TV & Radio
Lebanese group tackles biggest taboo
by Christian Henderson in Beirut
Thursday 05 January 2006 6:51 PM GMT
Cover of Lebanon's latest gay publication in Arabic
Being gay in the Arab world is not easy. Homosexual behaviour is criminalised in all Arab countries and arrests of people accused of being involved in purportedly unnatural acts are frequent.
In 2001, Egyptian police arrested and detained 52 gay men, including one minor, who the authorities said had engaged in lewdness at a party on a private boat along the Nile shoreline.
Twenty-three of the men received severe prison sentences for among other things, contempt of religion.
In Abu Dhabi in November police broke up a so-called gay wedding and arrested scores of men. UAE officials said they would inject suspects with hormones although they later denied the treatment took place.
The very few Arab gays who are bold enough to publicly identify themselves as homosexual often face alienation from their friends and family.
Some countries in the region have laws penalising homosexuals with the death sentence and death threats against homosexuals by angry relatives are not unheard of.
But amid regular reports of draconian measures, one group of gay activists in Lebanon is challenging what is one of the biggest taboos in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Helem, an acronym in Arabic for the "Lebanese protection of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community", is the first public gay-rights group in the Arab world.
Many states in the region have laws penalising homosexuals
A non-governmental, non-profit organisation registered in Quebec, Canada, it maintains support groups in Australia, France and the US as well.
Last summer, the group released a quarterly magazine for gays and lesbians - the first widely distributed gay publication in the Arabic language.
Entitled Barra (Arabic for "Out") the magazine has been accessed over the internet by readers across the Arab world and the website receives 60,000 hits a month.
Five per cent of the hits come from Lebanon, 6% from Saudi Arabia, and the remaining hits come from other Arab countries and unidentifiable sources.
"The target is lesbian gay, bisexual and trans-sexual people and to help Lebanese and Arab society understand more of this section of society that is completely alienated," says George Azzi, Helem's coordinator.
Intolerant status quo
"We are trying to fight this [intolerant status quo], this was the idea behind the magazine. To have a voice, a voice that was completely shut down," Azzi said while sitting in Helem's office in a Beirut villa.
He said Helem had to overcome resistance from many gays in Lebanon who were fearful of the consequences of appearing publicly.
"Helem was rejected by a big part of the community because they didn't want anything that visible"
"Helem was rejected by a big part of the community because they didn't want anything that visible. They wanted to stay invisible," he says.
Although homosexuality is still illegal in Lebanon, Helem is now able to work openly and there are bars and cafes where gays are able to openly congregate. The group has taken part in several public events including the Beirut marathon.
Helem has also registered itself with the Lebanese authorities suggesting that the government is at least willing to tolerate such an organisation.
Some activists say homosexuality is on the verge of being decriminalised and expect a change in the law within a year.
But while gays in Lebanon appear to be making strides, Helem acknowledge that the situation in other Arab countries is very different.
"In other countries it's either the lack of a strong civil society or a conservative society where there is no space to come out," Helem activist Ghassan Makarem says.
Often pressure from religious conservatives motivates governments to crack down on gays.
"The only solution is to persuade the religious leaders that they don't need to control everything," Azzi says.
"We are not in the business of outing people"
The gay movement in the Arab world also faces larger questions concerning the definition of sexuality in societies where sexual orientation has sometimes been harder to classify than in the West.
Helem say they recognise the risks of using definitions that may not be accurate for the Arab world.
"The way that Islamic societies look at sex in general is completely different from Europe," Makarem says.
Wary of West
The group is also wary about emulating Western gay rights groups who have often taken militant stances including the naming of homosexuals who had sought to keep their sexuality a secret.
International gay-rights groups have been accused of being "missionaries" who used terminology that could not be applied to sexual habits in Middle Eastern societies.
"I don't think they really understand the priorities here," says Makarem. "They might turn the issue into something that movement is not ready for."
"We know there are lots of (gay) people in the parliament, in the government, in the media and public personalities. But we are not in the business of outing people."
By Christian Henderson in Beirut
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