BEIRUT — Lebanon's State Council has temporarily suspended a ban on LGBTQIA+ gatherings.
In June, caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi issued a letter to state security forces urging them to enforce a ban on events that "promote homosexuality" during Pride month.
Two advocacy groups, Helem and Legal Agenda, filed a lawsuit against Mawlawi's ban in August with the State Council, the judicial council in charge of ensuring the proper administration of justice.
The court temporarily suspended Mawlawi's decision until its ruling on the lawsuit was issued.
In a joint press statement, Helem and Legal Agenda said, "The judicial decision comes as a positive step towards protecting marginalized communities in Lebanon and builds on precedents in which the State Council strengthened the public freedoms of marginalized communities."
Since Lebanon became the first Arab country to celebrate LGBTQIA+ pride week in May 2017, Lebanese NGOs have had the opportunity to organize gatherings, despite pressure from religious personalities.
Ghida Frangieh, head of litigation at Legal Agenda, told Al-Monitor that both organizations challenged the minister's decision on the grounds that it infringed the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of expression and assembly.
"The state should have a neutral position towards all beliefs of the society, according to our constitution. We also considered that ban was insulting and violent against a marginalized community," she said.
Lebanon is still widely considered the most tolerant country in the Arab world toward the gay community. Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code prohibits sexual relations that "contradict the laws of nature," but in recent years, courts have ruled that it does not apply to same-sex acts practiced privately between consenting adults.
No provision forbids people from gathering to discuss LGBTQIA+ issues.
Frangieh noted that last year, the State Council affirmed that participation in gatherings about homosexuality, gender identity, or gender orientation is protected under the freedom of speech.
Tarek Zeidan, executive director at Helem, told Al-Monitor that he was very pleasantly surprised by the decision of the State Council and that it "showed that the rule of law is still applicable."
But while the State Council will take time to formulate its final ruling on Mawlawi's ban, the interior minister instructed law enforcement to ban two LGBTQIA+ events, one scheduled for Nov. 18-19, and the other for Nov. 23-24, in defiance of the court's ruling.
The Religious Reporting Authority of the Supreme Shiite Islamic Council called Mawlawi's action "a brave step that should be emulated ... especially after the wrong and even erroneous decision issued by the State Consultative Council."
Little is known about who organized the recent events banned by Mawlawi, and both Helem and Legal Agenda preferred not to comment on the matter.
Frangieh explained that the violation of a State Council decision is unprecedented in Lebanon. However, gay events and conferences have become a target for Mawlawi since he took office in September 2021.
The crackdown in June followed the attacks of a group called Soldiers of God, whose members tore apart a billboard featuring blooming flowers in the colors of a rainbow flag created for a Pride Month campaign in the Beirut neighborhood of Achrafieh.
Zeidan told Al-Monitor that the tolerance towards the LGBTQ community has changed since the start of the economic crisis in late 2019.
He explained that the traditional sectarian parties had consolidated their power to create a sort of welfare system for many people affected by the economic meltdown, who tend to become more conservative.
"While the effects are not immediate, this is not good news for the LGBTQIA+ community in Lebanon," he said.