Lebanon: Lebanese LGBT community fights to keep safe spaces

Although Beirut is one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in the region, there are still some limitations that don’t allow the community to express themselves freely.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — On a sofa in a dimly lit bar, two young women finish their beers while they caress each other’s hands. Oblivious to the music, to the people who enter and leave, they look at each other as if they were the only inhabitants of the city. But as they cross the threshold, they undo their intertwined fingers. The darkness no longer protects them, and they must disguise their chemistry. After all, they are in Lebanon — although Beirut, with its thousand nuances, is something like an oasis for them. Members of the LGBT community know very well which are the safe spaces to flirt, love and express themselves, but still the streets are hostile to them.

“Queer people have existed in Lebanon for a long time, but they just navigate differently,” said Tarek Zeidan, director of Helem. This organization, which means dream in Arabic, claims to be the first one in the region created to defend LGBT rights 22 years ago. “The first rainbow flag raised in the Arab world was in 2003 in Beirut during a protest against the US invasion of Iraq,” he told Al-Monitor. Seventeen years later, the Lebanese capital continues to be a refuge for those outside the hetero norm.

In 2021 alone, Helem processed more than 4,000 incidents of violations, risk and/or humanitarian needs. Compared to previous years, there was an increase of 667% of total incidents recorded. Queer Syrian refugees also suffer higher risks of blackmail along with increased vulnerability. Other groups such as trans people or non-binary people are suffering too.