- Beirut Pride was canceled and its lead organizer was arrested in Beirut
- Lebanon's morality police have concistently targeted the country's LGBTIQ+ community
- Although small steps are being taken, Lebanon still appears combative to its queer community
- Al Bawaba spoke with activists and organizers inside the coutnry to understand the movement's direction
By Ty Joplin
Lebanon was set to host Beirut Pride, a week of festivities and talks intended to foster and publicize Beirut’s LGBTIQ+ community, until Lebanon’s police arrested the lead organizer and forced him to cancel all events.
Mere minutes before a play was set to begin highlighting queer issues, Hadi Damien, the organizer of Beirut Pride, was found and arrested by members of Lebanon’s anti-vice police and held.
Although Beirut is considered to be one of the most queer-friendly cities in the entire Middle East, the police intervention into its Pride celebration is a grim reminder that LGBTIQ+ rights are routinely denied and its community members harassed by governments.
Beirut’s second-annual Pride was packed with a week’s worth of discussions, parties and meetings. Instead, it barely lasted two days.
Launched on Saturday May 12, hundreds paid tribute to parents who did not reject their children for coming out as queer, and danced to mixes by Richard Kahwaji. The next day, Pride had planned to read a play translated into Arabic when censorship police arrived at the venue.
“A few minutes before the reading was to start, members of the censorship office at the General Security entered Zoukak Studio [the venue], informing organisers that the reading cannot take place for the censorship office hasn’t approved the text,” Damien told Al Bawaba.
“Zoukak’s direction reminded the office that they had approached them regarding censorship approval, and the office had replied that a reading doesn’t need an approval, the latter being needed for a performance though. Reasoning did not lead anywhere…”
A few minutes later, anti-vice police “stormed the venue,” looking for Damien. They took him in for questioning about the event, and stuffed him, 38 other detainees in a cell made for five people, and spent the night in the cell awaiting interrogation.
The next day, Damien was presented with a paper that supposedly described Pride in Arabic. The “ill-translation of some events of the official programme,” said Damien, was “instilled with sensational words to express debauchery and immorality.” The text looked to be fabricated, presenting a misconstrued version of Pride intended to be used against the event. Damien tried to show the police Beirut Pride’s own Arabic text describing itself, but the police were not budging.
Unable to reason with the police, Damien was forced to sign a declaration promising to suspend the rest of Beirut Pride or be tried for ‘immorality’ and subverting ‘public morals.’
Morality Police and the Queer Identity
Protests in Lebanon demonstrating against homophobia (AFP/FILE)
Despite Lebanon’s comparatively relaxed treatment with the LGBTIQ+ community, its morality police and laws intended to compel obedience to particular identity standards have a long and troubled history.
Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code, a law banning ‘unnatural sex acts’ is still technically on the books, although recent rulings by judges have made homosexual activity a de facto legal activity.
Up until 2012, Lebanon’s police forced men suspected of engaging in homosexual activity to undergo useless but humiliating rectal examinations. At one point, 36 men were taken from a cinema in Beirut and brought to a doctor. One doctor who had performed the examination for decades told the BBC, “these tests prove absolutely nothing. Their scientific value is nil, particularly because they are visual consultations - the doctor takes a look at the rectum of the arrested person and writes his report."
When asked why he carried out the examinations despite knowing they were useless, he responded, "I just implement the orders of the office of the prosecutor-general.”
Although the tests are now discontinued, police harassment persists. Helem, a prominent gay rights advocacy organization, hosted a conference on May 16 at Station, an event venue in Beirut. Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) attended the conference. Mahdy Charafeddin, the Director of Programs for AFE, told Al Bawaba that this event was monitored by the police although nobody was arrested.
“We think the more visibility throughout the years that the LGBT community and [International International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia] IDAHOT in Lebanon, it became more risky,” Charafeddin said in an interview.
It’s not just Lebanon’s security personnel. Conservative members of Lebanon’s religious communities have threatened members of the LGBTIQ+ community and pressured the state to shut organizations down.
Helem tried to host an event in 2017 in public, but was forced to move the event online thanks to threats by an Islamist organization.
“The general security called the theater telling them that some fanatic Islamists want to attack the place in case Helem does the event and they can not protect the place,” Charafeddin said. “Helem moved its conference from the venue to online.”
When asked if the threat was just a precursor for the police to suppress the event, Charafeddin responded, “I don't think so, because last year there was an Islamist organization called al-Irshad w al-Iislah [who] had a lecture around curing homosexuality and spoke against Helem in their lecture in Arts, Sciences and Technology University in Lebanon... During the lecture they spoke about Helem, and they pushed the police and Ministry of Interior to do something against Helem.”
Other organizations, such as Muslim Olama Organization, has previously tried to pressure government officials to censor public displays of gay pride since they consider queerness a type of deviancy. The most recent public opinion poll inside Lebanon showed that 80% of Lebanese residents disapprove of homosexuality, though activists say attitudes are changing fast, and the queer community is gaining momentum.
A Growing Movement, an Uncertain Future
The gay pride/flag of Lebanon waives during a protest inside Beirut in 2013 (AFP/FILE)
“Beirut Pride is a transversal platform, and extends beyond the borders,” Damien told Al Bawaba.
“It is therefore important to look at this happening as a challenge that fuels future initiatives, and not as a failure or as a setback.”
The growing LGBTIQ+ movement inside Lebanon has continually pushed for more social acceptance and decriminalization of their lives.
One landmark cased involved a transxual Syrian refugee who goes by a pseudonym, Rania, to protect her identity from her family. Rania, who escaped from Syria into Lebanon illegally, was taken, along with a handful of transgender women and a man to police; they were called by a resident who felt offended by the physical appearance of the group.
Represented by Helem, the group disputed that they had broken any laws. The judge in charge of the case, Rabih Maalouf, cleared them of charges by invoking Article 183 of Lebanon’s Penal Code, which states that “an act undertaken in exercise of a right without abuse shall not be regarded as an offense.”
In other words, victimless crimes are not crimes. The ruling provided legal precedent to stop enforcing the draconian Article 534 prohibiting homosexual activity.
Rania however, has repeatedly told journalists that she does not feel victorious merely from the ruling.
"It is ink on paper at this point. No one is enforcing the laws on the books," Rania told a reporter from Fairfax Media, referencing Lebanon’s stop and frisk policing procedures that often target individuals suspected of being queer.
“Do you really think they will enforce these rulings? They won’t,” Rania said to a journalist from BBC.
"We escaped war, death and terrorism but maybe we should have stayed, because no one accepts us, with a million curses daily. We are treated worse than animals. Where should we live? In the desert or thrown in the middle of the sea?” Rania stated bluntly.
Despite the obstacles, Hadi Damien of Beirut Pride is cautiously optimistic. Despite the fact that Pride was cancelled by the police and he was subject to arrest and interrogation, Damien told Al Bawaba that “the future is bright and shining... If anything, it secured an additional layer of visibility we will invest to move forward."
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