Power in pride: Lebanon's LGBTQ+ revolution gatekeeps country's safe spaces
There's little doubt that Lebanon had led the LGBTQ+ revolution in the Middle East. One just has to walk around Beirut's Bourj Hammoud neighbourhood to see this in effect. And yet, homophobia continues to prevail.
LGBTQ+ rights have been a fraught battleground in Lebanon; public officials use their platform to spout prejudice, with the 2022 Lebanese elections often descending into a showcase of ignorance.
Now, keen activists and NGOs are fighting this trend head-on by challenging stereotypes and social consequences in their quest to create an inclusive national atmosphere.
"[Creating] safe spaces and zones are almost an escape for us; here we can speak and behave freely and be surrounded by a community of shared values," said Joe Ajram to The New Arab, who had previously been rejected by his family for being gay.
"[Creating] safe spaces and zones are almost an escape for us; here we can speak and behave freely and be surrounded by a community of shared values"
For members of the LGBTQ+ community, feeling welcomed strengthens them and offers them a sense of comfort outside constrained societal norms.
By bringing Beirut's LGBTQ+ scene into social spaces and eateries, particularly in more tolerant neighbourhoods like Mar Mikael and Gemmayzeh, this movement offers a haven to the community, where holding hands on the wrong street can still lead to harassment, discrimination, or even arrest.
Tarek Zeidan, executive director of Helem, the first LGBTQ+ organization in the MENA region, spoke to The New Arab about Lebanon’s influence on other countries in the region and how Helem has helped the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon and beyond.
"We've been able to influence in two ways: firstly through joint programmes with other regional organisations, creating hybrid strategies which act as a blueprint going forward. Secondly, despite Lebanon being a small country, we've been able to punch above our weight in terms of cultural production, be it food, music, or TV," said Zeidan.
"Safe spaces for the queer community were traditionally only accessible for the privileged few. With Helem, we've been able to break down these barriers and create a space for all. We welcome anyone, regardless of sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, language, education, profession, religion, disability or status," remarked Zeidan with pride.
"It's a safe space to bond, heal, grown, be empowered and be listened to," he added.
The work of Helem has been essential in forging more welcoming attitudes across Beirut. Now, restaurants, cafes and bars are becoming more LGBTQ+ friendly, promoting this via their social media.
Omar Ghandour, the founder of Luna’s village bar-restaurant in the heart of Beirut, told The New Arab more about his pro-LGBTQ+ business practices.
“We take a lot of pride in offering all minorities a safe space regardless of their gender or sexual orientation as we see everyone as equal and ensure that they’re treated fairly and respectfully,” Ghandour said.
For Ghandour, being LGBTQ+ inclusive as a business in Lebanon does not always it is a smooth journey as there remain customers who may get annoyed by the presence of the LGBTQ+ community, or are homophobic. But for Ghandour, these people are not worth entertaining.
A lot of the staff members at Luna's village are members of the LGBTQ+ community. In the hiring process, no one is questioned about their gender identity or sexual orientation.
“We are so happy that these minorities see Luna’s Village as a safe and tolerant space, especially in a country like Lebanon where they can have a hard time being themselves or feeling safe anywhere,” Ghandour said.
Yet, more still needs to be done. While Lebanon is regionally and internationally renowned for its queer-friendly nightlife and tourism, many activists believe that more advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights is paramount.
Beirut-based development economist and LGBTQ+ activist Hussein Cheaito told The New Arab: “There is a general idea that the Lebanese society is more progressive on LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion but we are actually very far from being completely tolerant, especially in terms of employment, the labour market, or even fair working conditions.”
For Hussein, “It’s a case-by-case situation as there are a lot of queer people in Lebanon who are financially independent and have access to well-paid jobs, but this is only a bubble of people. There remains a completely hidden segment of a queer community, especially outside of Beirut who are completely detached from the typical queer life that many people in Beirut have.”
Whilst there are no laws in the country that protect the LGBTQ+ community and ensure their financial and social inclusion in society, recently the non-profit organisation ProudLebanonORG has worked to achieve protection, empowerment, and equality of these marginalized groups, calling upon newly elected MPs in Lebanon to advocate for the amendment of article 534 of penal code – the code which criminalises homosexuality.
“It’s hard to imagine a system where laws exist to protect queer people if we are ruled by queerphobic, homophobic, and transphobic political leaders,” said Cheaito.
These political leaders have recently re-emerged in the public sphere. After his election win, Lebanese MP Waddah Sadek promised his constituency that he would fight any attempts to legalise same-sex marriage or promote queer visibility in parliament. Waddah is not alone in his homophobic beliefs, and this bloc continues to represent a strong and influential section of Lebanese society.
So despite being relatively regionally progressive, members of the LGBTQ+ community are still faced with prejudice. For Cheaito and many of Lebanon's queer community, this manifests itself in lower pay, bullying, and discrimination which affects their efficiency, productivity, and mental health.
Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.
Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462