Al Rawiya

Unleashing (Queer) Economic Liberation in Lebanon

In 2018, the annual International Women’s March in Lebanon brought together a diverse group of individuals who passionately advocated for gender equality. March 2018, Beirut, Lebanon. Photo Courtesy of Matthieu Karam

Lebanon, a country marked by its complex social fabric and rich cultural diversity, has seen the interplay of neoliberalism, marketization, and queer identities and bodies. Societal attitudes and legal frameworks, manifested through legal texts such as Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code, are often weaponized against queer folk and continue to pose challenges for the queer community. As a result, an intriguing phenomenon has unfolded—a clandestine economy that operates in the shadows, existing alongside mainstream markets, further plunging the quest for freedom.


This essay delves into the multifaceted dynamics of this illicit queer economy, analyzing how neoliberalism and marketization have shaped economic life for queer individuals in Lebanon. It offers a queer political economy reading, with a focus on its relevance within Lebanon’s financial-social crisis, recent moral panics concerning the LGBTQ+ in Lebanon, and the challenges posed to the queer community by neoliberalism and homocapitalism.

The video exposé, ‘The Different Aspects of Homophobia in the Time of Collapse,’ produced by Helem and Megaphone, sheds light on the ongoing LGBT rights abuses in Lebanon. 

Suffocating liberties: the devastating impact of Lebanon’s polycrisis on LGBTQ+ communities


Lebanon’s economic crisis has resulted in soaring unemployment rates, widespread poverty, and limited access to basic services for many individuals, including LGBTQ+ community members. The country’s social fabric has been drastically altered by the ongoing financial, economic, and health crises, leading to an alarming situation where over 80 percent of the population is living in multidimensional poverty. To maintain their previous level of consumption, an average resident today would require at least 10 times the amount of money compared to 2019 due to triple-digit inflation. Recent data also indicates a significant rise in the unemployment rate, which surged from approximately 11 percent between 2018 and 2019 to 30 percent as of January 2022.


Financial instability disproportionately affects marginalized communities, making it even more challenging for queer individuals to achieve economic independence and freedom within the current context. The crisis has also impacted healthcare and education access for many queer individuals, especially trans folk and refugees, as public services continue to be strained by austere economic policies.


The above challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community are further exacerbated by the political instability reigning over the country. The absence of a strong and inclusive government perpetuates discrimination and dismisses policy action in favor of LGBTQ+ rights. In the absence of legal protections, queer individuals are more vulnerable to discrimination, violence, and exclusion from productive economic opportunities.


Furthermore, societal attitudes towards LGBTQ+ individuals, influenced by religious conservatism and family ideology, add another layer of vulnerability. Prejudices and stigmatization limit the acceptance and inclusion of queer individuals within various sectors of society, hindering their ability to thrive economically. 


As such, the intersection of economic insecurity, political instability, and societal attitudes has further marginalized LGBTQ+ individuals, perpetuating their exclusion from economic opportunities and hindering their overall freedom.

“Queer and Trans People Reclaim Their Power in Lebanon’s Revolution” is a 4 part web feature by the Human Rights Watch that shares stories of hope and solidarity told by queer women and transgender people during the October 17 uprising in Lebanon. 

Locked in chains: Lebanon’s sectarian grip on queer economic liberation


Lebanon’s sectarianized political system not only restricts queer liberation but also perpetuates a system of clientelism and crony capitalism that hinders queer economic life. 


Clientelism, a system of patronage and favoritism, plays a significant role in Lebanon’s political and economic landscape. It is rooted in the sectarian political order, where political leaders and parties distribute resources, services, and opportunities to their respective sects or supporters in exchange for loyalty and political support. This system reinforces inequalities and exclusion, as resources are unevenly distributed based on sectarian affiliations rather than merit or need. In Lebanon, such policies have been employed as a powerful tool by political elites to consolidate their power and control over economic resources.


Within the context of a ‘queer’ economy, clientelism hampers the ability of LGBTQ+ individuals to fully participate in the economy. As such, queer individuals unabatedly face significant economic hurdles such as limited access to capital, discriminatory employment practices, and exclusion from lucrative sectors due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Queer entrepreneurs and businesses often cannot access economic resources if they do not have the necessary political connections or sectarian affiliations.The concentration of economic power in the hands of a select few perpetuates inequality and limits the potential for queer economic contributions to thrive. As a result, LGBTQ+ individuals, especially those who are economically unprivileged, trans folk, and queer refugees, are often forced into precarious and informal economic sectors, which offer little stability or opportunities for growth.


But this is not surprising. The intersection of clientelism, crony capitalism, and economic exclusion has allowed for political and financial elites to extract wealth off the most vulnerable in society for years prior to the crisis. The country’s oligarchy, consisting of the central bank, commercial banks, and the Lebanese government, have prioritized accumulating wealth for themselves while neglecting the well-being of the most vulnerable members of society. Instead of investing in an inclusive social protection program, the Lebanese government allocated more than half of its total expenditure between 1993 and 2017 to servicing debt, personnel costs, public sector employment, and a corrupt electricity sector.

Helem’s video titled “Our Social and Economic Rights” sheds light on the hardships encountered by marginalized communities in Lebanon who struggle to meet their most basic needs.

Queer lives at the brink: The devastating impact of moral panics on Lebanon’s LGBTQ+ economic liberation


An immediate outcome of the country’s sectarian and financialized order is moral panics, defined as a widespread feeling of fear that some person or thing threatens the values, interests, or well-being of a community or society. This mechanism is fueled by conservative ideologies and media sensationalism, and arises from a variety of factors, including religious conservatism, cultural norms, and societal fear. It then perpetuates discrimination and exclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals within Lebanese society, treating them as political scapegoats. These panics often result in the reinforcement of heteronormative values and the stigmatization of queer identities, impacting economic opportunities and social mobility. 


In Lebanon, moral panics have reinforced the criminalization of same-sex relations, limiting queer individuals’ ability to live openly and hindering their economic prospects. The fear and prejudice propagated by moral panics also contribute to employment discrimination, limiting queer individuals’ access to job opportunities and economic stability.


Additionally, moral panics can lead to the policing of queer spaces and the suppression of LGBTQ+ cultural expressions. Around one year ago, caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Malawi issued a directive to security forces to urgently disband “all gatherings that promote homosexuality.” This came as a response to events planned for this year’s Pride Month, which according to the ministry, transgress Lebanon’s traditions and norms. This decision has come at a time when the country’s social institutions and economic organizations have completely shattered, while the authorities have, for more than three years now, failed to respond to the crisis with real economic recovery planning.


In 2021, Helem, the first LGBTQ+ organization in the Arab world, documented more than 4,000 cases of abuse—such as arrests and blackmail— against the community, up by 85 percent compared to 2020.

This has also come in tandem with digital targeting of queer life. According to Human Rights Watch, government digital targeting has resulted in arbitrary arrests, reliance on improperly obtained personal digital information in prosecutions, and blackmail of LGBTQ+ people, especially queer refugees.

In honor of Pride Month, L’Orient Le Jour  highlight the hardships the LGBTQ+ community experiece in Lebanon amid the ongoing political, social, and economic crises.

Unintended consequences: neoliberalism and a self-predatory queer illicit economy


Neoliberal policies have profound effects on marginalized communities, including LGBTQ+ individuals. The commodification of queerness within a neoliberal framework often reduces LGBTQ+ identities to marketable products, reinforcing stereotypes and limiting the potential for authentic representation and economic empowerment. This leads to a homogenization of queer experiences and a limited understanding of the diverse range of identities and expressions within the LGBTQ+ community. Furthermore, the market-friendly representation of queerness can reinforce existing power structures and privilege certain individuals or groups within the community, meaning those who conform more closely to societal norms and market expectations may have greater access to economic resources, opportunities, and social acceptance. This can create a hierarchy within the queer community itself, with some individuals benefiting from the market-friendly representation while others are marginalized or excluded.


Within the Lebanese context, the current financial crisis has provided an opportunity for international actors such as international financial institutions (which include the World Bank and IMF) to intervene and shape economic policies. However, their focus on cultural discourses around homophobia and LGBTQ+ rights often disregards the systemic factors that contribute to the marginalization of queer individuals. This approach allows them to maintain a neoliberal economic agenda while overlooking the systemic intersectionality of gender, sexuality, class, and other forms of identity. It further entrenches systemic inequalities, limiting the effectiveness of policy interventions. 


In addition, neoliberalism and marketization have played a significant role in shaping an illicit queer economy in Lebanon, contributing to the development of a market with secretive and duplicitous characteristics. In the context of Lebanon, where queer individuals continue to face legal and societal challenges, the queer economy has taken on a clandestine nature. Similar to historical contexts, queer-owned businesses, such as bars and clubs, often operate covertly to avoid legal repercussions and social backlash. Information about customers, the locations of queer spaces, or even the number of establishments in a particular area is kept hidden or ambiguous.

A pride flag was flying on a street in Mar Mikhael, During Beirut Pride Week in 2017. Photo courtesy of Beirut Pride under CC BY-SA 4.0

The secretive nature of queer businesses in Lebanon creates an environment conducive to price gouging and extortion. Bar owners, vulnerable to both legal and illegal pressures, such as police raids and extortion attempts, could resort to inflating prices for refreshments and food to cover the costs of protection. Despite the risks involved, queer bars remain in high demand, presenting a profitable business opportunity for owners.


Such businesses, particularly bars, often serve as spaces of relative safety for LGBTQ+ individuals, shielding them from any physical assault and entrapment that they may face outside of queer-friendly establishments. Customers, like business owners, have a vested interest in maintaining discretion due to the risks of raids, arrest, and subsequent exposure. As a result, communication between businesses and customers is heavily coded or inhibited, as revealing personal information could lead to potential harm.


However, the necessary secrecy within the queer economy limits the flow of information required for economic markets to operate efficiently. Queer consumers’ mistrust of bar owners, driven by overpriced drinks and cover charges, extortion, and indignity, further complicates the dynamics of the illicit queer economy. The lack of transparency and information hampers market efficiency, making it challenging for businesses to understand and cater to the specific needs of their customers.

Photo courtesy of  Dyana Wing So on Unsplash

Constructing a ‘queer’ economy for Lebanon


In conclusion, the construction of a queer economy for Lebanon rooted in liberation requires a comprehensive and multifaceted approach that challenges the existing structures and norms entrenched in the sectarianized political system and economic landscape. 


The sectarianized political system in Lebanon, with its inherent attributes of clientelism and crony capitalism, not only restricts queer liberation but also perpetuates socio economic exclusion. Queer liberation is intricately linked to challenging the dominance of sectarian structures and creating an inclusive society that values diversity and equal rights for all. To dismantle these barriers, it is essential to advocate for economic reforms that promote transparency, accountability, and equal access to economic resources, irrespective of sectarian affiliations. Furthermore, by deconstructing the normative notions of citizenship, gender, and sexuality, and fostering a politics of queer solidarity, Lebanon can move towards a more equitable and inclusive society.


Homocapitalism, as an offshoot of neoliberalism, further restricts freedom and limits queer economic contributions. International financial institutions and actors often reinforce neoliberal economic relations that prioritize profit and individual success, perpetuating a heteropatriarchal system that overlooks systemic intersectional aspects. This not only hinders queer economic empowerment but also reinforces the harmful notion that respect for LGBTQ+ rights can be achieved through market-oriented reforms alone, neglecting the need for broader social and structural changes.


As such, the production of international economic governmentality rooted in cultural discourses, while ignoring systemic intersectional aspects, contributes to the harmful phenomenon of ‘homocapitalism’ in Lebanon. This narrow focus on culturalist understandings of homophobia allows international actors to position themselves as external to the problem, rather than acknowledging their complicity in perpetuating economic and social inequalities. It is crucial to challenge these narratives and advocate for an inclusive queer political economy that centers intersectionality and addresses the systemic barriers faced by marginalized queer communities.


In envisioning a queer economy for Lebanon, it is essential to be mindful of the limitations of the nation-state and the pitfalls of nationalism. A queer worldmaking project should aim to transcend the boundaries of national belonging and foster intersectional queer solidarity that moves away from paternalistic sexual politics. By contesting normative notions of citizenship, gender, and sexuality, Lebanon can pave the way for a transformative queer political economy that embraces diversity, inclusivity, and justice.

Hussein is a Development Economist, interested in queer political economy, feminist economics, the economics of decentralization (specifically fiscal federalism), and development economics. In his current work, he has been assessing the socio economic  cost of LGBTQ+ discrimination in Lebanon. Alongside, he has been diagnosing regional economic development trends via quantitative methods. Hussein seeks to advocate for an economic research agenda that is heterodox, localized, and feminist in nature. Hussein graduated with an MSc in Development Economics from the University of Sussex as joint Saïd Foundation, Chevening, and British-Lebanese Association scholar in 2020. He received his BA in Economics and minor in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut. Hussein was also a non-resident fellow at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. You can follow him on Twitter at @husseinch96.



Rijan Amro

RIJAN AMROAn identity at the crossroads of Palestine and Canada – Behind ‘Pieces of Palestine’ “Where are you from?” I am Palestinian. But I’m also

Dave Merheje

DAVE MERHEJELaughter as Antidote Comedy has always been in the background of my life ever since I was a little boy. My family were jokers,

Sandra Succar

SANDRA SUCCAR Pursuing Dreams through the MMA Octagon At 24, I’ve journeyed from the confines of a basement to the electrifying octagon of MMA arenas,