Author’s note: In honor of June being Pride Month, I (virtually) sat down with Karim Nammour, Lary BS, Sasha Elijah, and Sinine Nakhle to discuss the challenges, issues, and successes faced by the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon on both an individual and community level. They come from different backgrounds and careers, ranging from legal experts to scholars, artists, and performers, offering unique perspectives and portraying only a fraction of the diversity within the LGBTQ+ community of Lebanon.
The collectivist and patriarchal nature of Lebanese society has long valued traditional gender norms. As a result, many traditionalists believe that the vilification and the rejection of the LGBTQ+ community is vital to upholding the so-called Lebanese culture and values. Such beliefs, prevalent in Lebanese society mixed with various historical factors have institutionalized homophobia and transphobia, making the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community not only societal but also systemic.
Contrary to popular belief, the systematic persecution of the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon does not stem purely from the Lebanese patriarchal ideology. According to Karim Nammour, a Lebanese lawyer, legal researcher, and host of the Qanuni podcast, it owes its beginnings to the French, who were responsible for creating and enacting the criminal code of Lebanon during their mandate there following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. More specifically, Article 534 of the Criminal Code, which is currently used to prosecute homosexuality in Lebanon was inspired by the French criminal code at the time and adopted under the leadership of the Nazi-allied Vichy Government.
Nammour goes on to discuss how Article 534, although consistently used in the Lebanese court of law to prosecute homosexuality, does not comply with the typical internationally agreed on law criteria due to its vague nature. The article states that “any carnal conjunction against the order of nature is punishable by law.” Nammour adds that “the question of what is or is not against nature is the matter of a philosophical debate more than it is a legal or biological one.” The vagueness of this article has thus resulted in an abuse of the rights of many members of the LGBTQ+ community by various entities of the legal and judicial sectors.
The Lebanese police force has had a long history of arresting different members of the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon without any probable cause for criminal activity. Upon their arrest, they are forced to undergo humiliating questioning procedures at the police stations. Individuals that are accused of being homosexual are sometimes subjected to intrusive tests that supposedly determine their sexual orientation, when in reality, these tests are nothing but harmful and humiliating. Describing these tests, Nammour states that “they’re a form of torture, especially in the circumstances they are undertaken in. They are administered in the police station in plain view, with no privacy whatsoever, without any legal basis for administration.”
Nammour himself has been quite active in the fight for equality for the LGBTQ+ community. As a member of the Legal Agenda, he has collaborated with Helem, a Lebanese non-governmental organization (NGO) that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights and has created a model defense that has been published for free for anyone to use. It contains legal arguments to be used in court to argue why Article 534 should not be applied nor used to criminalize homosexuality. This model also utilizes texts from international rights legal bodies such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to plead the case against Article 534.
Despite all the systemic oppression still faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in the Lebanese legal system, there have been several instances in the past few years that have sparked a feeling of hope for a brighter future of equality for all members of this community. Karim recalls a landmark case in 2017, where the single criminal judge of Jdeideh at the time, Rabih Maalouf, chose not to apply Article 534, and instead used Article 183 of the Criminal Code to declare that homosexuality is an exercise of a natural right and thus cannot be considered a crime. As he delivered his verdict, Maalouf went on to declare that as a judge in a democratic society, his role is to be the guarantor and protector of basic freedoms and liberties, stating that his job was not to succumb to the majority but rather protect the minority. His ruling was appealed by the prosecution and was consequently sent to the Court of Appeals in 2018, where Maalouf’s ruling was upheld. “This was the first time ever, a Court of Appeals issues a verdict stating homosexuality cannot be classified as a crime,” Karim fondly recalls.
Karim, an avid fan of Article 183, describes how this law’s versatility has managed to protect several other groups from prosecution as well. It was also used by Judge Abir Safa in 2018 to exonerate protestors who were being prosecuted for “blocking roads and obstructing traffic.” She argued that they were exercising their natural right to resist an oppressive entity, eventually letting them go.
The fight for equality and visibility for the LGBTQ+ community extends past the courtroom and into daily life within Lebanese society. Discussions concerning labels, their use, and the lack thereof are many, but Lary BS, queer comedian, stylist, and performer, brings up an interesting perspective, “The use of labels can be tricky, but currently, these labels are there for visibility reasons. They come to show that there is not one norm, or one box to fall into. Speaking up about the existence of these labels shows the need to change the system that has long discriminated against those who don’t conform with heteronormativity.”
Reflecting on his life and family, Lary considers himself privileged to have received support and acceptance concerning his sexuality from his family and friends. “It took me time to accept myself because once you come out, it really is a point of no return,” he says. Nevertheless, Lary recognizes that the acceptance he has received after coming out is in itself a luxury amongst the queer community in Lebanon. He has been using his state of being an openly queer man to help and speak up for those who cannot do it themselves, be it by helping out with grassroot initiatives such as the Queer Relief Fund or raising awareness through his work.
An avid storyteller and comedian, Lary has hosted several shows in Beirut and has collaborated with different platforms such as Seen Noon where he tackles different topics that involve the right mixture of humor and awareness. His influence transcends Lebanese borders, as his work and social media presence have reached different queer communities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. His material often caters to gay men, as he believes that targeting one’s own community effectively mobilizes change from within. He also stresses on surrounding himself with a diverse team of writers and collaborators, underlining the importance of having women on his team.
Lary, an advocate for intersectionality, believes that it is essential to acknowledge the fight for women’s rights as a precursor for the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. “Women have always been at the front and center of many great revolutions of our time, and even though historical recounts have failed them many times, this is something we can never hide or take away from them. We [as gay men] have gained so much and learned so much from the involvement of women, especially black trans women, who have sacrificed so much of their livelihood in the fight for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.” To Lary, the fight for women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights go hand in hand, and only by unity can we achieve equality.
Evoking conversations about women’s rights, sexuality, sex, gender fluidity, and all the other topics that have long been hushed in Lebanese society is necessary for the Lebanese community to continuously evolve. Furthermore, it allows the dispersal of human rights amongst different marginalized communities in Lebanon, especially the LGBTQ+ one. Lary mentions that he enjoys having these conversations often because it effectively helps fade the taboo surrounding such topics, consequently making them more accepted by the Lebanese. He explains, “ I think these conversations really matter; talking about your identity, interests, fantasies, and whatever your heart desires openly will make it more comfortable for you, me, and anyone else to be themselves in public. The road to the LGBTQ+ community obtaining rights is long, but starting to treat sexuality and its diversity, for example, as a normal subject rather than an immediate taboo helps normalize it in day-to-day conversations and culture.”
As such conversations make way for more visibility within the LGBTQ+ community, Sasha Elijah, a Lebanese Armenian trans model, actress, and performer sheds light on the dangers that vocal LGBTQ+ figures such as herself have faced as a result of visibility, “Unfortunately, visibility without protection can sometimes be a trap. I felt like my own life was taken out of my hands and put at the mercy of spectators and the public, who have created so many different expectations for me, forgetting I was an actual human being, a trans woman living in a country that vilifies her for who she is rather than protects her.”
At only 18 years old, Sasha Elijah was pushed into the limelight on national television and asked painstakingly personal questions for the entirety of Lebanon to see. A teenager at the time, she was going through her own experiences of self-discovery, only to realize that they would also be shared with thousands of others who followed her steps very closely. This pressure created a need in the young Sasha to conform to societal standards in terms of behavior and thought, and crave acceptance, which was then used by external sources who took advantage of her rising public image. After years of being robbed of her own voice and used as a liberal prop in Lebanon, Sasha has reclaimed herself as a strong, independent, multidimensional trans woman who stands against all the prejudice, people, and backlash that have tried to control or stop her from simply living her life.
Sasha has racked up quite a few moments of great pride and joy within her career. She mentions her modeling for Emergency Room Beirut as one of her greatest career highlights. This gig landed her on billboards nationwide. Sasha also recently kickstarted her acting career by starring in “Dizer”, a Lebanese sci-fi series on Netflix. This has earned her the title of the first transgender Lebanese Armenian actress. As a performer, Sasha has mesmerized and attracted crowds from all over Lebanon. She is especially proud of her performance at Garten’s Discobanana, where she danced the night away surrounded by friends, strangers, and admirers. “I am proud of myself and what I’ve done despite all the prejudice that comes along with being an artist, a woman, and a trans woman for a matter of fact. I have had to work in certain spaces and have been surrounded by certain people who were driven by the patriarchy, but I have fought against all odds.”
Her passion for fighting the patriarchy also matches that of defying gender norms and beauty standards. Sasha has long been wrongfully depicted as the “psychotic woman” in her battle against societal standards and deafening stereotypes. Yet, this has done everything but stop her. She remains as fiery as ever when discussing the wrongful woes of Eurocentric beauty standards that have emerged from white colonialism, “These standards have long dictated how women behave, look, and act. I fully believe in their abolishment for our liberation as women.”
Another achievement she holds dear to her heart is a collective that she and her group of friends based in Beirut and Berlin started after the August 4 explosion called the Suzy Collective. It was created in memory of Suzy, an icon in the trans community who passed away at age 66 in early 2020. “Suzy is an icon. She is a pioneer for trans women, and in fact, she deserves recognition way beyond the lines of the trans community. She fought for women and stood tall against the patriarchy. No one could break Suzy, even after all the injustice and persecution that she endured at the hands of many in Lebanon. She deserved better. Her death made many cry to say the least.” The initiative aimed to raise money to help trans individuals who were affected by the explosion. “We did this for our sisters, our brothers, our family, our community,” says Sasha. “We know how in dire need they were for financial assistance and we were able to help numerous individuals, and hope to help many more in the months to come.” This collective along with many others have been vital in helping LGBTQ+ individuals get back on their feet following the explosion. Many members of this community have lost their homes and livelihoods, and for obvious reasons, moving back with their own families can be a threat to their safety. Moments like these remind us of all of the dangers that come with being a member of the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon.
Coming out to friends and family is a hard enough process to undertake. In addition, many queer folks have had to make that transition into their work lives, as is the case of Sinine Nakhle, a Netherlands-based Lebanese genderqueer artist, academic, and researcher. Sinine, the brains behind BeirutByDyke, came out as queer at the age of 19 as a student at the American University of Beirut (AUB), encouraged by their major in psychology, the diversity of the student body and finding their first queer friendship group. After graduating with a degree in psychology, Sinine was offered a position to teach at the university. “My role at the university went from being student to teacher. I came out as a student, and now had to come out as a teacher. It was tricky. You are young, presenting as a woman at the time, there are many expectations that come with that already, let alone identifying as queer. Thankfully the Dean and my at the faculty were very supportive were very supportive”
Sinine felt empowered by the support they received from their workplace, especially at a time when many queer folks refrained from coming out in fear of repercussions at work or at home. This acceptance, alongside their involvement in many community initiatives and feminist collectives inspired the start of their storytelling across many mediums. Chosen as a recipient of an Amsterdam based-grant, Sinine went on to study comics in Vermont, in the United States. One thing led to another, and soon enough, they had quit their job and poured their heart and soul into their newly created Instagram page, Beirut By Dyke, which boasts over 15,000 followers today from all over the world. “I had no clue that it would grow at all. For me, it was very much a personal need for creating my own space for stories that I needed to hear or needed to tell others. It started as a way for me to embark on some kind of healing journey in public.”
By telling their own stories through their comics, personal pictures, and videos, Sinine has created a safe space for many Instagram users to relate to their experiences. Several topics are tackled including sexuality, queer experience, heteronormativity, intersectionality, and even sexual assault,. All subjects that have long been looked down upon in Lebanese society. One of their most recent artworks on BeirutbyDyke, ‘How to Have Sex with a Survivor of Sexual Assault’, garnered international attention from people all over the world who thanked Sinine for tackling a topic that is rarely acknowledged. Sinine expressed their happiness in people finding joy and comfort in their comics, but also emphasizes the notion that experiences differ, and there is so much more beyond their art that has not necessarily been represented in it. “It’s important to recognize the similarities, the differences, and diversity in experiences amongst people,” says Sinine. “In my art, I want to tackle subjects and experiences that are personal to me, and at the same time, I don’t want to erase the voices and experiences of people who are not necessarily represented through my art work.”
However, Sinine’s talents do not only lie in artwork, but also in academia. Recently, they completed a master’s degree in media studies and cultural analysis in the Netherlands. In their thesis, which is ethnographic in nature, Sinine uses Beirut By Dyke as a means to reflect on themself and their personal experiences to connect them to wider cultural and social meanings. Beirut By Dyke’s academic role does not stop there though. Sinine is currently attending the PhD program at the University of Amsterdam, with the intention of using Beirut By Dyke to guide their reflections around the use of digital spaces. “I intend to look at these techno-scientific platforms, which are used to trade information and capital for instance. What does it mean for us as feminists and queer individuals to be using these platforms run by people in Silicon Valley to create what we hope to be radical change and imagination in and outside our own city? I’m quite excited to delve into this topic.”
Sinine’s academic career has reached milestones in the past couple years. There have been invitations to multiple panels to present their work, and their research papers are being taught in university classrooms around the world. Their work with Beirut by Dyke is making changes to the arts and academic scene, and one can only be excited for the future of this Instagram page that first started as a means of public journaling and has now touched the lives of many strangers.
In Unity There Is Strength
Karim, Lary, Sasha, and Sinine are only a handful of the many people in Lebanon who have been, and are currently changing the narrative for the LGBTQ+ community there whether on a legal, social, or artistic level. As we celebrated the achievements of all queer and trans individuals in Lebanon last month, it is also important to recognize that the fight for their rights is far from over. Pride Month is not only a month of joy and celebration, but also one of remembrance for all the queer and trans individuals who have fought for their rights around the world, and all the lives lost in the process. In unity, there is strength. The fight for the rights of the LGBTQ+ is a fight for all marginalized communities in Lebanon. As Aditi Mayer famously said, “Understanding the interconnected nature of oppression will help us realize the interconnected nature of liberation.”
Michelle Eid is a Lebanese student who recently graduated in the United States (US) with a bachelor’s degree in political science and Middle Eastern studies majoring in human rights and international relations. Considering social justice an integral part of her life since her youth, Michelle had been a member of the Lebanese Red Cross Youth Department before moving to the US, where she continued her commitment to human rights by becoming a tutor and advocate of refugee communities in her area. She is also passionate about art, art history, and cinema. Relocating to Paris to pursue her masters degree in human rights and humanitarian action in the fall, she is excited to be introduced to yet another perspective of both the international arts and human rights scene.