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Last Updated: Friday, 26 May 2006, 14:41 GMT 15:41 UK
Landmark meeting for gay Lebanese
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Beirut

For people routinely harassed and sometimes arrested by the Lebanese authorities, it was refreshing to be able to attend a public event without fear of being detained.

But the gun-toting policemen standing outside the hotel were not there to carry out a raid against the dozens of people who had gathered inside for the press conference by the gay rights organisation, Helem.

Helem members take part in Beirut Marathon in 2005
Lebanon is seeing its first stirrings of gay pride
Instead, the police were there to ensure the safety of the event.

The press conference part of a three-day event organised by Helem to coincide with International Day Against Homophobia, which marks the day in May 1990 on which the World Health Organisation took homosexuality off its list of mental disorders.

'Dream'

These are changing times in Lebanon too, according to George Azzi, the co-ordinator for Helem, which is the Arabic acronym for Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders. Helem also means dream in Arabic.

In Lebanon, they're still trying to 'cure' homosexuality, so this event is a way for us to explain what homosexuality is
George Azzi
It's the first such organisation in the Arab world.

"In Lebanon, they're still trying to 'cure' homosexuality, so this event is a way for us to explain what homosexuality is.

"But things have been changing, especially in Beirut, gays are more accepted and Helem is becoming much more visible," said Mr Azzi.

It's only the second year that Helem has organised a public event - the first year very few people attended.

Courage

The organisation is considered legal because the government did not respond negatively to their request for registration within three months of applying. "Basically, they did not know what do with us so they didn't respond, therefore we're legal," Mr Azzi said.

"It was very hard for us at the beginning, but we got a lot of support after a while, today we work with a lot of other NGOs who wouldn't work with us at first and we opened our community centre a year ago."

Patriarchal Arab societies don't accept that women have sexual desires, so for a woman to say not only that she is sexually active but that she doesn't need a man... that's quite shocking
Reina Sarkis, psychoanalyst
It took a lot of courage for gays and lesbian people to attend the event as it made their sexual orientation public in a country where homosexuality is still considered illegal.

Most of those attending the event did not want to have their picture taken.

Under article 534 of the penal code, "unnatural sexual intercourse" is punishable by the law and this article is used to harass homosexual people.

Though no-one has been convicted recently under the article, Helem's main goal is to have it removed it from the law.

The organisation says the article also makes homosexual people feel vulnerable and stops them from seeking help from the police for ordinary matters like thefts.

Informal political support

"This event is very good for us, it shows that we exist and that we're not some strange underground community," said Oliver, one of those attending.

"I'm not afraid but a lot of people are still afraid to show they are gay." Nada, a young woman at the conference said it was easier for women to hide their bisexuality or homosexuality.

"Women can even still get married and have children. But it's harder for men, especially if they're feminine, and our societies are more used to see women touch and hold hands and be affectionate," said Nada.

But Reina Sarkis, a psychoanalyst who works with Helem, also said that lesbians were accepted as long as they did not make their sexual orientation known.

"Patriarchal Arab societies don't accept that women have sexual desires, so for a woman to say not only that she is sexually active but that she doesn't need a man because she's having sex with a woman, that's quite shocking."

The organisation was getting support from a number of politicians but only informally because religion is still very powerful in Lebanon and politics ruled by sectarianism, Mr Azzi says.

"So what we also support in Lebanon is secularism in politics and everyday life. If secularism becomes the trend in Lebanon then gay rights will come next."


SEE ALSO:
Lebanon's gays struggle with law
29 Aug 05 |  Middle East
Gay Iraqis fear for their lives
17 Apr 06 |  Middle East
US condemns UAE gay men arrests
29 Nov 05 |  Middle East


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