BEIRUT (AP) — Nour has never felt entirely safe as a queer person in Lebanon. But in recent years, the 25-year-old pharmacist had begun letting his guard down, meeting friends in LGBTQ spaces in Beirut and even performing in drag shows.
He now chooses to stay at home, fearing more than ever for his safety after a wave of anti-LGBTQ hate speech that followed the Lebanese Interior Ministry’s decision last month to end any event aimed at promoting the “sexual perversion”.
The setback is part of a broader crackdown on marginalized groups and freedoms that activists say is aimed at distracting public attention from Lebanon’s spiraling economic and financial crisis.which plunged more than three quarters of the population into poverty.
Millions of people in the once middle-income country continue to struggle with soaring inflation, widespread power cuts and drug shortageswhile tens of thousands left the country looking for opportunities abroad.
“It really felt like they just wanted to distract the masses from everything that was going on and focus on this hot topic,” said Nour, who asked to use a pseudonym because he didn’t make his coming out to his family, to the Associated Press.
Security forces have since cracked down on several events aimed at the LGBTQ community, forcing their organizers to shut them down. They also visited the offices of Helem, the nation’s first registered LGBTQ advocacy group, asking for their registration papers and other documents.
The move follows strong complaints from religious leaders who publicly described them as impious and said they did not conform to Lebanese customs.
In a June 24 statement, the Home Office said LGBTQ-friendly events “violate the customs and traditions of our society and contradict the tenets of the Abrahamic religions.”
Helem executive director Tarek Zeidan blasted the statement, saying it “pits the Lebanese against each other”.
“It was very clear that this was a deliberate decision to manufacture a moral panic in order to distract from the general political and economic disaster that is Lebanon today,” Zeidan said.
Since late 2019, Lebanon has been reeling from a crippling economic crisis that the World Bank says is one of the worst in the world since the mid-1800s. The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value against the dollar, while much of the population struggles to cope with soaring prices for diesel, petrol, medicine and foodstuffs.
Citizens and experts blame decades of financial mismanagement and corruption at the hands of Lebanon’s entrenched ruling elite for the crisis.
Human rights organizations say the recent setback for the LGBTQ community is part of a broader crackdown on civil rights and freedoms, coupled with the economic crisis.
In May, the religious stood up after newly elected lawmakers and advocacy groups promoted civil marriage and state-mandated personal status laws independent of religious courts.
Last month, comedian and rights activist Shaden Fakih appeared in military court accused of damaging the reputation and insulting the country’s internal security forces during a prank during the lockdown of the country by COVID-19, in which she asked permission to leave the house in order to buy sanitary napkins.
And earlier this month, the Lebanese government announced it was in talks with Syria on a plan for the forced return of refugees. for more than one million Syrians in the country.
Some activists and human rights defenders say Lebanese authorities are trying to find scapegoats, as they block investigations linked to a host of financial crimes, the 2020 Beirut port explosion and skyrocketing cases of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“The state seems completely unwilling or unable to crack down on serious rights violations like corruption, torture, hate speech, but on the other hand, it acts very quickly under pressure from religious institutions and other institutions powerful forces in the country to suppress the rights of marginalized groups,” Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the AP.
In some cases, residents have responded to religious leaders by taking matters into their own hands.
In the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh, supporters dubbed the Soldiers of God – a protest group that upholds socially conservative values and laws – tore down a billboard promoting events for the month of pride. Elsewhere, residents of the Sunni neighborhood of Tarik Jdideh rallied to condemn the events by the LGBTQ community and their supporters, calling it an “infiltration” into their community.
Reverend Abdo Abou Kassm, director of the Catholic Information Center, a media arm of the Maronite Church, sympathized with the angry protesters, although he opposed all violence and intimidation.
“You have your freedom at home, but you can’t promote it in the community because it’s actually against nature. The law says so and almost all Lebanese comply with it,” said Abou Kassm, adding that the angry demonstrations were a reaction. “Our society is not ready for this.”
Despite a constant struggle against discrimination and abuse, the LGBTQ community in Lebanon is the most dynamic and open in the Arab world and has made significant progress in recent years. Although homosexuality is still considered a crime, the country has at least half a dozen active LGBTQ advocacy groups, as well as bars and clubs that openly cater to the community.
Now, Nour and his friends avoid meeting in their usual places, fearing raids and harassment.
“We have a WhatsApp group, so whenever someone goes out, we just let others know and when we think we’ll be back home,” he explained.
As Lebanon’s dire economic situation continues to deteriorate, activists fear authorities will continue to target marginalized groups to distract from the real issues.
“We are seeing the beginnings of a full-scale attack as this ruling regime begins to fear losing control,” Zeidan said. “What we are saying loud and clear is that they are coming for all of us. They first came for the refugees, and no one cared. Then they came for the fags and no one cared either.