The pride month, that each year commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, is just over. That was a tipping point for the LGBT Liberation Movement in the United States and since 1970 parades and marches have been held in New York City, and many other cities in the world, to commemorate this anniversary. Unfortunately, this year and the last one the celebrations of pride month were interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions that in every States were taken by the governments to limit contagion. In some cities it was possible to organise small scale events such as sit-ins and marches to keep the Pride spirit alive.
In this climate, I’ve been thinking about the LGBTQ+ pride, its meaning and its value in the contemporary society. The pride became the promotion of the self-affirmation, dignity, equality and increased visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a community, a social group. Pride, as a term, opposes to shame and social stigma, that for centuries accompanied the lives of LGBTQ+ people. In the years, Pride became the predominant outlook that bolsters most LGBTQ+ rights movements and the colourful and carnivalesque parades became one of the symbols of the liberation culture. The extravaganza brought in by the activists and allies that every year take over the streets of many cities around the world became the better weapon to fight against prejudices and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.
While in many of the Western countries, the LGBTQ+ rights are well recognised by the law that criminalises discriminatory behaviours based on gender and sexual orientation, but also through provisions that allow same-sex marriages, the right to adopt and the right to self-determine everyone’s gender identity, among others, this is not the case everywhere in the world. We do not need to move far away from the EU to find countries like Poland and Hungary, where discriminations against LGBTQ+ people are not only tolerated, but in some cases, perpetrated by the law. Furthermore, in many African and Asian countries homosexual conduct are still punished as criminal offences and LGBTQ+ people are arrested, tortured, mistreated and trialled on a daily basis.
Our beloved Italy too is not a virtuous one when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights as the law does not equalise civil union to marriage, it does not recognise the so-called rainbow families, it still requires sex assignation at birth for intersex individuals, it requires a long-lasting and expensive procedure for people who wants to transmigrate from one gender to another involing approaval from the court and mandatory psychoterapy, among others. Despite this, the public debate in Italy has been monopolised for over one year by the law against homo-bi-transphobia, misogyny and ableism (Zan proposal) that, if approved, will provide severer punishment for discriminatory and hateful conducts if based on reasons related to sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disabilities. A law that is definitely needed, but that does not solve all the problems of our country. It will definitely not be this law to guarantee equal rights to LGBTQ+ people in Italy nor it will impose restrictions to freedom of speech as the right-wing parties and the catholic church fear, but it will definitely discourage discriminatory behaviours and hate speech against LGBTQ+ people, women and people with disabilities.
All these observations made me reflect on the fact that the liberation movement is still needed and that the fight will be over only once everyone is guaranteed the same rights. So, the Pride spirit shall be there to remind activists and allies the steps taken and inspire the road ahead. And even once equal rights will be insured everywhere, the Pride shall remind us all the shame, the abuses and the discrimination that the community had to deal with in its long road to liberation. It might sound a bit masochist, but to get back the spirit of the fight for equal rights I had to move to a country where LGBTQ+ people face systematic discrimination in the law and where access to basic huma rights it’s still a mirage. I recently met with Tarek Zeidan, the executive director of Helem, the oldest LGBTQ+ organisation in the MENA region. For those of you not familiar with Arabic helem means “dream”; a dream that Tarek was able to communicate in a direct and vivid way in an interview where we discussed the work of LGBTQ+ activists in Lebanon.
Helem is a well-established organisation in Lebanon, although most of our readers in Italy might have never heard about it, would you please explain briefly what is Helem and what is its scope of work?
Helem is the Arab world's first LGBTQ+ organisation founded in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2001. Its mission is to offer protection for and promote advocacy on the behalf of LGBTQ+ people living in Lebanon and in the wider MENA Region.
We work in three distinctive, but interconnected, areas. First of all, the service centre which is the core of all protection and support work. This is where we have our emergency intervention, our hotline, our case work, our mental health support, and medical aid. In addition, for the past 3 years we’ve been providing humanitarian support for Syrian LGBTQ+ refugees in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Secondly, the community centre is where we carry out our capacity building activities for the members of the community. Here is where we host our events and where we regularly gather the community in order to build power and address some of the most difficult problems that we face in Lebanon. Furthermore, we hold bootcamps, where we train people to become activists and to argue back against hate speech and homophobic mythology, among others. Lastly, the advocacy department, where we work on changing policies, procedures, laws and culture in Lebanon and in neighbouring countries. We focus mainly on decriminalisation of homosexual conduct, labour rights, housing, education, access to healthcare, freedom of speech and non-discrimination as well as on digital rights.
Helem has been active for the past 20 years, what are your drivers and what are the goals that you set for Helem?
At Helem we are driven by three things. First, necessity, as there are not a lot of actors on the ground with our experience, our history and our ability in dealing with the rampant and systemic homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and all sorts of queerphobia that we experience every day. We are positioned in a place to do something and it is not only our mandate but an ethical responsibility to act. Secondly, Lebanon, I believe, is one of the countries that is at a breaking point when it comes to reversing the tide of homophobia and transphobia. I think we are pretty close in ushering in a completely new paradigm, a new sort of cultural and social role for queer people in the country. Last, but not least, our community and the fact that we’re committed to one another is a deep source of inspiration. Together we’ve been able to create a space for the community and to define identities that are endemic and unique. We built a Lebanese queer culture without having necessarily to borrow identities’ facets from elsewhere.
On the other side, the goals for Helem are never-ending, because every single time we achieve a goal, 10 new ones spur out in its place. Our final goal is to live in a country where queer people can fully enjoy their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. In this way, our fight is interlinked with the fight of all other marginalised groups, all people that have been targeted and made vulnerable by the system that we live in.
How it is to work in a country where homosexual behaviour is still criminalised and punished under criminal law?
Let me start by saying that homosexuality in Lebanon is not criminalised per se. What is punished under criminal law are “sexual acts against the order of nature”, which is a very vague and problematic provision that is used by many judges to condemn homosexual behaviours. This is a law that was introduced by the colonial power and that was never part of the Lebanese law before France established its mandate on Lebanon. This makes things really difficult for us mainly due to its vagueness, that leaves a wide space for interpretation and, unfortunately, when things are open to interpretation the most common denominator is taken as a fact. The real problem, although, is not the law itself but rather the Lebanese judiciary system that is incredibly weak and subject to corruption. Furthermore, the law-enforcement bodies who are also highly corrupted and incredibly violent against the community. There is absolutely no oversight on internal security forces and the police. They are routinely engaging in torture and in mistreatment in a culture of complete impunity and that really makes our work hard because it creates a climate of intimidation and fear and it does not enable the right environment for people to join the fight for rights in a fair way.
Do you think there will ever be a time in which this particular law will be repealed?
Of course, I think in the future we will win because history, logic and reason are on our side, as well as international law. We will definitely win; however, the question is when and how? To me, it’s not just about repealing this specific law, because there are many other laws like this one that criminalise us. The idea is to change the entire system, to reform the entire criminal code so that it will be fair and just for everyone and protects the rights and dignity of the people that it was created to serve and protect. Removing one provision while not changing the context does not improve the lives of queer people. We must think systematically, we must think that even if we repeal that law, it is only one step to take and not necessarily the first one.
You mentioned this is just a step, what do you think might be the other necessary steps?
Our priorities are labour rights, access to healthcare, access to education and housing. In particular, when I refer to housing, I mean housing policies, but also shelters and protection services for people, fair and balanced rent contracts and so on. When dealing with legislation I believe we shall adopt a broader perspective rather than making existing law queer inclusive. In many ways we’re starting from scratch and writing something that benefits everybody and not just the LGBTQ+ community. So, the way we work is that we try to go over the queer-centred perspective: we do not only ask ourselves how these policies and laws might be inclusive of our rights; on the contrary, we engage with other stakeholders and join hands with them in the fight for everyone’s rights in Lebanon, bringing in our queerness as a value. This is a different way of looking at problems that goes beyond inclusion. When you realise that the problem is shared by all citizens and you as an LGBTQ+ person commit your time and energy to the greater fight, everyone benefits.
Do you have any examples of campaigns adopting this strategy?
We just concluded a campaign called “ماـبتقطع” (Ma Bto2ta3!) which translates to “it will not be tolerated”. The campaign, carried out with the Lebanese Observatory for Workers and Employees Rights, aimed to encourage queer people to call an ad hoc hotline to let us know of any violations that they are experiencing in the workspace so that we can address them, provide legal aid for victims, and fight back against any sort of exploitative or abusive behaviour in the workplace. So this can be the beginning of a broader work that also includes the private sector and many other stakeholders.
What are the results achieved by this campaign? And what do you hope it will achieve in the future?
The campaign was extremely successful because we were able to document over 150 cases of discriminatory and exploitative behaviours. This was the first time ever we mapped what queer people are going through in the workplace in the entire Arab world and we were able to finally diagnose some of the problems and build initiatives and programmes that address these problems. My hope is that not only we are able to address people individually by guaranteeing access to justice and compensation for the abuses they suffered, but that we can include the issue of LGBTQ+ people in the workplace in the broader conversation about human rights, particularly socio-economic rights. The idea is to get people mobilised around this issue, to make them understand that economic empowerment is a key foundation that we need to work on in order to achieve all the other rights that we are working on.
Helem is not just an association, it is a home and a family for many LGBTQ+ people in Lebanon. What are the challenges you had to face since the covid-19 pandemic outbreak? How did the current situation impact your work?
Thanks for noticing this aspect of our centre, but Helem is not only that, it is also a public space and we’ve been working on building a culture of public space for queer people. This is something that we’ve been denied for a very long time in Lebanon.
About the pandemic, it is necessary to link it with the economic crisis and the explosion that happened in the Beirut port last year. I cannot tell you the impact of one over the others because all three came together and they were devastating. Our centre was destroyed, and we had to work remotely, and we are still doing so, in order to provide services for our members. We had to rebuild the centre, so that this stopped all our community work. It was not possible for us to move all activities online because many of the people we work with don’t have access to internet. The overall situation, together with the inability to access funds from our usual donors, delayed all our planned work, but I am glad to say that it finally bounced back successfully: we’re back on track and we will be able to finish all our planned activities by the end of this year.
How did you carry out your work in this period? And when do you think you’ll have the centre back?
We did some activities online, especially capacity building, but most of our community work got postponed, as I said. Although, instead of sitting there doing nothing we became pretty active in humanitarian intervention: our community got together to help to fix people’s houses that were damaged by the blast, we started to provide shelters and food banks for people in need, we provided them with safety disposal and hygiene products too. Additionally, we created a mental health support programme and a free clinic for LGBTQ+ people with critical medical situations. We got back to the community to check on their needs and we readjust our operations accordingly while establishing connections in the neighbourhood. Now that our centre is finally restored, we can re-start with the regular community activities. We’re going to keep on going with both paths of action.
To conclude, what is your “helem”?
I really hope that at the finish line of this work I have done something good and that I will leave the community, the organisation and the country a little bit better then when I started.