In Lebanon, the LGBT community has made important strides in recent years. A series of court rulings have poked holes in a law that essentially criminalizes homosexuality. This has encouraged activists to push for greater rights.
Lebanon is a relative safe haven in the region, with well-established gay bars and clubs tolerated by the authorities. A number of organizations advocate specifically for LGBT rights. Last week was the first-ever Beirut Pride celebration, and the first time activists raised the rainbow flag in honor of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, May 17.
But this is a region where gays have faced deadly persecution at the hands of extremist Islamist groups. Activists say they still have a long way to go to feel safe to be themselves, much less achieve equality under the law.
Joseph Aoun is one of the Lebanese activists pushing for change. He heads the LGBT advocacy group Helem, which, along with another group called Legal Agenda, provides legal services to those persecuted under existing laws. Helem also serves as a community center.
I meet Aoun at Madame Om, a bar in an old Beirut mansion overlooking the city port. A Warhol-esque painting of the bar's Egyptian diva namesake, Om Kalthoum, watches over as organizers prepared for the evening's Beirut Pride event about protecting oneself under the existing laws.
"People are sick of being treated like s***," Aoun says, sipping a gin and basil cocktail. He is annoyed that a separate LGBT event was canceled after an Islamist group protested and a hotel venue backed out. And he is even more exasperated that local media took the cancellation as a sign the gay community is facing setbacks.
A coalition of Muslim clergy has been "fighting Helem since 2005," he says. But Helem has persevered. "It's about having the guts to confront," Aoun says.
He believes the LGBT community should always have a Plan B and work around obstacles. "We can't frustrate the community," he says.
I first met Aoun years ago, when he ran Bardo, a gay-friendly bar and dance venue. As the manager, he had to remain on good terms with the authorities in order to keep the place running. Today, he seems liberated from that role and has thrown himself into his activism. He is in fighting mode and fiercely proud of Helem's 2017 campaign marking the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
The group's Arabic video campaign, with the slogan "Homophobia is Terrorism," aired on a major national TV network and garnered more than 120,000 views on Facebook. Men and women stare directly into the camera, as a narrator speaks: "I'm someone like you. I don't pose a threat to society. But this society allows the fact that I am beaten, humiliated, imprisoned, raped or even killed. Don't be part of it. Acceptance is what builds societies. Hate is what creates terrorism."
Aoun says the video campaign struck a chord and received far more positive feedback than negative. "We had a firm slogan: 'Homophobia is terrorism.' It's not a disease; it's not a phobia. It's a terrorism act — it's a hateful act."
He notes that while life can be hard for gays in Lebanon, the challenges are even greater for trans women, who can't blend into society as easily as gay men, or refugees from Syria and Iraq, who face added discrimination. At Helem's headquarters, there is a washing machine and a shower, to help give those on the fringes a measure of dignity.
The Lebanese law regarding homosexuality is a vague one, criminalizing "unnatural" sexual acts. In recent years, Lebanese judges have made increasingly progressive interpretations of the law. Aoun says his group's work with Legal Agenda helps ensure all those who face criminal charges over their sexuality are provided representation. Their goal is for the progressive interpretations of the law to continue.
Earlier this year, Justice Rabih Maalouf, in Lebanon's Metn district, ruled that intimate relations between homosexuals are a "natural right" and thus cannot be criminalized. Legal Agenda, whose lawyers provided the defense, says the judge stated that depriving homosexuals of those rights would amount to discrimination, and was therefore contrary to the law.
"He said the role of the judge is not to convict people based on the opinion of the majority," Aoun adds, but "to protect natural, basic rights of human beings."
Aoun smiles. "Cheers to that," he says.
The last afternoon sun streams through the arched windows of the Madame Om bar, now filled with attendees. The first speaker, Naji Raji, whose causes also include heritage preservation, rises to offer his experience as a member of the gay community.
He recounts a 2007 encounter with the police. A friend had been caught with gay-themed pornography on his laptop. He had brought up Raji's name during an interrogation, claiming he'd helped with the filming.
"My mom came to the [police] station and she was hysterical," Raji says. "They told her, 'Your son participated in a porn movie and he's a homosexual and he's in jail now and he's going to be imprisoned.' My mom was so hysterical, she fell to the floor."
Raji was charged under Lebanon's Article 534 against unnatural acts, which activists say can be punishable by a year-long jail sentence, or usually a fine. Because the police believed he participated in the making of the film, he was also charged with "promoting prostitution."
Raji's family was able to get him out of jail in a matter of days, which he says took the help of personal contacts intervening on his behalf, and a $2,000 bribe. Helem helped, too, appointing him a lawyer for the next three years of court hearings.
During a subsequent arrest, Raji was subjected to an invasive anal test, a practice that Human Rights Watch has condemned as torture and is illegal under United Nations conventions Lebanon has signed.
"Nowadays, things are a little bit different. There's social media and social pressure," Raji tells the crowd.
But he still advises those arrested under existing laws to deny all charges related to homosexuality.
"You shouldn't utter a word before hiring a lawyer. This is the most important thing ... because regardless of how strong you are as a person and how evolved society is nowadays, the pressure you experience there is unbelievable."
He takes a question from the audience: A man asks whether his arrests have made it more difficult for him to get official documents, like a passport.
Raji responds that while he could legally have the charges erased from his police record, at this point, he considers them a badge of honor.
"I want the hurdles. They're amusing," Raji says boldly.
The man commends him: "It's very good to be defiant."