For pro-democracy, pro-reform activists in the Middle East, spring came early this year. Beginning in late January with the vibrant and ceaseless street protests that ultimately resulted in the ousting of 30-year Egypt president Hosni Mubarak, the demand for change spread quickly to other countries ruled under long-time dictators in the region.
The uprisings have caused many LGBT activists, both in the region and abroad, to question what impact the air of revolution will make on the ever-slow moving winds of equality for queer people living in the Middle East and North Africa. The region is home to many nations with marked records of harassment of and discrimination against openly LGBT people, including such extreme policies as death penalties for homosexuality in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The region is far from monolithic in its record on LGBT issues, however. Lebanon, located on the shores of the Mediterranean sea, is one nation that has some admittedly slow steps toward progress in recent years as a small but burgeoning queer rights movement is permitted to exist and anti-homosexuality laws appear to be heading on the way out. The nation is also home to Beirut, a beautiful city that has been lauded in recent years as one of the world’s most up-and-coming tourist attractions.
Georges Azzi, a 31-year-old activist based in Beirut, will be the first to tell you, however, that the nation still has a long way to go in creating an atmosphere of safety and acceptance for all of its queer residents. A co-founder of the group Helem, the nation’s first LGBT advocacy group, Azzi is an organizer with the Arab Foundation for Freedoms & Equality, an organization working in support of the movement for sexual and bodily rights and gender equality across the Middle East and North Africa.
EDGE recently spoke with Azzi about his journey toward becoming an activist, some of the struggles facing the LGBT Lebanese today and his insights into what democratic revolutions mean for queer Arabs throughout the region.
EDGE: What inspired you to become an LGBT activist?
Georges Azzi: In 1998, I was part of a "gaylebanon" mailing list as well as an underground group called Clubfree. In 2000, I moved to Paris for different reasons, including to live in a more liberal environment and, in 2002, I became engaged in HIV prevention and gay activism in Paris, while staying in touch with Clubfree.
As an activist in Paris, I always had the dream of opening a community center in Beirut, offering the same support for youth LGBT in Lebanon like the one they have in Paris. While living there, I used to come back every summer to Beirut, and it always frustrating how the community was taken for granted with no voice to speak for us.
Homophobic attacks from families, businesses, employers, police, bar owners and even civil society members were common. At the same time, the LGBT community was too fragile to face these attacks. Most LGBT people were struggling with their coming out, and many had one ultimate goal: Leaving Lebanon.
I finished my studies in Paris in 2004, around the same time I received any email from one of the very few activists back then asking me if I was interested in running and registering Helem as an LGBT organization in Lebanon. For me that was a dream come true.
I moved to Lebanon and registered Helem with five other people. Helem had around 10 members back then and the goal was to empower the community and give the community a voice and an identity.
EDGE: How has your family reacted to your activism?
G.A.: When I made the choice of becoming a visible gay activist in Lebanon, I had prepared myself to all possible consequences, one of them is the possibility of losing my family and psychologically it was a hard choice to make. Surprisingly, my close family -- especially my siblings -- were more supportive than I expected them to be.
However, my activism is still until now a controversial subject that I try to avoid, though my family learned to live with it. My extended family, however, is much more critical about the work I am doing but they have much less influence on me.
EDGE: How difficult was it to get Helem off the ground? Did you face significant opposition?
G.A.: Helem as an organization was not welcomed. At the beginning, we received many visits from the police as well as an anti-gay campaign from members of the municipality of Beirut and some religious leaders. Very few mainstream NGOs [non-governmental organizations] supported Helem, others preferred to observe discreetly from the sidelines to see what reactions the launching of such an organization might trigger.
However, the political instability that Lebanon went through in 2005 worked to our benefit, allowing us to work on building our network of allies: civil society members, decision makers as well as media people.
The network of allies grew bigger when Helem joined the relief work that accompanied the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006.
Next: Fighting to Make Homosexuality Itself Legal
EDGE: What are some of the biggest struggles facing LGBT Lebanese people today? How do the struggles for folks in Beirut compare with those in more rural areas?
G.A.: Officially, homosexuality is still illegal in Lebanon. Even if article 534 [a provision criminalizing homosexuality, struck down by a judge in December 2009 but not yet addressed in a higher court] is not enforced, being criminalized denies the LGBT community from any form of protection.
If you can afford living in Beirut and you have enough support, you are somehow protected. If you come from rural areas, with a financial dependence on your family and no access to the media or any protection mechanism, you are much more vulnerable to police and social persecution. Police practices vary from one region to another depending on how conservative the region is.
EDGE: What has been your reaction to the recent revolutions in the Middle East/North African region? Some gay conservative bloggers, including Michael Lucas, have criticized the democracy movements as potentially making life more challenging for LGBT Arabs.
G.A.: I think we need to go back in history: Extremism always comes from oppression. Under the Arab dictatorships, which were mostly supported by the West, and with the lack of any alternative political movements, religion and extremist religious groups were the only alternative spaces for people to express their frustration. The secular and liberal movement in the Arab world was extremely strong in the ’60s and the ’70s and even the media was much more liberal than it is today.
Under the current dictators and after the oppression of any political parties that oppose the regime, mosques were the only places for organizing. This is how Islamists managed to organize and grow stronger.
The current revolutions will break this status quo that we have been living under in many Arab countries. While it is true that the extremist religious groups are more organized than the liberal ones, and while it is true that the coming phase is a little bit critical, the discourse around democracy is common and religious groups will slowly lose the support they had when other alternatives are presented. We already have started to see alternative liberal groups emerging in Cairo.
With the revolutions happening now, there is more space for a grassroots liberal movement to operate. Now it is the time for us to speak out without any external intervention and claim our space. It will not be that easy, the same way it was not easy in Lebanon, but with baby steps and with our local allies I think it is important we recognize our chance for a change.
EDGE: How do you specifically respond to someone like Lucas, who nearly single-handedly launched a campaign against a pro-Palestinian organization holding in an Israeli Apartheid Week event in the New York City LGBT Center, claiming the group was anti-Semitic in their criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians?
G.A.: As a believer in human rights, I reject all forms of discrimination based on race, sex, religion and sexual orientation, including the discrimination and the horrible attacks that the Jewish community had faced historically. I also think that it is offensive to the Jews to limit their representation to the state of Israel.
When we condemn Israel’s practices, we do not attack the Jewish community, but we condemn the practices of a government that has discriminatory and racist attitudes towards the Palestinians and Arab communities. Arab LGBTs in Israel, like most Arabs, are under the threats of losing their houses, their families and their lives. The extremist movement is growing in Palestine because of the economic and social pressure that Israel is applying
EDGE: What impact did the judge striking down Article 534 have on Lebanese queers? What are your next goals for the movement there?
G.A: Definitely the gay community is much more visible and stronger than it was before, with the support of media members, civil society and other allies, more and more groups are organizing, including in universities.
However, the freedom is fragile as long as Article 534 exists. In a survey in 2006, 52 percent of Lebanese people supported the abolishment of the article and with more awareness, visibility and media, this number will increase. The more empowered LGBT people are, the more they will come out and change their immediate surroundings and change the mentality. That is why I think that we should focus on community building and outreach to people in rural areas at this point.
Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more.