Lebanon’s first LGBTI organization, Helem, was registered by the government in September 2004. In the years since, LGBTI activists have fought for their rights, as well as those of others, in an increasingly oppressive environment.
Most visibly in the past two years, the Lebanese government has begun increasing crackdowns against activists, particularly on International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOTB). Obviously, on that day, organizations plan activities that bring LGBTI people and activists together, while also confirming and celebrating their rights. The government has generally taken the side of extreme religious groups that threaten the activities, and therefore completely shut down the events. Last year, activists were banned from even entering Lebanon. In the past 15 years, activists have said that hardly a day passes without a raid, arrest, or limitation of their right to privacy.
Helem was created as the result of local activism. In the early 2000s, the main concern was Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which criminalized sexual activity against the laws of nature. Homosexuality was widely antagonized against, for religious, socio-cultural, or moral reasons. For example, films portraying a LGBTI person in a positive manner were forbidden and public screenings and were censored.
Activists came out of the woodwork, both working with LGBTI organizations and the media by allying with and sharing their stories with journalists. Generally, LGBTI activist individuals carved out spaces for themselves in the broader civil society as the years passed. In addition to fighting for their own rights, they also fought for the rights of women, migrant workers, and for the right to freedom of expression.
Judges have passed brave rulings that don’t criminalize the right to privacy, but overall few of those judgements have been made. However, Article 534 has been rendered inapplicable, due to research with international medical references.
On the other hand, police officers still arbitrarily arrest people on the street for walking with a member of the same sex on suspicion of same-sex activity, and engineer “confessions” based on false promises or intimidation. Last September, Lebanese General Security officers attempted to shut down a LGBT conference. The officers questioned the director, Georges Azzi, and took the details of those attending from the hotel registry. Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said, according to HRW: “General Security’s latest efforts to shut down an LGBT conference in Lebanon is an attack on freedom of assembly rights and an attempt to silence the voices of courageous activists.” Though the exact reasons for attempting to shut down the conference were unclear, the previous reason the government stopped events was in order to preserve public morality. This past February, HRW also submitted a complaint to the UN regarding the police’s shutdown of LGBTI activism events.
Now, LGBTI individuals and activists are somewhere in the middle. They are not actively persecuted for their way of existence, but they are also not free to live as they wish. Unfortunately, the harassment and hostility continues, but everything has gotten better as time has passed. Last week, on May 17, which is also International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, the activists of Beirut, Lebanon agreed to fly pride flags, starting by Raouche Rock. Pride parades had been cancelled before they could take place the two years previous. An activist who wished to remain anonymous said, according to GayStarNews: “It’s saying we are here even despite the transgressions on our community.”
NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.