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As Lebanon’s gay community gains confidence, they still face a struggle for legal rights

by Maya Sioufi

Homosexuality is not a mental disorder. In an unprecedented statement in July of this year, the Lebanese Psychiatric Society (LPS) became the first of its kind in the Arab region to declare that gay people are not mentally ill and do not require treatment. This was welcome news in the Lebanese homosexual community which has been more rapidly coming out of the closet in the past decade and battling for their rights. The statement came shortly after Pope Francis declared that, “if a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” That statement sent shockwaves throughout the worldwide gay community, which has celebrated recent progress in rights in some countries, but is still fighting rampant abuses in others. 

Lebanon’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has reasons to cheer and some to boo. Beirut has a reputation of being a gay friendly city in comparison to other Middle Eastern capitals such as in Saudi Arabia and Iran where execution of homosexuals is not uncommon. The capital’s tolerance toward homosexuality has allowed an increased gay presence across industries, countless gay tourists to flow into the country and has seen numerous businesses — from department stores to bars and clubs — striving to attract the burgeoning gay community. Yet all this is against a legal backdrop that presents a less than rosy human rights picture — especially among the more vulnerable socioeconomic classes. 


The booming gay scene

It’s Saturday night and Bardo, a gay friendly bar in Beirut’s Hamra area, is packed. A friend of mine shows me a conversation he just started on Scruff, a gay dating application which allows users to share their location. The guy he is messaging is not too far away and after exchanging two or three messages, he seems keen to meet up. “The Lebanese gay community is booming,” my friend says. “It’s the  ‘in’ thing now and it’s really easy to hook up.”

Related articles: Homosexuality is not an illness, Lebanese scientists decide

A lack of tolerance — Lebanon still largely unaccepting of homosexuality

Scruff is not the only dating app geared towards the gay community. The more popular Grindr, which has more than 6 million users worldwide told Executive that it has 8,636 average active monthly users in Lebanon. Manjam, the social network and dating platform for gay men in the Middle East, has around 17,000 users in Lebanon and 137,000 in the region. 

These figures significantly understate the number of LGBT people in Lebanon. No surveys on homosexuality in the Lebanese population have been conducted. Using the commonly cited (and widely contested) 10 percent figure, based on the studies of sexologist Alfred Kinsey conducted in the US in the 1940s and 1950s, would imply that there are around 400,000 gay people in Lebanon. The percentage of the population that is ‘out’ varies tremendously by region depending on its social values. The Gay European Travel Association (GETA) included Lebanon and Israel in its recent study of gay European tourism because of the thriving gay communities in these countries and when estimating the number of openly gay people in a country’s population, it applies the conservative 1 percent figure used for Central Europe to Lebanon implying that 40,000 Lebanese would identify themselves as gay in the country.  While this figure is disputable, one fact that is irrefutable is the increase in visibility and empowerment among Lebanon’s gay community, giving confidence to the younger generation to declare their sexual orientation. 


Hamed Sinno, the openly gay Mashrou Leila singer, with a rainbow flag at Byblos in 2010
Hamed Sinno, the openly gay Mashrou Leila singer, with a rainbow flag at Byblos in 2010

Growing in confidence

Hamed Sinno, the lead singer of Lebanese alternative rock band Mashrou’ Leila, is openly gay. He has written a love song in Arabic, “Shim El Yasmine” about homosexual love. At the Byblos International Festival in July 2010, he grabbed the LGBT rainbow flag from a fan in the crowd and tied it to his microphone on stage in front of 3,500 people. “Right in front of me, there was a crowd of about 100 LGBT kids and there was this kid, 18 at most, and he was waving the rainbow flag and his friends were doing the same thing with signs on gay rights. It is touching to see a bunch of 18-year-olds doing that in my country,” says Sinno over coffee in Hamra. He comes from a very conservative family but they eventually came round. Not everyone has though and Sinno receives constant online attacks for his sexual orientation. “I don’t take it seriously. I just ignore it. I’m not going to stop being gay or making music,” he says. 

It’s voices like his that give strength to the youth and the band’s success has been remarkable, with over 100,000 followers on Facebook, concerts held in the Middle East, Europe and Canada and a third album — which is being financed via crowdfunding — on the way. 

Sinno and his band are not the only ones breaking taboos and calling for a much needed change. The percentage of the Lebanese society that accepts homosexuality remains at a dismal 18 percent according to Pew Research. While it is higher than in other Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt where the rate stands at a perturbing 3 percent, the figure remains unchanged since 2007. 

In this relatively conservative society, many gays prefer to keep their sexual orientation hush hush but it is widely whispered within the community. Just ask any gay Beiruti. From famous fashion designers, to TV anchors, to advertising executives, to bankers and many political figures, the Lebanese gay community is more visible across the board. 


Chasing the gay customer

The increase in visibility has caught the attention of business owners looking to cater and profit from the thriving community. Referred to as DINK — double income, no kids — the gay community is widely assumed to have higher freedom to spend and to travel; in the United States, gays earn an average annual income of $61,500 versus the national average of $50,000 according to a December 2012 survey by financial firm Prudential. GETA estimated in October 2012 that expenditure on tourism from gays in Lebanon amounts to $83 million annually. Department store Aishti launched a campaign in 2004 with the tagline “Vote for Tolerance” featuring men and women standing closely side by side in bright colors; gay men Executive spoke to felt the campaign alluded to the rainbow flag and was catered towards them.

And then there are the parties. Event organizer PC Party host several hip, gay friendly parties a year, advertised by word of mouth, in different locations — from Solea V to the Saint Georges Yacht Club to the Estral Cinema in Hamra — and with themes — Paparazzi and Celebrities, Tres de Mayo, PC in Wonderland. With a LL50,000 ($33) cover, the parties attract up to 1,200 people according to the party's management. Gay friendly bars and clubs from Bardo in Hamra to Posh in Burj Hammoud to Gemmayze’s Life and Obladi — referenced in gay travel guides and blogs — also attract a gay crowd.

Aishti's 2004 campaign seemed to appeal for tolerance of homosexuality
Aishti's 2004 campaign seemed to appeal for tolerance of homosexuality

Bardo, established in November 2006, caters to a mid to high-end gay crowd and racks in annual revenues exceeding $600,000. With different DJs mixing tunes every night, manager Joseph Aoun says he wants Bardo to be a melting pot of a tolerant and progressive society. “We do concerts, support cultural events such as the BIPOD [Beirut International Platform of Dance] festival and sponsor movies. We want to reflect the creative in our community and not the sexual. [Being] gay is not just about sex,” he says. And the gay friendly bar has never had to bribe policemen. “Our location helps a bit. You have corrupt policemen that enter without an order just to get money. Here it’s a security area for [Druze leader] Walid Jumblatt so they need permission from his guards,” says Aoun. As for the bar’s competitors, Aoun says that it is the straight bars in Beirut as “all the high-end places take into consideration the wealthy gay community. And [they] want good food, drinks and vibe and who cares if it’s a gay bar?” he adds.  

In recent years, some of the hippest parties such as Decks on the Beach and CU NXT SAT, which are held weekly during the summer at Beirut’s Sporting beach club, as well as the renowned parties hosted by organizers Cotton Candy, have attracted a diverse range of partygoers, gay and straight alike.


Worth a trip

Beirut’s pink reputation has lured international gay tourists as well. Travel agency LebTour has been serving gay clientele since 2004; but not from Arab countries. “Arabs are more interested in food and other stuff that I don’t provide, you understand my point,” says founder Bertho Makso. 

One year after its formation, LebTour became Lebanon's representative of the Florida-based International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), the world’s leading travel network for gays. “They asked me to deal with all Arab countries, with a focus on Lebanon,” says Makso who has featured in prominent media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. “I don’t advertise, I rely on these interviews,” he adds. 

Beirut has been featured in various media as a destination for gay travelers
Beirut has been featured in various media as a destination for gay travelers

After the 2006 war with Israel, business dried up in Lebanon so Makso decided to start covering Syria. “That was something,” he says. He would spend a week a month in Lebanon and the rest in Syria. Arriving on the Syrian border with a bus of 35 gay men, “they asked me where our wives were. I said in another bus; it’s obvious, they know [we were gay]” he says. Makso received up to 700 gay tourists annually from Europe and the United States in 2009 and 2010 prior to the Syrian crisis. Many would come with the July 2009 NYT article featuring Makso and entitled “Beirut, the Provincetown of the Middle East”; Provincetown is a town in the US state of Massachusetts, renowned as a vacation destination for gays.  

“Now business is dead, just like after the war with Israel in 2006” he says. When he is not busy on tours, Makso edits international gay travel guides such as the well-known German guide Spartacus established in 1970. 

When it comes to international gay travel guides, Lebanon has made its mark. A quick Google search comes up with several guides for gay tourists looking to visit Beirut. Canada-based gay travel agency OUT Adventures offers a $1,749 package for a one-week trip to Lebanon; the only other Arab countries covered are Jordan and Morocco. French gay magazine Tetu featured an in depth travel guide on Beirut in 2011. And the NYT article on Beirut’s gay scene also included a travel guide. 


Battling with Israel for pink dollars

When it comes to attracting gay tourists from the West, Lebanon has tough competition from neighboring Israel, a country that has legalized same-sex activity and recognizes same-sex marriages performed abroad. It seems ironic that a country famed for violating human rights is promoting its capital as a defender of gay rights. 

Hosting an annual gay parade attracting 100,000 people, Tel Aviv has positioned itself firmly as a gay destination and in 2009, the city's tourism association invited IGLTA there to promote gay travel. With GETA forecasting that European gay tourists spend $65 billion on travel annually and Americans spend $64 billion, drawing in some of those pink dollars would give a boost to the economy. The city’s municipality allocates around $100,000 annually — a third of its marketing budget — to promote its gay image. It expects to attract 50,000 gay tourists this year and double that figure next year. 

Following the IGLTA conference in Tel Aviv, Makso was furious. “To react and show them that Tel Aviv is not the human rights friendly destination, the next year in 2010 we decided to promote Beirut,” he says. Contrary to their standard procedures requiring an official invitation, IGLTA held their annual conference at the Bella Riva Hotel in Beirut in October of 2010 following an invitation by Makso. He is not satisfied though. Lacking the support that Tel Aviv receives from its officials, this opportunity “was not used in the proper way” to promote LGBT tourism in Lebanon, he says. 


Legal progress

While homosexuality is not explicitly illegal in Lebanon, Article 534 of the penal code declares “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature is punishable by up to one year in prison.” This law was copied and pasted from the French law when Lebanon adopted its constitution in 1943. Far from just decriminalizing homosexuality, France has since passed a bill approving same sex marriage this year. 

The statement by LPS in July came on the back of mistreatment of LGBT people in the past year and shortly after New York-based lobbyist group Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report bringing to light the abuses by the Internal Security Forces, Lebanon’s police force, of vulnerable groups including LGBT people. 

In July of last year, 36 gay men were arrested in Bourj Hammoud’s Cinema and subjected to anal ‘egg tests’ — so called for the egg-shaped implements used to try and determine homosexuality — violating both the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Lebanon has ratified. “The population that goes to this cinema is the lower class that don’t find space in other LGBT spaces and parties that are becoming too expensive for them and this is why the police went too; its always the poor, lower social economic classes that are persecuted” says Ahmad Saleh, board member of Beirut-based LGBT advocacy group Helem. 

In April of this year, the gay friendly nightclub Ghost in Dekwaneh was raided and four people were arrested and ordered to undress at the municipality, with their pictures later leaked online. “We made them take off their clothes… Is it a woman or a man? It turned out to be a half-woman and half-man and I do not accept this in Dekwaneh,” mayor Antoine Chakhtoura said on national television. But LGBT partygoers have been going to Ghost for a while, with gay guides in Lebanon often featuring the bar under the nightlife section. Here again, Saleh says, it was the lower end of society that was persecuted and in this case, those arrested were all Syrians on low income.

With a growing number of gay rights activists, bloggers and supporters, these incidents are creating massive fallouts and forcing change. Following the Cinema Plaza incident, gay rights activists were outraged and lobbied the Ministry of Justice to ban the anal tests. Saleh points out that the ‘egg test’ is not even scientifically reliable. “Some people are penetrated and some penetrate in sex,” he says. 

Lebanese non-governmental organization the Legal Agenda launched a campaign to end the anal examinations and it seems to have worked. “Helem’s work has also contributed to the repealing of the so-called anal tests” says Stine Horn, the deputy head of mission of the Norwegian embassy in Lebanon, which has donated substantially to Helem since 2011. In August 2012, the Lebanese Doctors’ Syndicate issued a directive calling for an end to these examinations. The Lebanese Ministry of Justice soon followed with a statement urging the country’s public prosecutor to ban the tests. While this has yet to be implemented, it is a positive step. After the Ghost incident, “the support the media gave us was impressive; even politicians and the police had to take a step back” says George Azzi, one of Helem’s founders. In fact, soon after Minister of Interior Marwan Charbel stated that Lebanon is against liwat, a highly offensive term equivalent to faggot, and questioning whether married French gay couples should be allowed to enter the country, his press office issued a clarification on Facebook saying that he was only stating that gay marriage is allowed in France but forbidden in Lebanon. “Homophobia and transphobia are widely spread within the Lebanese society. However, the degree of homophobia is not the way it was a few years ago. There has been some progress in people’s attitudes towards the LGBT community” says Horn.


Gay activism 

With the advent of the internet in the late 1990s, Lebanon’s gay community began finding refuge online. On the Gaylebanon.com platform created in 1998, they were able to meet people and share their experiences without revealing their identity. As their interactions increased, an underground group, ClubFree, was formed in 2000 and restricted to trusted gay people. With the rise in visibility came an increase in confidence within the community to come out and speak up. ClubFree turned into a formal organization in 2004 with the formation of advocacy group Helem. Still not officially recognized by the government, Helem aims to abolish Article 534 and raise awareness of HIV. 

Helem calls for the abolishment of Article 534, which criminalizes "unnatural sexual acts" and is used to target homosexuals
Helem calls for the abolishment of Article 534, which criminalizes "unnatural sexual acts" and is used to target homosexuals

In the decade since its establishment, Helem has raised funds through private donations and grants from organizations such as the Ford Foundation and foreign embassies including Norway’s have been supporting the advocacy group, donating $305,000 since 2011. By building a strong network of allies on the ground, Helem fights to curtail discrimination against the gay community. It has worked with its allies to change the wording used by the media and over time, the use of the word methli has become more popular and replaced more pejorative terms such as monharif and loutte. “Helem has been successful in raising awareness of discrimination of LGBT people, spreading information on the needs of the community and in providing essential support at an individual level through their community center,” says the Norwegian embassy’s Horn. 

While local media has progressed, there still remains room for improvement. Actors with ‘camp’ characteristics, such as MTV Lebanon’s Wajdi and Majdi, are still featured in television shows for comedic purposes.

From a legal standpoint, gay rights activists have welcomed positive improvements. While they have not been able to repeal Article 534, the use of the law to arrest gay people has been put in check somewhat. As HRW points out in its report, police have tightened the basis on which they make arrests under the law. “Earlier if someone suspected his neighbor to be gay, the police would investigate and charge. Now they need hard evidence to charge with 534” says Saleh. Figures on the number of people arrested based on this law are not available; Helem knows of about 15 cases a year but “of course not all get reported as people are afraid to say they are charged with 534, it’s taboo” adds Saleh. As the article does not define what “nature” is when it comes to sexual intercourse, it leaves significant room for interpretation by judges. In 2007, Mounir Suleiman, a judge in Batroun, ordered a halt to the criminal investigation of two men suspected of engaging in sex based on his interpretation that law 534 did not apply to homosexual acts.


Raising HIV awareness

Another goal that Helem has set itself is to raise HIV awareness among the gay community and help in treating those affected. While lesbians have an extremely low risk of contracting the disease, gay men are considered an at-risk group. In 2007, the advocacy group set up a clinic to provide free HIV testing and voluntary counseling; it started collaborating with the Ministry of Health in 2005 on the awareness initiative. The ministry’s logo featured on Helem brochures despite the non-official recognition of the organization. “We considered it an official recognition from the state,” says Saleh. 

There are 3,600 people living with HIV/AIDS in Lebanon, both gay and straight; a figure that is understated given that many don’t report the disease because of the stigma and many others don’t get tested. As Helem eventually saw the need to provide its sexual health services to all Lebanese and not just gay people, Marsa, a sexual health center in Hamra, was established in February 2011 offering free testing for HIV amongst its numerous sexual health services. Last year, the center conducted 800 free HIV tests up from 500 in the first year of operation and 300 medical consultations up from 150 a year earlier. “We noticed recently a rise in the number of people with HIV between the age of 18 and 24” says Diana Abou Abbas, manager of the center. She believes this rise is due to an increase in sexual activity combined with a lack of sexual education in schools.

One person trying to educate the Lebanese population at large about HIV is Lebanese jewelry designer Moe Khadra. Having lived most of his life outside of Lebanon, Khadra was shocked by the degree of ignorance in the country when it came to the virus. “Some banks still ask you to get tested for HIV before you get employed,” he says. So in September of last year, he decided to establish ColoRED, a concept that aims on supporting and raising funds for organizations that fight HIV. It was launched during a charity event at Beirut’s SkyBar as “we need[ed] something hip and trendy that would attract celebrities and public figures” he says. And Khadra performed an HIV test in front of the 750 people that attended the event to show how easy it is to get tested. The $16,000 raised was donated to Marsa. Khadra hopes to raise a larger amount at another event this year that has not been scheduled yet; the funds will also be donated to an association that fights the spread of the virus among the Lebanese population. 


It starts at home

Gay men and women have been coming out of the closet in Lebanon for a while now. Their increasing visibility and activism has forced the legal system to be more lenient, the medical system to acknowledge that they are not ill and businesses to cater to their needs. But while a small faction of the Lebanese population seems to be more acceptant of homosexuality, homophobia is still widely present and many gays still live in fear, are discriminated against, threatened and mistreated. The incidents of the past year reflect the fact that Lebanese society remains fundamentally homophobic. In a modern society, judging people based on their sexual orientation is anachronistic. But a change in attitude and mentality towards homosexuality will not happen overnight. Abolishing Article 534 and ending police mistreatment of gay people is not realistically going to happen anytime soon, especially in a country with no government. 

A wider acceptance of homosexuality within society can put pressure on the political and legal systems to curtail these abuses. This starts at home, in equal acceptance and love for gay children, empowering them to stand up for themselves, and encouraging tolerance. Homosexuality should not be a taboo. Starting with families, the embracing and normalizing of homosexuality in society at large would guarantee that the individuals behind sickening incidents of abuses would have no one left to please.

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Maya Sioufi

Maya is a research consultant on Arab youth entrepreneurship and employment. She headed Executive's banking, finance and entrepreneurship sections from 2011 to 2013. Previously, she worked at JP Morgan in London in equity sales for three years. She holds an MSc in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics (LSE) and a BA in Economics from the American University of Beirut (AUB).   

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