Ghassan Makarem, 'LGBTIQ rights and the movement for change in Lebanon'

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Lebanese society is quite divided on issues of sexuality. Traditional relations prevail, but the great majority of Lebanon's population currently lives in cities and is adapting an urban lifestyle, bringing forth issues of "new" sexual identities. In addition, the multi-religious multi-confessional nature of Lebanese society often leads to the opening up of spaces for change. But this is not sustainable, especially since the division of political power along religious/confessional lines gives eminence to traditional and conservative positions.

Homosexuality in Lebanon is criminalized under Article 534 of the Penal Code, making "sexual intercourse contrary to nature" punishable by up to 1 year of jail. Although Lebanese legal codes are based on the French law, the article was introduced in 1943 specifically to criminalize male homosexuality; traditionally, Lesbians were less covered by the law. Today, the law is not applied extensively, except against persons who are less fortunate and in areas controlled by conservative currents, like in North Lebanon.

The law remains an obstacle towards the achievement of other rights: the right to education, housing, the right to work... For example, a gay or lesbian individual will have no chance of being protected against their employer because the law creates legally sanctioned stigma. This has more of an effect on the daily life of gays and lesbians than its direct application by the police.

Additionally, each Lebanese citizen must follow his or her religious sect's personal status codes, related to marriage, inheritance, and so forth. The civil penal code is used to police sexuality and enforce an official version for relationships based on heterosexual marriage, the main point on which Islam and Christianity agree. The whole issue also remains tangled in the traditional forms of the family, where honor plays a major role.

So, while the attitude of Lebanese society towards LGBTIQs can change, difference is only tolerated by the state if it serves the interests of the regime, as evident in the legalizing of gay commercial establishments to attract tourists from the Gulf, while illegally putting obstacles on the work of social support organizations, such as Helem.

Bringing together the remainder of a group called Club Free, activists from the left, and human rights defenders, Helem began as a group in 2001. Later that year, the campaign against the war on Iraq (No War – No Dictatorship) included several activists, movements, political groups, NGOs, and Helem. The rainbow flag was flown for the first time in the protests against the war on Iraq on February 15 and on March 15, 2003. Helem presented its notification of association to the Lebanese government on 4 September 2004.

Several developments prompted the formation of Helem as an association working to protect LGBTIQs. The first were proposed regressive reforms of the Penal Code in 2002, whereby the state attempted to increase its mandate in policing sexuality, including to change the wording of Article 534 from the very precise wording of "sexual intercourse contrary to nature" to "sexual relationships contrary to nature", making it broader to criminalize same-sex relationships regardless of the sexual act, and to include lesbians.

The second development was the increased visibility of LGBTIQ issues internationally, leading conservative regimes to use homosexuality to create moral panic, cover up socio-economic problems, and enforce repressive methods linked to the international "war on terror". The most important example was the Queen Boat case in Egypt, in 2001.

Such cases also brought about the attention of rights organizations who were attempting to intervene "on behalf" of LGBTIQs in the region, and who did not have any links to the grassroots of the countries in question. Their interference became a burden, since gays and lesbians could easily be vilified as agents of the West, but namely because calls for their liberation (and the liberation of women for example) seems to the majority in the region to be excuses for military intervention, as seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. Helem's strategy became that of political visibility and solidarity with other social movements.

To achieve its goals, Helem works towards the annulment of Penal Code Article 534 and any other legal obstacles. Equally as important is working for the normalization of issues related to sexuality in all aspects of state policies and services, ranging from fighting HIV/AIDS to sex education in schools to psychosocial support to mobile outreach programs that target the marginalized.

These links allowed Helem to be one of the first organizations to react against the Israeli aggression on Lebanon in July 2006. Helem's community center was Beirut's busiest relief headquarters during 4 weeks of bombing, and the main center in the Capital for volunteers, aid organizations, and the actual distribution of aid to the majority of the refugees in the city, under the umbrella of Samidoun, an alliance that included the anti-war movement, left wing groups, environmentalists, progressive student groups, and Palestinian organizations.

The impact of the 2006 war should not be underestimated. The Samidoun campaign, took direct care of 10,000 persons and indirectly of twice the number during the war. In post-war activities, it reached 100 villages in South Lebanon, at least. No amount of external intervention, even of the friendly sort, could have helped gays and lesbians and their allies do this.

In terms of progress on LGBTIQ rights following 2006, Helem's main success thus far has been to normalize issues of sexual identity and gender expression in civil society and some government's pubic services. This was also due to Helem's work on removing stigma and outreach to marginalized segments and areas. In 2008, the National Aids Prevention Program (a government controlled body) recommended to remove Article 534 from the Penal Code, because it was an obstacle to the provision of public services and a violation of the right to health, in addition to civil and political rights.

Many challenges still remain, especially since the confessional political system always gives the upper hand to religious and conservative political currents, but Helem's success thus far has been to reach out to ordinary people, activists, and groups working to create secular democratic alternatives while always remembering that LGBTIQ rights and full equality in society can be better achieved by linking with broader movements of change.