LGBTQ Lebanese under attack as activists decry eroding freedoms

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Lebanon’s LGBTQ community has been reeling from months of snowballing hostility, as activists in one of the Middle East’s more liberal countries worry about deteriorating personal and political freedoms.

Rights advocates and LGBTQ community members told AFP they have been harassed and even received death threats in recent months as controversy has raged over everything from rainbow imagery to family values and the “Barbie” movie.

“What we have been witnessing is a kind of incitement to violence” against the LGBTQ community, said political scientist and rights activist Rita Chemaly.

Many of Lebanon’s rival sectarian politicians have spearheaded the anti-LGBTQ campaign, which gained momentum after a legislative proposal to decriminalize homosexuality.

“It’s not a simple issue of one community that is being harassed and intimidated,” Chemaly warned.

“We’re now losing the battle for individual freedoms in Lebanon,” such as freedom of expression and assembly, she said.

Over the weekend, a group of men attacked a civil society march in defense of freedoms, yelling homophobic insults and assaulting demonstrators.

The protest was not billed as an LGBTQ event.

Rights group Amnesty International decried “security forces’ abject failure to protect protesters” and urged an investigation to discourage similar incidents, noting that “none of the aggressors have been arrested”.

“There is no state,” Chemaly said.

“The impunity and the lack of accountability has led to the attacks that we’re witnessing,” she added.

While Lebanon has never been a safe haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer people, the community has long been visible and outspoken, defying crackdowns on its bars, nightclubs and community centers, mainly in the capital Beirut.

But in recent years, fledgling Pride events have been shut down, activists hounded, and in 2022 the interior ministry instructed security forces to clamp down on events “promoting sexual perversion”.

  • ‘In danger’ –

One gay man told AFP he had been verbally harassed in recent weeks.

He said he felt “in danger and it’s getting worse day after day”, requesting anonymity due to safety fears.

In July, a group of lawmakers submitted a proposal to repeal a vaguely worded law that punishes “unnatural” sexual relations by up to one year in prison.

But hostility surged, and two counter-proposals doubling down on criminalization were floated, in a country where society and power is divided among myriad conservative religious communities that often unite around social issues.

Opponents allege that the proposal was to change “the core of the family, which is totally wrong,” said rights activist Chemaly.

“It’s just a law to decriminalize homosexuality,” she said, calling the legislation a weapon that has been used “to intimidate the (LGBTQ) community members”.

The leader of the powerful Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement Hassan Nasrallah has stepped up fierce verbal diatribes against LGBTQ people in recent months, preaching that they should be killed.

In August, members of a hardline Christian group surrounded a bar hosting a drag show in Beirut, assaulting people outside and yelling insults including, “you are going to burn in hell”, witnesses said.

Over the weekend a beachside restaurant in south Lebanon was attacked, in an incident that appears to have had homophobic pretexts.

  • ‘Dodge responsibility’ –

Another gay man and activist, who had been threatened with prosecution over same-sex images and messages on his mobile phone, said he was living “in a country that really dehumanizes me — it denies my very existence”.

Despite the bleak outlook, he expressed some optimism.

“This is the first time that we’re having this discussion” about the law, which is “a huge thing”, he said, also requesting anonymity.

Lawmaker Mark Daou said the existing legislation was “in direct contradiction with several international agreements against discrimination and biases that Lebanon is party to”.

While he is among those pushing to repeal it despite heavy pressure, he said that doing so now inadvertently gave “excuses to those who want to dodge the responsibility for what’s happening in the country”.

Lebanon has been enduring a crushing economic crisis since late 2019 that has pushed much of the population into poverty.

The country has been without a president for almost a year, the government is operating in a caretaker capacity and political deadlock has paralyzed Lebanon’s parliament and institutions.

Bertho Makso from civil society group Proud Lebanon said, “it’s a dark tunnel, but we always have to see the light.”

“What we want is simply to have people treated with dignity and respect, and not to be treated as criminals,” he said.

His group has been part of the years-long push to abolish the law — but he said it wasn’t just chasing rainbows.

“LGBTQ rights are not given as a gift,” he said.

“You need to fight for it.”

by Lisa Golden

©️ Agence France-Presse

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