Carving our own path: the pursuit of LGBT rights in the Middle East

It has now been nearly 40 years since the gay liberation movement began in the West.  We have four decades on which we can look back, study how far things have come, and examine the major changes that have taken place.  Changes have occurred not only in the definition of our rights, but also at the cultural and social level.  There is certainly much to look back on.

When one takes account of the major victories that have been achieved across many countries like the UK, South Africa, the Netherlands, Spain and the United States, one feels it is time to raise a glass and celebrate.  Yes, this is good!  One should celebrate such momentous progress and achievements.  Yet, one must also reflect on the path to these victories, seize the lessons of how such progress took place, where it fell short, and why.

It is this kind of examination that holds the most value as we look to the experiences of these countries for lessons for our own movements.  I am a gay man living in Lebanon, a country in a region that has seen no shortage of social change in recent years.  As we push forward in pursuit of LGBT rights in our own countries, it is tempting to take cues from what has come before us in other parts of the world.  Sometimes this is very helpful, and sometimes the unique social and cultural landscapes of the Middle East require us to look inward, to devise our own advocacy solutions tailored to who we are, to our relationships, and to our societies.

The media presents a strong example of the necessity of a different approach in the Middle East.  In some countries, homosexuality has become a selling point in marketing.  For example, the very successful American television series “Modern Family” features a gay couple living happily with their adopted daughter in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  A number of TV spots have done the same thing, using the image of “gay” to sell products.

The depiction of homosexuality in the Lebanese media has been markedly different.  Some companies have used gay characters in ad campaigns – for example, a Lebanese cheese brand has used a gay man in their television ads – but they approached the topic in a humorous way, using the character as a source of entertainment rather than creating a figure the audience could identify with.

Television programs that have tried to depict homosexuality in a less comical, more genuinely positive light have run into a different kind of road block.   UNAIDS recently attempted to shoot a documentary for a Lebanese TV program to promote a “good image” of homosexuality, emphasizing the importance of family acceptance and support.  The producers indeed found gay men in Lebanon who were out to their families and enjoyed family acceptance.  But, to the surprise of the producers, very few of them agreed to appear on the program.  Not even facial distortion or other identity protections could convince them otherwise.

Why this reluctance to appear in the program?  Because their families were not ready to face their communities.  The families requested that their sons deny the offer to take part in the show.  The families could accept that their sons were gay, but they could not face the judgment of their friends and neighbors.  Society is still highly influential – ostracizing not only the gay son, but also the family that embraces him.

It is clear that family acceptance of a son who has relationships with men is just one of many steps on the road to dignity and equality for LGBT people in the Middle East.  Empowerment for MSM cannot only be focused on the man himself – it must also include his family.  Such pressure on families is high and rising all throughout the Arab world.  It will not be easy to test the limits of a community’s understanding toward a family that accepts their MSM son in the region.  To say nothing of a son who is also living with HIV.  Family empowerment is an essential part of the fight against stigma and for better rights, health, equality and access to HIV services in the Middle East.

It is clear that social change is possible in the Middle East, as evidenced by the sweeping revolutions of the Arab Spring.  Some LGBT and HIV activists believe these events not only show that change is possible, but that we should push for the change we want right now, that we should strike while the iron is hot.  While the Arab Spring presents new opportunities for change, a closer look at the forces that have shaped the course of events in the region also shows the pitfalls that must be navigated while pushing for our human rights.

When the Arab Spring began, it held within its wings a hope for change – change of many different kinds.  Many MSM took to the streets to push for the changes we want to see.  However, as event progressed, the words of the community were overshadowed by organized calls for change from the mosques, launched every Friday after ritual prayers.  These calls began as free and genuine, but over time, they were guided more and more by religious clerks.  And now?  The Muslim Brotherhood is now more influential in Egypt than it ever was before.  MSM were not the only ones to see an opportunity to tip events in their favor.

As religious conservatives are rising to fill the power vacuum, some gay Arab bloggers have been vocally concerned.  “In Egypt and Tunisia there was a lot of hope initially that there would be a more tolerant civil society,” said Dan Littauer, the London-based editor of Gay Middle East. “Now it seems that the impetus for change will be hijacked by conservative forces who will make the situation worse for gay people and other minorities…  In Syria and other countries, there's a fear that gay people could be used as sacrificial lambs.”

Despite these challenges, progress is being made.  Until relatively recently, homosexuality was illegal in Lebanon.   According to article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code, any carnal activity between two people against the order of nature carried a punishment of up to one year in prison.  This law resulted in many people put in jail, as well as the deportation of many migrant workers.  However, in March of 2009, Judge Mounir Suleiman from Batroun court district made a landmark decision: he ruled that consensual homosexual relations are not against the order of nature, and thus such cases cannot be prosecuted under article 534.

“Whereas man is part of nature and one of its elements, and a cell within a cell in it, it cannot be said that any practice of his or any behavior of his is against nature even if it is a criminal act because it is the laws of nature,” ruled Judge Suleiman. “If it rained in summer, if a heat wave struck in winter, or if a tree bore fruit after its usual time, it is all in accordance with the system and laws of nature for it is nature itself.”

A beacon of hope?  Perhaps, but certainly case to follow as we build our own path to the rights we deserve.

Eli Abu Merhi is a Lebanese activist and artist, whose work often expresses a critical observation of the community and transmits it with an upfront message that reflects the reality with all its beauty and ugliness. Holder of a law degree and an art student, Eli was born in Beirut, the capital of contradictions. He established OSE, organization for sexuality education in 2011 to lead TOT programs nation-wide defending gender equality, freedom of sexual orientation and liberties.  He is currently a member of the MSMGF steering committee.