Lebanon’s 2017 Pride Week:
The LGBT Community persists and prevails,
Despite threats and conspiracy between extremist groups and government officials
Lebanon’s Pride Week commemorating IDAHOT 2017 marks 13 years of LGBT activism in Lebanon with a clash between the extremist conservative religious establishment and the LGBT movement, its allies among civil rights organizations and the media; the last bastion of free speech and government oversight in Lebanon.
While some of the planned pride events were disturbed or cancelled, the LGBT movement in Lebanon emerged stronger and wiser, armed with more allies and supporters that the community did not know existed. Beyond LGBT rights, this week of activism put the light on civil rights issues that affect all members of society and uncovered the authorities new methods of coercion with the religious establishment.
Lebanon’s 1st Pride happened in 2005, activists organized the first gay group to participate in a Marathon, insisting on raising the rainbow flag as a symbol to take down the sectarian system in Lebanon and sensitize people on queer rights.
In the past, NGOs staged sit-in and demonstrations on IDAHOT for many of the activists felt it is more important to protest discrimination rather than celebrating difference. The LGBT community raised the rainbow flag in civil rights marches and demonstrations against the Iraq war and the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
This IDAHOT is the first in 13 years to have such massive coverage in the mainstream media, and receive support by businesses and ally platforms and organizations. However, receiving international and local media support does not make this pride the first. Its success should not take away the credit of the 13 years of activism that paved the way for last week to happen. The NGO community has documented an increase in the media coverage of our prides every year leading up to 2017. Of course, the shift in public opinion in Lebanon is a result of years of awareness raising, coalition building with the media and discussions of LGBT rights in world arena and access to the internet which facilitated access to information, ability to assemble and meet other LGBT persons outside of Beirut. The Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) conducted a nationwide study exploring Lebanese attitudes towards sexualities and gender identities in 2015 which showed increasing support for the LGBT community and sympathy toward their right to live in dignity, free from torture.
IDAHOT 2017 – Lebanon
The Muslim Olama Organization (هيئة علماء المسلمين), a Sunni extremist group of religious scholars with ties to Al-Nusra and DAESH, took on the LGBTQ community in Lebanon, after the Beirut Pride events advertised a week long of activities and campaigns. While the LGBTQ organizations in Lebanon have celebrated the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) since 2004, this year’s Pride Week was organized on a joint platform which brought together Lebanon’s LGBTQ organizations’ activities and plans, underlining a show of force and a larger presence in the public sphere.
The extremist organization issued back to back warnings on its Facebook page as of May 13, calling upon the minister of interior, and the director general of the General Security Forces (the officials who have been coordinating with the group on releasing police and army officers captured by Al-Nusra and DAESH) to interfere, then sending a final ultimatum at 19:40 to cancel the event planned at the Monroe in Beirut.
According to their Facebook statement, the extremist group called again upon the minister of interior to respond favorably to the request of the Mufti and other religious authorities to shut down the event, holding the minister responsible for the fallout of his inaction: “custodians of chastity and honor will flock from across Lebanon to prevent this conspiracy conference from taking place”.
The event was canceled after threats were made to the hotel, but the rest of the full-week program continued, including the release of Helem’s (the Middle East’s first LGBT organization) campaign video ad calling for acceptance and non-discrimination of LGBT persons on May 15. The video’s tagline “Homophobia is Terrorism: be special, do not discriminate” (الرهاب إرهاب: تميًز ما تميٍز) released on social media received wide praise with over 126,000 views, and was highlighted in the evening news on LBCI, Lebanon’s most viewed TV station.
Helem’s ad was not the only audiovisual material featuring LGBTs: on May 10, one of Lebanon’s oldest and largest restaurant chains “Crepaway” featured a lesbian couple in its 30th anniversary ad and was acclaimed by bloggers, activists and the international media. The ad registered over 763,000 views online; Crepaway’s Head of Communication Mario Thoumy told CNN they wanted “to include people we see everywhere around us”. CNN highlighted that “Crepaway received an outpouring of support after the ad ran. “Now we realize more and more how much this has affected people who needed someone to give them attention or respect,” Thoumy said. “We really didn’t want to exclude anyone”.
Helem, the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE), the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health (LebMASH), MOSAIC and MARSA Sexual Health Center organized a series of events including safety trainings, open houses, university awareness days, and online awareness campaigns of photos and videos.
AFE released a short educational video in Arabic featuring a TV anchor targeting journalists and media professionals, in which he explains the concepts of gender and sexuality and the proper terminology in Arabic to speak about each of the LGBT components of the community.
MOSAIC featured a true story of a Trans-woman who was harassed and beaten in the streets, highlighting the alarming increasing Trans-phobia and violence against the Trans-community in Lebanon.
Helem released a twenty two-minute documentary on the LGBT rights history in Lebanon, tracing the activism from underground work to a network of five NGOs strong covering LGBT issues from the civil rights, academic and health perspectives.
Allies of the LGBT community such as the Beirut Design Week, the Cliffhangers and Radio Beirut organized other activities such as movie screenings, exhibitions, readings, and storytelling.
At 22:28 on May 13, the Muslim Olama Organization issued a public acknowledgment of the collaboration they received from the minister of interior and the director general of the general security and thanked them for acting quickly to put an end to the event.
The next day, they issued another statement laying out an action plan to combat “deviancy” (deviants is the term they use to describe LGBTs) in Lebanon in collaboration with government and religious authorities.
The fury of the group seemed to calm down through the week, especially after the success of the online media campaigns and the accolades in the Washington Post, CNN, etc. all highlighting how the movement prevailed despite this upset on May 13.
However, on Friday May 19, Metro Al-Madina, the venue hosting the final big IDAHOT event scheduled for the next day called Helem to cancel the event after they received a visit from a general security officer (his name will not be mentioned here) who showed up in civilian clothes, without a court order or official paperwork, pressing on the venue manager to cancel the event.
The officer used a host of arguments to persuade Metro Al-Madina including that Helem is not a registered entity and as such cannot organize events, and that conferences and events need prior approval from the general security. Those arguments did not convince the venue manager until the officer finally invoked the Islamic extremist group threats, with the pretext that the government cannot provide protection to the venue. At that point, Metro Al-Madina, decided to cancel the event in order to avoid a scenario similar to the 2005 riots of Muslim extremists in Beirut in retaliation against the Danish Caricatures of Prophet Mohamed, which left the Danish Embassy in flames and multiple predominantly Christian neighborhoods of Beirut looted and destroyed.
Helem immediately moved to holding the event in a secure space, and announced featuring the panels on Facebook using live streaming. “Lebanon is a secular, civil state; it is not a religious state. Each person is entitled to have a spiritual, religious connection to his or her religion. Such a relationship and belief system cannot be used as an excuse to terrorize others. We demand the state institutions, particularly the judicial ones, to actively protect fundamental, constitutional rights, particularly the freedom of expression, the freedom of belief, and the right to privacy. These are the basic foundations of any democratic state built on the rule of law that the current presidency has promised us”, said Helem’s executive director Ghenwa Samhat in the virtual press conference broadcasted live on Facebook.
On Saturday May 20, the press conference was followed by the prescheduled panel discussion live on Facebook, followed by a live response to questions and comments posted during the panel. In total, over 50,000 views and hundreds of comments were recorded. BBC, LBCI and Al-Jadeed TV featured news reports of the event that evening slamming the government and religious authorities for undermining freedom of expression and association, two pillars of the Lebanese democracy. A number of print media was also present and featured headlines such as: “The Lebanese State Submits to Homophobia”.
At night, Helem spread out a message to its membership to collect rainbow flags and display them in the vibrant nightlife street of Mar Michael. Sixteen Flags were hung on entrances of clubs; Helem volunteers roamed the streets with pamphlets and engaged with conversations with the clubbers. Twitter and Facebook trended with the #shame hash tag (#وصمة_عار) reusing the shaming language used by the Muslim Olamas to callout the government agencies on their conspiracy with religious authorities against freedom of speech.
Cultural Terrorism and Freedom of Speech
This attack on the LGBT community and the freedom of expression rallied support from across the nation: journalists, bloggers, civil rights organizations, and individuals condemned the religious establishment for turning Lebanon into a religious state and the government for its coercion in communicating the seriousness of the threats by these extremist groups rather than providing security and protection for those who have the right to express their opinions.
One Lebanese blogger Elie Fares wrote: “Beirut filled with pride flags, despite the cultural terrorism that Lebanon’s government allows”.
One prestigious restaurant used the rainbow flag on its Facebook profile picture in solidarity with the groups.
Journalists Diana Moukalled and Layal Haddad took it to Twitter and Facebook posting progressive messages asking “why polygamy, marital rape, child marriage, discrimination against women and honor killing are acceptable while the sexual choices of two adults are apocalyptic”.
Moukalled’s post was removed by Facebook after the media coordinator of the Future Movement Party posted a complaint considering Moukalled’s post, a direct attack on Islam. While her post did not make any reference to Islam, extremist and conservative Muslims encourage the practices she outlined.
Ironically, when LGBT activists reported to Facebook the posts in which the Muslim Olama Organization was calling for a war against the “deviants”, and exciting mobs to shut down the LGBT events, in addition to a host of threats to the media and government officials, Facebook responded: “We’ve reviewed the photo that you reported and found that it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.” LGBT activist George Azzi shamed Facebook for their lack of response and said in a post featuring side by side snapshots of Moukalled and the Muslim Olama’s statements: “I think Facebook needs better monitoring and review of Arabic content”.
Moukalled received outpouring support on social media by activists who shamed Facebook for taking down the post and reposted it with screen shots. Al-Nahar and Al-Modon newspapers featured op-eds in support of Moukalled and her right for freedom of expression and opinion, while other online media (IMLebanon and Janoubia) reported on the controversy without siding with any of the parties.
Journalists Kareem Cheyabe, Luna Safwan and Nadine Mazloum issued a joint statement on behalf of the Union of Independent Journalists in Lebanon in both Arabic and English condemning the attack on civil liberties, and “people’s most fundamental freedoms, such as the freedom of expression”. The statement called on the “Ministries of Interior and Information to protect the right of all Lebanese nationals and residents to their freedom of speech, expression and assembly without coercion and threats.” Highlighting that it is “alarming that the Lebanese security agencies did not take action to protect these individuals”: “Lebanese brothers and sisters as well as guests in Lebanon”, a reference to the thriving rainbow tourism in Beirut.
Government coercion with religious establishment
What makes this week of activism and counter-activism interesting is looking at the intimate relation between homophobic politicians and government agencies with the extremist and conservative establishment on one hand, and civil society and the media on the other.
Government agencies did not issue a public statement shutting down the events; nor did they produce official orders to prevent the events from happening. Instead, they resorted to coercion, intimidation and threats by proxy, clearly communicating to the NGO community that the government will be standing on the sidelines in case of riots and violence.
What’s more alarming, are the threats directed at the business establishments hosting these events. Both venues, Hotel Monroe and Metro Al Madina, are known for hosting progressive civil society convening. Such threats have also the intention of crippling the right to assembly and gathering which is essential to the civil society work and independence.
International Media and Diplomatic Support
British Ambassador Hugo Shorter tweeted a photo of the Rainbow flag mounted side by side with the UK flag in front of the British embassy in Beirut: “On #IDAHOBIT we recall that LGBT rights are human rights. Everyone deserves respect & dignity; no one should live in fear.”
The Dutch embassy also displayed the rainbow flag, which was captured by activists and went viral on social media.
At the time of writing this report, twenty one articles in the International media (such as NBC, CNN, Washington Post) featured the news on the pride week, highlighting the religious persecution, coercion with the Lebanese authorities, the resolve of the LGBT community and the success of the week despite the challenges.
Discussion of LGBT rights is now part of general civil rights demands
Lebanon’s free media outlets helped elevate the discourse to tackle the violation of human rights, freedom of expression, right to assembly, and protection of all citizens under the law. The majority of the twenty six articles that we were able to find in Lebanese local newspapers (in French and Arabic) were supportive of the LGBT community’s right to manifest, others took it a step further to declare LGBT rights are human rights, with the two most prestigious newspapers An-Nahar and L’Orient LeJour featuring several articles each, following the developments of the week’s program. More articles are expected to follow this week.
Religious Establishment unified and on alert
“This growing public presence [of LGBT discourse] is also prompting a backlash from Lebanon’s powerful political and sectarian factions. Even as Sunni extremists were threatening the conference in Beirut, a Christian [Orthodox] church in Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli, was arranging a conference of its own to discuss ways to convert homosexuals to “normative sexual behavior.” And even Lebanon’s most powerful leader, Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah, saw it necessary to weigh in, slamming Western countries for exporting homosexuality to Lebanon. “Homosexual relations defy logic, human nature and the human mind,” he declared.”
“The political conversation in Lebanon has typically revolved around sectarianism — Muslim rights versus Christian rights, or Sunni rights versus Shiite rights. And Lebanon’s sectarianism has long been considered a plague on the country, resulting in today’s ineffective governance, widespread corruption and nepotism among the ruling elite, and rising poverty rates. Gender identity and sexuality has prompted a shift in political discourse away from sectarianism and toward civil rights, equality and tolerance — notions anathema to the current ruling political class, whether it be Hezbollah or Sunni and Christian institutions.”
M-Coalition, a regional MSM platform based in Lebanon released its first regional video on the digital pride week on April 29 featuring for the first time Arab and Middle Eastern Men and Women expressing pride and coming out to the public.
February witnessed a number of articles in the press favoring and disapproving of the ruling, in addition to condemning statements by the Catholic Information Center and the Muslim Olama Organization as well as primetime pro and con televised interviews and talk shows with LGBT persons on several TV stations.
The religious establishment fears that the LGBT community is emboldened by the positive ruling in courts, the depiction of gay characters in Lebanese soap operas and the support by the majority of media outlets and key Lebanese figures who came out against homophobic comments that two TV anchors made earlier this year.
Report drafted by Eliane Fersan for Global Nexus Solutions.
Report reviewed by representatives of The Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE), Helem, The Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health (LebMASH), MARSA Sexual Health Center and MOSAIC.
For more information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
International Media Articles
Washington Post: http://wapo.st/2rI0cXC
The Telegraph: http://bit.ly/2rtl7kd
ME Eye: http://bit.ly/2r99Aqa
Al-Monitor: http://bit.ly/2r8NZ1s; http://bit.ly/2qShdAf
Actu Orange: https://oran.ge/2r90NVv
Straights Times: http://bit.ly/2rth9Id
Opposing Views: http://bit.ly/2qMhJ2W
El Pais: http://bit.ly/2qeZPah
AFP Japan: http://bit.ly/2qjCHmA
WFMZ TV: http://bit.ly/2rWGbwJ
Arabic and Local Media Articles:
Daily Star: http://bit.ly/2qm17w6
Arab Online: http://bit.ly/2r99zCI
Radio Montecarlo: http://bit.ly/2qqt0DS
- Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian is the Grand Mufti of Lebanon since August 2014. As the spiritual leader of Lebanese Muslims the Grand Mufti holds the highest religious post for a Sunni Islamic scholar in Lebanon.
- “وإلا فإن الهيئة تحمل المسؤولين مغبة تداعيات نزول الغيارى على العفة والشرف من كل لبنان لمنع هذا المؤتمر المؤامرة ان لم يقوموا بدورهم.”
- List of media articles available at the end of the report.
- An exhaustive list of the media articles compiled to date is included at the end of the report.