Lebanese Gays Come Out to Demand Equality

A new public campaign in Lebanon is aimed at fighting homophobia and the gay community hopes to build on recent successes in its battle for equality. But such a bold move in the Arab world entails risks.

Weedah Hamzah
Weedah Hamzah

DPA - As Lebanon's gay community kicks off a new public campaign to counter discrimination and the social taboos against homosexuality, its message is simple: "Being different isn't shameful. What's shameful is fighting diversity."

The group, Proud Lebanon, has roped in celebrities such as actors Christian Chueiri, Zeina Dakash and Fouad Yameen for its video, ahead of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHO) that is being marked on Sunday.

"Many in the Middle East region, and not just Lebanon, they look at gay people, whether they are a male or female, like they are sinners and shameful people," says Toufic, a 34-year-old bartender, who prefers to keep his last name anonymous.

"With this video, featuring Lebanese celebrities, people might take a minute and think: My brother or my sister might be one. And then think twice (about) how do they judge us."

While Lebanon is sometimes dubbed the "gay paradise" of the Arab world, the community still remains vulnerable to exploitation, including by state institutions such as the security services and judiciary.

Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code says sex "contrary to nature" is a criminal offence that can lead to jail time.

"Protesting this injustice isn't enough. We should all work together to change these unjust laws and replace them with laws that protect all citizens," says the video.

The campaign is trying to build on a 2013 decision by the country's psychiatric board to remove homosexuality from a list of mental illnesses. The board added that homosexuality did not need to be treated.

Last year, a court ruled that same-sex relations were not a violation of the penal code. But the decision does not serve as a precedent, though activists hailed it at the time as a step in the right direction.

Marwan Shabaan is a 30-year-old artist who is openly gay, a bold choice in the Arab world where many countries mete out harsh punishments, including death, to homosexuals.

He says that all Lebanese stand to benefit if there is greater tolerance towards gays.
"By doing so we will have a better, healthier society which respects freedom and people's choices," says Shabaan.

Berto Makso, one of the founders of Proud Lebanon, which is holding a public event on Sunday in Beirut, says they aim to educate society while also empowering gays and lesbians.

"We also want to teach gay guys who come from places like ... Iraq, Syria, as well as Lebanon, that they should not be weak and that they should stand up for their rights and freedom," Makso tells dpa.

"We still need to do a lot to change the minds of the people in the Middle East," Makso says.

The video stresses that all people should enjoy equal rights, despite their differences and that a friend or relative may be gay.

"If you don't recognize their existence, it doesn't mean that they don't exist," it says.
While the situation for homosexuals in Lebanon can be harrowing, elsewhere in the region things are far worse.

Recent police raids and public shamings in Egypt have targeted gay men, while in Iran and Saudi Arabia they can be sentenced to death. Other states have laws that stipulate punishments ranging from lashings to lengthy prison terms.

In Syrian areas under the control of extremist groups such as the Islamic State, homosexuals can be beheaded or flung off rooftops to their deaths.

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