Homophobia, despite its classification as a form of hate and aggression, still remains widespread in Lebanon and the greater MENA region. Historically, the LGBT community has been marginalized, oppressed, and the very existence of LGBT people deemed wrong or immoral.
For decades, LGBTQ+ rights advocates and activists have fought major battles in the street and elsewhere to assert the human rights of the community, in the face of an increasingly intolerant state apparatus and public space. Over the time, they have succeeded in making small, yet significant steps, towards making the community visible, granting it safe spaces, and more.
But the challenge remains as localized societal norms gradually evolve with global cultural shifts.
One prime case study of this is interactions on Lebanese twitter during pride month. Anyone supportive, or belonging to, the LGTBQ+ community, is exposed to blatant expressions and displays of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.
All sorts of religious fanatics, social conservatives, but more prominently political pundits associated with sectarian parties emerge with threats, demonization, and defamation of LGBT people.
This has spiked considerably over the past four years, as the October 17 protests brought socially liberal platforms, and particularly those of the LGBTQ+, into the forefront of the national conversation.
Homophobic rhetoric as Lebanese societal values
At times of political tumult, such as the recent parliamentary elections, sectarian candidates would regularly attack LGBTQ+ people and scapegoat them to entice their conservative electorates, drawing on the familiar societal values that champion hate.
A shift, however, has become noticeable in anti-LGBT rhetoric and phrasing in Lebanon. With the rise of conservatism in the West and the strong anti-LGBT rhetoric espoused by people like Matt Walsh, local homophobic rhetoric has adopted Western conservative tropes in attacking the LGBT community.
It’s not uncommon to come across translated videos and episodes from Walsh and other conservative rolemodels, such as Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate. These videos and linguistic choices are being increasingly employed in today’s social media attacks against the LGBT community, and are gaining ground among a generation of youth which is becoming more and more radicalized by the Lebanese socio-economic crisis.
To get a better sense of how this transmission of rhetoric has become the new line for attacking the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon, Beirut Today spoke to Doumit Azzi, an LGBTQ+ rights activist.
“The anti-LGBT narratives that were produced and adopted by the [Western] Republican right, and reinforced by the funded right-wing media, moved to our region and Lebanon in particular, especially as access to content became faster and easier,” Azzi contended.
Equating members of the LGBTQ+ to criminals
Azzi also notes that there is a rise of a specifically malicious targeting of LGBTQ+ people as pedophilic.
“All this led to fueling the wave of hatred in our region with Western terminologies and concepts and narratives that are not related to our reality, such as the expression groomer, opening the discussion of trans kids, although it has no basis in our region, as well as accusing drag queens of grooming children.”
Such discourse cannot be dismissed in a largely conservative environment, where traditionalism continues to hold great weight in the social space. Despite its apparent “non-violence”, this rhetoric has managed to incite a massive wave of hatred, even amongst people perceived to be liberal. This has transformed any conversation about LGBTQ+ rights into a highly polarizing debate surrounding what should be a basic human right.
While this has exposed pre-existing bigotry, especially since these arguments were repeated by the same people, it was a remarkable transformation of Western hate speech into the Arab lexicon, especially as LGBT rights are no longer in the shadow of Lebanese social conversations.
Let us take a look at some of this shift in rhetoric at the local Lebanese scene, especially amongst self-proclaimed conservatives. For example, this tweet expressed admiration for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s fight with Disney. DeSantis had recently signed into state law the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, which prohibits public schools from having classroom discussion or giving classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade.
DeSantis has recently stepped up his anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, especially after he announced a presidential bid in May in the hopes of appealing to a conservative electorate which remains dominated by Donald Trump. This is not just a facet of cross-cultural exchange: this is one example of how Western anti-LGBTQ+ lingo has been transplanted into the Middle East, where societies remain very much receptive to such language.
Attacks on the alternative media
Another new line of attack has been extended to non-governmental organizations, and their affiliation with George Soros. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Lebanon are of extreme importance: as government infrastructure collapsed, NGOs helped fill a gap which has benefitted the marginalized groups in Lebanese society, long alienated and oppressed by a hostile society and a deeply corrupt government.
Specifically, media outlets like Daraj, Megaphone, and Legal Agenda have become targets not only for partisans, but also for a constituency which has adopted Western contemporary rhetoric against topics like immigration, abortion, politics, and LGBT rights.
For example, a tweet claimed that Megaphone and Daraj – two alternative media outlets – received funding from Open Society Foundations, which were founded by Soros in the 1980s. Both of these outlets, since their inception, have been vocal advocates of the LGBTQ+ community and its rights in the region. On the surface, such targeting may appear to be nothing but an attack on a media outlet.
However, this is not entirely the case: by attacking the integrity of an outlet, these people are covering their attack with a veneer of “freedom of expression” (another Western conservative trope) while promptly propagating a morally alarmist discourse which targets the LGBTQ+ community and other minorities.
To understand how this “hidden” attack on the LGBTQ+ community works, Beirut Today spoke with Jad Hani, a researcher at the Samir Kassir Foundation (SKF). SKF advocates for freedom of expression and tracks harmful speech in social and other media.
“What anti-LGBT advocates do is they mask their homophobia and hate speech under broad and abstract slogans such as freedom of expression. This trend has especially become popular in the aftermath of the crisis,” he said.
Hani added that the new mass of imported homophobic discourse on social media “is much more benign, as it seemingly masks its true purposes by focusing on how LGBTQ+ advocacy focuses on “sexualizing children.”
He notes that the trope of “weakening the moral fabric of society” is no longer as widespread, because it did not cause much outrage.
“You are more likely to vilify a community, already under government and societal oppression, by saying that they are funded by shady actors and want to sexualize children, which are false charges that galvanize a socially conservative society against a group of people in an attempt to dehumanize them and strip them of their rights,” he said.
Examples abound on how new forms of homophobia, ones which appear less sinister and are less explicit as traditional homophobia, have been growing in our spaces. Most significantly, it is important to understand how language is easily manipulated to spread hatred in a new fashion – one which even some activists have a hard time understanding or spotting.