Socialist Worker (US) February 2011
The mainstream media – and some gay rights organizations – would have people believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the Middle East need the West to “save” them from the violent backwardness and homophobia of the region. But rarely, if ever, do they ask LGBT people organizing in the Middle East about how they are fighting for their rights.
Ghassan Makarem, the executive director of the Lebanese LGBT rights group HELEM (the Arabic acronym for Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders), talked to Frankie Cook in August 2010 about the struggle for human rights in Lebanon and beyond.
HOW, WHEN and why did HELEM or the LGBT movement in Lebanon emerge?
HELEM started around 2001-2003. Before that there was something called Club FREE, which focused on socializing amongst LGBT people. Then people got together to talk about doing political things. Several activists from different backgrounds came together to form HELEM. The discussion began informally when a number of us were on the steering committee for the Lebanon antiwar committee against the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. In 2004, we formalized the group and registered with the government and rented a space.
There were several reasons why HELEM was formed. One was that there are still laws that police and criminalize sexuality in Lebanon, such as Article 534 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes homosexual acts or “sexual intercourse contrary to nature.” Aside from this obvious reason, there were several other factors that led to the development of HELEM. Among them was the Queen Boat affair in Egypt in 2001, in which dozens of gay men were arrested and tried in court after a raid on the gay-friendly disco boat, which really sent shock waves through much of the Lebanese gay community.
Another issue that was part of the forming of HELEM was the beginning of interference among European LGBT groups into the rights of LGBT Lebanese, attempting to speak for them. A lot of this interference was very politicized around U.S. and UN intervention – painting human rights, women’s rights and in this case gay rights in Lebanon and the Arab world as needing to be brought about by the UN and the US.
We feel that a lot of this interference had to do with what was going on in this region, that it was justification for US and UN intervention. A number of Westerners were using the issue of human rights in the Arab and Muslim world as a justification for intervention as they did in Afghanistan with women’s rights.
Alongside this, there was also a lot more visibility among the LGBT community and awareness of the violations of their rights. In 2001, there was an attempt to reform the Penal Code even more negatively, extending the scope of Article 534 to not only criminalize sexual intercourse but to include any form of sexual contact, not just intercourse – similar to what they had in Nazi Germany and other European countries in the past.
What is HELEM fighting for? What are the biggest issues you organize around?
The biggest issue we are fighting for is the end to discrimination and for basic rights. We stand against any laws that seek to control or criminalize sexuality or public morality. This also involves working toward access for LGBT people to health services, such as safe-sex education, HIV prevention and other forms of health and well-being.
How does HELEM organize to fight discrimination and homophobia? What are your strategies? How do you get people organized?
HELEM is a membership organization. Internally things are democratically done; members make the decisions. Within the organization, we have a number programs or focuses – a sexual health clinic, a community center, meetings around support groups about understanding sexuality, and activism.
We mobilize mostly around issues of discrimination. A lot of our work is through networks or coalitions. Even our health services are part of a national AIDS program. We are part of coalitions that are fighting for legal reform and social justice. This includes a youth advocacy network, in which we work with health care providers. We do not have much of a lobbying process here. We focus on community mobilization and building the grassroots. In the past two years, we’ve been able to hold rallies, become more public and been able to be part of broad-based campaigns for social justice.
In May 2010, we had a demonstration on the International Day Against Homophobia. We also try to provide as much information to the public as possible about discrimination. We research issues affecting the LGBT community and publicize them through pamphlets, public information and online. We also organize around other issues that we see as central to the fight for LGBT freedom. We were involved in the “No War. No Dictatorship” coalition against the war on Iraq. We have always been involved in campaigns against discrimination and social justice. In 2006, with others we initiated Samidoun, which was a grassroots campaign that provided aid for refugees from the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon. We aided the refugees and stood in solidarity with the resistance against Israel’s barbaric war on Lebanon.
Another issue we were involved in was a march for secularism in April 2010. The march brought out over 5,000 people and various independent political parties for secularism in Lebanese law and politics. The reason for this is that politics and government in Lebanon are based on confessionalism, in that there is a quota system based on religion.
Lebanon is a country with many different religious groups, which has been a source of conflict in the past, and the political system is based on allotting quotas to the different religious groups. Personal status law in Lebanon (marriage, divorce, etc.) is not done through secular law or the government but is administered by the religious authorities of each religious group.
For us, secularism is a central part of the struggle for social justice in Lebanon. By this, we mean many things. In particular, the march in April directly called for secularization of the personal status law. The Lebanese state does not allow intermarriage between faiths, so we were calling for civil marriage and secular marriage and personal laws.
The other issue is fighting to end confessionalism of the political system. Currently, seats in parliament are allocated based on religion, but it is not based on census. The system claims to create a balance between all the different religious groups (Muslim and Christian), but it doesn’t work that way.
Instead, it is incredibly undemocratic and creates a lot of obstacles for youth, women and other marginalized people. It only looks at religious diversity; everything else is subservient. Even though Lebanon is considered liberal by Middle East standards, the maximum number of women has always been three or four out of 128 in the parliament. We only recently started having women ministers. This is just one example of how it impacts minority and oppressed groups.
A lot of people are calling for a political system based on proportional representation and secularism because it ensures the participation of all minorities, not just religions. The most important is the secularization of the state. We want complete separation of state and religious institutions.
What is life like for LGBT people in Lebanon? How does it compare to the rest of the Middle East?
The anti-gay laws do not work in a vacuum; they impact not only legal rights in Lebanon but social as well. While these homophobic clauses exist, there has been a decline in interference from the state around LGBT social life but only in the central parts of Beirut.
In central Beirut, the government and police no longer raid or attack nightclubs. What we have found is that the law is often applied on a class basis for LGBT people. So there are those who can afford to pay for and enjoy these clubs and open space, and there are those who cannot afford to come to these places and have no space. These are often the people who are targeted, whether it be in cruising areas or other arenas.
For many LGBT Lebanese, the biggest challenge is in the family – as it is everywhere. So there is a lot of family-based violence due to non-conformity of people in their families. We see a lot of cases of young men who are victims of family violence because they do not conform sexually or by gender to their families. And of course living in a conservative society where family relations are very important has a big impact. So for a lot of people living with their families, or even if they can afford to live alone, it is very difficult. And here is where Osama bin Laden and the US Christian Right are in complete agreement.
Lebanon is quite liberal politically, relative to other countries in the Middle East. There is more freedom for political work than in other countries. So it makes it easier, but this is only the case in Beirut, not the rest of Lebanon. In the US, the Middle East is portrayed as a violently homophobic and anti-gay society in opposition to tolerant Western society. Some in the Western LGBT community also echo this idea and encourage U.S. intervention to save LGBT people as well as women in the Middle East. How does HELEM respond to these ideas?
One response I have is that Article 534, which criminalizes “sex against nature,” was written into law by France during its colonial control of Lebanon. A lot of laws put in place against homosexuality in Africa, Asia and the Middle East were put in place during European colonialist times by the colonial powers. You can even find magazines in the 1950s advertising Lebanon as more free. So the criminalization of homosexuality was a result of colonialism. Before that, you didn’t have laws against homosexuality. The French put this law into effect under the Nazi-occupied Vichy Republic, the same time the French started the whole morality crusade against brothels.
They closed male brothels and kept open women’s brothels in the 1930s. This was French law that was happening in Europe at the time. Article 534 was derived from French legislation during the so-called French “mandate” on Lebanon, which introduced the article into the Penal Code based on its consideration of conservative circles, and bias toward religious ideas and “family values” that rejected homosexuality.
In order to comply with the French law, homosexual acts were criminalized with imprisonment of up to one year only. On the other hand, we find that laws relating to homosexuality in countries that were colonized by Britain have a more severe punishment, where the penalty is capital punishment, in some cases. So it’s not that there was no homophobia before colonialism, but that colonial powers actually put laws into place in countries across the Middle East that criminalized homosexual acts.
Israel portrays itself as a liberal and gay-friendly society, in opposition to the homophobic Arab countries. Many have referred to this as Israel’s “pink-washing” or washing over its war crimes in Gaza by claiming to be liberal and gay friendly. What does HELEM have to say to this?
HELEM has always been speaking up against this. Because of Israel’s attempts to hide its crimes through a supposedly gay-friendly climate, there was a need for us who live in the Middle East to stand up to this propaganda. We have routinely spoken out against this, and I will quote directly from a statement entitled “Arab Queers Say NO to Pink washing at the USSF” published by HELEM and other Arab LGBT groups in regards to the attempt by the pro-Israel LGBT group Stand With Us to use LGBT oppression in the Arab World to justify Israel’s crimes:
Since Israel’s brutal wars on Gaza and Lebanon in 2006 and particularly after the recent unprovoked attack on the flotilla of activists going to Gaza, the Israeli government has found itself increasingly marginalized by international condemnations and weakened through the growing success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
To remedy this, it has launched a massive PR campaign using organizations such as Stand With Us to convince the world that Israel is not a brutal settler-colony state, but rather a free democracy where human rights in general, and LGBT rights in particular, are respected and upheld. Stand With Us deceptively uses the language of LGBT and women’s rights to obscure the fact that institutionalized discrimination is enshrined within the state of Israel.
Our struggle is deeply intertwined with the struggle of all oppressed people, and we cannot accept that we are being used as a tool to discredit the Palestinian cause. Stand With Us would have everyone believe that the Palestinian cause is an unworthy one because of the homophobia that exists within Palestinian society, as if homophobia does not exist elsewhere, and as if struggles for justice are predicated on some sort of inherent “goodness” of the oppressed, rather than on the principles of freedom, justice and equality for everyone, everywhere.
Stand With Us would have us all compartmentalize our beliefs, lives and identities so that solidarity with the queer struggle would preclude solidarity with others.
While Stand With Us is quick to point out the oppression of queer Palestinians under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, it conveniently forgets that those same queers are not immune to the bombs, blockades, apartheid and destruction wrought upon them daily by the Israeli government, and that Israel’s multi-tiered oppression hardly makes a distinction between straight and gay Palestinians.
We refuse to be instrumentalized by anyone, be it our own oppressive governments or the Zionist lobby hijacking our struggle to legitimize the state of Israel and its policies, thus providing even more fodder for our own governments to use against us. If you want to learn about our movements and struggles, engage with us, rather than with those who will use us as pawns in Israel’s campaign to pink wash its crimes.
How does helem relate to the International LGBT movement? How can activists in the US build solidarity with LGBT people in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East?
We relate very carefully to the international LGBT movement. We don’t think that the LGBT movement is international all the time. We believe each country has its specific circumstances. We think international organizations should encourage people to express their needs central to their own countries.
Since Western groups have access to the media, it appears as if their agenda is the same for all LGBT people throughout the world. We don’t feel that outside or international support works all the time because there is so much outside interference in the Middle East; and often Western groups end up speaking for LGBT people in the Middle East rather than listening to us or amplifying what we have to say.
Often Western voices claim to speak for LGBT people in Lebanon when in reality our oppression is used to justify Western intervention with little concern for our lives. In Lebanon, the movement is progressing and strong. There is not just HELEM but MEEM, a Lebanese lesbian support group, and other support groups as well.
There are several young feminist groups exploring issues of sexuality. HELEM has pressured health groups and other progressive groups to include LGBT issues in their discussions and become friendlier to the community.
One way people can show support is by publicizing information about the movement in Lebanon and allowing Lebanese LGBT people to speak for themselves rather than speaking on behalf of them. People can always donate money in support and of course stand up to the U.S. fundamentalist right when they are interfering and involved in supporting anti-gay propaganda, especially in places like Uganda or other parts of Africa.
Fighting against these groups and sharing ideas and experiences is a very important part of building solidarity throughout the world.
How does HELEM see the possibility of ending the legal underpinnings of homophobia in Lebanon?
There are a couple possibilities. Article 534 is written in a way that does not criminalize homosexuality or bisexuality but rather sex that contradicts nature. We are hoping that the judges will rule that this law does not apply to homosexuality. In a December 2009 case involving Article 534, a judge ruled that homosexual conduct is natural so therefore it cannot contradict nature. We are supporting several cases like this and hope we can get a good decision from the high court or a minister. We have been doing research and are preparing lawyers to argue in this way.
The other possibility is a process of legal reform. Reforming the Penal Code is being discussed in the parliament. There is discussion of removing laws around homosexuality or making them more lenient, and this is looking more positive. But our ultimate hope is that the law is removed all together.
What is the amount of participation in HELEM’s programs and political activities?
Here, there is a problem or difficulty of people not willing to become visible. There is still a lot of pressure to remain hidden, but there’s a lot of passive support from the LGBT community and others as well. We have organized workshops, political discussions and some public demonstrations.
On that day, we also protested and delivered a statement to the Ugandan embassy in relation to a proposed bill that would jail and possibly kill LGBT people.