Lebanon – on the cutting edge of LGBT rights in the Middle East?

Lebanon, and especially the bustling city of Beirut, has lately become known as a refuge for people escaping sexuality-related harassment in the Middle East. Being the first country in the Arab World with an LGBT movement, the nation has somewhat taken the lead regarding the rights and empowerment of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. Even though there are plenty of conservative voices resisting the recent development, the movement is growing and increasingly impelling the public discourse.

The Lebanese organisation Helem, meaning ”dream” in Arabic, was the first LGBT association to break ground in the Arab World. By offering mental and legal support to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, Helem aims to highlight and question gender-related inequalities in Lebanon. Since 2004, they have worked with the empowerment and protection of people facing discrimination due to their sexuality. One of their main tasks is to target article 534 of Lebanese penal law, which prohibits any sexual acts ”contradicting the laws of nature”. Although the article does not explicitly criminalise homosexuality, it is commonly interpreted as opposing same-sex relations, and a guilty verdict may result in up to one year of imprisonment.

Despite conservative elements in the penal law, there have lately been several revolutionary court proceedings, leading to ground-breaking rulings for the LGBT community. In January 2014, a judge rejected the allegations against a man and a transgender woman accused of having unnatural sexual relations. The case was dismissed, declaring that homosexuality is norm-breaking but not unnatural, and can therefore not be linked to article 534 in the penal code. Additionally in January this year, it was made clear that a transgender man would be allowed to change his legal documents. This grants him access to the medical and psychological treatment desired and, perhaps more importantly, discretion. Both of these rulings imply great success for the LGBT movement, as they acknowledge the rights and emotional needs of people with alternative sexual identities.

The recent legal progress truly reveals the importance of civic engagement in the pursuit of a safer and more equal situation for all sexual minorities. One particularly vulnerable group are homosexual, bisexual and transgender refugees, often coming to Lebanon to escape war and sexual harassment. Since norm-breaking sexuality is still a controversial subject in the region, refugees identifying as LGBT are especially exposed to abuse. Even though the Lebanese society is considered relatively tolerant compared to other Arab countries, NGO reports on police brutality and homophobic actions are not uncommon. Consequently, many refugees abstain from exposing their sexual identity in fear of being continuingly persecuted. The risk of double discrimination is high, as LGBT refugees experience hardships as sexual minorities, in addition to asocial exclusion as refugees. Many are forced to live on the borderline of society, with no mandate to call for the same legal and social rights as Lebanese citizens.

Apart from legal obstacles, it is possible that the greatest challenge for the Lebanese LGBT movement is to change the general discourse concerning alternative sexual identities. There are eighteen different religious sects represented among the Lebanese population, and the conservative tendencies in some groups influence the public debate on the subject. According to Georges Azzi, co-founder of Helem, ”the Lebanese government is always trying to find a balance between satisfying religious communities and politically conservative groups, while maintaining a space for tourism and increasing amounts of sexual freedom”. He argues that the growing influence of NGOs, along with a more frequent coverage in international media, greatly contributes to shedding light on the issue and engaging more people.

A change of attitude seems to be emerging especially among the younger generation. A recent report by the Arab Foundation for Freedom and Equality reveals an increasing participation of Lebanese youths in the LGBT movement. A survey included in the report discloses that respondents between the ages of 35-64 tended to have far less accepting attitudes towards homosexuality than those aged 18-34. The changing attitudes among adolescents give cause to believe that the future generation of LGBT activists will be able to reach even further.

The recent development has put Lebanon on the map as one of the currently most forward-striving countries regarding tolerance of sexual minorities. The substantial contribution of civic engagement, along with some ground-breaking rulings in the court of law, truly provides reason for optimism. Bearing in mind the conservative discourse and rigid legislation, one thing becomes particularly clear: the committed LGBT movement will play a crucial role in paving the way for equal opportunities in Lebanon.

Caroline Asker

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