In an almost unheard of event for the Arab world, Lebanon's LGBT group held a gay rights demonstration on May 10 in downtown Beirut, with several dozen demonstrators carrying rainbow flags and signs in Arabic, English, and French. The demonstration was organized by HELEM, which is the Arabic acronym for Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders, and Queers; the word "helem" is also Arabic for "dream." It was intended as part of HELEM's new campaign to repeal Article 534 of Lebanon's penal code, which prohibits sexual relations that "contradict the laws of nature" and carries a one-year prison term.
HELEM is the only LGBT organization able to operate openly in any Arab country, and was the recipient of the 2009 Felice de Souza Award given by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. HELEM operates a walk-in LGBT community center in a beautiful French colonial building not far from downtown Beirut.
Turkey, the only other largely Muslim country in the region with open LGBT groups, is not Arab, and groups representing gays and especially the transgendered in Turkey have been under increasing legal attack by the Islamist government now in power there to ban them, taking steps that have enflamed rising anti-gay and anti-trans violence in the country. ASWAT, which bills itself as an organization of "Palestinian gay women," operates from Israel but cannot do so openly in the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Iraqi LGBT, headquartered in London, has members and informants throughout Iraq, but its operations there are totally clandestine, and 17 of its gay activists inside Iraq have been murdered for their membership in the group in the four-year-old "sexual cleansing" murder campaign by anti-gay Shiite death squads. At the same time, Iraqi LGBT is characterized by the current government as an "unauthorized terrorist organization," and five members of the group arrested and given a hasty star chamber trial on charges of belonging to such an organization are in prison and believed to be awaiting execution.
The Sunday demonstration in Beirut was the second organized by HELEM this year. A slightly smaller action was held in February to protest an extremely violent attack on two gay men by the Lebanese Army. In that homophobic incident, the two men, seen making out in a doorway on the Place Sassine, were arrested by an Army patrol and severely beaten bloody in the street with rifle butts, fists, and boot kicks as a crowd of onlookers who poured out of nearby cafes watched. According to HELEM, "State agents' behavior with LGBT individuals in Lebanon is marred by a string of human rights violations as well as by frequent violations of Lebanese law. State intelligence services used informer networks and lengthy interrogations of LGBT detainees in order to gather information on suspects." Police keep records of LGBT suspects and of the places they frequent, which are kept under surveillance.
The group added, "The Internal Security Forces have been given a discretionary authorization to censor all foreign magazines and non-periodical works, as well as foreign and local plays, books, and films, before they were distributed in the market. They also continue to confiscate personal LGBT publications from their owners at the Beirut International Airport. They even scrutinize private mail entering or exiting the country, confiscating LGBT books, magazines, and films."
In connection with the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) - observed in more than 60 countries each May 17 in commemoration of the World Health Organization's removal in 1993 of homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, HELEM is sponsoring this weekend a decriminalization rally and concert for repeal of Article 534, to be held at the Babel Theater in Beirut.
In addition to counseling, consciousness-raising, AIDS prevention, and other educational services that HELEM provides at its community center, the group has recently been making a particular effort to aid the growing number of Iraqi gays fleeing to Lebanon to escape the campaign of assassinations in their home country.
The May 3 Huffington Post carried an article by Lebanon-based journalist Meris Lutz in which she interviewed one such new refugee, a 21-year-old code-named "Hassan" (the interview was arranged by HELEM director Georges Azzi, who accompanied "Hassan.") The Iraqi youth told the journalist of "three weeks of rape and torture at the hands of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, followed by a month of living as a fugitive before fleeing to Lebanon."
The Huffington Post added, "According to Iraqis and human rights workers interviewed for this post, some sort of understanding was reached between the Iraqi government and the Mahdi Army to 'cleanse' Iraq of homosexuals." Lutz wrote, "According to Hassan and M.M., another gay Iraqi who fled to Jordan and eventually made his way to Lebanon, [radical Islamist cleric and Mahdi Army leader] Muqtada al-Sadr was given the green light from the government to attack homosexuals after video footage of a private party attended by gays, lesbians, and transsexuals began circulating Iraq. Neither had attended the party or seen the footage, but several others confirmed they had heard the rumor. The BBC recently posted a number of videos depicting homosexuals and cross dressers being harassed by security forces. The video provided a pretext for the Mahdi Army, partially disbanded and discredited, to reconstitute itself as a morality force. Other armed groups were not far behind."
The Huffington Post's journalist reported that Human Rights Watch staffers returning from a trip to Iraq were among the human rights workers she interviwed who confirmed the account of the new agreement between al-Sadr and the Iraqi government to "cleanse" the country of homosexuals.
The web site of the Lebanese LGBT group HELEM, in English, Arabic, and French, is at helem.net/. The Huffington Post interview with the young gay Iraqui refugee in Lebanon is at huffingtonpost.com/meris-lutz/the-pink-army_b_195282.html. Doug Ireland may be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, athttp://direland.typepad.com/.