Outlet: them.us / Editor: Bo Hanna / Language: English / Date of publication: 30 May 2018 / Estimated reading time: 9 minutes 10 seconds.
Queer Lebanese people explain the importance of Pride, and how they're working toward LGBTQ+ equality in Lebanon.
While queer people have always faced oppression and social stigma throughout the Arab world, the past few years have marked a string of particularly frightening instances of persecution. Last year, at least 76 LGBTQ+ people were arrested after Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band with an openly gay lead singer, played a concert in Cairo where some attendees waved rainbow flags. In 2016, two lesbian teenagers were arrested in Morocco after they were photographed by a passerby while kissing on a rooftop. The past couple years have seen ISIS throw dozens of gay men from buildings in areas of Syria and Iraq that are under their control. 10 countries around the world still punish homosexuality by death, and many members of the Arab League are among them.
Nevertheless, with the help of activists and artists, people in the Arab world are finding creative ways to speak out against homo- and transphobia, offering an Arab narrative that encourages people to love whomever they want.
One of the biggest creative movements fighting for LGBTQ+ rights in the region is based in Beirut. Last year, Lebanon became the first Arab country to organize a LGBTQ+ Pride week, even though the opening event of Beirut Pride was canceled after threats made by an Islamist group. This year’s edition of the event launched on May 12 — but after Beirut Pride’s organizer, Hadi Damien, was detained by Lebanese officials at a play reading on May 14 for lacking permits, he was made to sign a promise that he would cancel the remainder of the pride celebrations or be arrested and face criminal charges. He eventually signed the promise to avoid the possibility that other pride participants might face arrest.
Despite this setback, Lebanon remains an exception in the Arab world when it comes to LGBTQ+ tolerance, and the activists and queer people whose visibility and efforts made it that way won’t let down just yet. We asked queer people in Lebanon why Pride is important to them, what’s next after Beirut Pride’s cancellation and how they’re working to make Lebanon and the broader Arab world a brighter place for queer people.
Mohamed Sabbah (27)
Growing up queer in Lebanon was a journey through different phases of acceptance, both of myself and others. In a place where sexuality is already taboo, being gay was not easy for everyone to understand and accept. But these days I find myself among an open-minded network of artists who understand who I truly am and who I want to be.
Having a pride celebration is very important to me and other queer Lebanese people, because it’s a way to spread knowledge, fight ignorance about the LGBTQ+ community, create awareness and fight oppression. Pride is a good way for the queer community to show that we’re united and determined to fight our battles and spread our message of love.
It’s crucial that we stay visible, and I think big steps have been made in the recent years. That’s why I aim as a filmmaker to make queer Arab stories, even though it might put me in danger. I believe that the power of self-love is the key to change. With art, we can normalize queer culture in the region, and show that queer people’s lives are normal. I hope we can break the clichés and stereotypes around the Arab queer community, and I’m optimistic about how my generation will make things better for queer people in the Arab world.
When I was younger, I never knew what it meant to be a lesbian, simply because I didn’t know that homosexuality existed. I thought there was something wrong with me, because I wouldn’t have crushes on boys in my class like other girls would. In my first year at university, I began to understand myself a bit more. In the beginning, I was very afraid to tell my close friends and family about my desires, but my best friend and girlfriend have supported me a lot. A few months ago I came out to my family, and today I’m very proud to be part of the LGBTQ+ community.
I was very angry when I heard that Beirut Pride was being cancelled, because I felt like this was my week to celebrate love and life. It felt like my freedom was being taken away. We need pride because it’s a way to educate people — because we’re raised in a society that marginalizes our queer identities. I know a lot of people who don’t dare to come out of the closet because they are ashamed. With pride, we can show them that they can love themselves, and that we’re there as a community to support them.
*Last name withheld to protect privacy
Sasha Elijah (21)
I started on hormone replacement therapy when I was 13, behind my parents’ backs; not long after, I came out as transgender to my Christian family. My parents didn’t fully grasp how to deal with a transgender child, but with time they became more understanding, and they now help protect me from the intolerance and threats I face in society. I don’t want to hide and I’m outspoken about my identity; I do fashion shows, drag performances, and have talked on television shows in Lebanon about being transgender. I hope it will empower transgender people in the Middle East to be who they truly are. I don’t get the whole controversy around Pride — it’s just a group of people getting together and celebrating life. How could that be so wrong? Queer people have always been here, we’re nothing new in Lebanon! Sadly, I think the LGBTQ+ community is being used as a propaganda tool by conservative forces to distract the nation from bigger issues like pollution, electricity problems and poverty.
I’m not afraid of conservatives — I mean, what can happen? I’ve already been arrested twice; the police find loopholes to arrest queer people, even if we aren’t doing anything that’s against the law. Should I be afraid of people who don’t accept me for being who I am and celebrating life? I can only pity those who don’t embrace diversity and leave people be. After everything I have been through, nothing can stand in my way anymore.
Narcissa Garçon (25)
Growing up in Lebanon as a queer person was a challenge. Social media wasn’t really a thing back then, and LGBTQ+ culture was only a myth for a young gay boy living in a country where homosexuality is technically illegal.
It felt like I was the only queer person out there, and that’s why I doubted myself a lot. But I eventually came to find queer communities online, and see and read about queer history and identity, and found myself.
I honestly wish that we lived in world where we didn’t need a pride celebration to begin with — but it’s sadly necessary; we have to march for our rights and show society that we exist, because our existence seems to threaten people and their beliefs.
Four years ago, the drag scene came to life in Beirut, and a fire was lit inside me. It’s hard to do drag in a society like Lebanon, but I’m a rebel. I’ve always been fascinated by women and female aesthetics; that’s why I used to dabble with my mother’s closet and paint my sister’s face as a child. I would wear my sister’s heels and skirts and would be amazed looking at myself in the mirror.
Drag, for me, is defiance in the face of everything society says we can’t be. It’s empowering and it helps me overcome my fears, while spreading love and joy. Same thing for pride — it gives me hope for a better tomorrow. And even if we face challenges, we need to keep on loving and living.
Bo Hanna is an Amsterdam-based freelance journalist.
BEIRUT PRIDE REMARKS:
1. Beirut Pride was not canceled. The suspended activities are being retrieved, and its projects and initiatives continue as planned.
2. Beirut Prides did not lack permits, and all necessary authorisations were secured.
3. The events were suspended on the decision of the General Prosecutor of Beirut, without asking the agreement, consent or refusal of Hadi Damien. The events were suspended whether Hadi Damien was detained or release. The pledge he was asked to sign was for him to acknowledge the decision of the General Prosecutor, and not to "cancel cancel the remainder of the pride celebrations". For a full account of the detention, refer to the Statement about the Suspension of Beirut Pride Events – 14 May 2018.