BEIRUT (AP) — Nour never felt entirely safe as a queer person in Lebanon. But in the past few years, the 25-year-old pharmacist had begun letting his guard down, meeting with friends in LGBTQ-friendly spaces in Beirut and even performing in drag shows.
He now opts to stay at home, fearing for his safety more than ever after a wave of anti-LGBTQ hate speech that followed last month’s decision by the Lebanese Interior Ministry to shut down any events aimed at promoting “sexual perversion.”
The setback is part of a broader clampdown on marginalized groups and freedoms that activists say aims to distract the public from Lebanon’s spiraling economic and financial crisis, which has pulled over three-quarters of the population into poverty.
Millions in the once middle-income country continue to struggle with soaring inflation, rampant power cuts, and medicine shortages, while tens of thousands have left the country in search of opportunities abroad.
“It really felt like they wanted to just distract the masses from everything going on and focus on this hot topic,” Nour, who asked to use a pseudonym because he has not come out to family, told The Associated Press.
Security forces have since cracked down on several events catered to the LGBTQ community, forcing their organizers to eventually shut them down. They also visited the offices of Helem, the country’s first registered LGBTQ advocacy group, asking for their registration papers and other documents.
The move followed loud complaints from religious officials who publicly described them as ungodly and said they were not in line with Lebanese customs.
In a statement on June 24, the Interior Ministry said that LGBTQ-friendly events “violate our society’s customs and traditions, and contradict with the principles of the Abrahamic religions.”
Helem’s Executive Director Tarek Zeidan blasted the statement, saying it “pits Lebanese people against each other.”
“It was very clear that it was a deliberate decision to manufacture moral panic in order to divert attention from the general political and economic disaster that is Lebanon today,” Zeidan said.
Lebanon since late 2019 has been reeling from a crippling economic crisis that the World Bank says is among the world’s worst since the mid-1800s. The Lebanese pound has lost over 90% of its value against the dollar, while much of the population has struggled to cope with soaring diesel fuel, gasoline, medicine and food prices.
Citizens and experts blame decades of financial mismanagement and corruption at the hands of Lebanon’s entrenched ruling elite for the crisis.
Human rights organizations say the recent setback for the LGBTQ community is part of a broader clampdown on civil rights and freedoms, coupled with the economic crisis.
In May, religious clerics were up in arms after recently elected lawmakers and advocacy groups promoted civil marriage and state-mandated personal status laws independent from religious courts.
Last month, comedian and rights activist Shaden Fakih stood before the Military Court, accused of harming the reputation and insulting the country’s Internal Security Forces in a prank call during the country’s COVID-19 lockdown, in which she asked for permission to leave the house in order to buy sanitary pads.
And earlier this month, the Lebanese government announced that it has been in talks with Syria over a forced refugee returns plan for over a million Syrians in the country.
Some activists and human rights advocates say Lebanese authorities are trying to find scapegoats, as they stall probes linked to a host of financial crimes, the 2020 Beirut port explosion and soaring cases of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“The state seems either completely unwilling or unable to crack down on violations of grave rights like corruption, torture, hate speech, but on the flip side acts very quickly under pressure from religious and other powerful institutions in the country to crack down on the rights of marginalized groups,” Aya Majzoub, a Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the AP.
In some cases, residents have responded to religious leaders by taking matters into their own hands.
In the predominantly Christian Achrafieh district, partisans dubbed the Soldiers of God — a protest group that advocates for socially conservative values and laws — tore down a billboard promoting events for Pride month. Elsewhere, residents in the Sunni Tarik Jdideh neighborhood gathered to condemn the LGBTQ community’s events and their supporters, calling them an “infiltration” into their community.
The Rev. Abdo Abou Kassm, director of the Catholic Center for Information, a media arm of the Maronite church, sympathized with the angry protesters, though he opposes any violence and bullying.
“You have your freedom at home, but you cannot promote this in the community as it is in fact against nature. The law says so and almost all Lebanese abide by this,” Abou Kassm said, adding that the angry protests were a reaction. “Our society is not ready for this.”
Despite a constant battle fighting discrimination and abuse, Lebanon’s LGBTQ community is the most vibrant and open in the Arab world and has made significant gains in the past few years. Although homosexuality is still considered a crime, the country boasts at least half a dozen active LGBTQ advocacy groups, as well as bars and clubs that openly cater to the community.
Now, Nour and his friends avoid meeting in their usual spots, fearing raids and harassment.
“We do have a WhatsApp group so whenever someone is going out, we just notify the others and when we expect to be back home,” he explained.
As Lebanon’s dire economy continues to unravel, activists fear authorities will continue to target marginalized groups to distract from real issues.
“We are witnessing the beginnings of a full-blown attack, because this ruling regime is beginning to fear it’s losing control,” Zeidan said. “What we’re saying loudly and clearly is that they’re coming for all of us. First they came for the refugees, and no one cared. Then they came for the queers and no one gave a damn either.”