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Lebanese LGBT salon brings out beauty in everyone

Out, Lebanon's first beauty salon catering to members of the LGBT community, was founded as a place where patrons can feel at home, not simply tolerated.

Even before entering the main room of Out, a flag stick with rainbow colors and a unicorn on the reception desk make it clear that this is no run-of the-mill beauty salon. Located on a quiet street near the Church of St. Maroun and the Blue Mosque in downtown Beirut, the Out Beauty Boutique is the first, and so far, only queer beauty salon in town.

Lebanon's LGBT community is one of the most vibrant in the Arab world. Yet, as noted by Kim Mouawad, the young entrepreneur who founded Out in December 2017, there are not many establishments aimed at the gay community other than bars and clubs.

“Out is not a place where LGBT people are merely ‘accepted,’” Mouawad said, expressing her distaste for the concept of “being accepted,” as opposed to “belonging.” “This is a place that makes room for things people are not normally exposed to and are taught to hate. Once you step in, you have to adapt to it.”

Mouawad sits in front of what she calls Out's “wall of fame.” On display are black-and-white portraits of Bassem Feghali, the first Lebanese comedian to appear in public in drag; RuPaul, the host and creator of the widely popular “RuPaul's Drag Race”; Apple CEO Tim Cook, the first head of a Fortune 500 company to come out as gay, in 2014; and the fashion designer Marc Jacobs.

Mouawad's decision to open Out was driven by personal history. Her brother was gay, but he kept it a secret for the first 24 years of his life, coming out only after he moved to the United States. “I was shocked by what he had to endure growing up in Lebanon, and for years I brainstormed ways I could help,” Mouawad said.

Out is open to everyone, as long as they refrain from staring and expressing judgment about other clients’ appearance or requests.

Same-sex conduct is still technically a crime in Lebanon, but activists have long fought to strike Article 534 of the Penal Code from the books. A colonial leftover from the early 1900s French mandate era, the law punishes “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature” with up to one year in prison.

In 2018, nearly 100 candidates running for in parliamentary elections openly called for decriminalizing homosexuality. This year, for the first time in a Lebanese military court, a judge held that sodomy is not punishable by law, noting that Article 534 does not clearly define by what criteria sex acts can be deemed “contrary to nature.” The opinion, delivered March 30 and considered a landmark decision, follows similar decisions issued by civil courts over the past two years.

A recent survey by Arab Freedom for Equality found that the majority of respondents (65.5%) opposed imprisoning LGBT individuals, but also revealed a majority (72%) against “homosexuals having meeting places.”

Among the LGBT community in Lebanon, it is often transgender individuals who have the hardest time. They are even discriminated against in “gay friendly” clubs and bars. There are no official statistics, but local activists estimate that at least 7 out of 10 transgender people in Lebanon are unemployed.

None of this has stopped Gigi, a young trans woman, from pursuing her career. Currently working as a makeup artist at Out, she is also a loyal customer.

“Before this place opened, I used to go to other places to get my nails done, and the ladies would give me funny looks and were very transphobic,” Gigi told Al-Monitor. “Here I finally found a place where I could go and not be judged.”

To Gigi, makeup is more than just appearance. Rather, it means the right for everyone to feel him or herself at their best.

Many of Mouawad's friends told her that they often felt judged or would occasionally be denied certain services. Out offers professional make-up for drag queens and Brazilian wax treatments for men, which according to Mouawad is a complete taboo everywhere else.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Andrea, who performs as a drag queen, waits to have his arms waxed and his eyebrows shaped, both essential prep work for his show.

“I was always a very flamboyant boy growing up,” Andrea told Al-Monitor. “In other beauty salons where I used to go, often the problems were the clients, rather than the management. Yet, if someone would disrespect you, nobody would defend you.”

Andrea feels at ease at Out. There are rainbow flags and table display copies of “The Little Book of Feminism” and “Pocket RuPaul Wisdom: Witty Quotes and Wise Words from a Drag Superstar,” all signs that this establishment defies gender stereotyping.

“You can think of a beauty salon as something superficial, but I believe it goes beyond that,” Mouawad remarked. A few months after Out opened, she recalled a group of drag queens standing outside the shop smoking, their makeup half done and one of them in high heels.

“The man working in the parking lot in front of us was staring at them and was really intrigued,” Mouawad said. A few months later, the same man was helping one of the drag queens walk to her car, making sure she didn't trip in her high heels.