Tales from an LGBT+ Safe Haven in Beirut, Lebanon

Despite discriminatory laws that have criminalised ‘sexual acts contradicting the laws of nature’ (Article 534), there is a relatively thriving LGBT+ community in Lebanon. Among them, you will meet brave people of all ages who are committed to promoting LGBT+ rights and who dedicate much of their time explaining those rights to others within the community itself.

A map of Lebanon with the colours of the LGBT flag

LGBT flag of Lebanon. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

In Arabic, Helem means ‘dream’. Helem is also the name of the primary association fighting for LGBT+ rights in Lebanon. In Beirut, at Helem’s community centre, which is an apartment serving as a refuge for many marginalised people and is also the first of its kind in the Arab World, three women share their thoughts. For the purposes of this article, they will be referred to as Wolf, Eagle and Shark.

The word "helem", written in both Arabic and English, in white letters on a red background.

Helem logo. Source: Official Page for Helem Lebanon, via Facebook.

Wolf is a twenty-one-year-old transgender woman. She has already been stopped on the streets of Beirut and arrested by local police for, as she puts it, wearing earrings. Intending on charging her with prostitution, they dragged her to the police station. This is common for trans women, who are often associated with illegal sex work.

At the station, the policemen slapped Wolf before throwing her in jail. They demanded she hand over her phone and were surprised when she refused, knowing full that well they needed a warrant. The policemen then began to write a false statement maintaining, for instance, that she had told them she was gay. She insisted that they erased the statement and requested a lawyer who never came. She also asked if they had called a judge. They had not.

Ultimately, due to Wolf’s understanding of the legal system and of her own rights, thanks to Helem, the policemen were forced to release her. A woman without Helem’s support and Wolf’s emotional resilience might not have been so lucky.

Initially, Wolf sought Helem for a safe space and was terrified of the police finding her. Today, Wolf is the head of their Transgender Committee. She is currently working on an international trans week campaign entitled ‘It’s Your Time To Hear Us’. Aside from her activism, Wolf enjoys the Beirut nightlife and, more specifically, its queer side. As does Eagle, who is seventeen.

Eagle is a pupil at International College, one of the most prestigious schools in the country. Much like Wolf, Eagle originally thought she was a feminine gay boy. Due to a tense relationship with her parents (her mother is Shia, her father Sunni) and despite their relative open-mindedness, she remained closeted towards them until after she turned fifteen. By that time, she had already joined Grindr and had already been in a relationship. When she did come out, as a gay boy originally, she describes it as though her future fell apart in her parent’s eyes. ‘Go to hell if you want,’ her parents said. ‘But keep it a secret.’

With no intention of doing so, Eagle managed to find a close circle of gay friends who were all engaging with LGBT+ issues through the internet. Now, Eagle identifies as trans and is unapologetic about her side-cut, long hair and femininity (unlike Wolf, who has short hair and wears more neutral clothing), despite the risks.

Her only issue is the idea of sex reassignment surgery (SRS), which is expensive and does not always end well. Eagle is firmly of the belief that gender is a social construct and poses a question that is very much prevalent in current gender debates, most notably in relation to identity politics: ‘Why can’t I be a woman and have a penis?’

For Eagle, the internal pain is worth choosing over any external pain. Her biggest fear is to lose her family. If she transitions, she feels that she most definitely will.

Two years ago, a Lebanese court ruling – the first of its kind – allowed a transgender man to change his official documents and receive the medical treatment he desired. This was considered a giant leap forward for trans rights in the country. Recently, there have also been cases of supreme court rulings acting in favour of people persecuted for being gay, arguing that homosexual relations should not be criminalised, as long as these are acted out behind closed doors and not flaunted in public.

Since then, however, there has been little improvement. 80% of Lebanese people do not believe that homosexuality should be socially accepted, and as stated in Helem’s April 2017 report on human rights violations against LGBT+ people, there has been a rise in arrests under Article 534 since 2012. However, Eagle stresses that in relation to the rights of trans people in other countries of the Arab world, Lebanon is not the worst.

Ultimately, Eagle feels sorry for those with homophobic and transphobic attitudes, simply saying: ‘they are wired like that’. This ambivalence is shared by Shark, who is also twenty-one.

Shark is a lesbian cisgender woman from a village near Byblos in the north with a bold buzzcut and multiple piercings, firmly rejecting any notion of ever wearing a dress. She highlights that ten years ago, teachers were not even allowed to utter the word ‘homosexual’. The situation has slightly improved since that time, she says, mostly on a social and individual level.

Shark’s Maronite father is very religious. Luckily, her stepmother is a feminist woman and an LGBT+ ally. Despite their father’s attitudes, Shark’s little brother, partially thanks to their stepmother’s influence, was already defending gay rights to his hypocritical father at age thirteen. Like him, Shark is assertive and articulate. She laughs as she explains how she used to visit priests to seek advice about being gay. Some were accepting, others were not. She eventually found an online LGBT+ community, which boosted her confidence.

Growing up, the most important thing for Shark turned out to be LGBT+ visibility on TV. A moment of sexual awakening for her was Britney Spears and Madonna kissing on MTV in 2003. Shark was aware of her sexuality at a young age, although she also fully believed that she was the only lesbian in the world. This was until a lesbian couple moved in next door. They were the first people she would come out to. In grade ten, Shark was already preaching about equal rights for everyone regardless of gender, colour, disability and, eventually, sexual identity. It was in her senior year of high school that she finally came out to her peers – ‘Khallas!’ (‘finished’ in colloquial Lebanese Arabic).

Although the experiences of these three women are widely different, they all thrived due to their connections with other people and the knowledge as well as confidence that these connections produced. Their networks were created online and in person, through organisations such as Helem and encountering kindred spirits within local communities despite all odds. Visibility and access to information prove to be vital components to not only help overcome violent homophobia from the outside, but internalised homophobia as well.

I will end this article by greatly encouraging further research about the efforts made by Helem and other Lebanese activists to make Lebanon a more tolerant place.

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