BEIRUT — Elias Haddad had his first sexual experience as a teenager, with a friend from his small village in north Lebanon. Haddad said the encounter left him feeling confused and guilty, “like I was doing something wrong.” He visited the village priest, who told him sexual activity of any kind, before marriage, was a sin. He didn’t have another homosexual experience until 10 years later.

“I didn’t want to be gay, I tried everything to be straight,” said Haddad, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “I went out with girls. I started to do sports, did what all the guys do, just to be straight.”

Now, Haddad is out of the closet to everyone he knows, except his parents and family.

“I decided not to tell them because they will not accept it,” he said. “They will treat me as a sick guy. They will do anything to reverse me to a straight guy. They will tell me to marry a girl without telling her I’m gay. They won’t accept the fact that their only boy turned into a gay guy. They will not talk to me.”

Still, Haddad lives a life not unlike a gay man would in Europe or America. Lebanon is one the most tolerant countries in the Arab world for gays and lesbians. But it is illegal to be gay here, and conservative social rules and honor codes can stigmatize gays and their families, jeopardizing jobs and security.

“It’s difficult being gay in Lebanon,” said Ghassan Makarem, an activist with Helem, a Lebanese civil society organization that advances the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders. It’s the only overt organization advocating gay rights in the Arab world, with an office and community center near downtown Beirut.

“Our idea is to normalize the issue in the society as a whole, and not just find a ghetto to live in,” Makarem said.

Makaram said gays and lesbians have found what he calls “space between the cracks” in Lebanon’s diverse religious and ethnic mix, where the state recognizes 18 different religious sects and people are generally tolerant of other forms of expression. Incidents of public assaults on gays are rare, although Makarem says they are underreported, along with assaults on gay prisoners at police stations.

But the biggest pressures appear to be familial. Due to economic and social constraints here, young people often live at home until well into their 30s, when they get married. Makarem said that means the private lives of young gays and lesbians are under the family microscope, which can result in violence that’s concealed behind closed doors.

“We do have some cases of people coming in who are victims of domestic violence from fathers and brothers,” Makarem said. “They are usually young, effeminate men.”

To help gays and lesbians who face violence at home, Markarem said Helem is developing a “trauma service” to field calls. It will be an addition to the group’s already substantial counseling services for people who are dealing with their own, or their children’s, sexuality.

Helem also offers a health clinic and HIV testing in association with Lebanon’s Ministry of Health, although the group’s legal status is in limbo. Helem has been unable to register as a civil society association with the Ministry of the Interior since the group was founded in 2004. 

“The ministry allows the organization to function, but they have not given the organization the certification of association,” he said. “It complicates financial issues … [and] forces an association to break other laws.”

Makarem says Lebanon’s former minister of the interior told the group he would like to approve the certification, but the issue would be political suicide, because he hailed from a conservative area.

In a response to discrimination and to protest the alleged beating of two gay men by the police, Helem held perhaps the only gay rights demonstration in the Arab world, ever, in downtown Beirut in February. More than two dozen men and women gathered to carry rainbow flags and signs that said “we shall no longer be afraid.”

Protesters called for the elimination of Lebanon’s Law 534, which criminalizes homosexuality. The law prohibits any "unnatural sexual intercourse."

But unlike the situation in other countries, such as Iraq, where Amnesty International reports that 25 boys and men have been killed because they were gay or believed to be gay, gays in Lebanon are largely left alone, at least by the legal system. Law 534 is seldom enforced, and Beirut has a healthy, public and very open gay and lesbian club and social scene. The police last raided one of the several gay nightclubs here in 2003.

Makarem said that even though the gay community has been accepted in Beirut’s more tolerant and diverse neighborhoods, society is socially and religiously conservative, and misperceptions and misinformation hold sway over a vast majority of the population.

“I don’t think homosexuality should be legal,” said Maryah D., a 17-year-old sophomore who attended a debate on homosexuality at the American University of Beirut in April.

“Almost 60 percent of gay people have AIDS,” said Maryah, who asked that her last name not be used. “Homosexuality is a sin. They should be sent to an organization with psychologists to transform them into heterosexuals. Homosexuals are still considered deviants, and as Muslims, it is our responsibility to advise them.”

Others in the audience echoed Maryah’s opinions.

“You argue that homosexuality is natural because animals do it,” said one audience member to a panel that included Helem’s Makarem. “Well, some animals eat their own feces, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK.”

Although Lebanon just held an election, it was this type of attitude that prevented the issue of gay rights from becoming a political third rail. Only two politicians have publicly supported the abolition of law 534; the former minister of justice recommended that the law be struck down, but the recommendation went nowhere. 

Still, gays here tend to accept the conservative social norms and enjoy their relative freedom compared with the rest of the Arab world. Elias Haddad, the gay man whose parents don’t know about his sexuality, has had a boyfriend for nearly two years. He said he was happy now that he had accepted his homosexuality. He just wishes he could tell his parents. 

“I want to live my life, and I want my parents to know, I don’t want to hide from them,” he said. “My friends’ parents know, but not my parents. Everyone accepts it if a guy is gay so long as it’s not their child, their son or their brother.”

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