Gay and lesbian advocacy group lowers political profile amid growing tensions on national scene

November 22nd, 2006 | Posted in Gender and Sexuality, War and Terror

Helem keeps up counseling and publishing efforts, but legal and media advocacy take back seat for now

By Paige Austin
Special to The Daily Star
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

BEIRUT: Helem has undergone a subtle transformation in recent months. Lebanon’s pioneering gay and lesbian rights organization has scaled back its advocacy efforts in quiet acknowledgment of politicians’ preoccupation with other issues – and its own potential for igniting backlash. Helem’s full-time coordinator, Georges Azzi, says the shift is in part a reflection of the political turmoil in Lebanon in the aftermath of this past summer’s war with Israel.

“Every organization in Lebanon working on advocacy now is stopping because nothing is happening,” he explains.

Instead of legal advocacy, he says, Helem has shifted its focus to providing more services for its members – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Lebanese men and women. By the end of this month, Helem’s office in Hamra will offer appointments with professional counselors two days a week. In keeping with its long-time tradition of firsts in Arabic-language publishing, the group will launch a landmark book on gay and lesbian health on December 1. In January, a first-ever Arabic-language pamphlet for families of gays and lesbian will follow.

Legal and political advocacy, meanwhile, has taken a backseat, for several reasons.

“Before the war, Helem fit in very nicely with the new discourse of ‘freedom and democracy,’ and [was] trying to take advantage of that,” says Rasha Moumneh, a former Helem member who was involved with the group’s advocacy work.

But with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s Cabinet teetering on the edge of crisis, its opponents promising to hold large-scale demonstrations and now the assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel on Tuesday, lawmakers’ attention has shifted from potential reforms to the penal code.

“It’s just not the time for advocacy and it’s not the time for lobbying,” says Moumneh.

The trend is likely to find echoes across Lebanese civil society. But in the case of the gay rights group, the war and the present political turmoil are only the latest in a series of events that caused the shift.

Last May, more than a month before the war began, Helem found itself in hot water when an event that it organized to mark the International Day against Homophobia drew over 400 guests – and some highly negative press coverage.

According to a letter Helem published on its Web site on June 9, Al-Arabiyya television led a “smear campaign” against the group by chronicling the anti-homophobia event under the headline: “Perverts Announce their Activities and Screen Sex Films in a Beirut Hotel.”

Helem’s letter complained that the characterization was grossly inaccurate: The films were “social in nature” and featured no sexually explicit content, much less anything “pornographic.” (There are also longstanding issues about how the popular press translates the word “homosexual” from English to Arabic – with literal meanings ranging from perverse or irregular to gay to sexual likeness.)

The police paid a visit to Helem’s offices a day after the anti-homophobia event, recalls Azzi. It was one of three house calls the police would make to Helem this year.

The hailstorm continued the next month when two members of Helem appeared on a talk show on New TV.

In the media aftermath of that appearance, acting Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat publicly declared that – contrary to several reports that the group, which is registered as a non-governmental organization in Canada, would be able to attain similar registration in Lebanon – he had never given Helem a registration number. Already, several months earlier, a member of Beirut’s municipal council had lodged a complaint against the organization, “accusing it of endangering society and public morality and of trying to impose Western values,” according to the June 9 letter. An investigation into the charges, the letter noted, was dropped due to lack of evidence.

The backlash was to be expected, says Azzi, given how the group’s profile has risen since it was founded three years ago. But it still sent a chill down the collective spine of Helem’s 30-odd active members, making them wary of what Moumneh calls “over-exposure.” It was in response, she says, that they adopted this less political platform for the near term.

“[It is] a sword on your neck, basically,” says Ghassan Makaram, the co-chair of Helem’s legal committee. “It’s something you are always afraid of, that the state will take legal recourse if you are lifting your head too high in terms of events, being too public, asking for too much … We have to be careful.”

Anyway, says Makaram, the group’s efforts to head off harmful changes to the penal code had not amounted to much in recent months. A coalition of civil society groups, including a close ally of Helem’s, the now-defunct group Hureeya Khasa, successfully beat back one such attempt in 2003.

Included in the reforms these groups rallied against was a proposed expansion of Lebanon’s ban on “unnatural intercourse” to prohibit all “unnatural relations” – wording that Helem members say would be subject to dangerous leeway in interpretation. After the new law was abandoned, says Makaram, two representatives from civil society groups were given seats on the Parliamentary sub-committee in charge of future reforms. But until a new slate of reforms is proposed, he adds, civil rights advocates like Helem are playing “a waiting game.”

Still, the Parliament’s acceptance of any input from civil society at all has given Helem’s leaders reason to hope. According to Azzi and others, one of Helem’s great assets is the wide support it has among other civil society organizations. And besides, they agree, when it comes to advocacy, it is important to stay in tune with the times.

“For us, it’s quite important to convince society and not just [work] through a direct lobbying campaign against the government,” says Makaram. Bringing the issue to a head too early, he explained, could backfire on the group – as it did on advocates of civil marriage in the 1990s.

With that in mind, Helem’s leaders say they plan to continue long-term awareness-raising activities, giving presentations to university students and other groups, as well as publishing books and short pamphlets.

Yet pending a sea change in Lebanon’s political climate, the organization will remain more a service provider than an advocate, at least for now.

“At a certain point, our strategy was more about media – to get credibility. Now that we’ve got that, it’s time to focus more on services,” says Azzi.

After all, he adds, when it comes to providing services for Lebanon’s gay and lesbian population, “there is a lot of work to be done.”


Bads news about Gays in Lebanon.I support you and Helem too.
I live outside.
Good luck.

Comment by samer — January 25th, 2007 @ 7:12 AM

I support all gays in lebanon
Good luck all. i wish that i can speak loudly in lebanon but i can’t

Comment by Saad el Jamal — September 17th, 2007 @ 7:28 AM

I think that all of you people should leave in peace all the gay and lesbian people, even that I’m straight I don’t think it’s fair for those people to be suffering as they do.

Comment by Nate Wolf — January 11th, 2010 @ 1:39 PM

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