In the Beirut office of Helem there’s poster showing images of war with a message that says: “I don’t believe in a country where it’s more acceptable to see two men holding guns than two men holding hands.”
Lebanon has always had more than its share of men holding guns. Men holding hands are a different matter but there are signs that attitudes may be starting to change.
Helem, the first LGBT organisation to be set up in an Arab country, caused a stir in 2003 when 10 of its members joined a protest march against the Iraq war, waving a rainbow flag. “One of them had his hair dyed green and another had piercing in his ears,” a Lebanese newspaper reported.
That first appearance of a rainbow flag marked the start of Helem’s long struggle for public acceptance and recognition by the authorities. Under Lebanese law, new organisations must register with the authorities but when Helem submitted its application it never got a reply. Apparently no one in officialdom was willing to approve such a controversial organisation.
Fortunately for Helem, the law also sets a time limit for the authorities to respond and organisations that hear nothing are deemed to be legally registered. With the authorities continuing to sit on the fence, though, it still lacks an official registration number - which means, among other things, that it cannot open a bank account in Lebanon.
Two years ago the governor of Beirut tried to close Helem down and sent the police on a fishing expedition to check whether it had broken any laws. It hadn’t, but Helem’s office was searched and three of its organisers were summoned for questioning. One of the detectives, apparently hoping for a breakthrough in the case, enquired: “Do you have sex in your meetings?”
In the meantime, Helem’s relations with the health ministry have gradually improved - mainly through its work on HIV prevention.
“We had been struggling for the Ministry of Health to sign our brochures on HIV awareness,” co-ordinator Georges Azzi said, “but they never recognised publicly that Helem is an organisation existing here.”
That changed when the ministry decided to support HIV testing centres and entered into a formal partnership with Helem. “Helem is now one of the officially recognised centres in Lebanon,” Georges said. “That's a success story - that we have the official stamp of the ministry on our tests.”
Since the abortive raid on its office, relations with the police have also “changed completely”, according to Georges. “We've been in touch with them regularly. We invited them when we launched our sexual health booklet at the hotel - and they came.
“Interestingly enough, the head of the police said publicly that he thinks the law is stupid but his job is to apply the law. Since then we have been in touch regularly with him, in a very nice way.”
Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code says that “all unnatural intercourse” should be punished with up to a year in jail but the police do not go out of their way to enforce it.
“There is tolerance when it comes to homosexuality now, but this is all arbitrary - nothing is stable.” Azzi said. “The police in Beirut are more tolerant if they see someone who's apparently gay - they won't bother him. But it's not the case in Tripoli [50 miles north of Beirut] or other conservative areas. It depends really on the area. There is no official campaign like in Egypt, for example, where they are looking for gay men to arrest them. But if it happens that you are in Tripoli and someone knows that you are gay and the police decide to arrest you, they can do it.”
This may not be tolerance as people imagine it in the west, but it’s a lot better than in most of the Middle East. For several years Helem was the only LGBT organisation based in an Arab country but now it has been joined in by Meem, a lesbian group also based in Lebanon. There are also two Palestinian groups - Aswat (“Voices”) and al-Qaws (“The Rainbow”) but both are based across the green line in Israel where gay rights are legally recognised.
From the beginning, Helem recognised that it could not survive alone, so it deliberately sought allies among others who work on sexual and reproductive rights, human rights, and so on, as well as sympathetic professionals such as lawyers, doctors and teachers.
“We were able to create a space that protects itself by being involved with other groups … and by being visible,” Ghassan Makarem, one of Helem’s activists said. “Visibility was one of the main components of our strategy. We worked with human rights organisations … and with women’s organisations.”
A surprise opportunity to make new contacts came just over two years ago during the month-long war with Israel. Hundreds of shia Muslims fleeing the bombs in areas controlled by Hizbullah camped out in Sanayeh Park - just a block away from Helem’s office. Helem joined forces with a variety of other groups and turned its office into a humanitarian relief centre.
That month of war, Ghassan says, “created more visibility than in the past five years, and also in areas where we never thought that we could easily be. It actually reduced some of the tension that we might have expected in Dahiya [the Hizbullah stronghold].
“People doing research on Dahiya are saying that there has been a lot of publicity for Helem and there's a lot of debate happening when you open the issue of sexuality, on Helem's role, the war, etc.”
Though Ghassan says there was not much overt hostility from Hizbullah towards Helem or homosexuality in general before the war, Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, dampened it further by saying later that anyone who had helped with the relief effort should be considered a friend - “and he made a point that it includes everyone”.
Helem is also becoming better known in other Arab countries, with more than 1,000 people on its emailing list. “We have a lot from Kuwait, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt but none from Syria,” Georges Azzi said. “We also receive some emails from Iraq.”
This seems to be the result of increasing attention from the Arab media, though much of the coverage is negative. “There was an article in al-Arabiyya [the website of a leading satellite TV channel] against Helem,” Georges continued. “It said we're breaking one of the few taboos in the Arab world and that we're bringing debauchery and bad influence from the west. And then you read all the comments coming from readers ... ‘We should kill them’, ‘We should burn them’, ‘We don't have homosexuals here’ - it was really funny. When they published the article we received many donations from Arab countries.”
In April, Helem opened a 24-hour hotline (which it quickly renamed a “helpline” when some callers got the wrong idea). In the first two months it received around 150 calls, including a lot from Saudi Arabia.
“It's a cellphone, basically,” Georges said. “We have volunteers who are trained to answer and we have different procedures for different cases. There's a shift, everyone takes a turn. When you take the phone you know that you are not allowed to go out to a party, for example.
“Generally it's people wanting information about Helem, about homosexuality, HIV/Aids, and how they can deal with different situations. We get some emergency cases, too - people who are getting kicked out of their houses late at night because of their family. They have no place to stay.”
That is a common reaction from families throughout the Middle East when people come out, or get found out.
“Most of the people who get kicked out of their houses are young and still at university and they decide to come out to their parents - but it's not the right time. Coming out is not the solution when you have no protection,” Georges said.
“They meet someone, they have a boyfriend, they think they are strong enough and they can say it out loud. They think that their parents could be a bit tolerant, because they were watching a TV show that talked about homosexuality and they heard no bad comments [from their parents]. But they did not realise that when it comes to your own son it's different …
“Sometimes there are stupid things - like his ex-boyfriend decides to get revenge on him, so he tells his parents. Or they discover that he has magazines, or his brother is using the same computer and he sees Gaydar or Manjam on it.
“In that situation, you really need to finish university. Lying to your parents and even telling them ‘OK, I'm going to go to a psychiatrist to try to become heterosexual’ - I don't think it's bad. Do it! Finish your studies and you can do whatever you want afterwards.”
The lack of support for young gay men who have become homeless is one of the next problems that Helem is hoping to tackle. At the moment it has some emergency funds and can usually find a place for someone to sleep for a few nights, but it is all done informally. They really need a proper shelter.
“Of course, we cannot open a shelter as Helem,” Georges said. “It could be easily targeted or they could accuse us of opening a sex place, so we're going to have it jointly with a women's rights organisation. That could be next year's project ...”