Sitting at a café in Beirut Souks, Rabee lowers his voice and makes a quieting gesture.
“Can we please keep this conversation down?” he asks. “I don’t want people at the next table to hear.”
Rabee is a good-looking young Lebanese man in his twenties, wearing a light-colored shirt and jeans. He is also gay, and hasn’t told his family or colleagues.
Homosexuality in Lebanon is still illegal under article 534, which outlaws “unnatural sex.” Despite this, Beirut has a burgeoning gay scene, and many gay bars and clubs are making a tidy profit, not just from Lebanese but from homosexuals who come to the city from other, less permissive countries in the Middle East.
However, many gay Lebanese still live their lives in the closet, never telling their families or friends. Simon – who prefers that his last name not be used to protect anonymity – a social worker at the Lebanese gay rights organization Helem, says that Lebanese society remains intolerant of homosexuality.
“Many gay Lebanese are afraid of their families finding out about them,” says Simon. “This could put their reputations and relationships with their families at risk. They could also be turned in to the police.”
In order to bypass social restrictions, many Lebanese homosexuals are turning to gay social networking websites such as Manjam.com or Gaydar.com. A new smartphone application called Grindr even tells people with profiles how far away other users are located.
Rabee says he goes on Grindr because he doesn’t socialize within Beirut’s gay scene.
“I used to go to clubs, but not anymore. I’m not into the gay scene,” he says. “I go on Grindr to meet new people, especially since I’m a bit discreet. I don’t usually meet Lebanese guys, just foreigners visiting Beirut.”
According to Rabee, these websites are the only option for people like him.
“It’s the only way for some people to socialize, especially for people who aren’t open to their family and friends and colleagues,” he says.
Rabee says he has encountered many people on Grindr who are married.
“A lot of married people go on those websites,” he says. “You have the option of putting your relationship status on Grindr, and a lot of people put married.”
Tarek, another gay Lebanese man who lives openly as a homosexual, also uses Grindr and Manjam to meet men.
“Mostly, it’s just to socialize and have fun,” says Tarek, who works as a graphic designer. “There’s something really exciting about Grinder because it shows you how close the other person is, so there’s just that sense of excitement when you know a person’s that close. That’s in comparison to the websites, when you don’t know if the other person could be in Tripoli.”
Tarek says he too has encountered people who aren’t open about their sexualities.
“Some tell me: ‘I’m discreet, people don’t know about me,’” he says. “Sometimes they’re married. It’s like an escape from society’s norms.”
According to Tarek, although he uses Grindr, the concept of it frightens him sometimes.
“It’s also scary, because sometimes you’ll be really close to someone else, and it’s really terrifying to know that you have a bunch of people around you who can track you through this application,” he says. “If there are people that are homophobic, they can use this application to track homosexuals.”
Living in the closet isn’t something Tarek advocates; although he says he understands how social pressures can force someone into living secretly.
“From the beginning, if you’ve lied to yourself about being discreet, then all the relationships you have will be built on that lie and if you get found out, you’ll have a lot more to lose,” he says. “But if you surround yourself with people that accept you, there’s less of a risk.”
Jamal , another gay Lebanese man who also lives openly and uses Grindr and Manjam to meet men, says that he tries to surround himself with people that accept him.
“I chose to be in an environment where I can be myself,” says Jamal. “I have the ability to do that in this country, because we do have a community. Most of the people I’m exposed to accept me for who I am.”
According to Jamal, most of the profiles on these websites don’t show faces or include any identifying information.
“Most of the people who use these programs don’t show their faces in their profile pictures because they’re not out of the closet,” he says.
Jamal says that for people who aren’t open, there aren’t many other options when it comes to meeting partners,
“There’s a road in Dekwaneh where gays go to cruise, called Freeway,” he says. “They meet up, talk, or go somewhere to hook up. But that’s not something that many guys would do. You hear stories about people going to hook up and getting robbed at knifepoint.”
Like any anonymous Internet forum, Jamal says that these websites provide users with opportunities to lie.
“It’s easy, because you can create a whole persona,” he says. “It doesn’t even have to be real. That’s never happened to me, but it’s happened to people I know.”
Simon warns users to be safe when meeting people on these websites. “When you use them, it’s best not to use face pictures and be careful about the information you give on the profiles,” he says.
Tarek says that gay social networking websites and applications like Grindr have forever changed the gay scene in Lebanon and across the globe.
“Things have completely changed with the advent of the Internet,” he says. “It’s impacted our lives so much in such a short time. Imagine the next generation that is going to be born with this connectivity. It’s so easy to access any knowledge that you want. Before, even the knowledge that was available was limited by society. The gay scene is going to change at such an incredible rate, because of the Internet.”
*All the names in this story have been changed to protect confidentiality.
By Sulome Anderson