»My detention was important!«

In his country homosexuality is punishable. Nevertheless, Hadi Damien founded Beirut Pride. On the day against homophobia, he tells us how big change is possible against all odds.

17. Mai 2019  11 Minuten

Which strategies against homophobia are successful—especially in countries that criminalize homosexuals?

In 2019, homosexuality is still punishable in The »International lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex association« comes out with a world map each year showing which countries still criminalize homosexuality and which do not 70 out of 198 countries. Apart from one country, The exception would be Jordan. There, the penal code does not criminalize homosexuality. However, LGBTIQ+-people still face strong social discrimination. Egypt is a country where, according to the ILGA’s world map, homosexuality is »de facto illegal«. There LGBTIQ+-people are not criminalized but authorities use other provisions from the criminal code to criminalise them. In 2017, concertgoers attending a show of Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila were waving the rainbow flag and got arrested as a result. Following police raids in the wake of this, dozens of people were incarcerated. this includes all Arabic-speaking nations. But in small Mediterranean Lebanon, activists, lobbyists and lawyers are gaining ground in their battle against the state’s institutionalized homophobia.

For instance, a rising number of judges don’t prosecute homosexuality anymore. They could, though. Article 534 in the Lebanese Criminal Code—a relic from French mandate—criminalizes »sexual intercourse that is contrary to nature«.

534 has to go! This is what Hadi Damien, founder of the biggest LGBTIQ+ platform in the Arabic-speaking world Click here to visit the »Beirut Pride« website (English/Arabic) Beirut Pride, fights together with others tooth and nail for. Beirut Pride hosts, since 2017, events to make homosexual life visible—during which Damien got detained last year. In this interview, he explains why his detention was important and how lobby work can be done against all odds.

»My detention was important!«

Hadi Damien in conversation during Beirut Pride on May 14, 2017 at Station Beirut. – Quelle: Sabrina Teggar copyright
You organized the Beirut Pride’s second run last year. What led to you being detained by the Lebanese security services?

Hadi Damien: Some homophobes were not very happy with the existence of Beirut Pride. They retrieved the program of scheduled activities in May 2018, and rewrote it to suggest our events were immoral, sexual and conspiring. They also used insulting words such as »faggots«, »sodomites«, »dykes», »sexual perversion«. They sent this fabricated program via WhatsApp to the law enforcement officers who then raided Beirut Pride, stopped our ongoing theater-reading night, and arrested me. I was placed in custody and spent the night at the police station. I would prove the next day, during my interrogation, that the program that circulated on WhatsApp was misattributed to Beirut Pride. However, the General Prosecutor of Beirut ordered the suspension of the scheduled events of Beirut Pride. He released me before initiating criminal proceedings against me for »inciting to debauchery«. Beirut Pride 2019 is scheduled September 28—October 6.

When I asked you about this incident before, you said: »My detention was important.«—What do you mean by this?

Hadi Damien: Beirut Pride is reported in more than 16 languages in 330 local, regional and international media. Raiding it on its third day, when the communications around it is at its peak, with people in attendance, and publicly arresting its organiser, is a violent performance in itself, geared to create submission and fatalism. The symbolism is remarkable, and I managed to use this interaction with the law enforcement officers to our advantage. It was the first time law enforcement officers engaged in a reasoned conversation about homosexuality, for example. They were used to the gay stereotype that the media had long promoted, and they even affirmed they »didn’t expect me to be me«. This opened up a bespoke way for them to look at homosexuals. During my interrogation we spoke about general matters of the country, we discussed views and opinions, and they realized that they had still much to discover. Their perception was challenged, our communication was fluid, and they definitely realized that we deserve full respect and protection as does any other resident in this country. They understood it, but this is different from being vocal about it.

Lebanese artists like Khansa, Alexandre Paulikevitch and the popular band Watch the video »Fasateen« by Mashrou’ Leila on Youtube (Arabic, 2010) Mashrou’ Leila voice their support for gay rights and male belly dancers are fighting gender stereotypes. Does this affect how freely you can live as a gay man in Lebanon?

Hadi Damien: Khansa, Mashrou’ Leila and baladi male dancer (belly dancers) like Alexandre Paulikevitch express cultural representations that enlarge the pool of cultural references, which allows many people to find resonance in their work. When you don’t identify with the heterosexual narratives, local queer artists offer a platform to explore, to experiment and to reverberate on, using a shared language, touching relevant and accessible topics. Their work challenges the monopole of the mainstream cultural representation, which is very inspiring, especially to the youngest who are trying to understand and find answers to their personal questions. It speaks volume and channels hope, power and determination. We massively fail when those younger than us feel alone because they are gay, lesbian, bi, trans*, intersex or queer.

Lobby against homophobia

Beirut Pride is not only a statement against a law which can criminalize homosexuals—you actively lobby to abolish article 534 from the Criminal Code. In the last years, several court rulings confirmed that consensual sex between people of the same gender is not an »unnatural offense«. Is this article even still effective?

Hadi Damien: Article 534 is still on the books and it is still used to prosecute men and trans* because they look »feminine«, or walk in a certain fashion, or because they have some pictures or conversations on their phone. Read more about this: »Homosexuality is not a crime, says Lebanon’s top military prosecutor« via Stepfeed (2019) A few weeks ago, in March 2019, the Military Prosecutor refused to prosecute 4 army men for homosexuality. In November 2018, the Court of Appeals of Beirut refused to prosecute homosexuality. Read more about this: »Lebanon: Same-Sex Relations Not Illegal« via HRW (2018) In July 2018, the Court of Appeals stated that Article 534 can only be used for public sex and not in private places. Other tribunal decisions in 2009, 2014 and 2016 have ruled that homosexual intercourse is not against nature, and a court ruling in 2017 stated that homosexuality is the exercise of a legal natural right. However, other judges still condemn homosexuals for »unnatural sexual intercourse«, but replace prison with a fine. However, the police record of the condemned reads »faggot« or »sodomite« or »sexual pervert« for ten years, which is humiliating, unfair, and which hinders access to employment.

Sexual intercourse that is contrary to nature is punishable with up to one year in prison. – Article 534 of the Lebanese Criminal Code

How do you lobby?

Hadi Damien: First, we identify one goal and make it clear, simple and accessible to people. We only speak of the decriminalization of homosexuality. Lobbying is campaigning, and we share awareness with people aware about the realities of the LGBTIQ+ abuses to expand the momentum and build on it. There are a lot of misconceptions around, as we all live in our own bubbles. Therefore, we keep an open communication with members of Parliament, Ministers, advisors, security officials, policy makers, religious authorities, academicians, media figures, artists, LGBTIQ+ individuals, friends and family, as well as society at-large. We continuously share notes that aim at deconstructing myths, lies and prejudice about homosexuality, tapping into the stories of people who were prosecuted, and highlighting global advances that pertain to the Lebanese reality.

Beirut Pride bracelets are distributed free of charge to all attendees, and are globally shipped to be worn with pride. – Quelle: Sabrina Teggar copyright

We also reach out to people on a private level, understand and accept that many cannot be as vocal as we wish them to be. Our projects are run by people who know their field: we don’t »experiment« with Beirut Pride. Prior to the Parliamentary elections of May 2018, for example, we worked with politicians, policy makers, political scientists, etc. to highlight the LGBTIQ+ file and to move the conversation on TV from talk shows and comedy shows to political shows. This secured an additional layer of legitimacy to the LGBTIQ+ conversation. We have recently completed a law proposal about HIV communication, protection and discriminations. We are currently finalizing the law proposal draft about homosexuality and discriminations. We are also filing a complaint pursuant to the homophobic events that took place in May 2018. We are respected because we are consistent. We don’t lie, and we work.

What else do you think activists should consider?

Hadi Damien: While officials are homophobic, we keep in mind that LGBTIQ+ individuals and their supportive network are stronger than before, more visible, and more vocal. Change happens on both sides. Societies are difficult to comprehend, and working on a society file is not always a pleasant ride. It is not for everybody. You must be solid, focused, communication-savvy, positive and aware of your surroundings. You must pick your battles and never put all your eggs in the same basket. You are doing politics: you need continuous education, thinking, strategy, and listening. This is not a 9 to 5 job. It is a never-ending process that shapes you and that you shape in return. Activism is not a buzzword similar to »influencer« and »fashionista«. You must act, take ownership, be sharp and firm, yet kind, even if you upset some people from time to time. Be also prepared for disappointment: it comes from the closest to you. But also, bask in the glow of support and enjoy the endorsement you will get: people respect your effort and they will gratefully express it. They fuel your motivation, the same way your reasoned passion changes the world. Activism is impact or it is not.
A participant in the »101 Drag Workshop«, an event during Beirut Pride on May 14, 2017 at Station Beirut. – Quelle: Sabrina Teggar copyright

»Arabs’ queer party metropolis«

The media often describes Lebanon as Read more about this: »Beirut Pride cancelled after organiser detained« via BBC (2018) »more tolerant than most Arab countries«, and Beirut as the »Willkommen in Arabiens schwuler Party-Metropole« via Spiegel (German, 2010) »Arabs’ queer party metropolis«. Do you encourage gay couples to come and visit Lebanon?

Hadi Damien: LGBTIQ+ people are already everywhere, and they are to visit any place they wish to, not only Lebanon. We definitely have to go to places where LGBTIQ+ people are not much respected, where they are endangered. I believe visibility is a crucial strategy for improvement. Whilst not everyone can afford the same paradigms of visibility, we still have to be out there, in the form that suits best each one of us, so we contribute to change. Keep in mind that borders are within us, and that the world is not a flat place: each locality has its specificities and realities. Learn about them, do your research, touch base with the residents, and don’t scrutinize people. You are not in a laboratory.

How realistic is the media’s description of Lebanon in the case of LGBTIQ+ people?

Hadi Damien: We each have our own realities, and the way we experiment the city and the country differs from a person to another. Lebanon is not a haven for LGBTIQ+ people: abuses largely occur, homophobia is state-sponsored, and everything can get worse at any time. This state of affairs is not specific to Lebanon, but reflects the situation in all countries. LGBTIQ+ rights, everywhere, are fragile even when they are »protected«, and we must continuously thrive to safeguard them. Nothing is granted. Our history shows it. The plurality of the Lebanese society, that of Beirut for example, contributes to a continuous exchange of ideas, practices and opinions. Despite some persistent frustration, this exchange is always enriching. It is this coexistence, this interaction, that makes Beirut a cosmopolitan city and sets the tone for the whole country. Compared to other Arabic-speaking countries, Lebanon is considered to be a place where LGBTIQ+ suffer from less issues; but this consideration is not universal and generalizing flattens perspectives.

In which way?

Hadi Damien: We often fetishize the other: the burly Arab, the blond European, the sizzling Latino, the hunky African. We seek to prove and showcase these fantasies in the media while they are simply stereotypes we grew up with. Journalists constantly produce a fantasy image of gay men in Arabic-speaking countries. But not all Lebanese men are muscled, hairy, dark haired men dancing and shaking their hips to oriental music in a gay nightclub to shake off the stress of the gay life in Lebanon because they hide from family and religion, yet sleep with other men because they are courageous, and therefore are forced to act »manly« to camouflage the parallel lives they lead, while a few kilometres away the Islamic State patrols the streets of another country.
A participant poses for the camera prior to the »Lip Synch Performance«, an event during Beirut Pride on May 14, 2017 at Station Beirut. – Quelle: Sabrina Teggar copyright

What are the things that all gay men have in common?

Where else do you find this form of fetishization?

Hadi Damien: Fetishization works in all directions. Many consider Swedish people to be light skinned and blue-eyed. So when you encounter a Swedish person with dark hair, conversation turns into »Where are you from?« »Sweden.« »Yeah, but where from? Your origins.« Similarly, when I am speaking somewhere, attending people expect me to be this Middle Eastern Arab guy who looks similar to the Arab men portrayed in Hollywood movies and who speaks English with this caricaturized accent. It takes self-awareness to recognize stereotypes, to get out of their monopole, and to quit reproducing them. We belittle and reject whom we don’t understand, which partly explains why migrants and LGBTIQ+ have been outcasted. This same stereotyping leads many LGBTIQ+ people to refuse association with other LGBTIQ+ people. You hear sentences such as »Yes, I am gay, but I don’t want to be seen with a feminine guy, go to Pride and be a queen«. The perception the other has of us affects our behavior, and putting everyone in the same basket is a disservice to the most vulnerable.

Like the word LGBT (+ more suffixes)? You’re critical of it. Why?

Hadi Damien: It is a semantics problem. Think with me: what all gay men have in common for example? 2 things: a physical and emotional attraction to men, and facing expressions of homophobia based on the perception of society. Period. The additional issues they live, their political inclination, their economical orientation, the languages they speak, the music they listen to, everything else varies. Community exists when there is a collectively endorsed identity. The »LGBTQ+ Community« generates impact when it meets around a unified goal that all LGBTIQ+ people relate to: the decriminalization of non-heterosexual sex for example. Otherwise, putting all people with their differences in the same basket only serves the most visible ones in the name of diversity, or worse: representation. It damages the most vulnerable ones and the least visible, vocal persons. This is a dictatorship, not a solidarity. Never flatten the richness of our personalities and the complexity of our identities. It is very dangerous to dilute people’s particularities. Categorizing creates outcasts and doesn’t bring people together. Classification is the first step stage of »Ten Stages of Genocide« by Dr. Gregory H. Stanton (2006, PDF) genocide. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of totalitarian systems. Solidarity and support exist when we celebrate autonomous and independent diversity.

Mit Illustrationen von Mirella Kahnert für Perspective Daily

von Juliane Metzker 

Juliane schlägt den journalistischen Bogen zu Südwestasien und Nordafrika. Sie studierte Islamwissenschaften und arbeitete als freie Journalistin im Libanon. Durch die Konfrontation mit außereuropäischen Perspektiven ist ihr zurück in Deutschland klar geworden: Zwischen Berlin und Beirut liegen gerade einmal 4.000 Kilometer. Das ist weniger Distanz als gedacht.

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