Denijal Jegić
Last updated: 25 May, 2017

“The LGBT+ culture forms a significant part of Beirut’s distinctive character”

Denijal Jegić on the controversy around Beirut Pride.

In an article for Middle East Eye, Morgan Meaker depicts a dark and oppressive Lebanon. Quoting narratives of LGBT+ individuals who supposedly experienced torture in Lebanon and occasionally dropping unrelated sentences like “In January, security services arrested a man wearing an explosive vest in a Costa coffee shop,” out of context, Meaker’s article merely follows the purpose of constructing a picture of a dangerous Lebanon that is unsafe for LGBT+ individuals or for everyone in general. Seemingly unaware of the reality in Lebanon, Meaker presents fear as a general truth: “He avoided the checkpoints that scatter Beirut and tried not to hang out with LGBTI friends in public, afraid big groups would attract attention. Every day he deleted the contents of his phone. Throughout the two years he spent in Lebanon, he was afraid. But his tactics kept him safe.” She ends her story be quoting another person: “I feel like all the world is moving forward except Lebanon.” 

For Yahoo News, Mary Gallagher writes that “Lebanon has become the first Arab country to allow Gay Pride Week to take place – but plans for the opening event were scuppered after Islamists threatened violence,” wrongfully implying that Pride is systematically suppressed in every Arab country. The short article concludes, “Homosexual acts are still punishable by up to a year in prison in Lebanon,” without citing any reference or context.

The media coverage of Beirut Pride once again singled out Lebanon as an allegedly undercivilized place in a Western-constructed evil ‘Arabia’ in the same Orientalist manner that the country is usually represented even in the most critical Western discourses. The two mentioned articles are only examples for a lazily detached journalism that is invested in engineering fantasies of LGBT+ individuals being systematically oppressed, incarcerated, and tortured.

The Lebanese reality, however, contradicts those words written from abroad. The LGBT+ community certainly does not live in fear. Anyone who has ever walked through the streets of Beirut has immediately become aware of the very visible presence of the LGBT+ community – a presence that is widely accepted in the cosmopolitan city. Even more, the LGBT+ culture forms a significant part of Beirut’s distinctive character. Not only is Beirut a safe space for LGBT+ individuals, parts of the city are a popular destination for gay tourism, offering several LGBT(-friendly) cafés, bars, restaurants and theaters.

It is true that in certain areas of Lebanon, homosexual couples might not be welcomed by everyone. Conservative areas, however, exist in every other country as well. And while a gay couple might not feel safe holding hands in many places outside of the big city, the same restrictions are faced by unmarried heterosexual couples who find themselves in a traditional or religious environment. As concepts and dynamics of sexuality, marriage, and family differ, a cultural knowledge and sensitivity is inevitable for the analysis and critique of a country’s human rights condition. The stereotypical judgments floating around in the media seem uninformed about the fact that any form of premarital intimacy is traditionally taboo for the majority of both Lebanese Christians and Muslims, with many heterosexuals not having the freedom to choose their life partner.  

Contrary to popular journalistic belief, same-sex sexual activity is very well legal in Lebanon. The Lebanese Psychiatric Society (LPS) has long declassified homosexuality as a disorder. The often-cited Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code stated that sexual relations that are “contradicting the laws of nature” could lead to one year in jail. While this article is repeatedly and uncritically referred to by Western journalists, it is important to put its significance into context. Firstly, the article is written in the Penal Code which was introduced in 1943, when homosexuality was punishable in most of the world, including Europe, where LGBT+ individuals were systematically persecuted at that time. Secondly, the formal existence of this law does neither mean that it is simply interpreted as anti-LGBT+, nor that it is applied as such. On the contrary; within the last decade, several judges in different Lebanese cities have repeatedly ruled against the appliance of that article, always arguing that same-sex activity is not contrary to the laws of nature. The police are not enforcing the article.

Within the region, Lebanon has been on the forefront of human rights in general and LGBT+ rights in particular. As a constitutional democracy with freedom of expression, Lebanon is home to many grassroots movements and NGOs that raise awareness about and combat human rights deficits. The Beirut Pride was organized by a broad platform of groups and individuals, for example the Arab Foundation for Freedom and Equality and Helem, the first LGBT+ NGO in an Arab country.

Beirut Pride offered manifold social, cultural and educational events, such as exhibitions, conferences or story-telling gatherings. As a Sunni religious group, Hayat Ulama Al Muslimin, threatened and pressured the organizers, some events had to be rearranged, downsized, or canceled due to security reasons. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Christian Patriarchate in Tripoli is organizing a conference that frames homosexuality as an illness. Of course, this points to problems faced by the LGBT+ community. And sexual minorities are for sure not the only ones confronted with threats and condemnation. 

But again, these problems are not unique to Lebanon. Unfortunately, anti-LGBT violence is part of the everyday reality in the Euro-American world. A difference is that usually in European countries, acceptance among the population rose only after governments themselves imposed more freedom and rights for LGBT+ communities. And while gay marriage is far from being legally implemented in Lebanon (and the country does have other pressing political issues), only a minority of EU countries allow same-sex couples to get married while many EU countries have actual constitutional bans on that issue, actively depriving homosexuals from equal rights and legally oppressing them based on their perceived difference. And again, it was not the Middle East where decades ago homosexuals were put in concentration camps. 

To put it short: LGBT+ rights, as part of human and civil rights, remain contested worldwide in different forms and realizations. Would any journalist write a nearly critical piece about LGBT+ struggles in Europe and label these countries as a dark and dangerous disgrace for human rights?

Lebanon, like every other country, is not bipolar, but offers a multifaceted society with various mindsets. Unique to Lebanon is its – in discourses often ignored – religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity. People of 18+ sects coexist peacefully with each other and with millions of refugees from neighboring countries. The area of approx. 10,000 km2 is shared by probably 6 million people who not only possess different religions and degrees of religiosity, but also unique biographies, ideologies, life experiences, and consequently different degrees of exposure to homosexuality. 

The fact that there is an organized LGBT+ community with its NGOs and socio-economic networks already speaks for itself. The situation of the Lebanese LGBT+ community might not comply with Western-imposed standards. And while Gay Prides in Berlin, Barcelona, Brussels or for that sake any other European or American city often have a capitalist dimension, benefiting local governments and tourism financially, the Lebanese state apparatus was not involved in Beirut Pride. Rather, Beirut Pride was really about human rights and civil liberties.

Photo: Graffiti on Abdul Aziz Street in Hamra, Beirut. Copyright: Denijal Jegić

It is May 2017. Dozens of bars and restaurants in Beirut exhibited the rainbow flag on their doors and windows, visible to everyone. No flag was burned. No shop was threatened. Between the neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael and Hamra, homosexual (and also heterosexual) couples are holding hands on the streets. No one is harassing them. Transgender individuals are moving freely. No one is throwing words at them. People open their Grindr apps and meet in public. No one is interrogating them. Gayrut, as some locals would call the city, is alive and living. This is the very contemporary model of Lebanese coexistence – something unseen in many parts of the EU and the so-called Western world.