Lebanon has a reputation in the Middle East for being the most liberal of all countries when it comes to homosexuality, transgender, and the LGBTQ + community in general. For example, in 2017, Lebanon was the first country in the Arab world where gay pride events (such as the Beirut Pride) took place. At least 4,000 people took part in it at the time. Already in the years before, various NGOs, such as Proud Lebanon and Helem, organized public events of the LGBTQ+ community. But that does not necessarily mean that the situation for LGBTQ+ in Lebanon is easy. Both the law and conservative currents within society make it difficult for gay men. Couple of Men reporter Sarah was traveling alone as a single traveler in the Arab country and could get an idea of the situation of the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon. After Georgia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Russia, she is now analyzing the country about being gay in Lebanon for Couple of Men.
written by Sarah Tekath
translated by Karl Krause
Beirut: Gay Party Metropolis in the Middle East
Whatever prejudices you know about against the Middle East, Lebanon does not fit into any of them. Two-thirds of the country’s population are Muslims, and one-third are Christians. In total, there are 18 religious currents. That means you can see shorts and short skirts as well as headscarves on the streets. In the capital Beirut everything mixes and here the motto seems to apply: live and let live. However, in the capital, it always looks a bit different from in the rest of the country.
The annual updated ranking of Spartacus’ Gay Travel Index for 2021 informs travelers about lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people in 202 countries and regions around the world. Which countries are gay-friendly? Where do LGBTQ + travelers have to be extra careful?
Homosexuality is not unnatural: Precedents in Court
In 1990, Lebanon became the first Arab state to follow the World Health Organization’s recommendation that homosexuality should not be classified as a disease. Furthermore, there is no law in the country that explicitly lists homosexuality as illegal. However, Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code (from the time of the French Mandate) still prohibits ‘unnatural’ sexual relations. In addition to fines, the maximum penalty is one year in prison. However, prison sentences have become rare. Individual decisions by Lebanese courts in 2009, 2014, and 2017 even found in seven cases that homosexual intercourse was not unnatural and therefore not illegal.
In this way, presidents have been created that can be invoked by other courts, but they do not have to be. The 2017 verdict, particularly, is considered a milestone because it refers to a criminal code article, namely Article 183, which states that no one can be convicted of exercising a right, as long as no one else is harmed. In other words, the right was established here to live out one’s own sexuality freely.
LGBTQ+ NGOs in Lebanon
Although several organizations are working for the LGBT community in Beirut, as well as in the rest of Lebanon, there is hardly any cooperation due to competitive considerations. Makso founded the organization Proud Lebanon in 2013 with the aim of supporting refugees from Syria and Iraq in particular from the LGBT community. Meanwhile, the focus is particularly on those who cannot afford to move to Liberal Beirut. For those, Proud Lebanon offers legal, medical, and psychological help. For example, the organization produces videos against homophobia with well-known Lebanese personalities. In the first video, there were 14 participants, in 2016 there were already 21.
It also offers anonymous HIV testing in tents on the street. Although HIV tests are also possible in the hospital, Dr. Ismael Maatouk, dermatologist and specialist in sexually transmitted diseases in Beirut, said that they were not anonymous. The Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health (LebMASH), of which Maatouk has been a member for a while, has set itself the task of developing a better understanding of psychological health in the context of sexual identity among Lebanese health professionals and is organizing, among others, the LGBT Health Week in Beirut.
The current Spartacus Gay Travel Index of 2020/21 ranks Georgia number 103 in its ranking, with an overall rating of -6. In categories such as same-sex marriage, persecution, anti-discrimination laws, or transgender rights, the country does not score in a single case with a positive rating.
Being Gay in Lebanon: Intolerance & Rejection remain
Although the 2017 Judgment is seen as an important step towards the abolition of Article 534, the attitude of the majority of the population towards LGBT remains conservative. Likewise, members of the LGBTQ+ community experience a strong stigma, such as a looming job loss if a public coming out.
Since a conviction under article 534 for unnatural sex also remains in the police record for five years, this can lead to negative reactions in job interviews, but also in the simple attempt to obtain a driver’s license, knows Bertho Makso, founder of the LGBT NGO Proud Lebanon. It is also not possible to vote during this period, as civil rights will be revoked for this period until the entry is deleted.
Many gay Lebanese refrain from coming out within their families because they risk being expelled from the family. For example, a gay brother can negatively affect the future of the sisters. Strong traditional values, both among Christians and Muslims, continue to apply – both in Beirut and in the countryside. See also Wikipedia: Homosexuality in Lebanon >
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Sexual Education in Lebanon
Although it always depends on the individual school and the more or less liberal curriculum, sexual education in Lebanon is usually kept to a minimum. Contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies are not part of the subject of the lesson, in most cases, only reproduction will be dealt with in a few hours. Proud Lebanon, however, deliberately excludes schools from its education and information program, and only looks after people aged 18 and over to avoid being accused of making children gay. Minors seeking help, for example, support the children and youth NGO Himaya.
Regarding prevention and sexually transmitted diseases’ education, the Lebanese government, more specifically the Ministry of Health, would produce informational films for World AIDS Day that could be seen on all TV channels for one or two weeks, but rarely more than 20 Seconds and would only summarize basic information, such as condoms and tests for sexually transmitted diseases. “In my opinion, the theming of sexually transmitted diseases and safe sex must begin at school. In this way, we can positively influence how children and adolescents see sexuality, and so we can create a liberal and tolerant generation, “says Dr. Maatouk of LebMASH. Nevertheless, he recognizes a positive change in knowledge within society. “In recent years, questions have become more concrete. The patients are better informed. For example, they no longer ask ‘What is HIV?’, but ‘How can I protect myself?’ “. Often, these specific questions also relate to the spectrum of sexual identity. So, one question would no longer be ‘Why is someone gay?’, but ‘What can I do for inclusion?’ Another positive effect, Dr. Maatouk, is that fewer and fewer men would be sent into therapy to change their sexuality.
Censorship of Gay Scenes
Nevertheless, homosexuality is still taboo in the public media. Even with international films or plays, LGBT scenes are censored. Gay dating apps, such as Grindr, are blocked and can only be used via detours with VPN. Nevertheless, Makso considers the Lebanese youth more liberal than the previous generations. Precisely for this reason, he considers it important to start with older generations and to gain religious spokesmen for the cause of LGBT people. At the moment, events such as the Gay Pride 2019 have just been stopped because religious conservatives have turned to the government, saying that the events endanger the morality of society, Maatouk explains.
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“The problem is not only the law but also society”
For both Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, there are strong conservative currents that have little or no understanding of homosexuality. It is not uncommon for homosexuality to still be understood as an illness or as a disorder caused, for example, by neglect in childhood. LebMASH has therefore produced a video explaining that sexual orientation is something that can not or does not need to be treated.
Till, who has a different name in real life, is a member of the Lebanese LGBT Media Monitor, an organization that gathers news about the community and provides a platform for exchange. He explains the disapproval of many Lebanese to LGBT people with a strong macho culture in Lebanon, where the man is always seen as a strong leader and who wants to be seen as an alpha animal. This can already be seen in the discrimination within the LGBTQ+ community itself. It makes a significant difference, for example, who takes over the active role in anal sex. For many, only the recipient is considered gay.
Gay & LGBTQ+ Travelers in Lebanon
“In Lebanon, the existence of LGBT is possible and freedom is given to some extent as long as it provokes no provocation,” explains Makso. From 2003, he organized self-guided tours for gay men in Lebanon, but also Syria, and Jordan, but ended the offer when he started with Proud Lebanon. Nevertheless, his organized trips have been used in the past. “With me, gay travelers could be themselves. They did not have to pretend. “Gays who want to travel to Lebanon should be aware, however, that showing affection publicly can lead to difficulties. Even in gay bars or gay clubs, kisses and body contact are prevented.
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Being gay in Lebanon: A slow change in society towards more tolerance & acceptance
“Being gay in the Arab world is not the same as being gay in the Netherlands, for example. Society always plays a role, as does religion and one’s family,” says Bertho Makso. Nevertheless, society would be changing – albeit slowly – and more famous people would take positions publicly. Just a few years ago, it would not have been possible to approach political parties and (at least unofficially) receive a positive response and encouragement. So, a discussion is already underway, but not in public – the time has not come yet because many politicians would still fear for their voters.
Nevertheless, according to Makso, the isolated cases of court decisions favoring the LGBT community would be used to portray Lebanon as gay-friendly. After all, Beirut has an international reputation as a gay metropolis in the Middle East.
Photo source: Pixabay | Unsplash
Information source: GayStarNews | Queer.de | Spiegel | Wikipedia
Karl & Daan.
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