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Lebanon: Backlash as MPs introduce bill to decriminalize LGBTQ+ relationships

Some Lebanese leaders have intensified their campaign against the LGBTQ+ community after news emerged of a bill to repeal an anti-LGBTQ+ provision of the Penal Code.
Members of Lebanon's LGBTQ community attend a picnic the coastal city of Batroun, north of Beirut, on May 21, 2017, as part of the Beirut Pride week aimed at raising awarness about the rights of the community. / AFP PHOTO / IBRAHIM CHALHOUB (Photo credit should read IBRAHIM CHALHOUB/AFP via Getty Images)

BEIRUT — Members of the Lebanese parliament have for the first time introduced a bill to decriminalize same-sex relationships. The proposed legislation aims to repeal Article 534 of the Penal Code, which prohibits "any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature" with a penalty of up to one year in prison. 

Only made public in recent weeks, likely due to a leak in parliament, the bill had been introduced in early July by nine representatives, including independent members from Forces of Change and Christian parties. 

A leak would not be an irrelevant detail in this case given subsequent events. Public circulation of the bill has intensified the backlash against the Lebanese LGBTQ+ community on multiple fronts. 

Paula Yacoubian, a parliamentarian for Forces of Change and a signatory to the bill, told Al-Monitor that she had hoped to decriminalize same-sex relationships following her election in 2018. 

"LGBTQ+ people who choose to love and be in a relationship aren't causing harm to anyone," Yacoubian said. "So why should we imprison them for a year? However, LGBTQ+ nongovernmental organizations advised me to step back at that time due to the potential backlash such a proposal could have caused."

Indeed, with the bill now submitted, circulating online and being reported on by local news websites, the anticipated backlash has begun. 

Hezbollah and its opponents rally against LGBTQ+

Bertho Makso, executive director and cofounder of the NGO Proud Lebanon, was extensively involved in advancing the bill, engaging various members of parliament as sponsors. He confirmed to Al-Monitor that the situation had escalated, and said, "We only aim to repeal Article 534 because society isn't prepared for anything beyond that."

Individuals and groups taking action to express opposition and animosity toward the LGBTQ+ community is not new in Lebanon. Rasha Younes, a senior researcher with the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, told Al-Monitor that anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns in Lebanon have been ongoing since 2017.

The  campaigns  have involved security forces breaking up events, Lebanese General Security prohibiting conferences and, more recently, high-ranking officials and influential figures openly adopting and advocating anti-LGBTQ+ stances. 

Younes said, "Now we're observing the use of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. It's clearly driven by political interests to divert public attention from the Lebanese state's negligence and its failure to deliver essential citizen services."

In late July, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned against homosexuality, and in early August, Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada sought to ban the hit movie " Barbie," citing concerns about it promoting perversion and challenging gender norms.

The focus on homosexuality has also prompted a call by the government to uphold family values. It did so in a statement released to the media after caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and other ministers met with the Maronite patriarch, Bechara Boutros al-Rahi.

Mortada got into a debate on Twitter with Forces of Change parliamentarian Mark Daou, the former claiming that the bill contradicted the Lebanese Constitution. Mortada later submitted a draft law to criminalize the "promotion of sexuality" and sex reassignment, justifying it on religious grounds and attracting criticism  from the NGO Legal Agenda. In addition, member of parliament Ashraf Rifi, known for his anti-Hezbollah positions,  introduced a bill to criminalize homosexuality and its promotion. 

"It's a circus"

The effort to decriminalize same-sex relationships in Lebanon appears to have backfired against the LGBTQ+ community due to the environment of heightened criticism. Adib Abdel Massih, an independent and a signatory of the leaked bill, unexpectedly withdrew his support for it, stating that he had signed it only to stimulate debate, but personally would not undermine his church and community. 

"It's a circus," said Yacoubian. "And it's very sad because we're talking about human rights here. We're talking about humans who have different choices in their lives. It's sad because this political class is bankrupt. And since they're bankrupt now, they are trying to show that they're doing something for the community by targeting the LGBTQ+ community. It's just a political agenda, nothing else."

Younes explained that anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric escalates violence against the members of that community and worsens the already inadequate protection the security forces provide to them. Further anti-LGBTQ+ legal efforts, she said, "would only rubber stamp the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legalize incitement of violence," she said.

Indeed, shortly after the bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community were introduced, the Soldiers of God, a Christian group that made headlines for violence it carried out during last year's Pride Month, attacked a queer-friendly bar on Aug. 23. Members of the group hurled insults,  restricted patrons from leaving and caused unconfirmed reports of injuries, local news websites reported. 

Makso believes the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is simply another distraction from Lebanon's pressing issues. "They did it previously with the Syrian refugees," he said. "They always bring up new taboos and issues to distract people's attention and continue their corrupt behavior."

Despite the obvious divisions on political matters in Lebanon, the sectarian political blocs appear to have found common ground in anti-LGBTQ+ stances and rhetoric. 

Similar to the observation by Makso, Younes remarked, "Some interested parties seek to distract the public and use sexual and gender minorities as a political tool. Allies speaking up for LGBTQ+ people also face attacks. The environment has turned toxic, with individuals fearing both online and offline backlash for supporting LGBT rights."

Yacoubian told Al-Monitor that the bill to repeal Article 534 has little chance of progressing to committees for discussion unless the two draft laws criminalizing homosexuality are also considered. 

"If all three draft laws make it to the committees, our chances of success are slim," she said. "The parliament is controlled by a sectarian political class that divides. We are a small minority." 

Younes highlighted that LGBTQ+ individuals and human rights defenders are simply advocating for fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and the right to nondiscrimination and equality.

"Criminalizing 'promoting homosexuality' is an attack on free expression, freedom of opinion, and against Lebanon's Constitution and international law," she said. "Lebanon is losing its reputation for valuing these basic freedoms that it used to take pride in. This fight isn't solely about supporting LGBT people. It's a struggle for basic freedoms and the core right of free expression."

Makso, reiterating a previous assertion said, "We only want to decriminalize same-sex relationships. We must be realistic in our requests, understanding that we can't aim for the moon if we can't even reach the top of the building."

MTV breaks the silence 

The Lebanese station MTV provided something of a reality check on tolerance toward the LGBTQ+ community when it publicly endorsed a bill to repeal Article 534, sparking backlash on social media. 

The channel created and televised a video with three men in an elevator, two of them initially standing side by side when the third person enters and stands in front of them, with his back toward them. Their facial expressions are not visible in the frame. The third man then removes a gun from his jacket and waits for the elevator to reach his floor. 

Messages in Arabic appear on the screen throughout the video. The first one refers to the gun and states, "There are crimes." After the armed man leaves the elevator, the two remaining men clasp hands. The next message says, "And there is love." 

Ultimately, the video takes a direct stand, displaying the message "Yes to the repeal of Article 534 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes homosexuality.” MTV's Twitter post with the video embedded states that even Pope Francis acknowledges that homosexuality is not a crime, though he still considers it a sin. 

While some social media users highlighted MTV's courage in standing up for LGBTQ+ rights, others — including top officials like Mortada and Hezbollah's media outlet, Al-Manar — twisted the video's message to accuse MTV of "promoting homosexuality," leading to a boycott campaign against the channel. 

Despite ongoing prosecutions under Article 534, recent court rulings have clarified that it can't be applied to private, consensual same-sex acts between adults. 

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