Annabelle is a junior at the American University of Beirut double majoring in Political Science and Education. Her piece explores the experiences of two queer Lebanese males as they highlight the ambivalence of their lives in Lebanon. This article was written in collaboration with our partner, The Phoenix Daily, a publication based in Lebanon.
One of the most prominent human rights violations within the MENA (Middle East & North Africa) region remains the status of the queer community, and the living conditions these individuals are forced to endure throughout Arab states. From the death of Sarah Hegazi, an Egyptian activist imprisoned for raising a rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo, to the arrest of 10 members of Jordan’s queer community ‘to prevent disturbance of the peace,’ as authorities have put it. These stories of oppression are two of the thousands of human rights violations against the LGBT+ community that have circulated the MENA region in the year 2020 alone. With a discriminatory mentality that has been brewing for generations against the very existence of the queer community, the Middle East has become one of the most dangerous regions around the world for those who identify as LGBT+ to reside in.
Lebanon is no different, with LGBT+ individuals facing stigmatisation and cruelty. I caught up with two members of the local queer community to better understand the nuances of the queer experience in Lebanon.
Ali, a student at the American University of Beirut, has only recently come out on one of the most prominent social media outlets used by the Lebanese queer community, Twitter. ‘I came out through a silly tweet on Twitter stating “hi I'm bi bye”,’ he chuckles while explaining, 'Honestly? It was an impulsive and in-the-moment decision, it wasn't planned,'. However, he asserts that he has no regrets, claiming that a weight had been lifted off his chest. 'Many people on my feed, close friends or not, were very supportive and some members of the LGBT+ community privately messaged me to ask if I needed anything,' he continues.
After expressing the positive support he received, particularly from prominent figures of the Lebanese queer community, who regularly take it upon themselves to promote inclusivity and unity, Ali then continued to share with me, with a heavy heart, the bullying he received by some of his closest friends upon them finding out that he was in fact bisexual. From ‘teasing’ to ‘bashing,’... Ali was forced to begin searching for a new friend group, one that would wholeheartedly accept him for who he is. 'I was honestly a little disappointed at some of my closest friends who mentioned some horrible things such as “Being bi is gay & it is not okay to be gay,” so it made me re-evaluate certain friendships and the people I want in my life,' he explains.
This shows that even amongst the highly educated Lebanese youth, studying at one of the most cosmopolitan and prestigious Lebanese universities, there still exists an embedded discriminatory mindset.
With such prominent bullying occurring across the country, Ali has made it a point to participate in several organisations supporting and promoting activism for the queer community, such as the AUB secular club, even prior to him coming out. 'The members and I all advocate and fight for LGBT+ rights in Lebanon, and have held several protests,' he proudly answers. Clubs and societies such as this have further increased the networking pool between members of the queer community, as well as individuals who believe in a more accepting and tolerant Lebanon. By joining these groups, individuals feel more comfortable expressing their true identity and coming out of the closet, despite the definite obstacles that exist at present. Ali explains how hard it is to be part of this community in Lebanon and pays a special tribute to the individuals in his support system, who allow him to go by his 'day-to-day tasks without having to hide' his true self.
It’s safe to say Ali has a long way to go as he proceeds on his journey of self-discovery and adaptation to the current circumstances the queer community faces in a relatively conservative society. However, he remains positive that a more accepting and prosperous community is possible, where 'people will be more conscious of the LGBT+ cause and will therefore advocate for more rights… Indeed I hope that one day no discrimination will take place for the members of the queer community.'
‘Imagine being a 14-year-old closeted gay student, with no visible figure to relate to, especially if you live in the village areas outside Beirut. What are you gonna do? Who do you identify with?’ - Hassan
In contrast, Hassan is a longstanding member in the Lebanese queer community, studying at the Notre Dame University, in Zouk Mosbeh, Lebanon. Hassan identifies himself as queer, preferring this term for its inclusivity; he is passionate about promoting unity within the LGBT+ community, quashing internal disputes, such as whether or not bisexuals should be considered part of the community.
He entered the video chat, glowing with confidence and energy, and excited to share his experiences and opinions.
Hassan begins our discussion by admitting he was quite fortunate. He grew up in an accepting household in which he had no problem coming out. However, this situation is quite rare, he explains. 'I think there are many more steps the Lebanese people and government need to take and I think we’re quite behind,' he says, pausing in thought. 'Personally, two of my friends have been kicked out of their homes for coming out to their parents. It’s something we have to go through,' he elaborates, stressing on the word ‘we’.
In an almost neutral tone, Hassan elaborates on several instances of homophobia he had faced over the years, whether in classes or in social circles. 'I’ve been harassed many times by men in cars when I'm dressed differently. I even face homophobia when I enter my university cafeteria. The guy that makes my morning sandwich was never happy with my painted nails,' he casually explains, indicating that these are frequent occurrences for members of the queer community in Lebanon.
However, he is aware of the fact that he is not the prime target of many people’s oppression and bullying. 'When it comes to discrimination, I see it on the level of gender more than sexuality, just because it’s more prominent,' he explains. 'I do consider myself a bit more privileged than, say, lesbian women who face oppression regarding both their gender and sexuality within this country.' This is linked to several penal codes used to prosecute both women and the queer community.
Security forces and judges have frequently used Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code to justify prosecuting and arresting queer people. It stipulates that 'sexual intercourse against nature' is criminal and those prosecuted could face up to a year in prison. This presents an opportunity, which was seized ‘occasionally’ as late as 2017, for a homophobic interpretation of the law, and has historically allowed for institutionalised persecution of the queer community. In recent years, a few judges have, however, dismissed such cases, claiming that if consent has been provided, then the accused should not be subjected to legal penalties. In May 2018 nearly 100 electoral candidates publicly called for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and in the same year, the right-wing Christian Democratic Kataeb party announced their plans to repeal all legal provisions which criminalise homosexuality. Nevertheless, in 2020, Article 534 is still in place and continues to cause anxiety among the Lebanese queer community.
Being an International Relations and Sociology major, Hassan has developed interesting takes on the patterns of discrimination that occur in Lebanon, not just against the queer community, but against others also. He believes there is a correlation between the derailing of advancements towards a more tolerant and accepting society, and the corrupt political regime, which monopolises the country’s economic, social, and above all, political spaces.
Hassan also identifies a fundamental problem, which I believe truly differentiates the Middle Eastern nations from more accepting countries around the world: the lack of queer representation in almost all spheres. Due to popular internalised homophobia (one study suggested over 30% of 15-80-year-olds in Lebanon had ‘severe homophobic attitudes’), the chances of witnessing an openly queer individual rising up social or political ranks are extremely low. ‘Imagine being a 14-year-old closeted gay student, with no visible figure to relate to, especially if you live in the village areas outside Beirut. What are you gonna do? Who do you identify with?’ he asks emphatically.
This is why Hassan stresses the necessity of hosting a Lebanese Pride Parade. ‘If we were to have a pride parade in Lebanon,’ he predicts, ‘It would be even more beneficial for members of the community who are not ‘out’ than those who are. Although, marching with my fellow queers would definitely be a very special feeling,' he adds, along with a huge smile.
The Lebanese queer community remains a strong unit, continuously fighting for its rights and voice to be both heard and respected.
In 2018, the Lebanese queer community had officially attempted to host the nation’s first-ever Pride Parade. I, among others, saw this as an exciting and important step towards tolerance, only to be let down as soon as the event began to be advertised. The organisers and queer community as a whole faced immense backlash from the vast majority of the Lebanese public. Public opinion took precedence, and the parade was cancelled.
Despite this, Lebanon is largely considered to be one of the most accepting countries in the MENA region, with a strong and vocal queer community establishing various social hubs, hangout areas, and events. These occur throughout the year, allowing queer individuals the opportunity to socialise in a safe and welcoming environment. Hassan explains that entering these spaces is like entering a completely different world, where anyone can be whoever they want to be, wear whatever they want to wear, and do whatever they want to do. These events are often not publicly advertised, allowing them to avoid a similar fate to the pride parade, however, they remain open to the entirety of the public, even those outside of the queer community.
The Lebanese queer community remains a strong unit, continuously fighting for its rights and voice to be both heard and respected. The lack of acceptance by the state and general public has deeply derailed the efforts of the community, as well as Lebanese human rights activists, in their efforts to prevent discrimination and violence against queer individuals. This mentality is present both amongst older and younger generations, and I truly believe the only way to combat it, would be to increase minority representation and recruit prominent Lebanese politicians, influencers, and public figures to speak in favour of rights for all Lebanese citizens. Incorporating the promotion of human rights and the concept of acceptance into the education system is also necessary. However, sectarian and religious barriers will remain the major blockades to progress and development. Perhaps the most hopeful development has been the incorporation of queer activists into the nationwide protests which began in October 2019, allowing greater visibility and the possibility of imminent change. For Ali, Hassan and the many other queer individuals living in Lebanon right now, I certainly hope this is the case.