as it is British-owned.
"We Invite People to Think the Unthinkable”–An Interview with Nizar Saghieh about gay/human rights in Lebanon
Note: Nizar Saghieh of Hurriyyat Khassa (private liberties), a humans rights group in Lebanon, is interviewed by the MIDDLE EAST REPORT in their March issue, which has an all out theme of sexuality in the Middle East. The issue, which has an important article by Human Rights Watch’s Scott Longs in it, is available for sale online at http://www.merip.org/mer/mer230/mer230.html
Nizar Saghieh is a lawyer and a charter member of Hurriyyat Khassa (Private Liberties), a Lebanese human rights organization founded on October 1, 2002. He has published widely in Arabic on such topics as reform of the judicial system and the memory of war. Sara Scalenghe, a doctoral candidate in history at Georgetown University, conducted this conversation with Saghieh by e-mail in February 2004.
(Missing photo–caption):Activists from Hurriyyat Khassa and others stage a "die-in" in Beirut to protest the impending executions of three men, January 2004. The executions were Lebanon’s first since 1998. (Joseph Barrak/AFP)
What prompted you to found Hurriyyat Khassa, and what are its goals?
There was no particular event that inspired our group’s formation. It was Lebanese socio-political conditions as a whole. Despite diverse backgrounds, all of our members agree that individuals should have sovereignty over their private affairs, while also having access to equal participation in public affairs. This is called for by the public interest, as well as justice and reason. However, Hurriyyat Khassa members have found that the Lebanese regime often systematically aims for the opposite—to interfere in private affairs while restricting participation in public affairs. Confessional sentiments and interests are always used to implement this policy. (The elaborate system of political power sharing and social interaction between Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, Druze, and other communities is known in Lebanon as the confessional system.)
Therefore, our members include in the notion of private liberties the freedom of creed and the freedom not to belong to any confession at all. Hurriyyat members also lobby for a personal civil status law that allows people to form bonds outside of confessional constraints. Such a law would lead to the democratization of the family and equality of the sexes, decriminalization of homosexuality, and protection of the rights of sex workers and domestic workers who are stuck in virtual or actual slavery. Hurriyyat believes that the current official multi-confessional lifestyle and political system that is imposed in Lebanon actually encourages the persistence of sectarianism, threatens the fulfillment of many individuals and alienates many from participating in the public sphere. The idea is that advocating for personal and private liberties—including those that are in conflict with religious values—would empower dissidence and weaken confessional affiliation and identity.
Why would your type of advocacy necessarily lead to broader political change?
Spinoza argued that reason remains inefficient vis-à-vis emotions unless it becomes emotion itself. We believe we can succeed only by allowing reason to grant legitimacy to non-recognized emotions, which may then become much stronger than the predominant community feelings and interests. Our membership includes independent lawyers, artists and journalists who previously worked on various human rights issues. Others are leftist activists belonging to the group Khatt Mubashir. A few identify themselves as gay and are members of an ad hoc group called HeLeM (“dream,” in Arabic). We use both reason and emotion to lobby for various causes, including gay rights. We conduct research and we hold conferences, but we also produce creative short films and posters to capture the emotions behind the issues. Activism and participation in demonstrations are often as important to us as conferences and research.
For example, on January 16, 2004, Hurriyyat led a sit-in against the death penalty in front of Parliament. Our researchers and lawyers took part in an earlier “die-in” covered by the Lebanese media. But our main focus has been to examine amendments to the penal code, proposed in November 2002, which conflict with human dignity. Three main points grabbed our attention in this pseudo-reform of the penal code: privatization of the public sphere, increasing interference in private space and the marginalization of many segments of society. We organized a very successful conference last May, and continue to lobby with other NGOs to implement its published recommendations.
How is Hurriyyat Khassa involved in promoting the rights of sexual minorities in Lebanon?
Although some of our members identify as gays or lesbians and promote community solidarity, Hurriyyat Khassa’s approach is less concerned with founding communities upon sexual orientation than with fighting against exclusion or marginalization. We address sexuality issues through the wider scope of the right to human dignity, the right to be different, the right to decide freely about private affairs, the right to be fully recognized as an individual and a citizen, and the freedom of creed. The challenge for us is to put an end to the social taboo related to homosexuality without being marginalized or considered extremist. While pursuing this objective, we always strive to create a forum for discussion and, in particular, to find appropriate discourse that is in harmony with the ambient culture. We have learned to adopt the Trojan horse method—to introduce a socially unaccepted idea under the umbrella of a socially accepted idea.
During last May’s forum on human dignity in the penal code, for example, we showed the filmed testimony of a young gay man, threatened with death by his own family, and claiming his need for love. Also, we addressed homosexuality in a paper for a session on marginalized identities that also included war victims and the poor. Of course, our lawyers do not hesitate to defend people for practicing homosexuality without covering it up under another issue. However, it is rare that we are solicited for such cases, as homosexual practices are rarely prosecuted by themselves. They are generally prosecuted when there is some other crime, or the homosexual act involves a minor, or there are some other special circumstances. One of the cases we have addressed involved Hizballah, whose security forces arrested many young men for same-sex sexual acts in 2003 and delivered them to the Lebanese police. The men were charged under the current penal code, which penalizes “unnatural” copulation with up to one year of imprisonment. They were released shortly afterward and, as yet, no hearing date has been set. The [May] conference’s recommendations include the decriminalization of homosexuality and were adopted by many other human rights organizations. So we have succeeded in inscribing homosexual rights on the Lebanese human rights agenda.
How has the Lebanese government responded to Hurriyyat Khassa?
The standard response of the government to civil society initiatives is: no repression, no encouragement, distant monitoring, no guaranteed rights. Our actual legal status is a “civil partnership,” almost a research center, so we did not require any government-issued authorization. Has there been any attempt to intimidate us or to restrain our activities? No, although we are openly raising controversial issues and have many times strongly criticized the government’s position. Is there, on the other hand, any cooperation or encouragement? Not really. We have been invited to send the recommendations of the penal code conference to the parliamentary committee on human rights and we are expecting more cooperation from other deputies and committees. We are often invited by government bodies, such as those working on children’s rights or AIDS, to attend meetings and so on. At any rate, one may say that, at this stage of our development, we are more enthusiastic about finding allies within civil society, raising awareness in the public sphere, finding the most convincing language and otherwise building our capacities. It is too early to appreciate the government’s willingness to cooperate. In six months, maybe things will be clearer.
What about the media and the general public?
The press is our favorite partner, and has given our activities extensive coverage. Of course, the extent to which homosexual issues are tolerated varies from newspaper to newspaper, and even from journalist to journalist. One time, a major newspaper published one of our communiqués only after it had removed our reference to “gay rights.” The same newspaper refused to publish our communiqué related to the aforementioned Hizballah incident, for political reasons, I think. Another time, a female journalist from a minor Lebanese newspaper asked us to abstain from talking about homosexuality if we wanted to be covered by her newspaper. Of course, we refused to comply. I learned afterwards that this journalist, who had attended the entire penal code forum, had a hard time with her editor, but in the end she succeeded in publishing a story on the forum, with a brief reference to homosexual rights. Access to TV networks is more difficult, though we managed to get coverage of the forum from some channels. Also, we were hosted by a morning program for six consecutive days to talk about the forum. Concerning the public, I think we have succeeded mightily in breaking the taboo without being rejected, labeled or considered extremists.
In 2002, we had true difficulty in attracting well-positioned people, but now Hurriyyat is ranked among the major human rights organizations in Lebanon. In the beginning, we were bothered by the fact that once the topic of homosexuality was mentioned in meetings, it became the sole subject of debate. We have now learned how to overcome this blockage, in order to keep the principles or the concept of Hurriyyat Khassa present in people’s minds. Finally, I think that the public in Lebanon is more flexible on homosexual issues than is generally perceived. It is enough to break the taboo in a non-confrontational manner. One member of the audience at the forum discussions, in the course of five minutes, renounced many times his a priori ideas regarding homosexuality in response to the audience’s reaction. To think the unthinkable—that is what Hurriyyat invites people to do.
How do Lebanon’s religious parties and authorities relate to sexual minorities?
To define homosexuality legally as an “unnatural act” aims mainly at giving transcendental basis to its criminalization. Yet homosexuality is generally only prosecuted in cases in which it is otherwise morally difficult to mount a defense. In general, there is a great deal of hypocrisy and denial about homosexuality in Lebanon. In February-March 2002, a widespread, baseless rumor about “Satan worshippers” linked to homosexual practices was given credence by police raids and never-completed legal proceedings, as well as official statements. During that period, religious voices took advantage of the occasion to reiterate their traditional position against homosexuality. They urged parents to safeguard their children’s morality against “satanic” bid‘a (new practices which are contrary to religion) such as homosexuality. Moreover, the “Committee for the Preservation of Moral Values,” representing the main recognized sects in Lebanon, used the word bid‘a to demonize homosexuality and even civil marriage. This committee is currently preparing draft essays on “moral values” and lobbying to integrate them into school curricula. Apart from the aforementioned case, Hizballah generally avoids social debates even though it propagates its moral values among its members and supporters.
If there is a gay subculture in Lebanon, is it limited to the capital, Beirut?
In the absence of statistics and real scientific studies, I can only share my impressions with you. Maybe one can say that this subculture is being formed and thus presents lots of uncertainty and contradictions. There are some practices which vary from one area to the other. Sure, Beirut is more accustomed to various practices than other areas. Nevertheless, same-sex practices are widespread and some cities are even traditionally known for their particular practices. Most of these practices remain at the stage of behavior, not lifestyle. They are clandestine and thus marginalized. They are more widespread among the poor and outside Beirut. As for the manifestation of homosexuality as an identity, the predominant model to follow at this stage is the Western model. In both cases, the people involved are in a state of rupture with their society, a fact that renders interaction and communication more difficult.
Do you mean that “the Western model” is inappropriate within Lebanese culture?
Hurriyyat speaks with an Arab voice, as we aim to legitimize homosexual feelings and relations in the Lebanese context. We believe, of course, that the homosexual choice responds to human needs and that, therefore, it has a universal basis. However, we believe that social recognition requires interaction between the individual and the society. Such interaction is more likely to occur if the society recognizes its history related to homosexuality and the human needs of its citizens, instead of denying them. Further, the possibility of interaction presupposes that homosexuals themselves have reached a certain stage of reconciliation between their sexual identity and the surrounding culture. Producing literature and art in Arabic related to homosexuality is an important step towards reconciling homosexuals with their native language. Also, the study of actual Arab history—laws, practices, poetry—is the best way for society, and in particular homosexuals, to reconcile with the Arab memory regarding homosexuality and also to find out the rational rules for the present time. For example, some notions in the Arab legal heritage may constitute a basis for the right to privacy, such as the well-known precept “man satar ‘ala muslim satar Allah ‘alayhi” (“whoever keeps confidential information related to unlawful sexual acts, his/her reputation will be preserved by God”).
At any rate, Hurriyyat always focuses on the public interest. We try to prove that the criminalization of homosexuality in Arab history was related to the Islamic regime requirements (rationalité axiologique, to use Weber’s classification), and has never been justified by reasons inherent to homosexuality (rationalité intrinsèque). So, yes, the emerging Lebanese gay subculture has been influenced by the West in many ways, through TV, films, the Internet, periodicals, nightclubs and especially through contact with the Lebanese diaspora following the civil war. If such influence seems predominant in homosexual practices and behavior, it is because it is the only public model for those having such tendencies. In advocating for legitimacy on the basis of Arabo-Islamic values and human needs, we hope to render non-Western models possible, too.
How does religious sectarianism affect gay identity politics in Lebanon?
First, it is well-known that all recognized religions in Lebanon condemn homosexuality. One may expect, in theory, that this fact would render homosexuals rebellious against the confessional system. However, reality seems different—the homosexual’s religious confessional identity is still stronger than his/her sexual identity. The solution to this contradiction is to render homosexuals more confident in the legitimacy of their sexual identity or choices. A positive example of solidarity across sectarian lines is the organization of the families of persons who “disappeared” during the civil war. Those families, coming from different sects, have successfully cooperated since 1983, even during the war. Their love overcame their communitarian identities. In Hurriyyat, as well as in HeLeM, there is no room for confessional cleavages. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the various confessions are unevenly distributed across economic and geographic divisions. This implies a certain difference as to the acceptability of homosexuality in one confession or another.
Do you mean that gay identity politics are mainly confined to the (often Western-) educated middle and upper classes?
I think that the imitation phenomenon in Lebanon—the communication of new practices and manners—is important and things are evolving very fast, in particular inside Beirut and its suburbs. However, while those who identify themselves as gay people do not belong to one particular social class, those who assume their sexual identity socially are mostly from the middle class. Class considerations are also present in homosexual relationships, in the sense that homosexuals of different social status are less likely to form relationships.
Is Hurriyyat Khassa working on AIDS-related issues?
Hurriyyat works on AIDS issues from a human rights perspective, that is, we work to institute the necessary legal reforms to prevent AIDS or discrimination against HIV-positive people. The institutions working on AIDS always express their unhappiness about the criminalization of homosexuality which, by virtue of its targeting of homosexuals, somewhat hinders progress on AIDS issues. To the best of my knowledge, HeLeM, our sister organization, is the only organization which is making the link between the gay community and organizations working on AIDS. So far, however, HeLeM has not received any funds.
Does Hurriyyat Khassa cooperate with LGBT rights groups in Europe and in the US?
So far, there has been no cooperation with those organizations. Our current focus in Lebanon is on decriminalizing homosexuality, while Western gay rights organizations overcame this obstacle decades ago. Hurriyyat is very concerned with its independence vis-à-vis all kinds of power, in particular the problem of donor-driven agendas. That said, we are interested in building relations based on mutual respect with international or Western organizations, provided they are also independent and share Hurriyyat’s main ideas about justice and human dignity. However, I think that our focus, in the future, should be to create a network for private liberties in the Arab world.
October 19, 2004
Lebanon gays push for law change
by Christopher Curtis PlanetOut Network
In what is being described as the first publicity offensive of its kind in the Arab world, a gay rights group in Lebanon is trying to overturn the country’s ban on homosexuality, according to Middle East Online. The group, Hurriyyat Khassa or Private Liberties, wants to end Article 534 of Lebanon’s penal code, which punishes those guilty of "sexual intercourse against nature" with a one-year jail sentence.
Hurriyyat Khassa started its campaign with a screening at the American University in Beirut of the movie "Victim." "We chose ‘Victim’ because this 1961 movie helped change the law in Britain (on homosexuality)," said a member of Hurriyyat Khassa. "It had the same impact for homosexuals that the film "In The Heat of the Night" had for the battle against racism in the United States," he explained. According to the Internet Movie Database, "Victim" tells the story of a married lawyer who is being blackmailed after having an affair with another man. As the attorney tries to fight the blackmailer, he meets other people whose lives were ruined by the threat of having their sexuality exposed. The movie ends with the attorney and his wife coming to terms with his homosexuality, and an indictment on England’s sodomy law, which the film portrays as nothing but a device for blackmail.
According to Helem, another group lobbying for LGBT rights in Lebanon, what was true in Britain in the ’60s is true in Lebanon today. "The first thing that a policeman attempts to obtain from a homosexual are confessions of sexual relations with politicians … and it is always the weak who are caught, as the rich and powerful (gays) always find ways for protection," the group said. But Helem noted the problems in Lebanon are minor compared to other countries in the Arab world. According to Amnesty International, some 44 people in Saudi Arabia were sentenced to jail terms for homosexuality, including four who were sentenced to death. Human rights activists have frequently criticized Egypt for abuses suffered by men suspected of being gay.
29 August 2005
Lebanon’s gays struggle with law
by Carine Torbey
Beirut – Homosexuality in Lebanon is no longer on the fringes of society or confined to an underworld of nightclubs and exclusive gatherings. It is now the subject of daily discussions in the country. Just over a year ago, Helem, the first-ever advocacy group of its kind in the Arab world was founded here, with the aim of improving the legal and social status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, launching awareness campaigns and providing medical assistance.
Helem is an Arabic acronym for Lebanese Protection for the LGBT community, but the Arabic word also means dream. George Azzi, the group’s co-ordinator, says the idea first came to life in an internet chat room whose members decided to organise an association and work publicly with the institutions of civil society. Freedom to establish associations is enshrined in law and the Lebanese constitution and all that is legally required from founders of any organisation is to notify the government. No approval is needed. Beirut has been the scene of colourful gay pride marches recently.
The mere existence of article 534 weakens gay people and strips them of legal protection enjoyed by other citizens George Azzi But if Helem has gained legal status, homosexuality remains illegal in Lebanon. Article 534 of the penal code criminalises "unnatural sexual intercourse" which is punishable by up to one year’s imprisonment. However, Helem still works alongside civil institutions and a number of government agencies, including the health ministry’s National Programme to Fight Aids. Mr Azzi stresses that Helem does not encourage people to break the law.
Nevertheless, "[gay] people exist and we work with them to help them be accepted by society and to change the law which marginalises a large segment of Lebanese society". Mr Azzi insists that it is quite natural for Helem to work alongside the government, since, he says, associations in Lebanon are traditionally "more progressive" than the law. He cites women’s groups and anti-death penalty associations as an example.
Azzi admits that no homosexual has been tried and sentenced under article 534 for a long time, but he complains the law is easily exploited, including by the police. "The mere existence of this article weakens gay people and strips them of legal protection enjoyed by other citizens," he says. Since it makes them outlaws, he explains, it also means they cannot turn to the police or sue anyone when their rights are violated. are. Azzi emphasised increasing gays’ ‘visibility’ in Lebanon "A number of people, including police, use this article to blackmail gays by asking for money or using violence or insults knowing full well that it will cost them nothing at all to do so."
In addition to blackmail, gays can also face daily harassment from family members and professional colleagues. A number have lost their jobs after being outed as gay, and they suffer abuse, humiliation and even violence, especially in the case of more effeminate gay men. Christian, a gay man, does not fear for his job, he says, because he works in advertising. But he believes that if he were a doctor or a lawyer he would be in a much tougher position, as people would lose faith in his ability to treat them or provide legal counsel. The hardship extends to family life as well, as a number of gays say they have been threatened with murder and thrown out of their homes.
Both Christian and George Azzi speak of relative improvement in the way society views homosexuality in Beirut. But what applies in the country’s vibrant capital is not necessarily true in rural areas. "People here [in Beirut] are aware that gays are there, regardless of whether they accept them or not. At least they don’t deny their existence," says Christian. Mr Azzi adds that gays now mix more easily in society, and some can even confide in their colleagues about their sexual tendencies. In short, they have become more "visible" in society.
Rasha, one of three lesbians active in Helem, argues that tacit acceptance is one thing but tolerance is another. People simply have to acknowledge that gays exist, because they increasingly come out in the open in Beirut, she says, but many people still dismiss them as a weird phenomenon. When a woman declares she is a lesbian in the Arab world, she breaks two taboos at the same time Rasha Her sex life is no problem in her daily life, she says, because as a woman in a conservative society which frowns upon sex for all unmarried women, she keeps a low sexual profile anyway.
"Our sex lives are very private, so keeping my sexuality private is something quite natural. That is why my experience as a lesbian is completely different from gay guys’ experience." "Socially, however, it is different. When a woman declares she is a lesbian in the Arab world, she breaks two taboos at the same time," Rasha says. Not only does she admit to extra-marital sex, but also to a same-sex relationship. "A man only breaks one taboo, in addition to the fact that he originally enjoys more freedom and independence than a woman," Rasha says. That is why the lesbian community is not as active as its male counterpart. "Girls are more scared," she says.
Ultimately, Helem aims to eliminate all discrimination against homosexuals. But it also seeks to maintain a Lebanese identity as opposed to importing the western model to Lebanon. "We look to Lebanese society and what it can handle. We do not aim to implement what happened in Spain," George Azzi says. Spain recently joined the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, some US states and other countries in legalising gay marriage. While Christian is considering moving abroad and getting married there, Rasha says she lives as she wants. However, at 26 years of age, she does not think of the future because it "is very tough". Still, she doesn’t give up on the idea of arranging a marriage with a man just for appearances… provided he is gay.
October 10, 2005
Helem publishes region’s first magazine for gay Arabs
Barra provides open forum to address issues faced by homosexuals in middle east
by Jessy Chahine, Daily Star staff
Not only has Lebanon managed to establish Helem, the first Arab non-governmental organization openly fighting for the rights of homosexuals, but it is also now publishing Barra (Arabic for Out), the region’s first magazine for gay Arabs. Published quarterly by Helem, Barra, according to one of its writers, is "a free space for all gays and lesbians in the region to express their feelings of social oppression and stigma."
Currently releasing its second issue, Barra incorporates several features and news articles written by Helem activists or independent homosexual writers from all over the region. Helem’s coordinator Georges Azzi said his group tries to raise awareness by speaking at colleges.
" There are increasingly more gay-friendly bars, also, for instance the International Day Against Homophobia (last May) was observed for the first time in Lebanon," Azzi said, "with Helem marking the occasion with a gathering of about 200 people, straight and gay, at a seaside hotel in Beirut. It also organized a screening of ‘I exist,’ a documentary on homosexuals of Middle Eastern decent living in the United States, and distributed buttons and pamphlets with the slogan, ‘You drink coffee, I prefer tea. Does that mean one of us is abnormal?’" Dalal al-Bizri, a Cairo-based Lebanese sociologist, says homosexuals in the region are more reviled than drug addicts "because homosexuality is seen as being exported to the region by a country whose armies and fleets have attacked Arabs: the United States, so homosexuality is widely seen as a disease spread by the United States and Israel to corrupt Arabs and undermine their religious faith."
She said that more Arabs were coming out as gays, or "at least coming to terms with their sexuality, even though in some countries they face laws that can land them in jail, and extremists who beat them up because of Islam’s condemnation of homosexuality." According to Azzi, Lebanon is the only Arab country where gays can find refuge and Helem is the "first Arab non-governmental organization openly fighting for their rights."
Helem was set up last year despite a vaguely worded law punishing "unnatural sexual intercourse" with up to one year in jail.
" Lebanon, with its mixed population of Muslims and Christians, has a history of religious pluralism and exposure to the West.
But elsewhere, homosexuals are on their own," Azzi said.
Lebanon even has male belly dancers. One such dancer is a slim, 23-year-old bisexual who identifies himself with the stage name "Teddy." Teddy says his insistence on leading a "normal life" has come at a price: "People look at me as if I have descended from Mars." With elegant black pony tail, mascara coated eye lashes, plump lips and manicured nails, he stood out as the only man in makeup at a trendy Beirut coffee house.
He said demand for his dancing is strong, though "Sometimes, at nightclubs, people spit at me or throw drinking glasses.
" I don’t respond because I don’t want to make an issue out of it," he explains. Oddly enough, he says life in some ways is harder for gays in Lebanon than other parts of the region because here boys and girls mix freely, so parents are more likely to notice those who don’t. " It’s easier in Saudi Arabia, where the sexes are segregated," said Teddy. " As long as boys and girls are separate, parents feel their children are safe."
Asked where he would like to be 10 years from now, Teddy said: " I’d like to become the head of a union for the protection of gays in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world, and a very famous lawyer in the sphere of human rights. Once I have achieved that," he added, "I’d like to marry a woman and have 14 children," he said.
April 07, 2006
Brian Whitaker’s book gives voice to gay Arabs: ‘Unspeakable Love–Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East
by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie Daily Star staff
Beirut – When Salim, a 20-year-old Egyptian, told his family that he was gay, they packed him off for six months of psychiatric treatment. When Ali, a teenager from Lebanon, was discovered to be gay, his father broke a chair over his head and his brother threatened to kill him for tarnishing the family honor. Ali left home and no longer has any contact with his relatives. When the family of another young Egyptian man found out their son was gay, they beat him and then sent him to a therapist. He convinced a young woman to pose as his girlfriend for a while, but once that ruse was up, his family beat him again, this time so harshly that he fled Egypt for the United States, where he applied for political asylum.
These are just a few among the many anecdotes that Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor for The Guardian newspaper in London, relates in his new, groundbreaking book, "Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East." Launched in Beirut on Wednesday night with a book signing at Zico House and a party at Walima, "Unspeakable Love" explores the experiences of young gay men and women in several countries throughout the region, including Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Whitaker filters their stories through the multiple lenses of social norms, cultural expressions, the media, politics and religion. To his credit, Whitaker does not shy away from but rather dives into the murky questions surrounding homosexuality in the Middle East.
Is homosexuality a Western import and a sign of modernity’s moral decay? How does that square with the Orientalist fantasy of the Middle East as a lush gay paradise? How do young people today distinguish between homosexuality as a practice and homosexuality as a self-proclaimed identity? What are the various laws prohibiting homosexual behavior and how are they implemented in various parts of the region? What are the religious texts dealing with homosexuality, how have they been interpreted and – perhaps most crucially – why have they been interpreted as such?
And what, more basically, is the precise terminology at stake here in Arabic, with such expressions as shaadh (pervert or deviant), al-mithliyya al-jinsiyaa (sexual sameness) and the latter’s shorthand, mithli and mithliyya, all in circulation at once? Whitaker, 58, was motivated to write "Unspeakable Love" by the Queen Boat incident in Egypt in 2001, when police raided a Nile River boat that functioned as a floating nightclub and attracted a mainly male clientele. Not only were numerous men arrested and jailed, but the event was also one of the very few to bring issues of gay identity and practice into the mainstream Arab media.
Three things become palpably clear from reading the book.
The first is that social attitudes are the single-most mind-crushing factor for young men and women in Arab world who are trying to deal with the fact that they are attracted to members of the same sex. More so than legal statutes or religious edicts, the pressure to marry is what pushes many of these young men and women to the breaking point.
The second is that because not only homosexuality in particular but sexuality in general remain so stubbornly taboo in the Middle East, there is a dangerous dearth of reliable information, education and counseling available for gay men, lesbian women and their respective families.
Because sexuality is not discussed in the public domain, young people lack even the actual vocabulary – the words, the terms, the turns of phrase – to describe themselves and their actions in simultaneously civic and sexual terms. A city like Beirut may have a thriving gay subculture, and it may even have a strong, impressive and unprecedented gay rights organization in Helem. But homophobia remains rampant – even among those who should know better – and homosexuality has yet to light the imagination of any prominent politician. Imagine what it would take to get gay marriage on the agenda of a Cabinet meeting or the current national dialogue in Lebanon. Lots of red flags waving and exclamation points popping there.
The third is that the push for gay rights in the region is very much tied to wider issues of social and political reform.
" It’s not just about gay rights," says Whitaker. "It’s about the whole issue of reform, and reform is not just about elections."
True reform will have to take a full range of factors into consideration, and "sexuality," he adds, "has to be a part of it."
Whitaker has three ideal readers in mind – Westerners interested in reform who need to look beyond voting structures, Arabs interested in reform who need to get over outmoded leftist strategies and young Arabs who are gay, ostracized and alone. For them, the book is perhaps most important because even if the names have been changed and the details have been deleted, it gives them a voice.
" I was basically trying to do a job of reporting, asking people about their lives," Whitaker explains. "There’s no book that deals with the contemporary situation quite like this one." He lays a hand on the cover and pats it once. "There are literary histories and anthropological studies. But there are not books that talk to people about their daily lives."
Whitaker admits that he could spend the rest of his career researching the subject, but he says he would risk ending up being just "that guy writing those books." In fact, he hopes he doesn’t ever have to write another book like "Unspeakable Love." In effect, he hopes that by its publication, the book will break the taboo. While it is entirely conceivable that "Unspeakable Love" could have attracted the attention of a major publishing house in Europe or the U.S., Whitaker chose to go with Saqi Books because of its foothold in the region. "This is where the issue matters," he explains.
It was also important for him to launch the book in Beirut before anywhere else. "I have been apprehensive about it being seen as another Western attack." He says he recently turned down an interview with CNN because he wanted to see how the local press would cover it first. All of which begs the question: Will "Unspeakable Love" be translated to Arabic anytime soon? Speaking on the day before the launch, Whitaker sounded hypothetically optimistic.
" Obviously, yes," he laughed. "It would be a major development, a breakthrough, if it were to be translated to Arabic. I think the situation with books is similar to the situation with the press. People writing in the English language have a bit more freedom. I hope people will read it in English and tell their friends about it in Arabic. It’s a pity it’s not in Arabic, but it’s a start."
By the time the launch rolled around on Wednesday, Whitaker’s publishers were adamant. "Yes," they said. "An Arabic translation is in the works. It will be out by the end of the year." How’s that for progress? Brian Whitaker’s "Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East" is out now from Saqi Books. For more information, please see www.saqibooks.com
30 May 2006
"Homosexuality goes against the moral, religious and human principles of Lebanese society…"
A Beirut city counsellor has urged the Lebanese government to ban what he described as "public manifestations" of homosexual and transgender activities.
"Homosexuality goes against the moral, religious and human principles of Lebanese society and its public manifestations should be banned," the counsellor, Saad ad-Din al-Wazzani told Adnkronos International (AKI). "I call on the government and Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat to withdraw any permission to associations which promote homosexual and transgender activities in Lebanon ," he added. Al-Wazzani said he was specifically referring to a public conference entitled "Against Homophobia," organised by a gay rights group, Helem, and held on 17 May at Beirut’s luxury Monroe Hotel.
The conference, sponsored by the the Heinrich Boll Foundation, an institution linked to Germany ‘s Green Party, also launched "Homophobia, visions and positions," an Arabic-language book. "This was a provocation and I am amazed that no other political leader has publically condemned it. What realy worries me is the wish of associations [like Helem] to spread their activities and distribute their publications even in schools," al-Wazzani said. "We have to oppose this, and I ask that at the next cabinet meeting the government approve a decree which will revoke permission for the associations to operate," al-Wazzani told AKI.
Helem, an acronym for Protection for Lebanese Homosexuals, but which also means "Dream" in Arabic has been operating in Lebanon since 2005 and is financially supported by the Dutch Embassy in Beirut. In recent months the association has published two editions of it magazine Barra (Out) which focused on the different types of sexual orientation among the Lebanese. While no officials figures exist on the number of homosexuals and transgender people in Lebanon, several clubs and bars in Beirut cater for gay and lesbian clientele, as does a beach near the town of Byblos (Jbeil) located some 30 kilometres north of the capital. Still, as in many other Arab nations, homosexuality remains a taboo subject and is rarely discussed in public.
May 18, 2006
Lebanon marks second Day Against Homophobia
by Kristin Solberg
Beirut – "Homosexuality doesn’t exist in the Arab world." Such statements are common, and part of what Wednesday’s International Day Against Homophobia tried to combat. "People constantly ask why someone is homosexual," said Georges Azzi, Beirut coordinator for HELEM, the group that organized the event here. "But today we will ask a different question: Is it normal for someone to go to prison just because of their sexual identity?"
On May 17, 1990, the World Health Organization took homosexuality off its list of mental disorders. Fifteen years later, a French gay rights activist organized the first ever International Day Against Homophobia, and events took place in more than 40 countries, including Lebanon . This year, HELEM, a non-governmental organization fighting for the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgendered (LGBT), organized bigger and better events. The acronym "HELEM," the Arabic version of "LGBT," also means "dream."
Wednesday was the first of three days of events that include screenings of six locally produced films dealing with homophobia, the launch of a book on the topic, open discussions on how to "come out" as a homosexual, and a symposium on gender and sexuality. According to HELEM, Lebanon ‘s LGBT community is constantly subject to harassment and violence. Moreover, they risk losing their jobs <http://www.dailystar.com.lb/printable.asp?art_ID=24565&cat_ID=2> and being shunned by their own families.
"Everyone has a right to his or her sexual identity," said Reina Sarkis, a psychoanalyst who works with HELEM. "The definition of phobia in general is a very strong and irrational fear of an object or a person, a fear that the object or person itself doesn’t justify." Sarkis said there are two different forms of homophobia: the "external" homophobia that comes from society, and the "internal" homophobia that a homosexual person can feel toward his or her sexual orientation. The second form is, however, a reflection and a product of the first.
"It comes from a lack of information, or misinformation," Sarkis said, adding that a focus on procreation makes it harder for homosexuals to accept their identity. "In society, there’s a phobia against desire when it doesn’t have the goal of procreation, and many gay and lesbian people carry this unconsciously." Many homosexuals, Sarkis said, think they are immoral and decadent. "Guilt and fear comes with it, because they will not achieve the goal of having children before they die."
While homosexuality is not literally illegal in Lebanon , Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code punishes "unnatural sexual intercourse," and this is primarily used to target the LGBT community. HELEM’s main goal is the annulment of this article. Although no one in Lebanon has been convicted under the law recently, Azzi said the law discriminates in other ways. "The law doesn’t provide protection. I know people who have been beaten but who have not dared to go to the police because of their sexual orientation … There’s a recent case of a guy who was beaten and went to the police, bleeding. But the police only made fun of him."
HELEM itself has also been under attack recently, with homophobic articles in the media as well as a Beirut Municipality member asking fo rthe organization to be shut down. "It’s going to be a real test of democracy in Lebanon , whether an organization such as HELEM gets a chance to exist," Azzi said.
Roy (not his real name), 25, is gay, and has lost numerous friends dueto homophobia. "Once they find out you’re gay, they start leaving you,"he said. Priests and nuns in his former school, he added, also pressured him into"changing." "They wanted me to see a shrink," Roy said. When asked by The Daily Star why the International Day Against Homophobia is important, Roy said: "It’s an indirect way to show the Lebanese that the LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, inter-sexand queer) community exists, and for us to start to get united and dosomething to change society’s mentality and get our rights." "Personally I’m not looking for rights such as adoption. But I want my sexual identity to be legal," Roy explained.
In an echo of Azzi’s example, Roy has previously avoided going to the police for protection because of his sexual orientation. Once, a man with whom he he had a brief flirt stole his wallet with over $150, but Roy did not report the theft. "I was afraid to call 112 because they would ask me how I met this guy." However, Roy said, Lebanese society is moving forward on the notion of sexual orientation acceptance, and it is in his opinion much easier to be gay in Lebanon today than it was five years ago. Still, it is far from easy. "For me personally it just feels normal," Roy said. "But I am not normal in the eyes of society."
18 July 2006
Some news from LGBT group Helem in Lebanon
Dear friends, We’ve received some news from activists and friends from Helem, an ILGA ?member in Lebanon. After the influx of refugees from the southern ?suburbs of Beirut and the south of Lebanon, the Helem center has begun providing shelter, food, and supplies for the refugees, together with ?other NGOs.More information can be found at http://www.helem.net/Helem also pointed out a few blogs so as to allow people to get first hand information from the civil society in Lebanon:
Stephen Barris / ILGA?
The International Lesbian and Gay Association
July 27, 2006
Under the Flames of the War on Lebanon
To all our friends and colleagues,
Thank to all of you who have contacted ASWAT to ask about our safety as we are based in Haifa . It is much appreciated that you are thinking of us in these days. We want to thank you again for your support and the ongoing friendship. We in ASWAT, our friends and families are safe and we will keep you posted if anything changes. Our reason to write you is to let you know that in these days our hearts and thoughts are in Lebanon , not forgetting Gaza and the West Bank in Palestine and Iraq .
We have a lot of pain and sadness, watching all the pictures as a result of the hits, seeing people killed, and hearing about all the refugees; it makes us stop and raise our voices in ASWAT and say out loud STOP THIS WAR on our sisters and brothers in Lebanon and start negotiating!!! We have received some news from activists and friends from Helem, an LGBT center in Beirut . After the influx of refugees from the southern suburbs of Beirut as well as from the south of Lebanon , Helem center, together with other NGOs, has begun providing shelter, food, and supplies for the refugees.
More information can be found at http://www.helem.net/
Helem also pointed out a few blogs so as to allow people to get first hand information from the civil society in Lebanon:
14 September 2006
Invitation to Sultan’s Night at Al Sheikh Hammam (Beruit bath house)
Bring all your friends!
Let’s enjoy all together our first event of its kind in Lebanon that is proudly brought to you by Lebtour, Lebanon’s LGBT organization Be the Sultan, September 15, relax & be served at Al Sheikh Hammam, as it comes the time to be pampered and refined. A magnificent charming oriental night at Al Sheikh Hammam will be the perfect way to relax, and meet new people.
October 2, 2006
Coming out in Arabic–Aswat Lesbian Organization
Brian Whitaker reports on a lesbian group’s struggle for acceptance in the Middle East.
When Rauda Morcos heard there was an emailing list for lesbian Palestinians, she couldn’t believe it at first. " I thought it was a joke," she said. "Until then, I thought I was the only lesbian who speaks Arabic." The list was certainly not a joke but, in a society where same-sex relations are still taboo, its members guarded their privacy. The only way a newcomer could join was by personal recommendation. " Eventually I got in," Ms Morcos recalled, "and I found a lot of other [lesbian] women who couldn’t be out."
After corresponding by email for a few months, she thought it would be good to talk with some of the invisible women face to face, so, in January 2003, Ms Morcos and her flatmate called a meeting.
" We had no expectations," she said, "but eight women turned up. The meeting lasted eight hours and I don’t think anybody wanted to go home." That, it later turned out, marked the birth of Aswat ("Voices") – the first openly-functioning organisation for Arab lesbians in the Middle East. " We realised we had a great responsibility towards other women in our community," Ms Morcos continued. "We tried to contact many organisations and sent out letters but the only reply came from Kayan ["Being"], a group of feminists in Haifa … Many NGOs don’t count it as a human rights issue or want to be associated."
Three years on, though, Aswat is firmly established with more than 70 members spread across the West Bank, Gaza and Israel (where the organisation is based). Only about 20 attend its meetings; the need to keep their sexuality secret, plus Israeli restrictions on movement, prevent others from attending but they keep in touch through email and an online discussion forum.
Beyond the group itself, there are also signs of acceptance in a few places. "We do a lot of work within the community, for example with youth groups, counsellors, and so on," Ms Morcos said. "That proves to me at least that the gay/lesbian movement has started for us as Palestinians."
One of Aswat’s main goals is to provide information about sexuality that is widely available elsewhere but has never been published in Arabic. This is not simply a matter of translation; it’s also about developing "a ‘mother tongue’ with positive, un-derogatory and affirmative expressions of women and lesbian sexuality and gender … We are creating a language that no one spoke before". If women are to find their voice, the language needs to be re-appropriated, Ms Morcos explains in an article on Aswat’s website. "I have forgotten my language. I don’t know how to say ‘to make love’ in Arabic without it sounding chauvinistic, aggressive and alien to the experience."
Recognition for Aswat’s work came earlier this year when Ms Morcos won the 2006 Felipa de Souza award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The citation described her as "a true example of courageous and effective human rights leadership", but Ms Morcos is quick to point out that other women are also doing a lot of work behind the scenes. Speaking to a standing-room-only meeting of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign during a visit to London last week, she explained that necessity has made her the public face of Aswat. Many of the women involved do not want to be identified – often with good reason. "But if we don’t want to come out as persons, let’s at least come out as a movement," she said.
Ms Morcos’s own coming-out was not entirely voluntary and proved particularly unpleasant. In 2003 she gave an interview to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot about the poetry she writes. In passing, she mentioned her sexuality – only to find that the L-word turned up in the newspaper’s headline. An article on Aswat’s website describes what happened next: " All of a sudden, the Arab population of her home town [in northern Israel], which she generally assumed to have no interest in the literary supplements of Hebrew newspapers, seemed to have read the article and had something to say about her. Local corner shop owners made photocopies and distributed it, because, after all, everyone knew it was about the daughter of so-and-so from their own town.
" The consequences of that article were far more serious than Ms Morcos had imagined: her car windows were smashed and tyres were punctured several times, she received innumerable threatening letters and phone calls, and, to top it all, ‘coincidentally’ lost her job as a school teacher, since parents of pupils complained that they did not want her as a teacher."
Arab society today is riddled with the kind of anti-gay prejudices that were found in Britain half a century ago, and persecution is common. Muslim clerics condemn homosexuality in no uncertain terms, though similar statements can be heard from Arab Christian leaders too, such as the Coptic Pope in Egypt who once declared that "so-called human rights" for gay people were "unthinkable".
With a few exceptions here and there, this is the prevailing attitude in all the Arab countries, but in Palestinian society the issue of gay rights is further complicated – and made much more political – by the conflict with Israel.
Israel legalised same-sex relations between men in 1988. Four years later, it went a step further and became the only country in the Middle East that outlaws discrimination based on sexuality. A series of court cases then put the theory into practice – for example, when El Al was forced to provide a free ticket for the partner of a gay flight attendant, as the airline already did for the partners of its straight employees. These are undisputed achievements but they have also become a propaganda tool, reinforcing Israel’s claim to be the only liberal, democratic society in the Middle East. At the same time, highlighting Israel’s association with gay rights has made life more difficult for gay Arabs, adding grist to the popular notion that homosexuality is a "disease" spread by foreigners.
Linking the twin enemies of Israel and homosexuality provides a double whammy for Arab propagandists, as can be seen from sections of the Egyptian press. In an article to mark the 30th anniversary of the October war, a headline in the Egyptian paper Sabah al-Kheir announced: "Golda Meir was a lesbian." In 2001, following the mass arrest of more than 50 allegedly gay men, al-Musawwar magazine published a doctored photograph of the supposed ringleader, showing him in an Israeli army helmet and sitting at a desk with an Israeli flag.
Israel, however, is not quite the gay paradise that many imagine. There is still hostility from conservative Jews, and some of their blood-curdling statements are not very different from the more widely publicised remarks of Muslim clerics. In Jerusalem last year, the ultra-Orthodox mayor banned a pride march, though an Israeli court promptly overturned his decision. As the parade took place, a Jewish religious fanatic attacked three marchers with a knife and reportedly told the police he had come "to kill in the name of God". The gay rights movement in Israel also has a questionable history. Lee Walzer, author of Between Sodom and Eden, explains in an article that the first Israeli activists pursued "a very mainstream strategy" that "reinforced the perception that gay rights was a non-partisan issue, unconnected to the major fissure in Israeli politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict and how to resolve it".
" Embracing gay rights," he continues, "enabled Israelis to pat themselves on the back for being open-minded, even as Israeli society wrestled less successfully with other social inequalities." As part of their strategy, activists sought "to convince the wider public that gay Israelis were good patriotic citizens who just happened to be attracted to the same sex". As a general principle this may be valid, but in the context of war and occupation it leads into murky territory. Should it really be a matter of pride that openly gay members of the Israeli armed forces are just as capable of wreaking havoc on neighbouring Lebanon as the next person?
The question here is whether gay rights – in Israel or elsewhere – can really be divorced from politics or treated in isolation from other human rights. Helem, the Lebanese gay and lesbian organisation, thinks not, arguing that gay rights are an inseparable part of human rights – as does Ms Morcos. For Ms Morcos, there’s a connection between nationality, gender and sexuality. She has a triple identity, as a lesbian, a woman and a Palestinian (despite having an Israeli passport) – "a minority within a minority within a minority", as she puts it. Her first concern, though, is to end the Israeli occupation, and she sees no prospect of achieving gay rights for Palestinians while it continues.
Nowadays, the more radical Israeli activists also acknowledge a linkage. In 2001, Walzer recalls, "Tel Aviv’s pride parade, typically a celebratory, hedonistic affair, got a dose of politics when a contingent called ‘Gays in Black’ marched with a banner proclaiming, ‘There’s No Pride In Occupation’." Later, a group called Kvisa Sh’chora ("Dirty Laundry") sprang up and began drawing parallels between the oppression of sexual minorities and Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.
The issue was further highlighted in 2002 when Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to formally meet a gay delegation. Activist Hagai El-Ad asked: "Is this an achievement for our community, or an example of a lack of feeling, callousness and loss of direction?" He continued: "It would be unbearable to simply sit with the prime minister and, on behalf of our minority, ignore the human rights of others, including what’s been happening here in relation to Palestine for the past year: roadblocks, prevention of access to medical care, assassinations, and implementation of an apartheid policy in the territories and in Israel.
" The struggle for our rights is worthless if it’s indifferent to what’s happening to people a kilometre from here. " All we get by holding the meeting with the prime minister," he concluded, "is symbolic legitimacy for the community. What he gets for sitting down with us is the mantle of enlightenment and pluralism." This mantle of enlightenment and pluralism does not, however, extend to Israel’s treatment of gay Palestinians. For those who face persecution in the West Bank and Gaza, the most obvious escape route is to Israel, but this often leaves them trapped in an administrative no-man’s-land with little hope of getting a proper job in Israel and constantly at risk of arrest and deportation.
Meanwhile, as far as the average Palestinian is concerned, fleeing into Israel is a betrayal of the cause, and gay men who remain in the Palestinian territories also come under suspicion – not always without good reason. There have been various reports of gay Palestinians being targeted or pressurised by Israeli intelligence to act as informers. Whether or not they actually succumb to the pressure, all inevitably come under suspicion. " Gays in Palestine are seen as collaborators immediately," said Ms Morcos.
Aswat MIddle East Lesbian website:
June 24, 2007
Homosexuality in Lebanon less of a taboo…Amid factional feuds and political instability, a quiet cultural transformation has begun.
by Raed Rafei, Special to The Times
Beirut – The Lebanese soldiers at the checkpoint peered through the barbed wire. Across the street from these men in their fatigues and combat gear, another group of men had arrived — revelers in hip-hugging pants and tight shirts on their way to Acid, an openly gay nightclub in east Beirut. The soldiers barely flinched. In Lebanon, homosexuality is becoming less of a taboo. It is discussed with much greater candor on TV and radio talk shows. The Arabic word widely used in reference to gays means "pervert." Now many leading newspapers have begun using a more neutral term. New gay bars have sprouted, joining mainstays such as Acid, creating a flourishing nightlife that is attracting locals and foreign tourists alike.
"It’s not that the political class is more open today," said George Azzi, a prominent gay rights activist. "But authorities, by portraying themselves as the new guardians of democracy and civil rights, find themselves rather bound not to attack gays." The 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri unleashed a political firestorm that led to the ouster of Syrian troops from Lebanon. But with its heady rhetoric about freedom and rights, the so-called Cedar Revolution also unwittingly set in motion an unspoken cultural transformation. Moreover, the political instability that followed Hariri’s assassination has left many politicians and clerics too preoccupied with factional feuds to pay attention.
"Politicians are simply too busy today to persecute gays," said Salah Srour, a lawyer who works for gay rights. "They have too many problems to deal with." Famous for its riotous nightlife, Lebanon has long been known as the most permissive among the Arab countries. On any given night, Monnot Street in central Beirut is gridlocked with Porsche-driving playboys headed to the area’s many bars and nightclubs where a bottle of champagne costs $1,000 but buys precious attention. Many tourists from the Persian Gulf countries come to Beirut for the kinds of kicks they can’t get at home.
At Acid, the waiting line snakes around the block on weekends. Others prefer the hunting grounds at the city’s traditional saunas known as hamams. In these dimly lighted, vapor-filled rooms, men wearing only towels around their waists cruise for sexual partners. Berto Kanso, a 27-year-old archeology graduate, has made a business of charting these shadowy waters. He runs a gay tourism website that offers advice on hotels, restaurants and gay bars in Lebanon. He e-mails travel updates to his contact list of 7,000 subscribers all over the world. Despite a drop in tourism caused by the 2006 war between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah and the continuing unstable political situation in Lebanon, Kanso said business is booming.
"There is a lot of negative propaganda portraying Lebanon as a dangerous place … but in reality Lebanon is beautiful and free," he said. "As long as I am not dealing with anything illegal like drugs or prostitution, why would I be stopped? After all, I am bringing tourists to the country." A billboard campaign last year for a high-end fashion store showed a man holding hands with both a man and a woman. Related TV spots showed two men holding hands, with sunrays creating a rainbow above them as a voice-over intoned, "Vote for tolerance." Dating websites and chat groups provide social networks for Lebanese gays who once would have been far more isolated.
"Today, we can talk about a fairly thriving gay community in Beirut," said Rita Ghanem, 33, who left her ancestral home 18 months ago when her father discovered she was seeing a woman. The parents of her girlfriend, Luna, at first banned contact between the two women but ended up tacitly accepting their relationship. After moving out of her father’s house, Ghanem took a job as a bartender in West Beirut. But when he became ill and needed help, she moved back home to care for him. The two haven’t discussed her girlfriend again. Homosexuality is still considered shameful in many places outside the cosmopolitan capital, and many gay men and women in Lebanon prefer to lead a double life rather than risk being ostracized.
"I am only gay when I am in bed with another man," said Kareem, a 40-year-old engineer who didn’t want to give his last name for fear of being persecuted. Kareem says he avoids going to gay clubs or being seen publicly with other gay men. Instead, he meets other men anonymously online. Many gay men suffer from homophobia in their surroundings," said Maha Rabbat, a psychotherapist who counsels at Helem, one of the few Arab associations advocating rights for gays, lesbians and transgender people. "Most of [them] feel anxious and have a low self-esteem." Not so long ago, Lebanese security forces regularly taunted and sometimes beat gays. Those arrested were prosecuted under a law prohibiting "unnatural sexual intercourse."
The law, which doesn’t address homosexuality explicitly, remains on the books but is rarely enforced these days. Despite the inroads made by the gay community, initiatives to decriminalize homosexuality have been largely ignored. When Azzi filed papers with the Ministry of Interior in 2004 to establish Helem as a legitimate group, an official shelved the request, writing the word "shameful" on the folder and throwing it into a drawer, a ministry official said. The group’s name means "dream" in Arabic. Helem provides free counseling, HIV testing and financial support to youths who have been cast out by their families. The group is partly financed through fundraising in Paris, Montreal and San Francisco.
Last year, after coming under fierce attacks by religious leaders, the interior minister publicly said he hadn’t approved Helem’s application to become a legitimate nongovernmental organization. Despite legal uncertainties, the group continues to operate freely. Every Friday night, undeterred by the heavy presence of police officers and soldiers, Helem members stroll along Beirut’s seafront promenade, distributing condoms and AIDS-awareness brochures to gay men and male prostitutes. Their mission is tacitly supported by social affairs and health ministries. Helem has grown significantly in the last few years "from an underground group at the end of the ’90s into a well-established organization, recognized and supported by many other local" groups, Azzi said.
Despite the advances, it remains difficult for Helem to lobby for legislative amendments that would give gays legal protection because parliament is paralyzed by a political deadlock. Some activists worry that the unresolved legal issues could become a problem down the road. "Any change in politics can set us back," Azzi said.
July 17, 2007
Gay Community Thrives in Lebanon
Noah Adams, host:
Homosexuality is forbidden in almost all of the Arab world. In Saudi Arabia, for example, sodomy is punishable by death. But Beirut’s Lebanon is different. It’s a city where the gay and lesbian community is quietly and unexpectedly thriving.
NPR’s Shereen Meraji has a report.
Shereen Meraji: Down a narrow cobblestone street in West Beirut, spray-painted graffiti covers the wall.
One image in particular stands out. Hin Gandur(ph) on her way to class at Beirut’s American University stops and describes it.
Ms. Hin Gandur (Student, West Beirut): It’s a face of a man covered in black. The rims of his eyes are all that shows. It’s the question; it says who’s homosexual? Well, your mother is homosexual. I am homosexual.
Meraj: Can you say it in Arabic, too?
Ms. Gandur: (Arabic spoken)
MERAJI: The graffiti is confusing to a lot of people who see it, including Hin.
Ms. Gandur: (Unintelligible) means the same. I don’t know what’s he’s trying to use it to symbolize or to say.
(Unintelligible) means homosexual. He’s using the first two lines, but in the third line he uses
(unintelligible) which I’m confused about.
Meraj: He is graffiti artist and graphic design student Hamed Cino(ph). Hamed is 19, Muslim, and gay.
Mr. Hamed Cino (Graffiti Artist; Student): The thing is, in Arabic, people describe homosexuality as
(unintelligible) which translates to deviant, literally. And it’s the most popular way of describing it, and it’s kind of offensive, you know, like someone’s basically calling you deviant and it stems from a lot of – like a lot of cultural understandings that are very oppressive. So the graffiti – the guy wearing a mask says who’s a deviant? Your mom is a deviant. I’m homosexual.
Meraj: Hamed himself has been the target of anti-gay graffiti, so he’s using his graffiti to express frustration at his own treatment. He hopes to spark a dialogue about homosexuality in Lebanon, where it’s still against the law.
For Brian Whitaker, a journalist and author of "Unspeakable Love," a book about gay and lesbian life in the Arab world, writes that in terms of opportunities for gay social life and activism, Beirut is as good as it gets. Whitaker credits Beirut’s ethnic and religious diversity.
Brian Whitaker (Author, "Unspeakable Love"): You have the Sunni Muslims, the Shia Muslims, the Druze, various kinds of Christians, and so on. No one faction is able to get the upper hand. That leads to something which I wouldn’t really describe as tolerance, because I don’t think it is. But it’s a kind of live and let live attitude.
Meraj: One of the most popular night clubs in Beirut is Acid. Men line up to enter surrounded by the Lebanese army, which provides security for this and a handful of other night spots in the city. The men in fatigues ignore the men in tight pants and (unintelligible); guys like Haisam(ph).
Haisam: From east to west, coast to coast, Acid is still the best.
Meraj: Haisam drove to Beirut from the northern city of Tripoli. He told me Acid is like home sweet home, a place where he feels free to dance and dress as he pleases. Gay men and women from all over the Middle East come to Beirut to socialize in the city’s gay-friendly nightspots.
Sally: That is Pride, there is Bardot, that is Basement, there is (unintelligible)
Meraj: Sally is a lesbian born and raised in Beirut.
Sally: I’m so happy here. I’m living my gay life openly (unintelligible) why do you want to leave?
LARA: I always have to live with my parents until I get married.
Sally: If you want to leave, you have to find new friends, new gay friends, actually. You have to find new places to go out. I’m happy here.
Meraj: Sally’s girlfriend Lara is not satisfied with gay life in Lebanon. Both refused to give their last names, fearing their family’s reaction. Lebanese culture is hardly free of the stereotypes that have plagued gay people everywhere. Lara.
Lara: If you’re a gay, you’re a junkie. You’re a sex addict. You’re wild. You have no boundaries. You have no limits. You don’t believe in God.
Meraj: Lara plans to leave Lebanon after college and move to the U.S. This is the Middle East, where family honors everything. A majority of young people do live with their parents until they’re married. So if you’re gay, that often means leading a double life, heading to the West, or never leaving home. And for Muslims like Lara, coming out even in Beirut can mean a complete loss of freedom.
Sheikh Ali Merhi(ph) is an Islamic scholar who instructs teenage boys on the tenets of Islam in one of the Beirut’s Shiite neighborhood.
Sheikh ALI MERHI (Islamic Scholar): In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, the Koran said (Arabic spoken) which means that any woman makes relation her husband or her father or her brother, any man have authority on that woman, must prison her in – at house. This prison must continue until death.
Meraj: The punishment for a gay man, according to Sheikh Ali, isn’t imprisonment, it’s death, in order to maintain family honor. Bilaw(ph) is a 24-year-old Shiite who won’t give his last name. Bilaw walks a very thin line, hiding his sexuality from family while living as an openly gay man outside the home. He talks about what happened when his uncle suspected he was gay.
Bilaw: They said to me they wanted to kill me. For them it’s an honor crime.
Meraj: Bilaw has been able to keep his sexual orientation a mystery at home, even as he makes gay activism his life’s work. (Soundbite of cell phone)
Bilaw: Helam(ph). Hello?
Meraj: He’s one of the leaders of Helam, which means dream. Helam is the only gay rights organization openly functioning in the Arab world. Bilaw sees nothing wrong with being gay and a devout Muslim.
Bilaw: I’m very religious. I pray, I fast, I have my boyfriend and we have sex, for sure. I’m gay because I was born gay. So I’m not shooting anybody. I’m not doing anything wrong. So why to be punished at the end? This is my philosophy.
Meraj: It’s a philosophy that Bilaw hopes will spread from gay-tolerant Beirut throughout Lebanon to the rest of the Arab world.
This is Shereen Meraji, NPR News.
Adams: Shereen Meraji traveled to Beirut as NPR’s Bucksbaum Fellow for the International Reporting Project.
September 4, 2007
Gay friend’s offer prompts youth to murder
Bhubaneswar – Debabrata Pani, an upcoming model and his grand mother Bina were found murdered at their house in Unit 8 area here today. The accused Arun Dora, a college student, surrendered at the Khandagiri police station and confessed to his crime. Dora alleged that Debabrata was repeatedly forcing him to a homosexual relationship. “I was depressed and shattered, so I decided to kill him when he called me to his home last night, the culprit said.
Since the old lady saw Arun committing the crime, he murdered her too, said the police sources. Both Debabrata and Arun were friends and they used to move around together. But Arun said that ever since Debabrata forced him to have sex, he became very depressed. Since Arun’s parents had left for Vaishnov Devi, Debabrata had called his friend home last night to celebrate Krishnastami.
The accused claimed that he had waited for such an opportunity and planned to kill Debabrata. He had carried a sharp weapon and attacked his model-friend with it. Today he went to the Khandagiri police station and surrendered. Early this morning, when the bodies were found in a pool of blood, the people of the locality gathered together and informed the police.
November 5, 2007
Lebanese gays come out of closet, but quietly
Beirut (AFP) — In some countries in the Arab world homosexuals can face the death penalty. But in Lebanon an association battles openly for the rights of gays who may live freely but are still ostracised socially. "Beirut is a bubble of freedom for homosexuals," said Georges Azzi, coordinator for the Helem (Dream) Association, the Arab world’s first gay grouping.
"Homosexuals have much more freedom and are more visible than in any other Arab state," he told AFP. "This is undoubtedly because Lebanese society is heterogeneous at all levels — political, religious and cultural — and used to differences," he said about the country’s 18 religious communities."
Homosexuals are generally stigmatised and penalised across the Arab world, with penalties ranging from death to flagellation and imprisonment. Either banned by law or religion, homosexuality may be punishable by the death penalty in Mauritania, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. But with its trendy gay-friendly bars and nightclubs, Beirut has become a favourite destination for wealthy Arab homosexuals fleeing restrictions at home.
Founded in 2004, Helem collaborates with the ministry of health to fight against the spread of the HIV virus that can cause AIDS and openly lobbies for the legal rights of homosexuals. Homosexuality is not specifically illegal in Lebanon, but gays can be targeted under article 543 of the penal code which provides for prison terms of up to one year for sexual relations "against nature". A petition filed by a Beirut city councillor in 2006 seeking prosecution of Helem was rejected by the attorney general’s office, which ruled that just because the gay rights group had an office and a website this did not mean it was breaking the law. "In the beginning journalists used to come and see us, like one would go to the zoo," said Azzi. "But today we have become known and respected."
This evolution has also been seen in the language used to refer to gays.
"In the Lebanese media we used to be called ‘perverts’ and ‘deviants’ but now they just call us ‘homosexuals,’" Bilal, an official at Helem who did not wish to reveal his family name, told AFP. But if Lebanon seems outwardly more permissive than other Arab countries, homosexuals can still live in shame, fear of scandal and social exclusion. "Seen from the outside, Lebanon is a liberal country which respects personal freedoms," Linda Shartouni Zahm, a researcher in social psychology at the Lebanese University, said. "But we are the prisoners of others’ views — of the family, religion and an authoritarian patriarchal system," she said. "There are homosexuals who receive death threats from members of their own families, others who are expelled from school or some who have to leave Lebanon," she said.
Some homosexuals in the country lead double lives.
"Personally I refuse to remain in the closet, but I am an exceptional case," said 37-year-old Jean, criticising "people who are gay on Saturday night, but pretend they are not during the family lunch on Sunday." When he was 19, Jean told his father that he was a homosexual. "His reaction was to tell me: ‘OK, get married, have children and live your sexual life in parallel — discreetly,’" he said. "He gave me examples of people he knew who lived exactly like that," Jean said.
Shartouni Zahm explained that "having descendants and children is very important here. And the Lebanese mother always dreams of marrying her daughter off."
As for lesbians, they have double the trouble.
"Make no mistake — Lebanon is a country of macho and conservative people where women are considered inferior and are discriminated against," said 25-year-old Nadine, a member of Meem association that supports lesbian rights. The Lebanese want to show the Arab world that they are open-minded. But most young people generally carry the conservative ideas of their parents," she said. "If my parents do not let me go out it is not because I am gay, it’s because I’m a woman."
June 5, 2008
Press release: creation of MEEM, a new Lebanese Lesbian, bisexual, Transgender and Queer organization
It is really a pleasure to see that various initiatives are being taken in the Middle East over the last few months. I am pleased to send you the below press release announcing the creation of MEEM, a new Lebanese Lesbian, bisexual, Transgender and Queer organization.
Let us support this initiative and please disseminate the below information and read their amazing website. You can also subscribe to their Newsletter, which is available in English, French and Arabic: http://www.meemgroup.org/newsletter.php.
Meem is a community of and for LBTQ women in Lebanon . LBTQ is defined as women who self-identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender (including male-to-female and female-to-male), queer, in addition to women questioning their sexual orientation. We believe in diversity. Meem is based on values of equality, support, confidentiality, and respect. The group was created on the idea that women should be encouraged to empower themselves and each other through mutual support. We are a closed, private group, not out of fear, but because we work hard on guarding the safety and security of our members. We believe in empowerment through self-organizing.
Our goal is to create a safe space in Lebanon where LBTQs can meet, talk, discuss issues, share experiences, and work on improving their lives and themselves. In a nutshell, Meem is a group of really cool women who look out for each other and work on making Lebanon a better home for LBTQs. You can find all the information necessary about our organization by following the given link : www.meemgroup.org The Meems email@example.com
Helem leads a peaceful struggle
Helem leads a peaceful struggle for the liberation of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in Lebanon from all sorts of legal, social and cultural discrimination.
Helem (the Arabic acronym of "Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders"), is a non-governmental non-profit organization registered in Quebec (Canada) as of February 11th 2004. As mentioned in Helem’s constituting act, our action encompasses Lebanon and Canada. Helem has also established support groups in Australia, France and the United States, in addition to Canada. Although it focuses on gay and lesbian issues, Helem membership is open to any person who shares our values based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Helem is also strongly opposed to any kind of segregation, both in the services it offers or in the struggle it leads.
Helem’s primary goal is the annulment of article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code which punishes "unnatural sexual intercourse". This law is primarily used to target the LGBT community by violating the privacy of its members and by denying them basic human rights. The abolishment of this law will help reduce state and societal persecution and pave the way to achieving equality for the LGBT community in Lebanon. Helem’s other main objective is to counter the AIDS epidemic and other sexually transmitted diseases while advocating for the rights of patients.
Field of action
Helem, a group previously known as Club Free, has been working on LGBT issues in Lebanon for the past 4 years. Our activities have included social and cultural events to bring the gay community together, extensive work on HIV/AIDS related issues, advocacy for prosecuted LGBT individuals and lobbying with other human rights organizations for the advancement of human rights and personal freedoms in Lebanon.
Helem’s immediate concern is to empower the LGBT community in Lebanon through rights and health awareness. Shielding LGBT individuals from persecution and discrimination also involves systematic monitoring of human rights violations and thorough follow up on individual cases. Helem.net and a planned on-location community center are formidable tools for the empowerment of LGBT individuals by offering useful information, and for the struggle against homophobia through visibility. Helem will also take part in all civil society activities deemed necessary to attain its goals. After all, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is an intrinsic part of the Lebanese social fabric.