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Opinion In Lebanon, gay activism is fueling a new conversation about democracy and civil rights

A protester plays a drum as he attends an anti-homophobia rally in Beirut on April 30, 2013. (Joseph Eid/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Antoun Issa is an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Over the past week, the Lebanese capital of Beirut has set an extraordinary precedent for the Middle East by hosting Beirut Pride Week, the region’s first-ever public celebration of LGBT awareness on such a grand scale. LGBT rights groups and supportive nongovernmental organizations have been holding events — including fashion exhibits, story-telling sessions and human rights conferences — in commemoration of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), with a big outdoor party planned for this Sunday in the country’s capital.

This isn’t the first time that Lebanon’s LGBT community has marked IDAHOT, but it’s certainly the first time it has received such widespread attention, some of it controversial. This week’s festival has received wide international coverage, symbolic support from Western governments (with British and Dutch embassies in Beirut raising the rainbow flag) and threats from religious extremists.

At the start of the week, the Association of Muslim Scholars, a group of Sunni extremists sympathetic to al-Qaeda, urged authorities to shut down a conference on LGBT issues from taking place. The organizers, a group called Proud Lebanon, had intended to unveil a report on LGBT victims of torture and abuse at Beirut’s Monroe Hotel. Proud Lebanon’s director, Bertho Makso, said the extremists had planned to stage a protest in front of the hotel. “We knew that they were preparing demonstrations at the entrance,” he told me. “And they are known for their harsh demonstrations.”

The episode encapsulates the precarious position of LGBT rights in the country. Gay activism in Lebanon has been around since 2004, when Helem, the Arab world’s first LGBT advocacy group, launched in the country. The community has since grown to include a number of LGBT rights groups, a sexual-health center and a vibrant scene of gay-friendly bars, restaurants and clubs — altogether a remarkable achievement for what is still a religiously conservative country. Beirut Pride Week is a milestone in the years of work by LGBT activists to promote tolerance and acceptance.

But this growing public presence is also prompting a backlash from Lebanon’s powerful political and sectarian factions. Even as Sunni extremists were threatening the conference in Beirut, a Christian church in Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli, was arranging a conference of its own to discuss ways to convert homosexuals to “normative sexual behavior,” according to news reports. And even Lebanon’s most powerful leader, Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah, saw it necessary to weigh in, slamming Western countries for exporting homosexuality to Lebanon. “Homosexual relations defy logic, human nature and the human mind,” he declared.

Despite the expected demonization, the fact that Lebanon’s powerful religious institutions and political leaders are forced to discuss homosexuality at all is considered a breakthrough by some. “When Nasrallah goes on TV and is forced to dedicate part of his speech to homosexuality … I think it’s a good thing,” Mustapha Jundi, a gay resident of Beirut, said.

The growing debate surrounding LGBT rights in Lebanon is one feature of a changing political landscape. The country’s balance of power has long been defined by sectarian factionalism, on which the political system is based. Lebanon’s parliament and government posts are allocated by religious sect, as a means to maintain balance between the various Muslim and Christian communities. Indeed, the country fought a 15-year civil war in the 1970s and 1980s largely along sectarian lines.

The political conversation in Lebanon has typically revolved around sectarianism — Muslim rights versus Christian rights, or Sunni rights versus Shiite rights. And Lebanon’s sectarianism has long been considered a plague on the country, resulting in today’s ineffective governance, widespread corruption and nepotism among the ruling elite, and rising poverty rates. Gender identity and sexuality has prompted a shift in political discourse away from sectarianism and toward civil rights, equality and tolerance — notions anathema to the current ruling political class, whether it be Hezbollah or Sunni and Christian institutions.

“The gay rights movement is part of the civil rights movement,” said Joseph Aoun, a coordinator at Helem. “We’ve been active in all the civil rights movement protests.” The LGBT question is now a central issue in the struggle for political change in the country. The movement is part of a broader coalition of rights-based and progressive groups in the country who regard themselves as equally marginalized by the current sectarian and patriarchal political system, such as women’s rights, workers’ rights, environmentalists and secular activists. This coalition of activists has grown in tandem with the LGBT movement, bringing progressive ideas and human rights issues to the fore.

A Helem promotional video from 2016, for example, blended LGBT rights with a raft of other political issues, such as poor governance, a lack of basic services and police brutality. All such activists agree that without political change in the country, their rights remain endangered. At the core of their demands is secularizing the political system and ending the crippling control of the country by religious institutions. It is no wonder then that religious groups have come out in force against homosexuality, and Beirut Pride Week in particular.

There is a lot at stake, politically, in the country in the push for LGBT rights. Currently, homosexuality, or behavior that “contradicts nature,” is ambiguously criminalized by Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code. If its opponents ever managed to revoke the law, it would mark a serious setback to religious authorities (both Muslim and Christian) and a major step in the direction of a civil, secular state.