Thursday, November 8, 2007

Gay and Proud in Beirut

Sexuality is a difficult subject. Homosexuality is even more tricky in that it polarises opinions and generates heated debates where the personal, the social and the religious are intertwined. At a time where most Lebanese are focused on the election of a new president some might argue that this topic is not a priority.But In the real world personal issues are not placed on hold waiting for the future to unravel. They are lived and experienced on a daily basis. There isnt a good time to talk about gay life in the Middle East so today is as good as any other.

The following article from AFP was posted in English on
Related link:
Lebanon Pioneers Freedom for Arab Gays

In some Arab countries 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 ostracized 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 Agence France Presse.

"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 stigmatized and penalized 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 favorite 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 councilor 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,
criticizing "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."(AFP)

Beirut, 06 Nov 07, 16:54

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Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

"This is undoubtedly because Lebanese society is heterogeneous at all levels -- political, religious and cultural -- and used to differences," George Azzi said about the country's 18 religious communities."

I think he means the "Beiruti" society rather than the "Lebanese," there is a café and a night club in Beirut for homosexuals. Homosexuals integrate with political, civil and social activism in Beirut. In fact, homosexuals were the co-founders of Samidoun movement in July war and of Nahr el Bared Relief Campaign as well.

Beirut is no like other Lebanese city, I dare to say like no other Arab city.

Whereas in Tripoli, which has a reputation of having many "gays"-I don’t like the term gay as it assumes there is a 'straight' in the first place-they are badly mistreated by Tripoli people. Some are beaten and even killed in Tripoli, similar cases are found in Saida as well.

Beirut is a city where anyone can be herself or himself, there are no labels, no centers, and no assumptions. It's a city where everything is invisible except politics. I walk sexless yet a female in Beirut. If Beirut has projected any label on me that would be a political: 'Syrian'. Other than that, I am a human being. I am talking people-wise here, with the Lebanese officials, it's another story.

"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."

One cannot say "conservative people consider women as inferior", conservative does not equal the inferiority of woman and homosexuals, sexism equals the inferiority of woman, and racism equals the inferiority of homosexuals. One should name things as they are, in order to fix them.

Guys, I am liking your site again.

Arab Democracy said...

Dear Golaniya

I am from Beirut eventhough I have lived abroad for quite some time.
It is true that by Arab standards it is a liberal city but at it essence Lebanese society is open-minded about some issues and less so about others.Some elements of the 'Beiruti' society have undergone a type of sexual revolution and the Gay community has played a role in giving it a colourful and almost folklorik touch. But as a UK gay journalist once said: 'Gay people will onnly achieve equality once they stop being interesting and entertaining to others'.Beirut is far from that but it is on the right track.

Thans for your comments about the website. Keeping you happy is hard work :)