Acting Out In Beirut

LGBT Activism and Advocacy in the Heart of the Middle-East

The world has seen substantial success on poverty reduction. However, 1.2 billion people remain in extreme poverty. There is a growing recognition that the problems facing the poorest most excluded people and the global challenges underlying those problems, are complex and interconnected. No single development actor has all the answers. Coalitions and collaboration bring new and creative ideas, innovation, better results and opportunities through pooled ideas, skills and resources. We want to bring those qualities together in coalitions that address key development challenges. One of the thematic areas we are funding is addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion.

To meet these challenges our UK Aid Connect fund has been designed to bring together consortia to undertake action research, trialing new approaches and testing the viability of scaling up effective approaches to produce rigorous and influential evidence and learning. The rigorous evidence and learning produced by the consortia will be used to implement and scale up these innovative solutions to deliver real change to poor people’s lives in low and middle income countries. While researching for the UK Aid Connect application process I came across Helem.

Helem (حلم‎) is a Lebanese non-profit organisation working on improving the legal and social status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people (LGBT). Helem (حماية لبنانية للمثليين‎) literally “Lebanese Protection for Homosexuals”) was the first LGBT advocacy group in the Arab World. I was inspired by their work and by the interesting approach to activism being taken by Joseph Aoun, the center’s Coordinator. Joseph grew up in Lebanon where he also completed his Masters in Diplomacy and Strategic Negotiations. He has lived in Beirut most of his life. We caught up to talk more about LGBT rights and inclusion in Lebanon.

Interview between Joseph Aoun, Coordinator of the Helem LGBT Community Centre in Lebanon and Fiach O’Broin-Molloy, Social Development Adviser in DFID’s Inclusive Societies Department.

How did you come to work with Helem?

I used to manage a safe space for LGBT people in Beirut. It’s a restaurant and a bar. I started my activism there. You know, managing a safe space is a sort of activism for the LGBT community by providing a decent space and social platform.

At the same time, I was helping the NGOs on fundraisers, on awareness campaigns, campaigns of raids and all of that, and so I started activism independently. I then created my blog, its LGBT blog. In 2016 I joined the community center of Helem that was set to reopen. There was an opening for manager. I applied and was successful. It’s a really challenging role.

Tell a little about Helem. What size is it? How do you decide what issues to work on? How do you make decisions?

Well, Helem cannot be defined by size. We are just three employees, but we have a volunteering system that does a lot of work. That’s how the impact of our work goes beyond the capacity of three. Helem is the first establish LGBT organisation in Lebanon, but also in the Arab world, so the impact goes beyond Lebanon although our work is in Lebanon.

Can you tell me about how successful you have been in building relationships with organisations working on other areas of civil rights? What are the things that bring you together and have you taken on any challenges together?

Practically we believe that LGBT rights are not separate from Human Rights in general. We believe in the intersectional struggle between different communities, minorities and marginalised groups. We believe that our struggle is not separate from the women’s rights struggle. We have a lot of collaborations together with the women’s rights struggle. We protest together the patriarchy in society. We have worked on campaigns, directly or indirectly, through cases, online or through protest to abolish certain laws in Lebanon that don’t give gender equality, sexual rights, freedoms and bodily rights to people.

What would you say is the main difference between your activism and LGBT activism elsewhere?

The reason for LGBT activism is to reach the point where you have equality between all people. The same political systems have been persecuting LGBT people all around the world, but we feel our activism is different because the society, structure, religion and governance are different. Because everything is different we cannot take the same approach to activism as in the West. However, what the West has reached in terms of rights, we do aspire to. But it is about how you prioritise. In our region, you cannot talk about gay marriage when we don’t even have civil marriage here in Lebanon. So how can I demand the same as in the west? The goals maybe are similar but the ways to reach the goals differ.

You have said before that things have moved fast on inclusion but there has been backlash. Tell me more.

Well, the more you succeed in securing rights and space for the LGBT community, the more visibility you have, the more likely you are to attract the attention of the people who do not want you to reach your goals and secure your rights. So, for example, last year where we were celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia we got threatened by religious clerics. We are used to this nowadays. Whenever you do a successful step forward, we always have people who want us to take steps back.

Can you tell me a little more about the community of activist you engage with?

We engage with a lot of activists in Lebanon and outside Lebanon. We have other organisations working on a lot of other rights issues. Helem was the first organisation working on LGBT issues, but you also have other organisations working to support LGBT people. We focus on legal and advocacy issues, but you have organisations working on health rights and access and so on. We have been working with them and we have been leading on various aspects of LGBT life. I am very proud of all of them. We also work with activists from across the Middle-East and North Africa region and there are a lot of inspiring activists that are doing change every day. Even in Beirut, there are a lot of people who are not activists, but they are artists who are doing activism in their own way, on that level, challenging perceptions. I am proud of them, how courageous they are, the initiative they are taking and the way they are challenging the status quo.

Do you consider yourself as a pragmatist or an idealist?

I think I am an idealist in the ideals I have but a pragmatist in the way I practice these ideas. I look forward to preaching an ideal point, but I realise in a society that is not that ideal, you need to find realistic ways to achieve something. So, I think I am somewhere in the middle. I try to interpret and apply my ideals in practical ways that help people.

I’ve heard you talk about privilege before. Why is that an important concept for you?

Social classes are everywhere. They play the role of giving you the privilege of enjoying your rights and freedoms. Especially in a country where your rights are not guaranteed by the state or enjoyed by everyone. Even if we look at the USA for example we have minorities that are LGBT who are less likely to have their rights as completely as a white gay men. Lesbians experience double discrimination. I am privileged. I managed to finish my studies. My parents know that I am gay. This gives me some more power to exist freely and fight for my rights.

Skip ahead 5 years. What does your activism look like then?

In 5 years, I see my activism becoming more academic and more thoughtful. I am interested in intersectionality, poverty and gender. I want to know more about the experiences of people less privileged than I am and to find solutions for people who experience greater barriers that me.

Social attitudes

In many countries, social attitudes toward homosexuality vary significantly based on age groups. Younger survey respondents are consistently more likely than older ones to say homosexuality should be accepted by society (Pew 2013). This is the case in Lebanon. The graph below shows the percentage of people who think that homosexuality should be accepted by society in Lebanon by age group and is based on Pew research.

More about Helem

Helem’s primary goal is the annulment of article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code which punishes “unnatural sexual intercourse”. This law is primarily used to target the LGBT community by violating the privacy of its members and by denying them basic human rights. The abolition of this law will help reduce state and societal persecution and pave the way to achieving equality for the LGBT community in Lebanon. Helem’s other main objective is to counter HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases while advocating for the rights of patients.

Graffiti I. Beirut, Lebanon. — CC — Allan LEONARD

What DFID is going on LGBT inclusion

DFID works in partnership with partners across government on LGBT rights and inclusion. We use the tools that we have to promote positive change from partner governments and to support LGBT groups in leading their own as they mobilise for change.

  1. We regularly assess partner governments’ commitment to human rights through the Partnership Principles — agreed principles for providing financial aid to countries.
  2. We work with the FCO to build support for LGBT rights internationally, working through institutions such as the UN, EU, Council of Europe and the Commonwealth.
  3. We raise concerns about LGBT rights at the highest levels. Whether this is done in public or in private is guided by the context.
  4. We fund specific programmes that support LGBT people, often using health as an entry point for raising awareness, tackling violence, harassment and exclusion, and challenging discriminatory laws.
  5. We fund work that can indirectly support LGBT rights, through strengthening the rule of law, improving access to justice, building capacity on human rights and supporting an enabling environment for civil society groups.

Find out more on the web