About gay and lesbian rights in Lebanon, the struggle against discrimination and why Israel is no partner for LGBTT people in the region. Interview with Genwa and Mahdi of HELEM, an NGO fighting for the rights of LGBTT people.
I would like to start by asking you about the fields your organization is working, how big it is, and when was it founded?
Genwa: HELEM works for the LGBTT rights and it works on the protection of LGBTT in Lebanon and Middle East. It was founded in 2004 in Beirut, it was a movement that was created by young LGBTT individuals before 2004 and it was quite active even though it was an undercover movement. Since there were lots of responses and people showing this need for this movement, then they decided to register this organization, but until now we don’t have a registration number from the government even though it is not legal for them not to give us our registration number. But we are active and we implement our projects and we have the right to be visible to do projects, demonstrations and such.
What are the most common problems that LGBTT people are facing in Lebanon?
Genwa: In Lebanon we don’t have one bubble of LGBTT, it is more of a group of people under LGBTT, the same as non-LGBTT people. We have people who come from very low financial backgrounds, we have people coming from rural areas, we have people who are actually lucky enough to live in Beirut, we have refugees, we have trans refugees, and so on. But basically the major problem in Lebanon is article in the penal code which criminalizes homosexuality. HELEM has been working on abolishing this article (Article 534) for the last 10 years, we are still in the process and we have not given up. Another challenge is the job market especially for the trans people in Lebanon, and risks of not finding jobs. Of course another thing is discrimination that LGBTT people face in their everyday lives, and when they are arrested in police stations, especially when they come from backgrounds that police officers have no understanding on how to deal with, and those of poor backgrounds, refugees, trans people who don’t have families or who cannot talk to their to their families and so on, these are basically the challenges that face.
Let’s stay for a moment on article 534, there was a court judgment that was kind of abolishing this article. Is it now legally abolished or is it still in the constitution?
Genwa: Two judges actually said they cannot criminalize homosexuality cause the Article 534 by itself does not use the term homosexuality or homosexual, it uses the term “unnatural act of sex”. So basically the judge said, “What is an unnatural act of sex? This is not homosexuality and homosexuality is not an unnatural act of sex based on science and psychology and so on”. This is an argument that we use. But major changes happened since we have a lot of lawyers who actually defend detainees under Article 534, we have a lot of judges who show understanding for this and try to do their jobs with minimal damages to the people and on the victims of the Article 534. But sometimes when they arrest people they try to include articles other than 534 to make it more complicated for the police stations. Basically because the pressure is being put on them more on the media level. They are actually violating their dignities and their human rights. So basically they try to add more articles such as indecency and different acts in public spaces, and so on.
What kind of discriminations LGBTT people face here?
Mahdi: For trans people this is very difficult for especially they don’t fit in certain familial criteria. That is on the institutional level, they don’t have legal papers or completely legal papers and they pass by checkpoints and they get into trouble, and the issue of finding jobs. On another level public display issue, it is interesting because some of the places, I mean Beirut obviously has gay friendly places, but these places tend to be very specific places in Beirut and they tend to be more expensive than other places. So then it becomes an issue that some of them cannot have any chance to display affection in public and some of them can afford it. So yes, it is illegal but you can also do it in a club if you can afford it. So you can see here it becomes a class issue more than a sexuality issue.
You mentioned detainees under Article 534, how many are they and is there a movement to help them while they are in prison and while they are charged, against the repression of the state?
Genwa – Yes of course, that is the major goal of HELEM. We have lawyers who have contacts to law firms in Lebanon, and they follow up on all cases that that we know about. Sometimes the difficulty is knowing about these cases because they do not call you, you have no right to access to police station and ask if there are any of these cases if they don’t call you and none of the friends access us. So basically we do have lawyers that follow up on the cases on internal security forces as well as general security when they are dealing with LGBTT refugees. So the major gap is in knowing about these cases.
What about the freedom of speech and censorship from the government? Do they tend to censor LGBTT related acts or activities?
Mahdi: With movies for sure, because the general security office bans anything that they think is inappropriate. Regarding the media, there are legally no issues. The paper media does not publish anything in favor of homosexuality or LGBTT issues, but the media does not restrict itself from publishing hate speech on LGBTT communities. So the issue is not state-centric here. It is more like the media itself that is publishing hate speech or portraying people in a homophobic way, especially in the pop culture.
We heard about a study that asked people from Lebanon if homosexuality should be avoided and the response rate was very high, like 79 percent. Is it like this in daily life, or the number is increasing or decreasing, or does it represent the truth?
Mahdi: I would say this is a good estimate. Usually in Beirut you don’t get the sense cause it is possible to discuss it, but outside it is not that easy. There are rural areas that it is not discussed at all. People are sometimes shocked of these issues, especially when the only sorts of things they see of homosexuals are either homophobic news articles or homophobic things on TV, despite having a very famous drag queen called Bassem Feghali who is very normalized and widely accepted. But other than that they portray homosexuality in a homophobic manner, as people who are very hyper sexualized and basically unable to engage with real life at all, thinking about sex and all the time. They are portrayed in a perverted way.
We realize this is a city with incredible gaps between people. You also pointed out before that homosexuality also becomes a class issue. Is HELEM working with other organizations, such as unions, refugee organizations on so on?
Mahdi: Yes we work a lot with refugee organizations cause a lot of cases are about refugees. But the issue with the unions and Lebanon movement is very politicized in a wrong way, I should say in a sectarian way. So even if there is a union is strongly engaged, it is not easy to work with them because usually they have very strong sectarian ties that would not let them work with LGBTT issues. But HELEM has a lot of contacts with student movements who are very progressive in their thinking and usually more left wing than others. People who join us and people who work with us are progressive in their thinking but also on an economic level. But Lebanon in itself lacks a union or a cohesive left or political entity that works in these issues.
What is about the communist party which is now smaller than before, or for example the Palestinian leftists, are they more open to the issue?
Mahdi: The communist party in Lebanon is very Stalinist and Stalin says that homosexuality is a bourgeois disease. So no it is very hard to work with them. But I know that AUB has recently opened Red Oak Club which is which is a leftist club and they are very sexualized and they are very progressive with regards to homosexuality and LGBTT issues. So I see a chance of the left and LGBTT issues combining, but still there is no cohesive left in Lebanon that we can contact for coalition in action.
How about your international links, do you have relations to other LGBTT movements around the world?
Genwa: Of course, this is a movement that folds under a big network. For example we know all about the activists and organizations in the Middle East and Europe and USA. In the Middle East it is quite coherent together. We support each other, make petitions and we take stance together. But every country has its own people who work within their contexts and their backgrounds, so we don’t interfere in each other’s decision making but we support each other when we are asked for it. So yes there is a platform, there is an international network that works altogether.
I wanted to go back with exchange with other leftist groups in Lebanon. As far as I can see from the outside, as you said the left is not very strong at the moment, you mentioned student movements and so on. Are they growing at the moment or also with different kinds of groups coming together?
Mahdi: I come from student movements background, we have an issue with privatization of higher education in Lebanon. The universities are receiving less funding and the Lebanese government is giving more permit for private universities, while there’s a student movement it is kind of restricted to AUB (American University of Beirut), LAU (Lebanese American University), Hamra students and a bit of French universities. But yes, I see that they are going stronger. There is an alternative student movement in LAU and there are democratic coalitions across universities, and HELEM itself is working on starting across university student groups where LGBTT students can discuss issues in their universities and also work on solidarity issues between LGBTT groups and other minorities such as refugees or racial minorities. There is an issue of political consciousness raising when it comes to students, especially when they are either so financially stable that they don’t have to care or that they are so financially unstable that they can’t afford to care. I think right in the middle some people have found a balance about working on it. And as for my perspective I have been trying to introduce mainstream LGBTT issues in LAU and in AUB as something we have talked about as part of the struggle, just one spot of activism we can take care of, actually a point that we have to start working right now and completely.
Estimated, how big would be the movement with numbers? A few hundred, a few thousand people?
Mahdi: I would say, in AUB the active students are around 200, I don’t know that much about outside AUB or LAU cause that is where I am active. But in AUB and LUB there are around 250 students that are very active. But in terms of protesting, the next thing is that there is coordination between the student movement and other secular political entities. They have a very liberal secular framework, that’s more about small protests that don’t engage in conflict, more like asking the government to change the law and so on, but I feel like that activism in Lebanon needs to be more radical.
My impression was that too that you have two forms of acting, either completely peacefully or with guns in this country. There seems to be no escalation in between (The interviewees laugh). Is this specifically in fighting against discrimination of homosexuals, how do the demonstrations look like? Because I could imagine they can be attacked, if not by police then by homophobic bystanders or so. Are they peaceful usually, or are there conflicts when there are demonstrations?
Mahdi: It is mostly peaceful. We don’t have big numbers when we go in protests. There is always a fear of retribution; we cannot protect these individuals from their families even and all that. The demonstrations, even though they are not that big in number, there maybe a chance it is attacked, cause it is an hot topic, it is gender and people might get excited about this. So people might see them on TV, and we cannot be sure about their safety, cause there is no legal framework for people to be protected from this kind of thing. So yes for most part they are peaceful. Darak is one of the issues that HELEM has, so we cannot guarantee that they protect us in our protests. Darak is the internal security forces which is the police in Lebanon, which actually has the right to arrest people under Article 534. They are giving us a hard time, but we are trying to deal with it.
The other thing that you mentioned with the registration, you said you get invited by the government to conferences and so on although you are not registered?
Genwa: Yes. For instance we have participated in National AIDS program, we are invited to events and conferences. So at some level there is acceptance, but they do not give us the document that says that we have a number in the administer office, that’s why we cannot get our account number. But as we have mentioned we have been implementing our projects for the last 10 years.
Going back to the article 534 and Derek. Derek do the arrests, they do it after getting the order from the general prosecutor, because they cannot do any arrests without orders from the general prosecutors.
How is your organization funded? Individual donations or any governmental ties still, in what kind of ways?
Genwa: The government does not help of course, as homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon. We have our policies and we get funds from donors all around the world, major donations small donations and such. And also embassies or cultural institutes that belong to the embassies that are interested in funding LGBTT projects.
In your homepage I noticed you are also participating in BDS movement. For Europeans, this being part of LGBTT movement is uncommon, cause they usually argue that Israel is the only country in the region that protects homosexual rights. What is your approach to that?
Mahdi: Obviously we are anti pink washing, since the beginning this is one of our goals. Three years ago, since used to have the community center, every six months we had to have one meeting against pink washing. This is one of the main policies of HELEM. We have always been anti-Israel, anti-apartheid, and most of our members they recognize that LGBTT issues do not restrict themselves to liberal and Western politics. We can combine both anti-imperialistic struggle and LGBTT struggle at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive at all.
Genwa: HELEM does have its policies when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but HELEM has a space that is open for everyone, whoever is a victim of discrimination or whoever wants to enjoy this space. But when it comes to the politics, HELEM is clear about its politics regarding the Israeli conflict in the Middle East. As for the argument that is used in Europe saying Israel is the only state protecting LGBTT people, 1- HELEM does not recognize Israel as a state, as it occupies a state 2- We do believe that most of the arguments around the world, maybe including our arguments, is influenced by the media, and the media tries to highlight what actually some countries provide people rather then what they take from. So for example, most of the Europeans as I noticed from my travels, they know about Israel providing or giving people LGBTT rights, but they do not know what they are doing in Gaza or Jerusalem or about the victims of Israeli conflict, or what happened in south of Lebanon for example. So basically it is kind of the influence of the media. One prove is that we don’t know that Japan decriminalized homosexuality in 1880 but we know about Europe doing that two years ago as for gay marriage and such, so we are really influenced by whatever the media is telling us. It is a major issue that we try to raise at HELEM by increasing the critical thinking of people by going to different sources online, through books, rather than just sticking to two channels or few papers, and few articles that we see on Facebook.
Mahdi: Our cultural meetings that we have, sometimes we try to take on these political issues, because political awareness is an issue in LGBTT community. Israel is a big issue in Lebanon so you must discuss it with LGBTT or straight people.
Is it like this in the whole region? I am sure you have connections to LGBTT in Israel (Genwa corrects as Palestine), do they see it the same? On the other hand, are you able to convince people in Europe on that? Because I really have the opinion this pink washing campaign in Europe works very well, they have it since years and people…
Mahdi: People who come to HELEM are usually aware of Beirut’s condition or Beirut’s opinions on Israel, they are aware of pink washing so it is not very hard to convince them. Most Lebanese people here are sympathetic to the conflict.
Genwa: As for the idea of the Israeli conflict in the region, it is well recognized by LGBTT community all over the Middle East. We fight because we fight any violation of human rights and any violation respecting people’s dignities, and this is what we know Israelis do and did to other countries in the region. As for the people in Europe, they are just free to think what they want. But whoever is active in the LGBTT movement is basically a person who believes in human rights and stopping all violence on people who actually believe in respecting people’s dignities, so they come from the roots of actually supporting the victims rather than supporting the oppressors.
What are the main campaigns and programs that you carry out now, and any future perspectives?
Mahdi: At this point it has mostly been about working on emergency cases. It is hard to develop long-term campaigns when political instability in Lebanon is so high. We tend to focus our energy on what is happening now. We have strong media relations; we try to use the media. We make cultural meetings every week, we discuss topics that are relevant to LGBTT issues and beyond, such as issues of activism and how we can integrate that in our daily lives. Just being direct with the community, inviting them to our space, sometimes going to their spaces. Giving talks at the universities about sexual rights that are usually not discussed in the curriculum. So we try to educate people’s awareness, this is what I personally find the most lacking in the LGBTT community, about their own issues and others’ issues, and the community about the LGBTT issues.
Genwa: We have advocacy on lobbying a program that is working on abolishing Article 534 that we started working on it 10 years ago and we are still working on it. It is one of our major goals. As for the political campaigns, we do have a homosexual heath campaign that has been active for the last 8 years. We have our sexual health awareness sessions. We have our mobile clinic that goes around streets where we know are cozy areas for LGBTT people after midnight. So we go in our mobile clinic to provide them voluntary HIV tests and hepatitis test. We raise awareness on how to use condoms, the importance of safe sex and so on.
– Interview by Mibby Mibbylante, all pictures of the official HELEM-facebookpage