“You don’t have to be gay to defend gay rights,” insist a number of popular Lebanese public figures in an advocacy video released by civil society organization Proud Lebanon in the leadup to the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on May 17.
“Even if we’re different, we shouldn’t disagree,” asserted celebrities such as TV host Fouad Yammine, urging fellow citizens to challenge problematic laws that allow for the persecution of members of the LGBT community in Lebanon.
While Lebanese law does not explicitly criminalize homosexuality, Article 534 of the penal code, which prohibits “sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature,” is often used to prosecute LGBT people, even though "nature" has not been legally defined in Lebanon.
Yammine called campaigns like Proud Lebanon important, but lamented their negligible impact. Lebanon, he told Al-Monitor, is burdened by a culture of “tamyeez” (Arabic for othering). “I would say 99% of society is anti-LGBT rights. It is a society full of stereotypes. If Muslims and Christians are still afraid of each other, of course we have homophobia.”
But Sarah Wansa, a researcher with nongovernmental organization Legal Agenda, said it would be an overstatement to label Lebanese society "homophobic," or to place blame for the persecution of LGBT people largely on the shoulders of bigoted citizens.
Legal Agenda monitors law and public policy in Lebanon, documents the mistreatment of marginalized communities by the criminal justice system and engages in legal activism aimed at securing the rights of vulnerable groups.
Wansa told Al-Monitor that Legal Agenda has found most of the rights violations experienced by LGBT people in Lebanon to have been “carried out by the state,” which, she claimed, has displayed a tendency toward “mistreating members of all marginalized communities, including the lower classes, migrant workers and refugees.”
Cosette Maalouf, an advocacy officer with Proud Lebanon, whose initial focus was the aiding of LGBT Syrian refugees, said that “the community faces a double stigma in Lebanon.”
In August 2014, the Internal Security Forces Morals Protection Bureau conducted a raid on Hammam Al-Agha, a Turkish bathhouse in Beirut, resulting in the arrest of 27 Syrians, both employees and customers. According to a report co-produced with LGBT rights group Helem and published by Wansa on Legal Agenda’s website, the stated reason for the raid was the suspected “presence of homosexual individuals.”
To highlight the infringements that, it claims, often take place during and after such raids that are omitted from official investigation and prosecution reports, and the problematic means through which these arrests are sometimes initiated, Legal Agenda collected and published the testimony of a number of Hammam Al-Agha arrestees.
Wansa said the case began when a Syrian refugee and former employee of the hammam visited the Directorate of General Security to obtain paperwork necessary for his resettlement in Canada. During the interview, the General Security investigator confiscated the man’s mobile phone, citing “uneven” behavior and speech in his official report as the reason behind the seizure. “He wrote ‘gheir saweh’ [Arabic for uneven] in the report, which means he thought he looked gay,” Wansa said. After looking through his phone, the man alleged that the investigator yelled homophobic slurs, beat and then arrested him.
The man was eventually transferred to the Morals Protection Bureau at the Hobeich police station in Beirut and a raid on the hammam was initiated. The employees alleged that the officers encountered no evidence of sexual activity at the hammam, but that the arrestees were nevertheless forced to confess, under duress, to homosexual acts and/or prostitution.
One employee, for example, claimed to have been subjected to a torture technique known as "al-farrouj" (Arabic for the chicken), during which his hands were tied behind his back and the soles of his feet were beaten. Legal Agenda wrote that all of the arrested employees were beaten and tortured, and all those detained had to undergo HIV and illegal drug testing carried out by investigators, not physicians, without their consent. “They were threatened with the result, told that it would be determined by their testimony,” Wansa said. The report also states that detainees were threatened with rectal examinations if they failed to confess.
In response to such reported violations, Proud Lebanon has made an effort to teach its beneficiaries about their legal rights. “Nobody has the right to touch your phone,” Maalouf said. “We bring in lawyers to educate people, to teach them that they have the right to stay silent, that rectal exams are not allowed.”
But an awareness of rights, said Wansa, is not enough to protect a detainee. “This isn’t the first time we’ve documented this scenario. Lately, there’s been a pattern — you go in for an administrative matter at a security bureau, they don’t like the way you look and decide to look through your phone. Knowing your rights can empower you a bit more, but it doesn’t mean you’re protected from having your rights violated.”
It comes down to a problem of accountability, she elaborated. This is why Legal Agenda documents the testimony of individuals who say they have had their civil rights violated under detention, and files complaints on their behalf with the general prosecutor, requesting that such infringements be formally investigated and their perpetrators prosecuted.
By actively confronting such violations through legal channels and awareness campaigns, naming violators, lodging formal complaints and reaching out to affected and influential stakeholders, the organization hopes to alleviate some of the injustices taking place within the criminal justice system.
In 2012, for example, a number of men, arrested during an anti-gay raid on Beirut’s Plaza Cinema, were subjected to rectal exams. Legal Agenda partnered with Helem to start a campaign against the invasive procedure, motivating the Lebanese Order of Physicians to ban and brand it medically useless. Shortly after, the general prosecutor issued a circular calling for the halting of such exams.
While Lebanon remains far from an LGBT-friendly country, activists have been able to log a few wins. In particular, two landmark rulings in 2009 and 2014 set important legal precedents in the fight to abolish Article 534. The judges in both cases acquitted defendants charged under 534, arguing that conceptions of nature are socio-cultural constructs, making it impossible to designate any behavior categorically unnatural.
Taking matters a step further, a collaborative colloquium was held May 14-16 to examine the use of "nature" in criminalizing individuals in various contexts.
Karim Nammour, a lawyer and contributor to Legal Agenda, discussed ways in which activists have engaged the same laws used to persecute LGBT people in Lebanon to "manufacture" their rights. During his presentation, Nammour cited the response to the 2013 raid on a nightclub in Dekwaneh. In its aftermath, a number of activists filed a complaint with the general prosecutor, accusing the mayor who authorized the raid of 11 criminal offenses, many of which are often used against the LGBT community itself — such as coercion to indecent acts (two detainees were forced to kiss).
In this way, Nammour explained, “Current articles in the penal code can be used to manufacture something the penal code doesn’t recognize itself, in this case homophobia and homophobic offenses.”
“There has been a lot of positive change,” said Wansa, “but we’re not there yet.”