World News

Lebanon Is Known as Gay Friendly. But Pride Week Was Shut Down.

Posted May 16, 2018 7:27 p.m. EDT

BEIRUT — For members of Lebanon’s gay community, Beirut Pride week was intended as a way to celebrate diversity, fight discrimination and push for more rights and recognition. But that dream came crashing down this week when Lebanese authorities detained the celebration’s organizer, releasing him only after he promised to cancel the remaining events.

The cancellation was a blow to gay men, lesbians and transgender people in Lebanon, who say they face legal and social discrimination despite living in one of the most socially liberal countries in the Arab world.

“Beirut Pride made a lot of people proud of Lebanon,” the organizer, Hadi Damien, said by phone Wednesday, a day after his release. “And this cancellation made a lot of people sad and disappointed.”

Homosexuality is criminalized across the Arab world, although some countries look the other way as long as it remains private.

Lebanese law stipulates that “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature” is punishable by up to one year in prison, but it does not specify which sexual practices are illegal.

The law is enforced irregularly, so Lebanon has developed into one of the Arab world’s most open and active gay communities. Night-life activities friendly to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are easy to find, and several organizations provide health and other services. The lead singer of the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila is one of the region’s most famous openly gay entertainers.

But Lebanon is also home to 18 officially recognized religious sects, many of which oppose homosexuality on religious grounds and have associations that campaign against gay-friendly events.

Beirut Pride was intended to be a nine-day series of events in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. Among the planned events were a storytelling night, an evening of drag performances, a legal panel and a workshop about sexual health.

The events kicked off Sunday, but Monday night, officials with the security services showed up at the public reading of a play and told Damien to cancel it because he did not have “prior censorship approval,” according to a statement posted on the Beirut Pride website.

Damien said in a phone interview Wednesday that he had sought the approval, but had been told it was unnecessary since the play was “not being performed or staged and no tickets were being sold.”

He agreed to stop the reading but was still detained overnight, he said.

At the police station, Damien said, he was shown an inaccurate version of the event’s program that suggested it included what authorities considered immoral and pornographic content.

“It wasn’t our program,” he said. “It was totally incorrect.”

He provided an accurate description of the planned events, he said, but was told he could either sign a pledge to cancel the rest of the week’s activities and be released or refuse to sign, be arrested and have the events canceled.

After consulting his lawyer, he said, he signed the pledge so as not to endanger other participants.

“If I did not collaborate then other people would have been arrested instead of me,” he said.

The Lebanese government did not comment officially on Damien’s detention. An official with the country’s General Security Directorate confirmed that Damien had been detained overnight after a complaint was filed with the public prosecutor’s office that the events harmed “public morals.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, did not say who had filed the complaint other than referring to “religious figures and associations.”

Damien’s lawyer, Layal Saqr, said Damien had not broken any laws by organizing Beirut Pride.

“The kinds of events organized were events that occur regularly in Beirut, and the venues in Beirut are accustomed to hosting them,” Saqr said.

Other gay activists worried that Damien’s arrest would hamper plans for other events for the gay community.

“In the future, all the venues that were supposed to welcome these types of events are going to be under scrutiny by authorities,” said Edwin Nasser, who was present when Damien was arrested.

This was the second consecutive year that efforts to organize gay pride events in Lebanon faltered. In 2017, the opening event of gay pride week was canceled after threats by Islamist groups.