Lebanon's gays struggle with law
Homosexuality in Lebanon is no longer on the fringes of society or confined to an underworld of nightclubs and exclusive gatherings. It is now the subject of daily discussions in the country.
Just over a year ago, Helem, the first-ever advocacy group of its kind in the Arab world was founded here, with the aim of improving the legal and social status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, launching awareness campaigns and providing medical assistance.
Helem is an Arabic acronym for Lebanese Protection for the LGBT community, but the Arabic word also means dream.
George Azzi, the group's co-ordinator, says the idea first came to life in an internet chat room whose members decided to organise an association and work publicly with the institutions of civil society.
Freedom to establish associations is enshrined in law and the Lebanese constitution and all that is legally required from founders of any organisation is to notify the government. No approval is needed.
But if Helem has gained legal status, homosexuality remains illegal in Lebanon.
Article 534 of the penal code criminalises "unnatural sexual intercourse" which is punishable by up to one year's imprisonment.
However, Helem still works alongside civil institutions and a number of government agencies, including the health ministry's National Programme to Fight Aids.
Mr Azzi stresses that Helem does not encourage people to break the law.
Nevertheless, "[gay] people exist and we work with them to help them be accepted by society and to change the law which marginalises a large segment of Lebanese society".
Mr Azzi insists that it is quite natural for Helem to work alongside the government, since, he says, associations in Lebanon are traditionally "more progressive" than the law. He cites women's groups and anti-death penalty associations as an example.
Azzi admits that no homosexual has been tried and sentenced under article 534 for a long time, but he complains the law is easily exploited, including by the police.
"The mere existence of this article weakens gay people and strips them of legal protection enjoyed by other citizens," he says.
Since it makes them outlaws, he explains, it also means they cannot turn to the police or sue anyone when their rights are violated.
"A number of people, including police, use this article to blackmail gays by asking for money or using violence or insults knowing full well that it will cost them nothing at all to do so."
In addition to blackmail, gays can also face daily harassment from family members and professional colleagues.
A number have lost their jobs after being outed as gay, and they suffer abuse, humiliation and even violence, especially in the case of more effeminate gay men.
Christian, a gay man, does not fear for his job, he says, because he works in advertising.
But he believes that if he were a doctor or a lawyer he would be in a much tougher position, as people would lose faith in his ability to treat them or provide legal counsel.
The hardship extends to family life as well, as a number of gays say they have been threatened with murder and thrown out of their homes.
Both Christian and George Azzi speak of relative improvement in the way society views homosexuality in Beirut.
But what applies in the country's vibrant capital is not necessarily true in rural areas.
"People here [in Beirut] are aware that gays are there, regardless of whether they accept them or not. At least they don't deny their existence," says Christian.
Mr Azzi adds that gays now mix more easily in society, and some can even confide in their colleagues about their sexual tendencies. In short, they have become more "visible" in society.
Rasha, one of three lesbians active in Helem, argues that tacit acceptance is one thing but tolerance is another.
People simply have to acknowledge that gays exist, because they increasingly come out in the open in Beirut, she says, but many people still dismiss them as a weird phenomenon.
Her sex life is no problem in her daily life, she says, because as a woman in a conservative society which frowns upon sex for all unmarried women, she keeps a low sexual profile anyway.
"Our sex lives are very private, so keeping my sexuality private is something quite natural. That is why my experience as a lesbian is completely different from gay guys' experience."
"Socially, however, it is different. When a woman declares she is a lesbian in the Arab world, she breaks two taboos at the same time," Rasha says.
Not only does she admit to extra-marital sex, but also to a same-sex relationship.
"A man only breaks one taboo, in addition to the fact that he originally enjoys more freedom and independence than a woman," Rasha says.
That is why the lesbian community is not as active as its male counterpart. "Girls are more scared," she says.
Ultimately, Helem aims to eliminate all discrimination against homosexuals.
But it also seeks to maintain a Lebanese identity as opposed to importing the western model to Lebanon.
"We look to Lebanese society and what it can handle. We do not aim to implement what happened in Spain," George Azzi says.
Spain recently joined the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, some US states and other countries in legalising gay marriage.
While Christian is considering moving abroad and getting married there, Rasha says she lives as she wants.
However, at 26 years of age, she does not think of the future because it "is very tough".
Still, she doesn't give up on the idea of arranging a marriage with a man just for appearances... provided he is gay.