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Maya Gebeily

Big year ahead for Lebanon’s LGBT community

Rights group says will focus on transgender issues in 2014

Lively panel discussions reflected the day

Saturday, May 17 marked the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Though traditionally seen as one of the most open countries in the Middle East, Lebanon still imposes significant legal and social discrimination against gay and transgender individuals. Activists from across the sexual orientation spectrum joined Lebanese gay rights group Helem on Saturday to discuss what’s to come for Lebanon’s LGBT community and to focus in particular on the country’s growing transgender community.

 

The event celebrated a number of recent victories for Lebanon’s LGBT community. In July 2013, the Lebanese Psychiatric Society made waves when it announced that “homosexuality is not a mental disorder.” In January of this year, a Lebanese judge threw out a court case against a transgender woman who had been accused of “unnatural sexual intercourse.” Judge Naji al-Dahdah ruled that the woman, who was born with an intersex condition but had undergone gender reassignment surgery in the 1990s, was not in violation of Lebanon’s anti-homosexuality laws. The legal ruling was considered a major step forward for Lebanon’s transgender community.

 

In 2012, Lebanon’s Syndicate of Doctors, with the support of Lebanese rights group Legal Agenda, denounced anal examinations conducted by medical doctors associated with the Lebanese security forces to “confirm” the homosexuality of detained individuals.

 

Nevertheless, there’s much to be done in the coming months of 2014. A major focus of Saturday’s event was developments in Lebanon’s transgender community, which Helem organizer Tarek Zeidan says needs a lot of work in the coming year. Transgender issues are monumentally different [from gay issues] and have their own set of needs, considerations, and philosophy,” Zeidan said.

 

Nancy, a 20-year old transgender woman, agrees. “Gender identity and sexual orientation are different. Sexual orientation is private and I don’t have to talk about it. But gender identity is visible,” she told NOW, gesturing with her hands to the rest of her body. She told her parents she was transsexual when she was 16, and after a difficult year at home she decided to live alone. “It was hard for me and I had no support system. I live in a conservative neighborhood where I was sexually and physically abused.”

 

Nancy said that although many transgender individuals in Lebanon have similarly difficult experiences, they rarely work together to create a support system. She suggested they unite to run their own projects, separately from the homosexual community if need be. In particular, she wants to establish programs that help Lebanese transgender individuals through their transition period. “It’s a very hard process. Usually in Lebanon, people just start hormone therapy without a doctor or psychotherapy, which is very, very wrong,” she told NOW. She also wants to see better support systems in universities and financial aid for independent transgender people so that they can continue their education.

 

Besides focusing on transgender issues, rights groups have additional aims for the coming year. Zeidan told NOW that one of Helem’s main goals is to render ineffective Article 534 of Lebanon’s penal code, which prohibits having sexual relations that “contradict the laws of nature.” Many gay individuals in Lebanon have been arrested or held by security forces under this law – often simply because they were “suspected” of engaging in sexual relations, not because they were actually caught in the act. By creating allies in government and working with Lebanese judges and lawyers, Zeidan believes the article can effectively become “toothless.”

 

But that doesn’t go far enough, said Nadim Houry, director of Human Rights Watch’s Beirut office and one of the event’s panelists. Houry recognized the importance of removing institutional and legal discrimination against gay individuals, but added that the Lebanese state must take a role in protecting homosexual Lebanese from private forms of assault. “It’s not enough to make sure the state doesn’t violate the rights of these individuals. It has to actively protect them from other people who are going to beat them in the street,” he stressed. To a round of applause and yells of approval, Houry asked, “What does the government have to do with our asses?”

 

Houry went on to warn that although anal testing by Lebanese security forces had largely been eliminated, HRW had learned of five new cases of rape exams at the end of 2013. “They were Syrian refugees this time,” he announced. “So it’s not enough that some people have protection because they’re Lebanese, or rich, or have connections. Gay Syrian refugees are among the most vulnerable people in Lebanon, and they must be equally protected.”

 

Much of the discussion at the day’s events centered on the role of media in the fight against transphobia and homophobia. Houry was joined on his panel by LBC journalist Layal Haddad, who had covered 2012’s controversial shutting of a popular movie theater for Lebanese gays and 2013’s uproar over Dekweneh municipality head Antoine Chakhtouri’s anti-gay actions. She said that introducing proper terminology into local reporting – for example, replacing the words “sexually abnormal” or “faggot” with “homosexual” and “gay” – is a continuing uphill battle, but that significant progress was being made at LBC.

 

Zeidan added that international coverage of Lebanon’s gay community is positive, but it doesn’t mean Lebanon is the ideal. “Yes, it’s fantastic to have a gay rights NGO and gay bars famous the world over and the openly gay singer of Mashrou’ Leila,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean diddly squat. This isn’t a tolerant society. If it was, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

Lively panel discussions reflected the day's motto: Delete Transphobia and Homophobia, Enter the Conversation. (Photo by James Haines-Young)

“What does the government have to do with our asses?”

  • Kirko bravo

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    May 25, 2014

  • marwan.aoun.3

    Yes Clever Media plays an important role in sensitizing the public opinion on LGBT but there are some fundamental issues ..Most importantly, the freedom to choose whatever orientation we want which I don't think our Lebanese Patriarchal based society will be able to tolerate and can be in direct contradiction with our constitution which is based on religious partitioning and not personal freedom of belief ..so there should be some strategy to tackle this part ..We are living in a period of religious calling to Purity and Sanctity which LGBT is definitely not considered a member and which is galvanizing the society against this community ..I hope this so called "calling" is temporal in nature and we would have moved on in the next 20 years over this ignorance but in the end it's a battle over multiple fronts that will take a while and which needs patience, prudence and perseverance

    May 18, 2014