A survey in Lebanon has shed new light on attitudes to sexual freedom but also uncovered some apparent contradictions.
Researchers from the Beirut-based Gender and Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC) found broad support among the Lebanese for sexual freedom in general.
Most of those interviewed (56%) agreed that "Any sexual act between consenting adults should not be legally prohibited" and that "A person’s sexual behaviour is his or her own business and nobody should make value judgments about it".
But this changed dramatically when interviewers presented them with a statement saying "If two people love each other, then it shouldn't matter whether they are a woman and a man, two women, or two men" – and asked if they agreed or disagreed. The vast majority (84%) disagreed.
Huge numbers also thought homosexuality is immoral (81%), that it "endangers the institution of the family" (85%) and that "gay people are a threat to society" (66%).
For the study – said to be the first large-scale attempt to gather detailed information about Lebanese views on gender, bodily and sexual rights – a nationally representative sample of 1,200 people were interviewed by telephone.
One curious finding was that while most Lebanese think homosexuality should be illegal they are less keen on people being punished for it.
A majority (66%) agreed that "laws against homosexuality are necessary to keep down the number of homosexuals in the population". However, when asked how homosexuality should be punished, 85% disagreed with execution, 66% disagreed with imprisonment and 57% disagreed with fines.
In their report, the researchers interpret this as a desire for some mechanism "that de-legitimises homosexual acts in society".
The apparent reluctance to punish homosexuality may also reflect a popular view that it is primarily a medical "problem". In the survey, large majorities regarded it as a mental disorder (72%), as a hormonal sickness (79%) and a genetic condition (68%).
Oddly, since a large majority attributed homosexuality to genetics, 57% also regarded it as "a choice" and 65% agreed that "one can stop being gay".
At a more personal level, researchers found evidence of a general desire to avoid mixing with gay people. Most respondents agreed with the following statements:
I avoid homosexuals wherever possible (69%)
I would not want to be part of a group or company with known or suspected homosexual members of staff (55%)
I would be nervous if a person who looked homosexual sat next to me in public (57%)
If I discovered a friend of mine was gay, I would end the relationship (58%)
An underlying issue here is what the GSRC report calls "homosexuality by association". While there is probably "a degree of awareness that those who tolerate or 'defend' homosexuals, are not necessarily homosexuals themselves", the report says people still seem to be concerned about how they will be perceived if they do so.
Turning to transgender issues, the survey found widespread disgust at cross-dressing, with 87% agreeing that "A man who dresses as a woman is a pervert". There was slightly less disapproval of women who dress as men (81%).
Eighteen per cent agreed that "if I encountered a man on the street wearing women's clothes, I would consider being physically or verbally abusive", and 14% said they would feel the same about a woman in male clothing.
Although most people questioned the morality of sex-change operations, 55% thought they were acceptable "if there is a medical or biological (hormonal) condition". However, a very large majority (83%) considered them unacceptable if "based on one's personal choice".
Most (55%) also agreed that "If someone I'd known for a long time revealed to me that they used to be another gender, I would have a problem accepting them".
In their introduction to the report, authors Nour Nasr and Tarek Zeidan write:
"The data gathered constitutes an essential foundation whose aim is to inform and support future research, advocacy and programming related to sexuality, homosexuality, and transgender identities. The aim of gathering this information was to reveal what Lebanese people were likely to think and act towards these issues, not only for the sake of measuring levels of tolerance but also to reveal how and where they are manifested.
"Another goal was to acquire statistically sound and corroborated data that would aid in designing and enacting more effective advocacy strategies and programs to spread information and implement change. This data will also be useful in evaluating the conduct of state institutions (whether official or non-official) and for providing state actors with concrete evidence as to the opinion of the public towards policies that concern these issues.
"Finally, measuring attitudes towards genders and sexualities in the future will allow stakeholders to compare those results with ones gathered by this survey."
GSRC is part of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality and the research project was funded by the European Union and the Arcus Foundation.
This short cartoon video, published by the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health, tackles some common misconceptions about homosexuality.