It’s Friday and Amir, a 20-year-old Syrian, downloads an application to strike up a conversation with other gay men nearby. He tries to control his anxiety about the situation, expectantly waiting for his brother to walk into their shared room in a foster home close to the Lebanese capital Beirut.
Opening up any such dating application in the area is like going behind enemy lines without masking your face and shielding your body. It’s been so long since he’s even tried that he has forgotten that the Lebanese Ministry of Telecommunications has banned the use of Grindr, a popular dating application for gay, bi, and trans men, since January 2019. With a mixture of frustration and relief, he puts his phone back in his pocket.
“There are ways to circumvent security, applications that modify your IP to access Grindr, but honestly, after what has happened in Egypt, I am afraid of what the government might do,” says Amir, who is already quite sceptical about the possibility of finding a partner.
A few years ago, the Egyptian government used Grindr to track down gays and lesbians, with the intention of arresting them and convicting them of “immoral behaviour.”
In Lebanon, LGBTQ+ realities are so disparate that it could be said that it is one of the most liberal countries in the Arab World, all while bearing in mind the absence of human rights and stagnation of their advancement.
The line that separates culture and religion, whose presence is inexorable in the country’s politics, is diluted in a society that is halfway between openness and tradition. Lebanon has 18 recognized religious denominations, many of which are derived from Christianity and Islam, which explains the lack of a strong liberal mindset in rural areas.
The battle is even more complicated for the large number of Syrian immigrants who have arrived during the last decade. Amir’s case is just one example of the double burden that many LGBTQ+ refugees have to bear.
“It is very difficult to get a job as a Syrian, there is a kind of racism towards those who have come from outside. I don’t have a Syrian passport because I didn’t apply for military service and therefore I don’t have any papers here either,” he says.
Amir’s difficult past has not managed to dim any part of his bright personality. He is still a cheerful, smiling young man with hobbies like photography. The tone of his voice softens even more while recalling the days his mother watched over him and his seven siblings.
“She was one of the most fiery people I’ve ever met. My father left her alone and she continued to take care of all of us, the garden, the animals and the house,” he reflected. “One day she cut herself with a rusty knife while cooking, and the situation got so bad in the hospital that she died.”
Today, Amir’s life is a book full of secrets that few people know. No one knows about his sexuality, no matter how much he may have seen others in the queer community openly sharing theirs.
“One of my teachers is gay and says so on his social networks, but he spends half his time out of the country and has enough money to be safe, it’s not the same.”
Lebanon’s LGBTQ+ scene offers a reality to approach from very different points of view. It is certainly not without its difficulties. Demonstrations take place year after year, as do unsuccessful battles to host Beirut Pride and overcome the political and religious censorship of the LGBTQ+ community. While queer-friendly venues are visited as if they were part of an underground culture, they still exist and are an oasis of freedom for many.
Despite laws that vaguely condemn and criminalize homosexual relations, the capital is the epicenter of a quietly burning revolution. A cry that has been lodged for many years in the hearts of Lebanese people –one that has also manifested as part of the anti-government protests that have shaken the country in the past five months.
However, the Lebanese who are part of the LGBTQ+ community are participating in a masked ball where anonymity continues to safeguard dignity. The Lebanese Penal Code contains many articles that could be interpreted as justifying the criminalisation of the group.
Articles 531, 532 and 533 maintain “public ethics and morals.” Article 526 punishes “incitement to debauchery,”while article 534 –the most controversial of all– condemns “any sexual act contrary to the natural order.” None of these articles are explained in detail, which allows judges and police officers to administer the law on a case-by-case basis with alarming subjectivity.
Public spaces for the debate on sexual liberties are non-existent in the country. Some meetings on freedom and equality, such as the NEDWA conference, are continually disrupted by security forces without any justification. Politics is advancing at an anodyne pace, while time is slipping away for a younger generation that does not want to wait another minute for the transformation to happen.
The exclusion of the trans community
Last year, Human Rights Watch documented the merciless abuses committed by security forces on the streets of the country through 55 interviews with transgender women living in Lebanon.
Mirna, a 22-year-old transgender Syrian woman, describes an encounter she experienced in May 2017 while walking near a military base in Jounieh. A soldier called them to approach, starting off by telling Mirna he thought she was a woman.
After going through her bag and finding a pink mobile charger, the soldier said, “It’s not enough that you look like a faggot, you’re carrying a pink charger.”
“They took me inside and searched my phone,” explained Mirna. “When the soldier found a picture of me with lipstick on it, he hit me with his hand wide open in the face. His hand was the size of my face and the blow left my whole body in shock.”
The political parties that express their support for the LGBTQ+ collective only allude to their rights. The trans community is excluded from any conversation on human rights –even sometimes within the feminist movement– and is condemned to a forced ostracism that further complicates the possibilities of a dignified life.
Some of them are visibly fighting hard and are shaping up to be the most disruptive agents of Lebanese conservatism. Sasha Elijah is a woman whose career is marked by the long and winding road she has had to travel to fearlessly define herself as a transgender model, performer, and actress.
She has been insulted, beaten, threatened with death and imprisoned but, without wanting to, she has become one of the references in the struggle for the visibility of trans individuals.
“I am not afraid to show who I am, especially in this country. I want people to be aware of the situation of transgender people,” she says.
But no matter how many rainbow flags are waved around the city of Beirut and no matter how much visibility some queer individuals in Lebanon have, a new revolution will still be needed to destigmatize the LGBTQ+ community among circles like Amir’s.
“Here the word ‘gay’ is used as an insult. It would be impossible for me to tell anyone,” he confesses. On one occasion, his brother found the word in the search history of his computer. Since then, they have shared a secret that, far from building a trusting relationship, has led to continuous beatings from his brother to try and control his sexuality.
Several weeks after the initial interview with Amir, he happily relays that he has managed to acquire a Lebanese passport in exchange for eleven thousand dollars, thanks to a loan from some of his friends.
His far-off desire to start a life free of attacks and intolerance is beginning to shape up into a reality. Perhaps his buried hope is the reason why Amir rarely evokes feelings of grief. Instead, he always tries to embody the strength of will that neither conservative politics nor closed cultures can stop.
Disclaimer: Some names and identifying details have been changed in this article to ensure the safety and privacy of individuals.