Feature writing

LGBT Issues

‘Love Always Wins’: Inside the Fight for LGBT Equality in Lebanon

The Daily Beast

August 9, 2018

Campaigners in Lebanon are drawing up a proposal to eradicate laws that criminalize homosexuality, after an appeals court ruling in July against the anti-LGBT Article 534.

LGBT activists in Lebanon are drawing up a proposed law to be presented to parliament intended to remove current articles and laws used to criminalize homosexuality in the country.

Hadi Damien, organizer of Beirut Pride, told The Daily Beast that the proposed law was being drawn up by members of Beirut Pride, campaigners, lawyers, and judges.

It follows a significant appeals court ruling in July, stating that consensual sex between people of the same sex is not an “unnatural offense.”

Article 534 of Lebanon’s Penal Code states sexual acts that “contradict the laws of nature” are punishable by up to a year in prison.

But Mount Lebanon appeals court upheld a 2017 acquittal of nine people prosecuted under Article 534, a ruling that followed a clutch of other pro-LGBT judgments from Lebanese courts. Those arrested and detained in the case were, in the main, transgender women.

In the original 2017 case, district court Judge Rabih Maalouf invoked Article 183, which states, “An act undertaken in exercise of a right without abuse shall not be regarded as an offense.” The judge added, “Homosexuality is a personal choice, and not a punishable offense.”

Youmna Makhlouf, a lawyer with NGO The Legal Agenda, told The Daily Beast that the trans women were criminalized because they had stated in interrogations that they had had relationships with men. Prosecutors said they had not undergone legally recognized gender reassignment procedures.

The prosecutors’ view was that two people of the same biological sex caught having sex were doing so “against nature.” Makhlouf said Judge Maalouf had disagreed, saying that even though the accused’s sexual orientations and gender identities did not conform to the social majority, that did not mean they were “against nature.”

“He based his reasoning on universal human rights, sexual freedom, and individual freedom,” said Makhlouf.

Prosecutors then brought the case to the appeals court, which, concurring with Judge Maalouf, ruled in July that the Penal Code should be interpreted in accordance with “common sense” and principles of social justice.

The three-judge bench concluded that consensual sex between adults of the same sex cannot be considered “unnatural” as long as it does not violate morality and ethics, for instance, “when it is seen or heard by others, or performed in a public place, or involving a minor who must be protected.”

“The court of appeals said that you need to interpret Article 534 by the evolution of society,” said Makhlouf. “Your gender identity or sexual orientation are not automatically criminalized.”

She added that more Article 534-related cases were in the Lebanese courts, and that the judges in those cases would look to the appeals court decision while making their considerations.

“The Article criminalizes acts of intercourse, not identity,” said Makhlouf. “But when you are arrested, the police look through your phone to find evidence of your sexual orientation. They place charges based on such evidence, not what you do. If they wanted to falsely interpret article 534 as criminalizing same-sex intercourse, they would have to first prove the existence of an act of intercourse and be in people’s rooms to watch them have sex, to see what they do. The Article is ridiculous. We will keep going in front of the courts. This article will no longer have a place to be acknowledged. It should never be upheld, simply on the basis of proof.”

While courts rarely imprison LGBT people under Article 534, it has been used to prosecute LGBTIQ+ people, Damien told The Daily Beast. However, he said, “while social stigmas and misconceptions about homosexuality persist, Lebanese courts have sided with the LGBTIQ+ community in four high-profile cases since 2007.”

The latest appeals court victory means that, while Article 534 for the moment remains on the statute books in Lebanon, future cases in the lower courts, should there be any, will likely follow—or at the very least take into account—the lead of the Mount Lebanon appeals court.

“Appeals court rulings carry a moral authority and are likely to serve as precedent for lower courts,” said Damien. “While judges are not legally bound by the precedent and may still convict people of homosexual conduct under Article 534, they are likely to give serious consideration to the ruling in subsequent cases.”

Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The Daily Beast that the case could still go to Lebanon’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, which could overturn the ruling. Lawyers representing LGBT campaigners are preparing themselves should such a legal scenario unfold.

“But as far as we know,” said Ghoshal, “the government has not signaled its intention to appeal the ruling. Maybe the government is happy for the appeals court to have the final say on this.”

In May, Georges Azzi, co-founder of Lebanon LGBT group Helem and now executive director of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE), told The Daily Beast that a study AFE conducted in 2015 confirmed that while Lebanese people held “very negative views about homosexuality,” 90 percent were against physical violence against LGBT people, and 65 percent were against Article 534.

“It comes down to language,” Azzi told me in May. “Ask someone if they are pro-LGBT, and they will probably say no. Ask them if they support decriminalization, and most say yes.”

There are no signs, said Ghoshal, that in the short term the majority of the Lebanese parliament supports repealing Article 534.

“The parliament is heavily socially conservative and more so than the past. Is there a sense of optimism that in 10 or 20 years that the law can be struck down? Absolutely. That’s what people are looking forward to.”

The positive court rulings follow other incidences of LGBT progress. In 2013, the Lebanese Psychiatric Society stated that homosexuality was not a mental disorder and does not need to be treated as such, and called for the abolition of Article 534 in 2015.

In 2012, the Lebanese Order of Physicians banned doctors from conducting the “egg test,” which involved inserting a metal egg-shaped object into the rectum of suspected gay men as a means of determining their sexual orientation.

Next, activists are looking to bring more cases before the courts, said Ghoshal, as well as improving sexual health services for LGBT people in what is still a fairly conservative society. Helem, she said, also wants to use an LGBT center as both space and center for bringing people together to plan future activism.

HRW also wants to look to address the issues faced by trans people in Lebanon around discrimination in employment, housing, and health services. “All these seem to be much bigger problems for trans communities than LGB people, who have achieved a degree of social acceptance, or recognition, or who at least can blend in,” said Ghoshal.

Activists in the country, said Ghoshal, also want to focus on “vague morality laws that can be used on LGBT people; and then there are gaps in law that need addressing, such as trans people being able to change the gender marker on their identity documents.”

“Middle- and upper-class men benefit from this kind of progress more than if you’re poor, living with your family, female, and still subject to immense social pressure to get married and abide by social norms, or living rurally,” said Ghoshal. “Progress isn’t equal.”

LGBT refugees, she added, continued to bear the brunt of police harassment, particularly those from Syria. “In the future, we think there needs to be more targeted advocacy for more intersectionally marginalized groups in the LGBT community.”

In April HRW launched No Longer Alone, a series of videos in which LGBT people from the Middle East and northern Africa talk about their lives and experiences, like Elie from Lebanon, who says: “I’m a normal person. I’m just attracted to members of the same sex.”

Makhlouf said many Lebanese courts were becoming more accepting around gender reassignment and legal changes in that area.

“It is not all a bed of roses,” she added. “There is still the problem of arrest and detention of people, and people not being treated correctly, particularly if they are transgender. The police do not understand or respect gender identity issues. Sometimes with LGBT people they ask unacceptable questions, or search phones without warrants.

“LGBT people are subjected to violence on the streets, and they are victims of threats and blackmail, with people threatening them with telling the police, family, and friends about their sexuality or gender identity unless they hand over money.”

The significant appeals court win in July took place just two months after the authorities abruptly canceled the majority of events planned for the second Beirut Pride.

Damien was detained, and the General Prosecutor of Beirut ordered the suspension of the activities of Beirut Pride that were planned until May 20.

In May, Azzi and I met just as the week of celebrations—the only event of its kind in the Middle East—got underway.

The week would coincide, at its mid-point, with the 14th International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia (IDAHOTB).

The previous year, Azzi recalled, one event at the inaugural Beirut Pride had had to be canceled because of threats from Islamic militants. The event was moved online and received 250,000 views—many more people, Azzi told me smiling, than could have crowded into a bar.

Straight-identified venues in Beirut’s main nightlife area flew the rainbow flag in support of LGBT Lebanese people, he said.

“The fruit of years of our activism was seeing how empowered our straight allies felt about coming out,” said Azzi proudly. “If you had told me 10 years ago that we would get threats from Islamists, I would have been scared, but with every threat we get stronger. It’s gotten to the stage where we can face danger.”

On a trip to Europe in 2016, Damien had been inspired by Amsterdam Pride (also a EuroPride), and he was “stunned with its joyful and empowering impact on the people making it, be they attendees or performers,” he told The Daily Beast. “It was a fantastic celebration, with people cheering alongside friends and family, hanging from their windows, sitting on trees—people of all ages and looks. Whether you contemplate a parade or you walk in it, you do feel enriched by its intensity. If chill places like Amsterdam or Prague are this big on Prides, then, in Beirut, we need a Pride every single day.”

Damien had spent months discussing with friends and activists how best to advance LGBT equality in the region.

“However, I was often met with limitation and unclear hesitation. Piecing things together, and based on my circles of influence, I conceived a five-year plan that would run year-long initiatives pertaining to political lobbying, religions, the media, education, the business world, and families.”

The formula for organizing the first Beirut Pride was simple, he said: bringing people together, mostly from the creative industries, in order to enhance the visibility of LGBTIQ+ people in the country “through addressing ‘hate and discrimination they are subjected to’—not through victimization or a dramatic discourse. It is a collaborative platform that takes a positive stance against hate and discrimination based on gender and sexual diversity. People attend Beirut Pride for the empowerment it is, for the quality of the program, the friendly ambience, and to show their support.”

There is, as yet, no march at Beirut Pride. Azzi said LGBT groups are visible in bigger social justice marches, but organizers had felt that the safety of marchers for a dedicated LGBT Pride march could not be guaranteed.

Azzi added that in the past, LGBT activists had protested outside police stations, and typically about 25 participants had turned up. “It is better for us to march with other cases, to show we can all work together,” he said.

Damien told The Daily Beast that the first year of Beirut Pride, an increasing number of attendees and a lack of time to get the necessary permits meant a planned march became a public gathering.

This year, Damien’s interrogation, the suspension of events, and the feeling that holding a march would be a provocation led to the march being canceled for a second time.

However, Damien told The Daily Beast that a march in 2019 was being planned; organizers are determined it should go ahead.

Everything had been going well at Beirut Pride’s 2018 celebrations. It had started on May 12 with both a party and a new initiative announced focused on parents of LGBT children.

There was a concert featuring Khansa, Alsarah and the Nubatones, and DJ Richard Kahwagi. A brunch on Sunday brought people together to a talk about transgender experience in Lebanon, followed by a talk about masculinity and femininity in the Migrant Community Centre. There was a Grand Ball that evening.

The Monday, May 14, had been a day of fruitful meetings, recalled Damien, with the announcement of an initiative focused on LGBT people in the workplace. Later, at the Zoukak Theatre Company, there was a reading of a play translated into Arabic, a discussion, and a party.

A few minutes before the reading was to start, Damien told The Daily Beast, members of the censorship office at the General Security Directorate entered the theater space, informing organizers that the reading could not take place, as the censorship office had not approved the text.

Zoukak’s director reminded the officers that the theater had approached their office regarding censorship approval and received word that a reading did not need an approval, the latter being needed for a performance only.

Suddenly, other officers appeared from the General Security Directorate and the anti-vice police.

Damien himself received multiple phone calls from the vice squad, urging him to attend a meeting the next day at the police station to answer a few questions.

However, less than a half-hour later, the vice squad stormed the venue and asked Damien to accompany them to the police station “for a quick interrogation. Upon arrival, I was informed that I was to spend the night in detention, waiting for my interrogation. I joined 38 detainees stuffed in a cell made to fit five people, and spent the night on the floor.”

Damien recalled: “At 11 o’clock the next day, the interrogation started. The head of the vice squad showed me an Arabic version of the program of Beirut Pride. I confirmed it was an ill-translation of some events of the official program, infused with sensational words to express debauchery and immorality.

“In order to prove the program was fabricated, I asked the investigator to log in the website and compare the events written in Arabic to those displayed on the website and on the social media of Beirut Pride, highlighting the inappropriate use of some Arabic words I would not employ.”

However, the general prosecutor of Beirut decided to cancel all the events of Beirut Pride that were scheduled until May 20. Damien said he was given two options.

“If I wanted to be released, I had to sign a pledge in which I acknowledged being informed of the decision of the general prosecutor regarding the scheduled events, and I had to provide the investigators with an attestation of residence, so I can be reached at any time should a prosecution take place. Otherwise, I would be detained and sent to the investigative judge based on the Arabic program, for organizing events considered to be inciting immorality, debauchery, and disrupting public morals.

“Upon the recommendation of my lawyer, I signed the pledge. Both ways, the ruling of the general prosecutor of Beirut was to cancel all the events.”

However, Damien emphasized, this did not mean Beirut Pride, “in its manifold expressions and programs, was canceled.”

All the events that were suspended were reinstalled, and the announced initiatives continued. “New programs are also shaping up. Beirut Pride continues,” said Damien. “We didn’t start it to stop at the first obstacle, and obstacles are part of the path. While these obstacles are not amusing in the short term, they do not negatively affect the medium and the long terms.”

Damien recognized that “a lot of disappointment and speculation followed my arrest, detention, and release. Some people thought that, in order to get out of jail, I signed a pledge to cancel the events. This is incorrect, as I have no authority to cancel the events. This was the decision of the general prosecutor of Beirut, made independently of my will, consideration, and opinion.

“The pledge I signed states that I am conscious of the decision of the judge [the general prosecutor of Beirut]. The events were suspended whether I stayed in detention or I was released. My public arrest and detention reminded people of former arbitrary arrests that used to occur [of LGBT people]. Most people freaked out and didn’t dare come protest in front of the police station. This point was publicly clarified, both online and offline, and a few persons reached out to me to apologize for their criticism.”

As for 2019, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the authorities sought to disband Pride again,” said Ghoshal. “Pride and IDAHOTB events of one kind of or another have been held in Lebanon, for a long time publicized quietly within communities. Nothing had gotten the level of coverage as this year’s Beirut Pride, and the authorities were clearly uncomfortable with that. There seems to be an attitude of ‘live and let live’ as long as people keep quiet and don’t parade around too much.”

The Lebanese public, Ghoshal said, “have a way to go to understand LGBT issues and rights, and politicians can gain easy points by shutting down events that are unpopular. I’m not sure the authorities’ views will have evolved by the time of next year, but I hope activists keep trying. I think it’s powerful. The events that went ahead this year got coverage in Lebanon and across the Middle East. It’s inspirational for activists, even though it’s depressing to see it shut down.”

The public response to Beirut Pride since 2017, despite the police interventions, has been tremendous and extremely positive, “and never had we thought people would come out so massively,” said Damien.

The Daily Beast asked Damien to describe Beirut. “It is often dubbed the most liberal country of the Arab world, Beirut is a very heteroclite city, with areas ranging from over-the-top streets to deprived neighborhoods. With a basic command of English and/or French, you would be able to easily navigate the city. Speaking with your hands is also of great assistance. Beirut seems like a microcosm of the world, with sharp contrasts, rounded angles, and generous happenings.

“Whether it is cars honking, the traffic, the electricity cuts, the pavements, the heat, the drinking, the parties, the outings, the crisis, everything is intense.”

“I was born in 1989, and in the ’90s and the 2000s homosexuality was still a taboo,” recalled Damien. “The Lebanese layman would be confusing homosexuals with perverts, pedophiles, prostitutes, drug addicts, effeminate men, and criminals—a stereotype that talk shows and TV series reinforced with the images they used to depict gay men. Providing this stereotyped image as the only mainstream view of homosexuals cannot do good to anyone, especially to a young man who is opening up to life, especially to a society that is emerging from a civil war.”

As the 1975–90 civil war brought Christian and Muslim groups in opposition, the power of religious figures grew exponentially, said Damien.

“In a situation of distress and struggling for survival, every religion considered (and still considers) itself to be a minority, thus operating with the logic of the minority. While Christian and Muslim sacred texts do not mention same-sex intercourse, the latter was deemed unnatural, as it does not yield progeny, and religious scriptures have been interpreted in a way to condemn same-sex sexual practices and individuals who indulge in them.”

Today, a lot of venues are inclusive and LGBT friendly, Damien said. “They range from medical centers, to a beauty salon, co-working spaces, cafés, bookstores, restaurants, malls, shops, clubs, bars, beaches, and resorts. It is up to each management to define its rules and conditions regarding how ‘out’ you are. LGBTIQ+ in Beirut is far from being ideal, but it’s very fun, especially when you are in a good place with good company.”

“Change is absolutely happening,” said Ghoshal of LGBT progress in Lebanon. “It’s really exciting, there’s a palpable feeling of excitement in the air among activists in Lebanon. The appeals court decision reflected that.

“Even if it is not a binding precedent, it sent a message that same-sex conduct is not illegal or an ‘unnatural offense.’ People have been told that their desires are unnatural for such a long time, it’s really affirming for an appeals court to turn around and say, ‘No, this is absolutely natural.’”

“People are attacked when they are visible, when they are organized,” said Damien. “People attack out of fear and misunderstanding. A lot of people, for example, still reduce LGBTIQ+ individuals to sexed people only, ignoring emotions, desires, and relationships, and disregarding that identifying as an LGBTIQ+ person is one part of our identity.

“This shows why it is important we work closely with the media so they offer other depictions of homosexuality. LGBTIQ+ individuals are in all social classes, linguistic categories, professional circles, religious groups, political affiliations, and cultural environment.”

The biggest action LGBT people can take “is to speak up,” he added. “People who don’t discriminate are often quiet voices. They condemn online, on virtual platforms. They often don’t engage in conversations with those who discriminate, choosing to ignore them, as they don’t want to raise suspicion on being considered ‘LGBTIQ+ members because they support them.’

“The general perception of society would be that the opinions about LGBTIQ+ are all negative, that people who discriminate are a majority, and therefore that the society ‘is not ready’ for this conversation. This is the first and most efficient thing that needs to be done. Communicate. Politely. Calmly. Intelligently.”

“Be sensitive to your surroundings, always open channels of communication, and be generous,” said Damien. “Be kind, yet firm, and trust that we are moving forward, no matter what. It is called evolution. We will get there, for we are genuine and authentic. Give people tools to feel empowered, and remember that the future is bright, no matter what, and that love always wins.”