The Arab world witnessed its first gay pride event in Beirut early this year, a culmination of years of efforts of various Lebanese grassroots organisations. Beirut Pride however was far from replication of traditional pride parades in the West, calling for neither legal rights for same-sex marriage nor a repeal of Article 534 of the penal code which prohibits sexual acts “contrary to the order of nature”. Instead the event sought to denounce “all kinds of hate and discrimination”, specifically that against sexual minorities.
However, Beirut Pride is no indication of a new open Lebanon. Lebanon, unlike most Arab states, has retained some political space for civil society to flourish: an impetus for LGBTQ+ resistance as pro-rights activists and support groups organise to effect change. Yet many conservative (religious) segments of society have sought to clamp down on pro-queer civil agendas. In March, Hezbollah Secretary General, Hasan Nasrallah, rebuked homosexual relations for “defy(ing) logic, human nature and the human mind”. In addition, extremist Sunni groups also successfully disrupted plans for activities days before Beirut Pride.
As a result, the modus operandi for most of Lebanon’s pro-queer campaigns has been, as Beirut’s sui generis pride illustrates, a negotiation between the relatively open civil space and conservative religious backlash. In the past, local groups had sought to deflect conservative pressures by pairing LGBTQ+ resistance with wider political currents. In 2003, HELEM (Himaya Lubnaniya lil Mithliyeen wal Mithliyaat/Lebanese Protection for Gays and Lesbians) – the first LGBTQ+ organisation in Lebanon (and the Arab world) – joined Lebanese mobilisations against the Iraq war, flying a rainbow flag that attracted attention from the media. Similarly, during the 2006 Lebanon war, the group castigated Israel for its incursion into Lebanon, as well as provided a sanctuary for refugees caught within strife. Beirut’s LGBT compound became one of the city’s most active relief centres during the four-week bombing campaign, earning even the praise of conservative Islamist group Hezbollah. Today, HELEM has broadened its agenda to include the protection of domestic workers and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, as well as campaigns against Israel’s ill-treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
This deft re-configuration of HELEM’s activism blueprint has lent to its prominence, which is necessary to effect change in Lebanon. This has included a ban on coercive exams that previously sought to acquire evidence of sexual (mis)conduct, following state-orchestrated ‘virginity’ (hymen) tests in 2011 in Egypt for female demonstrators during the Arab Spring. Although the Lebanese Syndicate of Physicians and Ministry of Justice enacted bans only for anal exams on male bodies, the change was considered a victory for many. The extent of such initiatives has transcended beyond Lebanon. Across the Middle East, LGBTQ+ associations have developed in areas like Palestine and Tunisia. In addition, the decisions of the Lebanese Medical Association and the Lebanese Psychiatric Society to declare publicly that homosexuality is not an illness have influenced attitudes on LGBTQ+ issues across the Arab world.
Through clever manoeuvring, Lebanese civil movements have averted social pressures to advance various agendas, much to the benefit of the local LGBTQ+ community. With the recent resignation of Prime Minster Hariri however, Lebanon may find itself one again at the centre of great instability. This may entail greater challenges for civil movements and queer resistance in the region.
Ismail Shogo reads Political Science at the National University of Singapore, and was a former research assistant at the Middle East Institute in Singapore. His interests are in authoritarian resilience, political violence, gender, and human rights in the Middle East and Africa. He tweets at @ismailshogo.
In this series:
- Resistance and Subversion: Queer Movements across Asia – Singapore by Cassandra Thng
- Resistance and Subversion: Queer Movements across Asia – Kazakhstan by Amir Shaikezhanov
- Resistance and Subversion: Queer Movements across Asia Concluding Remarks – A Comparative Outlook of Singapore, Kazakhstan and Lebanon by Ismail Shogo