LGBTIQ+: A very relative freedom in Beirut’s streets
By: Cici Mouchart
Lebanon is the most LGBTIQ+friendly country in the SWANA region. True. Indeed, it was the first Arab country to declassify “homosexuality” as a disease in 2013. But that does not mean that the community has unlimited rights and that they do not face discrimination in the country. The fact is contrary to this. There are indeed a few free spaces for members of the community to express their sexual orientation, and it is common to see two women or two men holding hands and being intimate in certain cafés, bars, or clubs in Beirut. However, you cannot see any Pride flag in public spaces nor hanging from the window of a bar or an apartment, nor same-sex couples showing affection anywhere in public spaces. Why is it the case? and where would the situation wind up?
An ambiguous legislation
Technically, homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon. Indeed, the infamous article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code inherited by the French Mandate criminalizes “sexual intercourse against nature” and same-sex relationships can thus be punished by up to a year in prison. Nevertheless, since 2018 things have changed toward a brighter future for the LGBTIQ+ community; an appeal court ruling affirmed that consensual same-sex relationships are not considered unnatural as long as it is hidden from public space and not involving a minor. Of course, article 534 still persists, and judges are free to interpret it in their own way. But considerable steps have been taken to decriminalize homosexuality rather than further marginalize it. These are the first steps to finally get the state away from people’s bedrooms even though it continues to intimidate and discriminate against queer individuals. Indeed, threats, backlash, abuse, violence, and insults are common coming from the governmental Internal Security Forces, the army, and the police.
Regarding same-sex marriage, there is a long way to go. Here, 15 personal status laws and courts regulate all issues pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. But these courts are not ruled by the state, but by religious institutions. Regardless of one’s beliefs, faith, or sexual orientation, the Lebanese will be subject to their ascribed religion’s court for their private matters. Since religious institutions are very discriminative of the LGBTIQ+ community, there is little chance same-sex couples or transgender individuals will be able to get married in Lebanon, as long as the personal status system remains. Civil marriage would thus benefit not only women but also LGBTIQ+ individuals.
Regarding transgender individuals, no clear law exists in the Lebanese legal texts and no official programs assist individuals in gender-affirming medical care. Sex change is not technically forbidden, but the discrimination faced by transgender people and the costs of the surgeries and treatments quickly discourage it. To this day, two renowned cases have been giving hope for change to the transgender community. Indeed, in 1997, Antonella, a transgender woman, and internationally renowned artist and dancer, was the first woman to go through a sex reassignment surgery which was fully paid for by the Lebanese government. Secondly, in 2016, a transgender man won a court case where he requested an official gender change following a gender reassignment operation. These two cases brought along hope, but it seems that such cases remain dependent on the judge’s personal discretion. Actually, many other cases have been rejected so far and many more are not even brought to court as the costs and lack of legal assistance deter people from engaging in legal proceedings. However, without an official identity change, and despite undergoing gender-affirming treatment, transgender people continue to suffer more discrimination as their identity cards do not fit their physical appearance. Karo, a young non-binary activist under the trans umbrella, denounces the employment discrimination of trans people as “no one is going to employ you when you look like a woman but you have a male’s picture on your ID.”
All in all, institutional changes are necessary for the well-being of the LGBTIQ+ community in Lebanon but why haven’t further changes taken place yet?
A blocked stalemate
If change is possible in Lebanon, why isn’t it going faster and why is the LGBTIQ+ community still longing for more rights, the repeal of discriminatory laws, and the freedom to express their sexual orientation and gender identity publicly?
Three tightly intertwined and indissociable factors justify the slow progress of the community’s rights: traditions, morals, and religion.
Lebanon is ruled by all its religions firsthand, and the state’s fabric is thus fully knitted with religious principles. The presence of individuals and groups expressing their sexuality and gender identity in the country thus intrinsically bothers the state. Beirut Pride 2017 had to be turned into a private venue due to threats from the police and extreme religious groups. In Beirut Pride 2018, the organizer Hadi Damien was arrested by the authorities on the ground of “inciting to debauchery” and the 2022 edition was impeached by Bassam Mawlawli, the Minister of Interior, stating that the Pride’s values were contrary to the morals of the country.
Like many countries, maintaining morals in Lebanon seems to be more important to the state than providing basic services to its inhabitants. The state uses the community as a scapegoat to divert its own political failures: “You go to the gays, you go to the refugees, to the migrant workers; you choose the most marginalized” confirms Sam. Without political will, there is little hope for more dramatic changes to take place in the country. However, the political system has been in shambles for years and the country has been struggling to appoint a new president for over half a year.
External religious groups also come into the equation and prevent the development of more freedom for the LGBTIQ+ community. In fact, they consider themselves very different from one another, but extreme Muslim and Christian factions actually have a lot in common. The Shiite Hezbollah, the Sunni Dar-al-Fatwa, and the Christian Soldiers of God guarding Ashrafieh’s Beirut neighborhood have similar stands on morals. All groups impose their sectarian rule on their area and are refractory to any contradicting ideologies polluting their neighborhoods. Not only have they strong unilateral ideologies, but they are also not scared to use intimidation, lynching, and threats to keep their area pure.
The Soldiers of God of Ashrafieh have particularly been active against the presence of Pride flags and Pride-related events and venues. It seems like their main goal is to keep their neighborhood, a rather progressive and open one, free from the public presence of the LGBITQ+ community. Indeed, Christian areas in the city center have a concentration of activists, artists, expats, and the partying youth, all seeking a more open society. As a result, Ashrafieh, Mar Mikhel, and Gemmayze areas have been transformed into hubs for limitless activities. But it is at the heart of the Ashrafieh neighborhood that the Soldiers of God attempt to put boundaries to these activities.
This group is small, but they are enough to bother the development of further LGBTIQ+ rights in Lebanon. As a matter of fact, they have succeeded in canceling several events and have even destroyed a flower-made rainbow billboard in 2022, directly attacking the freedom of expression of the community.
However, Hizbollah, Amal, and their supporters have a stronger say in what is going on in the country. Hizbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah does not hesitate to denounce the multiplication of the queer community as unnatural and immoral and to blame the West for exporting it to Lebanon. A statement that was nuanced in our previous article on the issue.
As the state is weak and ruled by corruption, individual religious groups – more or less politicized – are a real barrier to change and are even more and more constraining liberties.
Dollars as the condition for more freedom
One thing that is easily noticeable in Beirut’s friendlier spaces to the LGBTIQ+ community, bars, clubs, cafés, and restaurants, is that these businesses are concentrated in the richer areas and access to them has a higher cost. The truth is that one needs to have some money to affirm their sexual orientation here. Capitalism being very strong in Lebanon, greatly intersects with accessibility to privileges and basic human rights. Sam confirms: “A queer with money is better than a queer with no money. The more money you have, the more privileges you will get.” Of course, having money does not guarantee safety or a happy-ever-after life, but it does grant access to certain spaces that seem more understanding and progressive toward the queer community. Moreover, having financial stability allows queer individuals to join a certain milieu that might be more accepting of one’s sexual orientation and it also helps them to move freely, to find a job, to develop their skills, etc.
Furthermore, not only does the geographical dimension impact access to information but it also allows understanding of one’s own sexual orientation. In some parts of Lebanon such as in refugee camps, Tripoli, or in the Beqaa, topics of homosexuality or transgenderism cannot even be mentioned. Indeed, some cases of honor crimes still exist in rural areas and the gay community is not spared. Access to information about gender identity and sexual orientation often relies solely on social media until a first link has been made with the active community in Beirut. Karo, 27 years old, affirms “When I discovered myself, I thought I was the only one in the country. Then, I got into the community.”
When it comes to transgender individuals, the costs of medical visits, treatments, follow-ups, and eventually surgeries are ridiculous. And the situation has only worsened since the beginning of the economic crisis. The price of a hormone shot got multiplied by over 30 times and the sex change operation reached over $16,000. Moreover, an unbelievable number of transgender individuals, mainly trans women, have been facing homelessness in Lebanon after being disowned by their families, or because of the discrimination they face to access employment. Karo also expresses his worries about seeing friends around him forced to de-transition since the beginning of the crisis after not finding the means to afford the hormones they had been on for decades. The crisis also forced some transgender people to return to their families’ homes in exchange for their de-transitioning. To avoid such situations, more and more transgender women are forced to engage in sex work – one of the few jobs available to them.
Following various interviews with members of the Lebanese LGBTIQ+ community, one thing kept coming back: how the situation has been deteriorating since the October Revolution. “Ironically, before 2019, the situation for queer people was better than now […] for example in Pride Month, you would have seen a Pride flag in Mar Mikhael; now a few weeks ago there was a festival there and the Soldiers of God stated that it was an event founded by a queer organization to spread homosexuality. No one can put a flag up now” affirms Sam. And this is in Beirut where some safer places exist for the LGBTIQ+ community. Now, “homophobia is spreading so much because at a certain point [the revolution], we were able to raise our voices” continues Sam. For example, recent complaints from the Islamic Cultural Center asked authorities to dismantle the main organization fighting for LGBTIQ+ rights in the region, Helem. It is because the community got stronger and bigger in the past few years that a more dramatic backlash has been overwhelming them. But they keep fighting, risking their own health and safety.
“The cause and the activism are very much integrated within our identity; it is very hard to detach them. Right now, I cannot pull my activism out of myself. And that is a very huge mental health struggle” declared Karo.
Countless threats, backlashes, funerals, direct attacks, insults… LGBTIQ+ activists and the organizations they support have seen it all. Being queer in Lebanon is hard to separate from politics. It starts with defending the community when a homophobic joke is made, then defending oneself and it easily continues towards joining the struggle for the defense of the rights of the community as a whole. The moral duty of the community’s activists is not a choice. It is necessary because not having a strong stand would mean losing rights in the face of the many ideological opponents present in the country. The struggle to keep the right to exist, to survive as a queer person here is unfortunately inevitable as rights are lost so quickly.
But activists see, hear and go through so much as they are the frontline on the battlefield and they receive most of the hits. “In my ideal life, I would leave all this and be a carpenter. But we have to be advocates and activists and we have to put the cause before ourselves. We advocate for mental health while our mental health is in shambles. […] I am on antidepressants and mood stabilizers like over half of the community” states Karo. Sam added, “For me, I would either kill myself or keep doing this.”
Traveling to more LGBTIQ+friendly countries is the other option for queer individuals to exist as any individual. But Sam and Karo have doubts as they have lost several people from the community who decided to travel but found themselves very lonely in their host country. The story of the young Egyptian Sarah Hegazi who went into exile in Canada and committed suicide there still sores their hearts.
So, what are the chances for the LGBTIQ+ community members? Stay in Lebanon and struggle to maintain the little rights they have obtained so far, or leave into exile risking being lonely and never feeling home again?
The Lebanese queer community does not only have to face the retrograde religious groups threatening their rights but also Lebanon’s everlasting political, social, and economic crises that put people in precarious situations and which have destroyed safe spaces where the community used to be able to gather. Organizations and activists are fighting, struggling, and resisting to guarantee the few rights they have at the cost of their mental stability and health. And only the future will tell how the situation will unfold. But rare are the members of the community that still have hope.
“I don’t have faith that the situation will get any better […], now it is only getting worse and worse” Michel, a gay individual, told us.
*names have purposedly been changed to guarantee the security of our interviewees.