Despite Beirut Pride cancellation, the show must go on

Despite Beirut Pride cancellation, the show must go on
In-depth: Lebanon's gay pride may have been cancelled, but activists vow to continue their fight to have their rights heard in front of political and social stages, writes Florence Massena.
5 min read
18 May, 2018
In Lebanon the LGBT community usually fares marginally better than in other Arab states [Getty]
May 17 marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) and should have been celebrated in Lebanon during the Beirut Pride week with a storytelling night from the LGBTQ community. But the event, as well as the rest of the week's activities, were shut down by the Lebanese authorities.

The second edition of Beirut Pride, from May 12-20 was cancelled by Lebanese authorities and organiser Hadi Damien was arrested. He was "made to sign a pledge" that assured authorities that no more activities would take place.

"It appears that the main reason for my requisition is that the Public Prosecution received an Arabic version of the programme of Beirut Pride that was completely distorted, making it appear like events of debauchery, disrespect of general law, while using derogatory terms to refer to LGBT individuals," Hadi Damien wrote on the Beirut Pride website.

"We clarified the details of every point, before I made my statement before the investigator. The statement introduces Beirut Pride, its importance and its initiatives, and rectifies incorrect terms while addressing pressing matters," he told The New Arab.

"Called by the head of the unit, the General Prosecutor of Beirut decided to cancel all the events of Beirut Pride scheduled during the month of May. As for me, he offered me two alternatives: Should I wish to be released, I was to provide authorities with an official residence document for them to reach me, should any prosecution take place, and to sign a pledge that stipulates I was aware of the ruling of the judge. Otherwise, I would be officially detained on the basis of the Arabic programme, and referred to the court to be interrogated for coordinating events that incite debauchery and immorality, and disrupt the general law.

"The best exit, according to my lawyer, was to proceed with the first option, so I could leave detention and continue to operate."

It started the day before, on Monday 14, at the start of an event by the Zoukak theatre company featuring an Arabic reading of Ogres, a compilation of narratives and short stories that tells homophobic crimes and aggression.

Agents from the censorship bureau of the national agency General Security did not allow the event to take place as the text did not receive a prior authorisation from their office.

We really think that our creativity shouldn't be restrained by censorship and that homophobia shouldn't exist

"After consulting lawyers, we are certain that the censorship law doesn't include public readings for free, which was the case here," Omar Abi Azar from Zoukak, told The New Arab.

"Then they asked for Hadi Damien to come. We know very well that it's not us but the Beirut Pride that was targeted. We really think that our creativity shouldn't be restrained by censorship and that homophobia shouldn't exist, so we strongly support the initiative. For now, we can't do anything but what we do best: theatre," Azar added.

The week started positive, with a brunch gathering to celebrate parents who had accepted the homosexuality of their children with support, and talks about trans sexuality, masculinity and femininity.

Read also: No longer alone: Why LGBT activists are speaking out

It is the second edition of a collaborative platform launched in 2017 to take a positive stance against hate and discrimination based on gender and sexual diversity and announce projects to work with different parts of society for more tolerance.

But last year, after pressure from religious groups, Lebanese authorities were pressured into cancelling one seminar that took place in parallel with the Beirut Pride. However, the rest of the events took place without any additional problems and turned out to be a big success.

This year's authorities' intervention could be interpreted as a bigger pressure imposed on General Security from religious groups, although a direct hate move from the authorities themselves cannot be outcasted.

But Hadi Damien refused to point out fingers at potential causes for the cancellation.

People are dying from war and poverty, we are intoxicated by our trash and water pollution, but a rainbow and flower power shocks our politicians' masculinity

"Beirut Pride had everything properly organised and conformed to the law," he told The New Arab. 

"It is still too early to affirm why the cancellation happened, or which group was behind it. Speculation does not do good. However, Beirut Pride is a transversal platform, and extends beyond the borders. It is therefore important to look at this happening as a challenge that fuels future initiatives, and not as a failure or as a setback."

A 2013 Pew Research Centre poll showed 80 percent of Lebanese respondents did not think society should accept homosexuality, a fact that hasn't likely changed since then.

Although small steps of improvement are visible, with the Lebanon's National Centre for Psychiatry declaring that homosexuality is not a mental disorder for example. But the vague article 534 of the penal code still gives one year in jail for people caught in sexual relations that "contradict the laws of nature".  

For now, LGBTQ activists' advice to its community is to lay low and avoid going out at night for a couple of weeks until things calm down. But this did not deter local NGO Helem to hold a conference on May 17. The organisation that seeks to protect the rights of the LGBTIQ community, held a talk discussing rights' violations and expressing recommendations to change the situation in Lebanon.

An activist who was due to perform at Beirut Pride this week told The New Arab: "We will not be silenced and will organise another event later on when the situation is better, a celebration in solidarity with the Beirut Pride. We won't stop and will come back, but for now we can't tell anyone where and when it will take place exactly. People will be informed in time in a discreet way, as we don't want to be shut down beforehand.

"It's crazy," the activist who asked to be named as S.E. said. "People are dying from war and poverty, we are intoxicated by our trash and water pollution, but a rainbow and flower power shocks our politicians' masculinity. It doesn't make any sense."

A cancelled event is far from scaring a community that wants their rights to be in front of the political and social stage.

"We are there, we exist, and we won't shut up," S.E. added.

Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Lebanon, where she reports on the region with a focus on the environment, women's issues, refugees and humanitarian initiatives.

Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena