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One could call it a founding event: About two weeks ago the gay and lesbian community held a convention in Beirut, under the protection of the Lebanese security forces. Before that, no such convention had been held in an Arab country, and it is hard to imagine that any will be held in the near future. In fact, Lebanon should also have forbidden the holding of the convention and even put its organizers and local participants on trial, as Paragraph 534 of the Lebanese law states that anyone who has sexual relations "in an unnatural manner" is subject to imprisonment for one year.

Still Lebanon, as usual, is an indication of what may become a new trend of permissiveness in the Middle East. The three days of the gay and lesbian convention passed without incident. Members of the community told anyone who wanted to hear about a shared life with members of their own sex and about how they plan to campaign for the cancellation of Paragraph 534. Lebanon is also the only Arab country in which members of the gay community have their own organization, which has more than 120 registered members and is called Helem - the Arabic acronym for Association for the Protection of the Rights of Homosexuals and Lesbians (and the classical Arabic term for tolerance).

Ambiguous status

Helem may not have gained official recognition yet, but it has also not been totally rejected by the authorities. According to the law, the authorities have three months to object to the registration of any association; since they have not objected, the association can view itself as legal.

Under this ambiguous status, Helem publishes a magazine called Barra (Arabic for "Out," referring to "out of the closet," but which can also be interpreted as ostracization from the community). The first issue of Barra was published a year ago and the second this month. Between these two issues there were several attempts to reorganize the ranks of the association, and to figure out how to present it to the public so that it would be accepted as part of the Lebanese cultural fabric.

It is still too soon to talk of Helem's acceptance by society. One of the contributors to the first issue of Barra, a physician, told of how he walked down the street carrying several copies of the magazine, in the hope of selling them to passers by. Suddenly one of his patients saw him and hastened to shake his hand. With the intention of making small talk, the patient asked to see the magazine, and when she saw it, she was taken aback.

"What? How is this possible? Isn't it against the law?" she exclaimed.

"Dear lady," wrote the doctor, recalling the incident, "Just as you trusted me to heal your knee, you can trust me that this literature is okay too."

"What should homosexuals do to be accepted by Lebanese society?" an interviewer asked esteemed Lebanese author Hoda Barakat (whose book "The Stone of Laughter" was recently published in Hebrew by Andalus Publishing).

"The fear of homosexuals is an indication of the deep misconceptions in a society that fears them," replied Barakat in the interview in Barra.

Barakat said she has two homosexual and one lesbian friend, and that she feels that if the community demands its rights too vociferously, it will arouse opposition. Homosexuals and lesbians in Egypt and Saudi Arabia can only dream about such freedom of publication. Even though Web sites associated with gay and lesbian communities in Arab countries are common, the Internet is their only forum there.

Cairo still has strong memories of the police raid on the cruise ship that was always anchored in the Nile, near the big hotels. The ship was know as a meeting place for homosexuals and was hardly bothered for years, until the rise of a new wave of radical Islam and the government was called on to do something. At the 2001 trial of those arrested, the prosecutor declared, "Egypt was not and never will be a refuge for the corruption of masculinity" - and this in a country that does not even have a law against homosexuality like Lebanon does.

The relevant section of Egyptian law mentions "immoral behavior." In Egypt homosexuality is considered a negative influence of Western culture, and as such is naturally a political and cultural sin.

Linguistic battle

The struggle for the rights of homosexuals in Arab states includes a linguistic battle. At best, the Arabic expression is "aberration." In some of the Western television programs that are translated into Arabic the expression for lesbian is "crazy" or "deviant." The Lebanese community uses and is trying to implant the phrase "sexually alike." Barra has articles on more than just the difficult linguistic expressions with which homosexuals have to contend. The lesbian community has it even worse.

"To be a woman in Arab society and to announce that one engages in sex and also to mention that your sexual involvement is with your own kind - this is something that society simply cannot bear," says one of the women interviewed in an article on Lebanese lesbians. Still, the interviewee understands the difficulties of the homosexuals. "It is natural here for a woman to wear pants, but not for a man to wear a dress."

Even so, the public and particularly the literary attitude toward the gay and lesbian community have already begun to show signs of change. In her book "Riyadh Girls," which has stirred up a real storm in Arab countries, the young Saudi author Rajaa as-Sanaa writes about a woman whose son Nuri is homosexual. His father beats him brutally, in the hope of changing his sexual behavior, and leaves the house. Nuri's mother stays with him at home and decides to continue protecting him and his sexual mannerisms. As-Sanaa depicts the mother as a positive figure who becomes a confidante and adviser for the four young women who are the book's heroines. As-Sanaa even determines that Saudi society, and not Nuri, is the real deviant in the story. But this is just one story, written by one author. Saudi Arabia is still light years away from the Lebanese tolerance.