In Lebanon, homosexuality becoming less of a taboo

Special to The Times

The Lebanese soldiers at the checkpoint peered through the barbed wire.

Across the street from these men in their fatigues and combat gear, another group of men had arrived -- revelers in hip-hugging pants and tight shirts on their way to Acid, an openly gay nightclub in east Beirut.

The soldiers barely flinched.

In Lebanon, homosexuality is becoming less of a taboo. It is discussed with much greater candor on TV and radio talk shows.

The Arabic word widely used in reference to gays means "pervert." Now many leading newspapers have begun using a more neutral term.

New gay bars have sprouted, joining mainstays such as Acid, creating a flourishing nightlife that is attracting locals and foreign tourists alike.

"It's not that the political class is more open today," said George Azzi, a prominent gay rights activist. "But authorities, by portraying themselves as the new guardians of democracy and civil rights, find themselves rather bound not to attack gays."

The 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri unleashed a political firestorm that led to the ouster of Syrian troops from Lebanon. But with its heady rhetoric about freedom and rights, the so-called Cedar Revolution also unwittingly set in motion an unspoken cultural transformation.

Moreover, the political instability that followed Hariri's assassination has left many politicians and clerics too preoccupied with factional feuds to pay attention.

"Politicians are simply too busy today to persecute gays," said Salah Srour, a lawyer who works for gay rights. "They have too many problems to deal with."

Famous for its riotous nightlife, Lebanon has long been known as the most permissive among the Arab countries.

On any given night, Monnot Street in central Beirut is gridlocked with Porsche-driving playboys headed to the area's many bars and nightclubs where a bottle of champagne costs $1,000 but buys precious attention. Many tourists from the Persian Gulf countries come to Beirut for the kinds of kicks they can't get at home.

At Acid, the waiting line snakes around the block on weekends. Others prefer the hunting grounds at the city's traditional saunas known as hamams. In these dimly lighted, vapor-filled rooms, men wearing only towels around their waists cruise for sexual partners.

Berto Kanso, a 27-year-old archeology graduate, has made a business of charting these shadowy waters. He runs a gay tourism website that offers advice on hotels, restaurants and gay bars in Lebanon. He e-mails travel updates to his contact list of 7,000 subscribers all over the world.

Despite a drop in tourism caused by the 2006 war between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah and the continuing unstable political situation in Lebanon, Kanso said business is booming.

"There is a lot of negative propaganda portraying Lebanon as a dangerous place ... but in reality Lebanon is beautiful and free," he said. "As long as I am not dealing with anything illegal like drugs or prostitution, why would I be stopped? After all, I am bringing tourists to the country."

A billboard campaign last year for a high-end fashion store showed a man holding hands with both a man and a woman. Related TV spots showed two men holding hands, with sunrays creating a rainbow above them as a voice-over intoned, "Vote for tolerance."

Dating websites and chat groups provide social networks for Lebanese gays who once would have been far more isolated.

"Today, we can talk about a fairly thriving gay community in Beirut," said Rita Ghanem, 33, who left her ancestral home 18 months ago when her father discovered she was seeing a woman.

The parents of her girlfriend, Luna, at first banned contact between the two women but ended up tacitly accepting their relationship.

After moving out of her father's house, Ghanem took a job as a bartender in West Beirut. But when he became ill and needed help, she moved back home to care for him. The two haven't discussed her girlfriend again.

Homosexuality is still considered shameful in many places outside the cosmopolitan capital, and many gay men and women in Lebanon prefer to lead a double life rather than risk being ostracized.

"I am only gay when I am in bed with another man," said Kareem, a 40-year-old engineer who didn't want to give his last name for fear of being persecuted. Kareem says he avoids going to gay clubs or being seen publicly with other gay men. Instead, he meets other men anonymously online.

"Many gay men suffer from homophobia in their surroundings," said Maha Rabbat, a psychotherapist who counsels at Helem, one of the few Arab associations advocating rights for gays, lesbians and transgender people. "Most of [them] feel anxious and have a low self-esteem."

Not so long ago, Lebanese security forces regularly taunted and sometimes beat gays. Those arrested were prosecuted under a law prohibiting "unnatural sexual intercourse."

The law, which doesn't address homosexuality explicitly, remains on the books but is rarely enforced these days.

Despite the inroads made by the gay community, initiatives to decriminalize homosexuality have been largely ignored. When Azzi filed papers with the Ministry of Interior in 2004 to establish Helem as a legitimate group, an official shelved the request, writing the word "shameful" on the folder and throwing it into a drawer, a ministry official said. The group's name means "dream" in Arabic.

Helem provides free counseling, HIV testing and financial support to youths who have been cast out by their families. The group is partly financed through fundraising in Paris, Montreal and San Francisco.

Last year, after coming under fierce attacks by religious leaders, the interior minister publicly said he hadn't approved Helem's application to become a legitimate nongovernmental organization.

Despite legal uncertainties, the group continues to operate freely. Every Friday night, undeterred by the heavy presence of police officers and soldiers, Helem members stroll along Beirut's seafront promenade, distributing condoms and AIDS-awareness brochures to gay men and male prostitutes. Their mission is tacitly supported by social affairs and health ministries.

Helem has grown significantly in the last few years "from an underground group at the end of the '90s into a well-established organization, recognized and supported by many other local" groups, Azzi said.

Despite the advances, it remains difficult for Helem to lobby for legislative amendments that would give gays legal protection because parliament is paralyzed by a political deadlock.

Some activists worry that the unresolved legal issues could become a problem down the road.

"Any change in politics can set us back," Azzi said.

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Times staff writer Louise Roug contributed to this report.

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