State power, fragile masculinities and queerness in Lebanon
In recent months, Lebanon’s LGBTQIA+ community has been the target of a hate campaign by the country’s leaders and violent attacks from all sides of society. From Christian extremist group Soldiers of God to the militant Shia party Hezbollah and even the Minister of Culture, the community has not been spared.
Historically, Lebanon was depicted as a sanctuary for sexual minorities, showing relative tolerance in a region of rampant homophobia. But now, the systematic erasure of queer bodies from the public sphere in recent months underscores a disconcerting truth.
The very notion of 'queer safeness,' a socially constructed narrative, parallels the facade of a robust politico-economic model that Lebanese officials have consistently projected. In reality, however, both are nothing more than ephemeral myths.
Today, queer people in Lebanon are facing discrimination and persecution in various aspects of their lives. Even in spaces that should provide safety and support, such as educational institutions, hospitals, and their own homes, they are not spared.
"This phenomenon transcends the realm of cultural homophobic discourse. Instead, these targeted assaults are best illuminated through the lens of state masculinities, capital, and power"
Helem, the first LGBTQIA+ organisation in the Arab world, sheds light on the alarming extent of this issue. In 2021, they documented more than 4,000 cases of abuse, including arrests and blackmail, against the LGBTQIA+ community, with most reports primarily linked to housing evictions, employment, and health services.
In this vein, it is crucial to ask: Why has queerness suddenly and excessively become a central point in contemporary Lebanese political rhetoric? Is this novel violence, or should it be viewed via structural lenses?
The truth, I believe, is that this phenomenon transcends the realm of cultural homophobic discourse. Instead, these targeted assaults are best illuminated through the lens of state masculinities, capital, and power.
Several were injured after an extremist Christian militia attacked an LGBTQ-friendly bar in Beirut on Wed night.— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) August 25, 2023
Om Bar Room, in the Mar Mikhael district, was hosting a drag show when "Jnoud el Rab" ("Soldiers of God") surrounded it and intimidated patrons:
🎥: @alexander_durie pic.twitter.com/POMN1lLJTW
Masculinities and the family
State masculinities, how paternalistic and masculine power structures are institutionalised within the state apparatus, lay bare the intrinsic gender bias that shapes the state's functioning and its methods for self-consolidation.
This masculinist state doesn't just extol masculinity as the pinnacle of governance but also operationalises it, systematically erasing bodies and identities that deviate from the traditional mould, thereby posing a perceived threat to its existence.
The intensified targeting of queer people in Lebanon is emblematic of this phenomenon. Queer communities are subjected to more than mere scapegoating; rather, they are thrust into the spotlight as part of a deliberate effort to preserve and reinforce a culture of hegemonic masculinity.
This culture, historically rooted in Lebanon and the broader Arab world, has found its refuge within the family unit. This family-centric structure perpetuates certain ideals of masculinity, and excludes those who challenge these norms, such as queer persons.
These dynamics underscore the tight relationship between family structures and political forces in Lebanon. Queerness is perceived as a force that runs counter to the traditional family and, by extension, threatens the existing power dynamics that underpin the country’s economic and political system.
In this context, the conventional family unit serves as a cornerstone of the status quo, reinforcing established economic hierarchies and consolidating power. The modern nuclear family in Lebanon serves as a significant instrument that not only performs ideological functions for capitalism by way of unjust wealth distribution, but also sustains the dynamics of state masculinities.
The Lebanese nuclear family, deeply embedded in the nation's socio-political landscape, is not simply a site where masculinity is perpetuated but also an institution that plays a vital role in reproducing and adapting to the tenets of capitalism within a climate of constant crisis.
Much like the broader capitalist system, where wealth and resources concentrate in the hands of the privileged few, the Lebanese family unit mirrors this inequality. It functions as a unit of consumption and transfer of private property, adhering to the principles of capitalism.
In-depth: A Christian group called the 'Soldiers of God' vandalised a rainbow billboard in Beirut as part of its fight against Lebanon's LGBTQ+ community.— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 6, 2022
Amid state repression, activists warn of a narrowing space for queer activism.
✍️ @DanaHourany https://t.co/l8TUKpL6lM
Masculinities, statehood and violence
The anti-LGBTQ+ discourse we see in Lebanon and the broader Arab world frames queerness as a promotion of deviance and gender transformation. Queerness is often portrayed as an imported vice, a ‘Western agenda’, that challenges capitalist, masculine, and paternal authority and undermines the significance of marriage and family formation.
These approaches reflect the state's reinforcement of traditional patriarchal norms and its steadfast commitment to a rigid concept of family, which is deeply ingrained in the national identity.
Interestingly – and as testament to these masculinities– such approaches tend to focus on homosexual men and completely reject homosexual women, completely invisibilising them from current conversation. Homosexual men are represented as a disruptive force to masculinity, and should thus be targeted.
Here, the lens of Sextarianism, a concept introduced by Anthropologist Maya Mikdashi, is useful in explaining the relationship between sex, sexuality, and statehood.
"Historically, socio-economic justice has been separate from gender and sexuality. But this has only served to perpetuate systemic inequalities"
Lebanon is a vivid example of a state with a deeply ingrained hegemonic ethos, exerting extensive control over all dimensions of sexual diversity.
The masculinised (and militarised) Lebanese state itself - whether through its legal frameworks, ideological constructs, or bureaucratic mechanisms - is a foundational yet frequently overlooked culprit in the ongoing hostilities against the queer community.
A queer political economy of crisis
Queering homophobic violence, as part of a broader strategy to organise, must be followed by a transitioning from a "politics of recognition" to "politics of redistribution", with a discussion of structural inequality.
To do so, we need to build a ‘queer’ political economy of crisis that can point to and begin to dismantle the intimate ties between the patriarchy, capitalism, and sexuality. Historically, socio-economic justice has been separate from gender and sexuality. But this has only served to perpetuate systemic inequalities.
To bring these concepts together is a critical transformation that will reveal the gendered and sexualised aspects of the Lebanese political economy, unmasking the power dynamics that support ultra-capitalist, nationalist, and patriarchal models.
This (evolving) understanding of capitalism's intersection with sex and sexuality challenges traditional paradigms of state power. It unearths how state masculinities enforce particular economic and sexual norms while systematically oppressing queer individuals, as is being seen today.
Only through this comprehensive paradigm can activists and scholars bring to light how state masculinities perpetuate these power imbalances within the broader political and economic landscape, and operationalise them to subjugate vulnerable queer folk.
Hussein Cheaito is a Development Economist with expertise in queer political economy, feminist economics, debt justice, and development economics. He currently serves as the Equitable Economic Recovery Programme Coordinator at Arab Watch Coalition, focusing on debt justice and IMF programming in the MENA region. Hussein's previous roles include working as a Development Economist at The Policy Initiative in Beirut and as a non-resident fellow in economic development at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) in Washington. He holds an MSc in Development Economics from the University of Sussex and a BA in Economics with a minor in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut.
Follow him on Twitter: @husseinch96
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.