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Crackdown on Lebanon gays

in LEBANON, 03/08/2012

On July 28, 36 men were arrested [ar] in Beirut under suspicion of homosexual activity. The raid took place in the Bourj Hammoud neighborhood at Cinema Plaza, which is considered to be a gay cruising venue. Lebanese police also cracked down on other venues deemed to be places of “debauchery and prostitution”.

Moreover, the detainees were subjected to forced anal examinations, which would supposedly prove their homosexuality. The examinations are based on outdated medical knowledge from the 19th century, and are considered a violation of bodily rights and a form of torture according to international human rights standards.

The raid came after months of a campaign waged [ar] by a famous TV show on Lebanon's Murr TV (MTV) channel called “Anta Hurr”, inciting hatred [ar] against gays.

The Lebanese LGBT Media Monitor, a project by Lebanese LGBT group Raynbow, has written about the anti-gay campaign on their website:

Another outrageous report by MTV, the Lebanese TV station now popular for its bigotry, racism, homophobia, and hate-incitement was aired on May 8, 2012. The Anta Hurr (أنت حر Arabic for “You are free”) episode included using a hidden camera inside an adult all-men movie theater in Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli. The video shows shadows of men masturbating and a short sexual chat with one of them. [Presenter] Joe Maalouf called on officials to close the theater permanently. The next day, Cinema Hamra in Tripoli was shut down without any official or public response by any politician or leader.

Photo posted on Facebook page of The Lebanese LGBT Media Monitor.

The raid triggered angry reactions among Lebanese bloggers. The Gay in Beirut blog commented:

Whatever one might think of the places that were raided – shady, filthy, immoral – they exist even in the most conservative Arab cities – Damascus has them, Amman has them. They’re not a sign of “too much freedom” but on the contrary, they are a symptom of a closed and homophobic society. They are a desperate choice for gay guys to have an occasional sexual encounter.

Online users left angry comments on the Facebook page of Joe Maalouf, the host of the TV show. Hasan Abdessamad left a comment saying:

How does it feel to have 36 men arrested, taking them away from their families and out of the safety of their closets, throwing them under the cruelty of our merciless judgmental society, putting them at risk for losing their jobs, and throwing them in a jail where they already got abused by exposing them to “dignity anal testing”? Why is your target always the misfortunate and weak? Go after all the corrupt people in power dressed in suits and causing real harm to our Lebanese society. I used to like and watch your program now I do not even want to watch MTV Lebanon all together.

In an unexpected turn, some Lebanese Facebook and Twitter users spread rumors that Maalouf is gay himself. A YouTube video [ar] entitled “Joe Maalouf is gay” has been circulating, which contains photos of Maalouf apparently on the Greek Island of Mykonos, a gay tourism hub. Nevertheless, others were against the move to reveal Maalouf’s sexuality and considered it harmful to the Lebanese gay community. Raja Farah, a blogger who identifies as gay, atheist, activist, pacifist, and Arab wrote in a post called “36 men in jail, and 1 on TV”:

As it seems, a few hours ago, someone (I have no idea who) launched a campaign to out Maalouf, posting a YouTube video and creating a blogpost. I instantly remembered why such tactics are horrible. As the story of the cinema arrests continues to develop, our number one priority needs to be the privacy, safety, and well-being of these men. That should be our focus and our goal. Joe Maalouf’s sexuality will not change anything. He may be evil, he may be homophobic, he may be the devil incarnate. It doesn’t matter. Outing him will not help get these men out of Hbeish [police station] and it certainly won’t help us in any way. We don’t fight hate with hate and we don’t fight homophobia with homophobia.

According to Helem, a Lebanon-based organization that offers support and services to LGBT people, article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code states that “sexual intercourse contrary to nature” is punishable by up to 1 year in prison. The article is used by the Lebanese ruling classes to criminalize homosexuality for ordinary people and block democratic debate on sexuality.

Article 534 is part of the French colonial legacy in Lebanon during the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon between 1920 and 1946. In fact, many of the anti-homosexuality laws were introduced by colonial powers into the national legislation of several countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Several LGBT groups in Lebanon have been campaigning to abolish article 534. In December 2009, HELEM launched a report on the legal situation of homosexuals in the Arab region.

The incident is reminiscent of a similar case in Cairo in 2001, when police raided a discotheque, dozens of men were jailed, and anal examinations were performed.

The recent crackdown in Lebanon contradicts the popular image of Beirut as a city that embraces diversity and is considered a destination for gay tourism.

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