Lebanon's gays find closet door firmly closed
BEIRUT, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Lebanon may pride itself on being the Arab world's most open society but as far as its gays and lesbians are concerned the closet door is still firmly closed.
"I'm 'out' to friends and I eventually know which colleagues to tell, but I can't be out everywhere and to all," Ghassan said. "It's hard after going to university abroad to return to Lebanon and go back in the closet. You have to be careful all the time."
Although the Lebanese have a more relaxed attitude to sex than their conservative Arab neighbours, homosexuals say they are routinely picked on and discriminated against in a country where many people regard homosexuality as perverted and immoral.
And while Beirut's trendy nightspots have, in recent years, come to include a handful of bars and clubs that cater to an openly gay clientele, a recent case of two lesbians charged for having "unnatural sex" was an ugly reminder that homosexuality is not only frowned upon socially but considered a crime.
Lawyers say Lebanese law makes no specific mention of homosexuality but forbids "unnatural sex", which is punishable by up to a year in jail. Lawyers say that article leaves gays and lesbians with no legal recourse if they do face abuse.
After a few years in Lebanon, Samer -- not his real name -- avoids going out and is considering moving back to Europe where he was a student and lived his life as a woman.
"The comments people make sometimes are so hurtful. It's just obscene how people stare, whisper to each other and giggle," he said over a coffee in downtown Beirut, wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
"I feel like saying what are you laughing at? I gave up some more flamboyant gay friends because I couldn't take the reaction any more, even though they're nice."
Samer, who appears feminine and considers himself a woman trapped in a man's body, says he eventually plans to have a sex change. In the meantime, he is considering seeking asylum in Europe, where he believes gay rights groups will defend him.
"Once, I was walking down the road with a friend and some guys on motorbikes kept driving around us and shouting abuse," he said. "Then they came back and started throwing eggs at us. I like going out but the reaction was just becoming unbearable."
Although homosexuals are unhappy with the situation in Lebanon, they admit attitudes can be more conservative in other parts of the region, such as Egypt, where authorities last year cracked down on a flourishing underground gay scene.
Often dressed in the latest European fashions and switching effortlessly between French, English and Arabic, many Lebanese pride themselves on being well-travelled and socially liberated.
But beneath the Western veneer, young people are expected to live at home until they marry and face tremendous pressure to raise a family, forcing many homosexuals to lead double lives.
"I try to bring it up with my Mum but she doesn't understand," said 23-year-old Imad. "I'm an only child and my parents want grandchildren. They'd find it incomprehensible if I tried to explain I can still have a family."
On weekends, young homosexuals crowd into one or two sweaty Beirut nightclubs where they can flirt and swap numbers.
Lebanon has its share of dancers and celebrities whose sexual orientation is an open secret. A smattering of the capital's sleek bars quietly hold "pink nights" when gays who can afford the pricey drinks and smart dress codes mingle openly.
For others, finding sexual partners means nights spent fearfully cruising a seedy seaside strip just north of the capital or prowling notorious beaches for anonymous encounters.
STRICT SOCIAL RULES
Social scientist Sofian Merabet says there is no cohesive group that can be described as a gay "community" in Lebanon, let alone a gay rights movement. And gay pride? Forget it.
"There is even a lot of homophobia even among people who would consider themselves gay," Merabet said. "If there's something about yourself you'd rather wasn't there, what do you do when you see that something in someone else?" he said, adding that such "self-hate" was brought about by pressures within Lebanese society to conform to strict mores regarding sexuality.
"There is a certain level of permissiveness that lets people follow a gay orientation to some point," said Merabet. "There are hardly any people who take risks and try to push the limit."
Many say it is simply too early to bring gay rights to the political agenda in a country still struggling with painful sectarian divisions following the 1975-1990 civil war.
Lebanon's handful of gay rights activists say they cannot wait forever. They believe a change in the law is needed to give the fledgling movement the push it needs to come into the open.
"Once the law changes, things will change," said one activist. "We need a push from the law first because once something is legal people begin to get used to it."
Nizar Saghiyeh, a lawyer who works on rights issues, said any campaign to legalise homosexuality would face strong resistance from politicians and religious leaders, comparing it to an ill-fated movement to introduce civil marriage.
In Lebanon, no legal procedures exist to allow individuals from different religions to marry, let alone members of the same gender.
Saghiyeh said cases of "unnatural sex" typically were prosecuted linked to other crimes -- as local media reported was the case with the arrested lesbians -- in order to preclude public debate on the issue.
"If its only homosexuality, you can get sympathy for a couple as imprisoned for love, but if they are also charged with theft the human rights groups won't touch it," Saghiyeh said.