North Africa, West Asia

The obstacle to Gay rights in Lebanon: homophobia or westphobia?

The negotiation between acceptability and repression is embedded in an East vs. West clash.

Rayyan Dabbous
27 May 2019, 1.06pm
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There is a historical paradox: the last decades, not the preceding centuries or millennia, seem to shape the present. The homoerotism of 8th century poet Abu Nawas, the medieval love between Hind and Al-Zarqa - a history of queer desire in the Middle East vanished under the rug of a briefer history of desiring the Middle East. Arriving colonies or American corps, Baudelaire's exoticism or Hollywood's, a struggle for independence or a fear of foreign interference - East vs. West, an inevitable by-product, arguably as old as the Greeks' possessive longing for Troy. Damage is done. The struggle for gay rights in the Middle East cannot turn a blind eye toward this binary. To achieve gay liberation, Beirut cannot be Washington or London - same fight, different grounds; in fact, perhaps a different fight altogether because it has London and Washington in its satellite.


The background around Lebanon's unique position between East and West is too massive to cover within a short article. To set the stage, I start off with Saadallah Wannous's Drunken Days (1997), a play set in 1930s Beirut during the French occupation. A vivid scene introduces us to a Lebanese family of four young siblings, who surprise their old father with a tailored suit, a tie, and a Gatsby-style hat. The immediate refusal of the Lebanese father, wearing his traditional sherwal attire and typical tarbush hat, contrasts with the zeal of his four children, who celebrate their modern and clean-cut looks, signé designers, as well as their fluency in French and their excitement for social advancement. This scene exemplifies a kind of intergenerational clash of civilization within Lebanon akin to the country's gay rights struggle, one that ties, though wrongly, progress with westernization.

A precedence is women's rights. In Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance, Kelly and Breslin (2010) have noted how women's rights in Lebanon have been historically negotiated along Eastern vs. Western lines; a clash that borrows imaginary models from both hemispheres and that charges advocates of full women's rights as 'too westernized'. On the other side, the opponents of women's rights, women included, are charged to be inherently backwards and 'too Eastern' - the same complaint addressed to the traditional father in The Drunken Days, whose refusal of western standards comes at the price of refusing to bow down to the winds of modernity itself.

The real-life impact of this conflation between rights and geographies is seen in articles such as "Who owns the fight for LGBT+ rights in the Arab world?", published following the Luxembourg Prime Minister's supportive comments about gay rights in a Euro-Arab conference. This article, though fairly questioning whether gay rights ought to arise from within or without the region, is telling of the sensitivity of the topic itself - the trope of the western savior coming to liberate the East for the sake of freedom, a promise that had disastrous consequences in Iraq. This close scrutiny of any nod from the West about the East's progressive agenda is paralleled with a closer scrutiny of any efforts to reach out to the West within the East. This is best exemplified by Beirut Pride's refusal to hold any typical pride parade in its first edition in 2017. The following reads on its website's description of the events:

"Beirut Pride is not a westernized, imported platform, as its programme and initiatives are local and reflect on the specificities and intricacies of the Lebanese complex social fabrics."

One Lebanese academic who has predicted this conflation between East and West, past and present, straight and gay, is Tarek El-Ariss. In Trials of Arab Modernity, the reader gets a sense that what is modern in Arab society is neither the term gay nor surely rainbow flags - it is institutions within the region such as marriage and the nation-state that are modern; as modern as their new efforts to conceal and hide identities, which, in their part, have historically remained unchanged. In another work, Ottomania, El-Ariss goes as far as qualifying Arab masculinity as a modern by-product of the East-West divide - its arrival, he argues, coincides with a time of increased antagonism against the West; a new social patriarchy finding legitimacy in the political cause, a machismo that veils its newness by precisely hiding what is deep-rooted and age-old; empowered women and homosexuals.


An exception in the Middle East; the New York Times and other media have continually labeled Lebanon as such, emphasizing its special relationship to the remainder of the LGBT+ community in the Arab world. Indeed, articles such as "Beirut and Lebanon: The gay paradise of the Arab world" about the region's first gay club, "Everyone is welcome: the only gay hangout in the Arab world" about its first gay organization, "Lebanon launches Arab world's first gay pride week" about its first pride parade, all reveal a fascination with Lebanon as a new sexual oasis for Arabs.

The way the western media has covered Lebanese gay tolerance however deserves close scrutiny. Clearly, Lebanon's case is media-worthy - it paints the Orientalist trope of the calm and paradisiac oasis, its lakes and its palm trees, in the midst of desert and tribal warfare. This fantasy has been readily cashed in by the New York Times, France 24, BBC and others - but these have at the same time cashed in on its counter-narrative, especially when the second edition of Beirut Pride in 2018 was shut down by force.

Articles such as "Lebanon's gay-friendly reputation challenged by abuses," as well as "Lebanon Is Known as Gay Friendly. But Pride Week Was Shut Down," and "Not A Shock: The Only Gay Pride Event In The Arab Middle East Has Been Canceled" reveal how easily the West can retract its fascination of Lebanon - making its earlier favorable coverage merely a temporary spark of hope in a doomed region. Lebanon, for the West, becomes this small oasis in an Arab desert where homosexuality is both the most possible and the least desirable - as though Lebanon were indeed that no-man’s-land between East and West, a hollow valley spared from the East's hell but which falls short of western paradise.

Local Lebanese media has also revealed this tension between the two worlds. This tension has manifested itself in peculiar media events: a marriage announcement between a Lebanese singer and his Spanish boyfriend in Spain and an Instagram picture of a Lebanese politician's daughter declaring a woman to be her 'wifey' and a ban on rainbow flags at Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram's concert in Sweden. What these Lebanese media events have in common is this bridge between Beirut and foreign cities - the cosmopolitan city and its diaspora that seem to have stretched too far.

The virality of Nicolas Chalhoub's marriage announcement to a man in Spain, a social media phenomenon that landed him on national television, can be explained through the old Lebanese diasporic cautionary tale: should you send your kids abroad; the West will corrupt them. They will get into drugs. Shamelessly bring back to grandma's home a foreign girlfriend. And the catastrophe - come back with an earring. God forbid on the right ear. This trope was briefly explored by Tarek El-Ariss in a chapter of Trials of Arab Modernity, which begins with the following epigraph:

"I fear, my son, that the West might take you away from us. What I fear most is that a European woman might captivate and lure you into her web, which will break your poor mother's heart. Nahida is awaiting your return, my son. Even if you don't want Nahida, there is always Ni'mat and Thurayya and your cousin, Hadba. There are plenty of girls here. Come back, my son, and I will marry you off to the most beautiful girl, pure and chaste. - Suhayl Idris, "The Latin Quarter" (1953).

This epigraph speaks volume of the media's craze over Nicolas Chalhoub's marriage with a Spanish man and yet it dates from 1953. I fear, my son, that the West might take you away from us. This is indeed the poignant age-old fear for Lebanese parents; the problem with their children's orientation is not sexual but geographical. The father's fear of western women's lack of chastity and purity parallels the craze over Chalhoub, who, in Lebanese diaspora imaginary, was, to quote the father, taken away by the West; in this case, damned for being lured not merely by the gender of the Spanish guy he married but perhaps more so his tempting and taboo Spanishness as well.

The same goes with the craze over Walid Joumblat's daughter, who posted a picture with a girl on Instagram with the caption "wifey". Almost immediately, major news outlets reported that the famous Lebanese politician's daughter was gay and that she was married to a woman. This drastic reaction - besides its political motivations - can be explained through the same lens with which the Lebanese have seen Nicolas Chalhoub's marriage with a Spanish man. Joumblat's daughter becomes his female equivalent - the gone-wild girl of an esteemed and old-fashioned Lebanese politician who seems to have betrayed all of her family's values and has run off to the West with her wifey.

Special emphasis should be placed on the medium she used (Instagram) and the logos she employed (wifey) - both borrowed from a western dictionary. The reason media outlets jumped to the occasion to cover this fictional story - for Joumblat's daughter had used the term in a friendly basis, as most teenagers do - becomes both the result of a generational miscommunication and a geographical mix-up; western logos and teenage know-how completely confused.

The fascination over the rainbow flag ban in Nancy Ajram's concert also follows the same pattern as Nicolas Chalhoub's marriage and Joumblat’s daughter's Instagram caption - all of them partake in this negotiation between East and West, old and modern; simultaneously praised for embracing the latter and condemned for foregoing the former. One must highlight the false nature of such binaries; young Lebanese are often surprised to find their grandmother in mini-skirts in old pictures, before conservatism sprouted later on in the country's history. Including gay rights within a false and rather cyclical 'progress narrative' is also amnesiac if we were to recall that it was the French who had first introduced the penal code 534 that aimed to criminalize what modern western colonial powers found to be an unrefined, backwards, barbaric and typically Eastern practice - anal sex.

This inversion transposes the fight for progressive values in Lebanon onto a geographical battlefield between East vs. West; the culmination of which is best represented with the shutting down of Beirut Pride's 2018 version, a drastic measure from the Ministry of Interior that had up until then often turned a relatively blind eye to gay emancipation efforts in the country. What pushed their buttons this time?

Their negotiation between acceptability and repression, I argue, is embedded in an East vs. West clash. Contrast Beirut Pride with Lebanon's first gay NGO - Helem. The latter's communications, in their emphasis on Arab-feel posts and its occasional avoidance of western-like imagery, guarantees them to work unnoticeably under the Ministry's radar. In contrast, Beirut Pride's social media is filled with western evocative imagery - Hollywood movie references, rainbow flags, and Grindr catchphrases. The latter's shutting down becomes more due to its westernized feel than its queer content - its 2018 cancellation becoming an old wound freshly ripped open; as though the dormant monster, the state, was triggered more by Ru Paul than his eastern equivalents.

But this standard does not hold true all the time. In a 2012 press conference, lawyer Nizar Saghieh called the classism with which the Lebanese state criminalizes homosexuality. Despite regular subpoenas issues against 'provocative' social media users, the Instagram post of Walid Joumblat's daughter, for example, will not place her under the radar of the Ministry of Interior, which, according to Saghieh, bullies more vulnerable groups. A small footnote ought to be added to the East vs. West binary; despite its horizontal antagonism, there are vertical variables (i.e. social class, influence) that abate or maximize the clash; punishing some while vindicating others.

Another contradiction in terms of acceptability at the governance level manifests in the sectarian lens with which Lebanon's progressive agenda is unfolding. The women's rights battleground is a prime example - claims that Muslim, not Christian, parties are responsible for stalling the motion to end child marriage have entrenched Lebanese society, pitting once again Muslim vs. Christian, this time not over Palestinians but over women, and soon, homosexuals. The similarity with Lebanon's 15-year civil war may strike as excessive, but what both clashes have in common is the East vs. West binary; in the militia war of the past, the choice was between eastern solidarity over Palestinians or western antagonism to it, in the social war of the present, the choice is between Eastern misogyny and homophobia or western liberalness and acceptance.

This new sectarian battle can be argued on several fronts: Christian-led political party Kataeb's unprecedented inclusion of gay rights in its electoral programme in 2018, Christian-run channel LBCI's widest coverage of LGBT+ news, as well as the Christian Aouanites' monopoly over the foreign ministry, the sole institutional bridge between East and West, and its calls for social reforms for the sake of 'global integration.'

One ought not to be fooled by the sectarian lens with which social progress is unfolding in Lebanon - though it is media-worthy and comprehensible enough to see Lebanon as a place where refined Christians are asking for change and barbaric Muslims are refusing it; the reality on the ground is not so. Besides the active homophobia of the Maronite Church in Lebanon, as attested by its member in a BBC documentary, and the explosion of biblical quotes among Lebanese Facebook users whenever gay rights are invoked, further proof of this false sectarian progress narrative is civil society group Kelna Watani and its contention for the last elections - cross-sectarian parties from a diversity of backgrounds and faiths, which, all, without much debate, voiced their support in 2018 for a range of social reform, gay rights included.

The East vs. West binary at the political level is therefore the most deceitful and the most dangerous: though not reflective of Lebanese society's plurality, tolerance and acceptance of seemingly-contestable social issues, the narrative being constructed is a binary of western Christians vs. eastern Muslims; a new age of crusades that sees once more the left-behind Christians of the East pleading western powers to come to their rescue in a cavalier packs of UN diplomats and US foreign ministers - lost human rights becoming the new weapon of mass destruction that must be flocked to and uncovered.

Faced with this clash between East and West, the Lebanese online and offline are both very forward about the clash of civilization in the making and yet very unconscious of its implications - their outrage, on either side of the debate, clocks between East and West without critical thought. We end up with a false clash of civilization - an ardent cause for both camps, which insist on conflating the subject-matter (i.e. gay rights) with Lebanon's position between East and West - the valley in-between, though habitable, becoming to both sides a no-man’s-land, Dante's dangerous neutrality stage, a needle that pokes you back into either camps; a civilized West or a classic East. The exit out of this limbo is indeed the main challenge to gay rights in Lebanon - the first step is to bring out the elephant in the room and call the real problem by its name: westphobia.

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