LGBTQ Activism in Lebanon

By Janine A. Clark
Submitted to Session P4970 (Civil Society and Social Activism, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Queer/LGBT Studies;
In February 2017, in a case brought forward by HELEM, Lebanon’s first LGBTQ advocacy group in Lebanon, on behalf of the arrested transgender women and men, a Lebanese court ruled that homosexuality was not a crime but rather a personal choice. The ruling was the fourth of its kind since 2009. Helem members and supporters hailed the 2017 ruling as critical to ongoing efforts to decriminalize homosexuality. Yet despite these landmark rulings in region that almost uniformly criminalizes homosexuality or “unnatural sex”, we know very little about the strategies or the factors that shape the strategies of LGBTQ organizations in the region (Massad 2002, 2007, 2009; Long 2005, 2009; El Menyawi 2006; Whitaker 2006; Dabaghi et al 2008; Drucker 2008; Moumneh 2008; Makarem 2009, 2011; Ritchie 2010; Naber and Zaatari 2013; Needham 2013; Fortier 2015; Saleh 2015; Nagle 2016).

The paper has two main aims. The first is to explore the strategies that Helem has adopted to eliminate Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code which states that any sexual intercourse “contrary to the order of nature” is punishable by imprisonment for up to one year and to explore the factors that have shaped its strategy. The second is to highlight the debates within the organization regarding these strategies and which continue to divide the organization. The paper argues that Helem has adopted, broadly speaking, a two-pronged strategy of collaborative networking and of advocacy work that informally targets sympathetic individuals. This strategy is shaped by two primary factors: 1) the organization’s concern that it not be marginalized within the civil society community; and, 2) the restrictions and opportunities presented by the country’s consociational political system. In regards to the latter, Helem primarily has sought de facto as opposed to de jure change to Article 534 and has relied on personal meetings with decision makers for lobbying, focusing on judges, lawyers, journalists in order to render Article 534 obsolete. The paper further argues that the evolution of Helem’s strategy has not come without its disputes, including the splintering of the organization. These have primarily revolved around four main axes: 1) sectarian divisions; 2) class differences; 3) prevailing societal attitudes towards women, including lesbians and trans-women; and 4) differences over relations with and influence by Western/international LGBTQ advocacy organizations. The proposed paper is based on interview conducted in 2010, 2012 and 2016 with LGBTQ activists in Lebanon and on secondary literature.