LGBT in Lebanon: A Chance for Change

By Eli Abu Mehri

This past July I spent ten days in Washington, D.C., attending the Global Forum on MSM and HIV (MSMGF) pre-conference event before the International AIDS Conference. Nearly one thousand people from around the world gathered at the MSMGF event to discuss advocacy, rights, health issues, education and many other topics of interest to gay men. At the International AIDS Conference itself, slated amongst the speakers at the heart of American democracy was none other than American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Contrast this with what was simultaneously happening in my beloved Lebanon. In a nod to the medieval and bizarre, 37 men had been detained by the army and were subjected to a perverse egg test. Though it might sound like some fabricated fantasy from the Marquis de Sade, historically this test consisted of pushing a hard-boiled egg into a man’s anus to determine his sexual orientation. Like the witch trials of the dark ages where a woman would be declared a witch if she managed not to drown when held under water, the egg test posits that if the egg fits in a man’s rectum, the man is gay. If the egg cannot be pushed in the man is not gay.

Today, the test consists of a doctor’s inspection in which he carefully inspects the anus of a man accused of homosexuality and compares it to the egg shape to see if there is any dilatation, abrasion, or sign of penetration. If any of these are found, he is “proven” to have engaged in homosexual behavior.

To relay this event to my esteemed colleagues in Washington was an embarrassment for me, and an insult to our country and our people.

That there is no logic to the test is self-evident. That the test seeks to define homosexuality by receptiveness of passivity, ignoring the active role and other types of sex, reflects the ignorance and juvenility of the perpetrators.  There is no medical or scientific basis for such a test, just as any educated person would acknowledge that a woman’s torn hymen is not necessarily an indicator of sexual activity. That we - reasonable, educated people of a modern world - should be forced even to attempt to rationalize such behavior points to the absurd struggle between ignorance and myth versus rationalism and tolerance, a conflict that is pervasive in Lebanese society.

This particular story begins with a TV host courting controversy in his show called - somewhat ironically - “Are You Free.”  The show carried a report some months ago claiming that a number of cinemas were showing pornographic movies. It is claimed that these cinemas were frequented by both gay and straight men, and allowed patrons to engage in sex with each other if desired. The cinemas were raided and closed, as they had been at times in the past.

The Saturday before last, police officers raided a theater called Cinema Plaza in the low-income suburb of Nabaa, which was allegedly screening heterosexual pornographic films. Officers arrested 34 customers and 3 staff members. Later these men were subjected to the humiliating “egg test. Not only is this a gross violation of privacy and human rights, these men actually had to pay for the inspection - a cost of $80 to the person under investigation.

So while the Middle East erupts around us, while refugees cross our borders in search of sanctuary or medical assistance, and while the threat of Syria’s crisis hangs over us, our police officers, the protectors of our civil liberties, our human rights, our country, spend their time acting as moral enforcers and tools of religious intolerance and our noble doctors are drafted to measure men’s rectums. It would be funny were it not for the blatant disregard for human rights – conventions that Lebanon is supposed to adhere to.

Lebanon continues to be torn between pleasing the pocket and pleasing religion. Few would dispute that overt and covert gay tourism from the Gulf States and the wider region contributes a significant amount of money to local businesses. In a country where Penal Code 534 states that any sexual intercourse against nature is punishable, we find ourselves with gay bars and nightclubs operating openly. The same hypocrisy is evident in civil marriage. Some people might see civil marriage as a viable solution to intermarriage between peoples of the 18 different religions that are recognized in Lebanon, but no – civil marriage is forbidden.  However, marry in Cyprus and return to Lebanon and your marriage will be legally sound. It seems we are a country ruled by the desire to avoid upsetting religious leaders and factions, instead of an adult society that can respect basic human rights and accept change.

But change is coming. And it’s coming fast. Galvanised by growing public outrage and a gay community that is no longer prepared to be invisible, this latest human rights violation could mark a turning point. At the forefront, HELEM, the first openly gay NGO in Lebanon, has worked to secure the safety of the men involved and to publicize the event.

Rival television channels MTV and LBCI have taken different positions. While MTV was behind reports to the cinema screenings and has suggested homosexuality is an abnormal lifestyle, LBCI has provided balance by reporting on the egg test and gay rights. This has spread to journalists writing about these events, and last week people gathered in front of the House of Doctors (Union Place) to protest.

Demands for an end to this medieval activity have been endorsed by the Minister of Health and the Minister of Justice. The Ministry of Health is asking doctors not to facilitate egg tests, calling them a violation of human rights. The medical profession swears to protect and assist people; shame on members of such a profession that allow themselves to be reduced to such a facile and repugnant a role.

The Minister of Justice has also suggested that Penal Code 534 should be amended or abolished, preventing authority figures from using loose interpretations of the law to continue to persecute gay men.

Human Rights Watch has been in contact with Helem. The eyes of the world are now on us. The 37 men were freed, some under warranty, others for lack of proof, or for ‘failing the test.’ Saturday’s public sit in marks a more active approach to LGBT issues in Lebanon and the beginning of vigilance to protect our rights as equal to those of all others, regardless of their gender or sexuality. But the fight to stop this from happening again is just beginning.

Eli Abu Merhi is a Lebanese delegate and member of the Steering Committee of the Global Forum on MSM and HIV (MSMGF). He is also founder of OSE, Organization for Sexuality Education.