Translation of the article published in the Frankfurter Rundschau on July 11, 2022, with original photographs.
In Lebanon, queer groups face repression from government and religious authorities. It is part of a long history.
Tripoli – “We are afraid. We tore off our rainbow stickers, we changed our voices, we even walk differently – anything to keep people from attacking us,” says Hamad (25), a non-binary person. Together with Kamal (23), an a-gender person (does not feel he belongs to any gender, ed.), we are sitting in a popular café in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city.
Just a few days before, 200 people demonstrated against homosexuality there. In addition, many places where queer people meet in Tripoli were published on Facebook in connection with threats of violence. “We immediately started sending asylum applications abroad because it could get serious,” Kamal fears.
Lebanon – Repression of queer people
Queer people have been experiencing a smear campaign for several weeks, the likes of which have never been seen before in the small Mediterranean country. It all started on June 25, as Pride month came to an end. Interior Minister Bassem Mawlawi instructed his security forces “at the request of religious authorities” to disperse all events that promote “unnatural perversions.”
At the same time, the Christian conservative group “Soldiers of God” destroyed a rainbow poster of the LGBTQ initiative “Beirut Pride” in the Achrafieh neighborhood, which is actually considered tolerant. Because of the numerous threats of violence, LGBTQ organizations canceled a spontaneous demonstration two days later, as well as a whole series of events. “We are used to being targeted by the state and religious authorities every year during Pride month, but this time it’s much worse,” said Colette Maalouf, advocacy officer at LGBTQ humanitarian non-governmental organization (NGO) Proud Lebanon.
In 2018, a Pride parade was held in Beirut for the first time in an Arab Muslim country – the state reacted immediately and arrested the organizer. The repressive measures are based on a law passed during the French Mandate (1916-1946). The infamous Article 534 prohibits “unnatural sexual intercourse” and was often applied by the police and judiciary. Ultimately, however, religious authorities triggered the wave of repression. “Above all, gay men and transgender women are targeted because they disrupt notions of toxic masculinity,” Maalouf explains.
But homophobia has so far remained within bounds – even in Tripoli, Lebanon’s most conservative and dangerous city. “People are actually tolerant as long as we don’t stand out. Like all other religious or ethnic communities, we coexist relatively peacefully,” Ali (22) tells us in Tripoli. This is also confirmed by Sarah Minkara, owner of the hip Ahwak café, who received death threats for hosting “atheists and gays.” “Tripoli has always been an open place: In the ’90s, a famous transgender woman walked the streets in costume and was even escorted by macho guys,” she recalls.
Now the small country of just under 6 million people:inside is going through a series of crises with dramatic effects: the war in neighboring Syria and the “refugee crisis,” the revolution in October 2019, the economic crisis that followed, and the explosion in Beirut’s port in August 2020. Social conservatism feeds off these events, Minkara says.
80 percent of Lebanon’s inhabitants live below the poverty line and suffer from the massive devaluation of the lira, galloping inflation, and the lack of electricity. “The government uses us as a scapegoat to distract people from what they are doing,” says Rasha (25), co-founder of an anarchist collective.
In Lebanon, activists fight for the queer community
In May 2022, several civil society activists were elected to parliament. They are now trying to push for a civil marriage law – as well as the abolition of Article 534. “This would only decriminalize homosexuality. But our opponents fear it will lead to gay marriage,” explains Colette Maalouf. “That’s why they are fighting back so bitterly.”
For Tarek Zeidan, founder of the LGBTQ association Helem, it is “a global offensive against bodily self-determination and our freedoms.” “And we are always in the first line,” he says. By that, he means not only restrictions on abortion and anti-transgender laws in the United States, but also a bill against homosexuality in Iraq.
“People think we are importing homosexuality and atheism from the West,” Ali says in Tripoli. Yet queer identities are rooted in Lebanese, Arab and Muslim culture and history, he says. For him, Pride months, flags and clubs are important, but “we now have to really fight for our rights and find our own way.” (Philippe Pernot)