With his hair band, groomed eyebrows and designer bag, Wisam nurtures a distinctively effeminate look. When the 30-year-old filmmaker crossed Sassine Square in East Beirut last April, four young men beat him up because they did not like his style.
Although dozens of people were sitting at the square’s many café terraces, no one interfered. Wisam left the scene with a bruised face and bloody nose.
“I immediately filed charges, but the police only made fun of my shaved legs,” he recounted. “They noted down everything, but never acted”.
Despite this incident and others like it, however, Lebanese homosexuals note that ‘gay-bashing’ is relatively uncommon in Lebanon, compared to other Arab countries.
“Generally speaking, the Lebanese are quite tolerant,” said Mounir, a member of the Beirut-based gay rights group Helem. “As long as you don’t provoke them, they won’t easily take offence.”
“I’ve always been open about my sexuality,” Mounir added. “My family and friends know I’m gay and I’ve never had any problems. The Lebanese gay community has a problem with political and religious leaders, not the people.”
Group helps protect rights
Founded in 2001, Helem – an acronym in Arabic for the “Lebanese protection of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community” – boasts the distinction of being the first gay rights group in the Arab World.
The group is also involved in broader political issues. In 2003, Helem members participated in anti-Iraq war demonstrations in Beirut, during which a rainbow flag – the international symbol of homosexuality – was waved openly for the first time alongside the banners of religious, leftist and nationalist parties.
Along with launching awareness campaigns about homosexuality and related issues, such as HIV/AIDS, the non-profit organisation also publishes a quarterly publication called Barra, meaning “Out” in Arabic, of which Mounir is the editor.
Written in Arabic, French and English, the magazine covers a variety of subjects, varying from fashion columns to more serious reportage about people living with HIV/AIDS.
While Barra does not have an official license to publish, Mounir has little fear for the magazine’s future.
“Every association in Lebanon has the right to issue and distribute publications,” he pointed out. “It’s a very moral, intellectual magazine. We don’t run pornography,” he said.
Like its flagship publication, Helem itself lacks official registration as an organisation.
“The Ministry of Interior has yet to give us a registration number,” said Helem member George Azzi. “But according to current jurisprudence, the fact that we have paid and received a receipt of registration will be accepted in court as proof of state recognition.”
Problems with the law
According to gay rights activists, the main obstacle faced by Lebanon’s gay community is article 534 of the Lebanese penal code, which declares “penetrative sex against nature” to be a crime punishable by up to a year in jail.
“From the start, one of our main aims has been the removal of article 534,” said Mounir, although “the article is seldom used these days”.
However, “while the legal system may not implement the article today, it could tomorrow,” he said.
Jail time aside, article 534 makes homosexuals vulnerable to abuse in other ways.
One such Lebanese man, for example, recounted a shake-down by police who threatened to arrest him if he did not pay them money and give him the names of other homosexuals.
“The problem in Lebanon isn’t so much with society, although there’s still a lot of ignorance,” said Nadim who works as a photographer. ”The problem is the state. If I get beaten up and go to the police, I could be jailed for being gay, not my attackers.”
On 12 November, police raided the “Acid” nightclub in Beirut, widely known as a hangout for homosexuals, arresting eleven people. While most were released the same night, three of them remained in custody for three days before being released.
A week later, police raided another popular club among the ostracised community. While several club goers were checked for possession of drugs, however, no arrests were made.
Although a parliamentary subcommittee is reportedly considering the amendment of article 534, along with other laws relating to sexual offences, Mounir entertains little hope of real legislative change, at least in the short term.
“There was a proposal to adjust the law, but it was withdrawn without reason,” he said. “I suppose the issue of gay rights is still too sensitive for public figures to stand up for.”
Lebanon more tolerant than other Arab nations
While the lives of Lebanese homosexuals are not made easier by the existence of article 534, a level of social acceptance, not to mention Beirut’s lively gay club scene, suggests that Lebanon is considerably more tolerant of homosexuality than other Arab countries.
In April, for example, human rights watchdog Amnesty International reported the imprisonment of 35 men in Saudi Arabia, arrested because of their sexual orientation. Four of them were sentenced to 2,000 lashes and two years in prison, while the remainder received 200 lashes and up to a year of imprisonment each.
In the United Arab Emirates, 26 gay men of Asian and Arab origin were arrested in November. While foreign nationals involved were deported, police officer Najm al-Sayar told Reuters at the time that UAE citizens convicted of wrongdoing would “be given psychological, medical and sociological treatment,” as well as “male hormones”.
The situation for Egyptian homosexuals, too, has deteriorated since May 2001, when 52 men were arrested in a police raid in the now infamous Queen Boat nightclub. A Cairo court later convicted 21 of the defendants for “debauchery,” sentencing each to three years in jail.
According to a March 2004 report by Human Rights Watch, hundreds of men continue to find themselves in Egyptian prisons because of their sexual preferences, with the authorities regularly arresting and mistreating men suspected of homosexual conduct.
Gay rights activists like Mounir, meanwhile, express surprise that homosexuality has become such a taboo in the Arab world, given a long history of relative tolerance.
“Homosexuality was never a big issue in Arab culture. We have lots of famous poets and singers who were gay,” he said. “Abu Nawas openly wrote about love between men, and Tuwais, one of the most famous singers in Arab history, wasn’t just gay, but almost a woman”.