“The thing we heard most when we came to Lebanon was, ‘Welcome,’” said Harvey Shapiro, who traveled to Lebanon from Ohio with his partner Mike Dagger earlier this year.
The couple booked their trip through LebTours, a travel agency that caters to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. “We were so impressed by Lebanon that we are visiting again next spring with our four gay cousins,” Shapiro said. “That’s how much we loved it.”
Like hundreds of other gay tourists who visit Beirut annually, Shapiro and Dagger, both in their sixties, found the city to be “gay friendly.” Even the author of a recent Jerusalem Post article called it a rival city to Tel Aviv, as the two “battle it out for pink dollars.”
But while Beirut is popular for gay tourism, some activists and members of Lebanon’s LGBT community say there are still a lot of improvements that need to be made when it comes to social tolerance.
Gay tourism is a growing niche in the Lebanese tourism industry in which visitors explore cultural and historical sights by day and gay bars and clubs by night. “It’s like any other tour, but we highlight the LGBT venues,” said Bertho, the owner of LebTours. Last year, his company booked tours for 500 people, up from 100 visitors just five years ago.
Lebanon is one of the few Middle Eastern countries where gay bars and nightclubs exist, drawing increased international attention from tourists like Shapiro and Dagger. “It feels like you’re going to camp and you’re with the other guys, so everything’s okay,” Shapiro said of why they chose to plan their trip with the travel agency.
Yet, Lebanese society is neither entirely accepting of nor understanding toward the LGBT community. Ghassan Makaram, executive director of the gay rights organization Helem, believes the popular perception of Lebanon as a “gay friendly” country can be misleading.
“The problem with this rhetoric is we’re not talking about a country where people are really free to do what they want,” he told NOW Lebanon.
Makaram points to two main concerns. “People are still being prosecuted for their homosexuality,” he said, albeit at a low rate of an estimated ten prosecutions per year. Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code makes “intercourse against nature” punishable by law. “And people still have a lot of problems when it comes to telling their families,” Makaram said.
One Lebanese teenager, who is sexually attracted to both men and women, said most of the people he knows who are gay hide their sexuality from their families.
“Most people avoid telling their parents because they’re afraid of getting kicked out of the house,” he said, requesting that his name not be published for privacy reasons.
While the 19-year-old has never experienced physical violence or discrimination because of his sexuality, some of his friends have. One friend was kicked by a group of strangers on the street when they suspected the young man was gay. In another instance, a gay man was not allowed into a bar in Hamra.
“We don’t let people like you in this place,” the 19-year-old quoted the bartender as saying.
Traces of these societal ills were made evident in recent television programs. Several weeks ago, MTV featured a one-hour documentary during which the presenter referred to homosexuality as a “phenomenon,” upsetting some viewers.
“The rise of Haifa Wehbe and other singers who can’t really sing but find success in the music world is a phenomenon,” wrote a Lebanese blogger who goes by the name Beirut Boy and identifies himself as gay. “I am not a phenomenon.”
Makaram heard similar reactions to the documentary. “People were saying that even though the end was positive, there were a lot of problems with the guests and people who spoke.” Around the same time, Future TV aired a feature story on “gay crime” in Lebanon, which also received criticism.
The programs highlight society’s lack of education on the issues, activists say, which leads to the perpetuation of common stereotypes. “If you tell someone you’re gay, they automatically think feminine, which isn’t necessarily the case,” the 19-year-old Beiruti said.
It also results in a lack of understanding and acceptance, leading many to hide their sexuality. “I don’t tell my parents because I don’t want to tell them something they don’t want to hear,” he said.
Still, others believe that Beirut is a great city for homosexuals. Bars and clubs compose a booming gay nightlife, while other, albeit less-assuming venues, act as “sex cruising” areas where men go to meet other men to engage in sexual acts.
“Sex cruising” is common in Beirut’s coastal Raouche neighborhood, a gay foreigner who lives in Beirut told NOW Lebanon. Sitting inside a kebob shop next to the sea in Raouche, one can see men pick up other men, often after midnight, and go into the nearby bushes, he said.
“It’s wonderful being gay here,” the man, who wished to remain anonymous, told NOW Lebanon. “I can go to a club and have sex, I can go to the street and have sex, and I can go [for a sandwich] and have sex.”
This article has been modified from its original version to protect the identity of a source.