Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Lebanon's homosexual community speaks out

From The Daily Star
BEIRUT: In a country that enjoys a rather relaxed attitude toward issues concerning sex - at least, compared to the other, more conservative countries of the region - Lebanese homosexuals still suffer from prejudice and discrimination. "A day does not go by where I don't have to deal with people who point me out and call me names," said Danny (not his real name), a 27-year-old architect who recently moved back to Lebanon after finishing his studies at a reputable European university.

Danny said he was open about his sexuality in Europe, but has been forced to keep a low profile in Lebanon mainly for two reasons: a non-tolerant society, and fear of his parents' reaction.

"Being gay in Lebanon is very hard," he said."I come from a highly conservative family, and if my parents knew about my sexuality it would be devastating for the both of us," he said in a low, shaky tone. "I don't want to ever think about their reaction if they knew." Danny added that he has never tried to be open with any of his friends about his sexuality, saying he preferred to stay "in the closet" for the time being.

"I can never consider being open about my sexuality over here," he said, explaining it might cause him a lot of trouble, especially at work.

"I have seen how colleagues at work react when they encounter a person who they suspect is gay," he said. "They avoid him as if he has a disease, and even harass him sometimes."

He said he had experienced situations like that himself. "Sometimes when I am out clubbing, I get harassed simply because I look gayish," he said in a bitter tone.

"Even if a person is different, it does not give people the right to hassle him," Danny said, emphasizing that Lebanese society has yet to learn to accept the "other."

Although there is - somehow - a flourishing gay scene in Lebanon, it is still restricted to nightlife and underground parties. The scene centers on pubs, clubs, cafes and beaches in and around Beirut where homosexuals can meet potential partners.

However, such places are still attended with trepidation and caution.

"There are some known 'gay bars' I never go to, simply because I am afraid that someone I know might see me," Danny said, expressing his concern. "I'd rather keep this issue a private one and avoid all the hassle."

However, Danny's main problem seems to be rising from issues of self acceptance.

"I am still not totally comfortable with being gay," he said. "I don't know if it is because of the social norms I grew up with or if it is because I desire what you can call a normal life, but sometimes I feel like I want to get married and have a family."

Recently Danny's parents have been trying to introduce him to some potential brides.

"I know myself though, and I know I can never go through with it," he added, slowly shaking his head. "It is tearing me up inside."

Nada, 22, a secretary, said she discovered she was homosexual a long time ago, but still has not dared to go public.

"If my parents knew, they would simply kill me," she said. Nada, who is currently involved in a long-term relationship with a 32-year-old woman, said her partner has made her more relaxed about being gay. "I met her a couple of years ago and she was a lot more comfortable [with her homosexuality] than I was," she said. "She made me realize my true identity and we have been together ever since."

Nada explained that since they are female, nobody suspects their relationship.

"I guess that, in our community, it is easier being a lesbian without anyone noticing than being a gay guy," she said. "No one would question the motives behind a couple of girls spending all their time together, but everyone would start talking if they were guys."

"I am just worried about the day when my parents have to find out- that will be a big scandal," she stated fearfully. Psychiatrist Antoine Saad said that most Arab homosexuals usually lead a double life, which might seriously damage their personalities.

"The very conservative society we live in usually pushes homosexuals into living two kinds of lives," he said, explaining that some homosexuals get married and have children in order to avoid a social scandal, meanwhile secretly practicing their homosexuality.

"Many Arab homosexuals have double lives; one that falls within the acceptable social norms our society follows and another that fulfils their true sexual orientation." According to Saad, this kind of behavior can lead to serious psychological damage. "It can initiate a severe conflict with one's self, lead to professional and personal failure, and create feelings of rejection and persecution," he said, pointing out that usually homosexuals face some kind of depression in response to social persecution.

Saad pointed out that although it is very hard for homosexuals to be open about their sexuality in conservative societies, it should not be something to be ashamed or afraid of."Homosexuals should not feel inferior to others. They should be proud of their distinctiveness and individuality," he said. "Being different should not be something to be ashamed off."

George Azzi, director of Helem - an organization working to promote the liberation of homosexuals from all forms of legal, social and cultural discrimination - said the association was trying to teach homosexuals how to better understand and accept their sexual orientation.

"Homosexuals face constant pressure from their families to hide their orientation so as not to demoralize social and religious norms," Azzi said.

He pointed out that homosexuals undergo serious social pressure that might lead them to self-hatred and even sometimes to suicide.

"That is why one of our main concerns is to teach homosexuals to accept themselves away from social influence," he said, explaining the organization holds weekly meetings where participants support each other.

Azzi also said the organization was working at the legal level, to try amending some articles in the penal code that are often used to prosecute homosexuals.

"We are trying to amend Article 534 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes 'unnatural' sexual intercourse, because it is usually interpreted as referring to anal sex and is regarded as a practice inherent to homosexuals," he said.

Rabih Fayyad, a lawyer, explained that Article 534 did not technically stipulate that homosexuality was a criminal act.

"Legally speaking, Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code punishes 'all physical contact and union against nature' with up to one year imprisonment, but it does not clearly specify homosexuality as an offense," he said.

However, in practice, "homosexuality can be viewed as 'physical contact against nature,'" Fayyad added. Saying that such an article did not necessarily target homosexuals, Fayyad said the enforcement of this article depended on the judge's personal beliefs and his interpretation of the phrase "against nature."

"It depends on what is meant by 'against nature'," Fayyad confirmed, pointing out that the article did not mention the sex of the couple engaged in the physical action.

"A heterosexual couple might be criminalized if a judge decides their action is 'against nature,' and on the other hand, a lawyer might be able to prove a homosexual couple innocent if he proved their relationship was 'normal,'" he added.

However, Azzi disputed Fayyad's statement, saying, "This article is being used by judges to prosecute same-sex sexual acts."

Noting that the Lebanese Constitution provides for the inviolability of one's private property, Azzi said that private homes have been reportedly raided as a result of tips coming from disapproving neighbors or vindictive acquaintances.

"The attitude of the security forces is unacceptable sometimes," he said.

"In many cases, arrests are carried out based on personal appearance and demeanor," he added, accusing law officers of frequently abusing homosexuals when they are detained.

"Homosexuals usually suffer verbal abuse and beatings, and are forced to take a degrading 'medical' anal examination when they are arrested," Azzi said.

"In addition, homosexuals who have sought police protection after having been abused by third parties have been reportedly subjected to the same kind of treatment by the police or the military police," he said.

A source at the Internal Security Forces said the unofficial stand on homosexuals was to "turn a blind eye," as long as the parties concerned were discreet. "As long as their homosexual behavior is not in public, and thus does not affect public morals, we tend to ignore their presence," the source said.