The “dream” of Helem
1 December 2009

Beirut, Lebanon

While in Italy there are some who would like to make homophobia a crime, in the Lebanon there is a law that effectively legitimises it. This is Bill number 534, a provision introduced during the French mandate in the Lebanon (1922-1943), which establishes sentences up to a year of imprisonment for sexual relations that are considered “unnatural.” A few years ago, however, Beirut’s gay community came out and started to make its voice heard. This slow revolution has made the Lebanese capital the only city in the Arab world where it has become possible to publicly acknowledge one’s homosexuality, thanks to the NGO Helem (in Arabic this word means “dream”), the acronym for the “protection of Lebanese who are gay, lesbians and transgender.” In its offices it is possible to talk to psychologists, ask for legal assistance and since last year also have access to anonymous HIV testing.

Helem’s young president, George Azzi , ironically tells us that “There are no wild parties held here, as some people say. People say we are paedophiles or sadomasochists, but that is the destiny of any closed and secret group. In the end they are surrounded by gossip and superstition. That is why it was necessary to come out into the open and show who we really are” adds Azzi calmly. There has been no lack of opportunities for proving that the first gay Arab NGO projects itself well beyond the borders of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community. In 2006, for example, during the war between Israel and Hezbollah, Helem worked together with other Lebanese organisations to welcome to Beirut refugees fleeing Israeli bombardments in the south.

The first “gay-pride in embryo” was organised this year the day after a homophobic episode in the heart of Christian Beirut. Just below a building under construction in the Sassine Square, two young homosexuals were beaten by policemen in front of passers-by, because “they had kissed.” Later, at the police station, sexual torture replaced the punching and kicking. “Rather than a gay event it was a demonstration against violence, also supported by civil society’s other associations,” says Azzi. Photographs of that day, however, portray boys and girls wrapped in rainbow coloured banners of the LGBT movement and holding posters with slogans against Law number 534.

Since then the violence has continued, as witnessed by two young people who appeared at a mobilisation day for the gay community organised last summer at the avant-garde theatre Babel, in the centre of Beirut. “We were stopped by the police who took us to the police station where we were beaten and then rectally examined to establish if we had had sexual relations. All this happened because we walked in an effeminate manner” said one of the boys, while his friend nodded with tears in his eyes. “Such events happen frequently” explains Rabih, in charge of health and psychological services for homosexuals organised a year ago by Helem. “Since opening we have carried out about 400 HIV tests, ” he adds, explaining that Helem is linked to a network of 50 other “gay friendly” associations offering specific health services to those want anonymous care without suffering the burden of moral judgement.

Social pressure remains the number one public enemy for Lebanese homosexuals. “Most people believe that being gay is a disease,” explains Omar, an 18-year-old boy who recently joined the gay movement. “Because I attended a Catholic school and did not hide my sexual preferences,” he adds, “ I was expelled. Later my family obliged me to see a psychologist. That was a form of torture that lasted three years. In the end I had to pretend I was ‘cured.’ ” Discrimination suffered at home, among friends, or even the problems linked to accepting oneself are some of the issues most frequently addressed by psychologists at Helem. “These are phenomena affecting all social classes and all denominational groups,” explains Azzi, specifying that Helem is completely apolitical and experienced no problems in implementing sensitising campaigns even in districts controlled by Hezbollah. “For the moment,” he added, “our objective is not to organise gay pride, but to abolish discriminatory laws and at least be accepted by society.”

Translated by Francesca Simmons