Beirut Pride and the Struggle for Sexual and Gender Freedom and Rights

Author: The Socialist Feminist Committee
On the occasion of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT), a number of NGOs participated in “Beirut Pride” from May 14 to May 21, 2017, to oppose the hateful discourse and violent acts directed at the LGBTQ (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) community in Lebanon. The Muslim Scholars Committee reacted to this event by issuing threats on May 13, 2017 that resulted in the cancellation of events organized by Proud Lebanon and Helem respectively. This explicit threat was framed as an act by the “guardians of purity and dignity from all over Lebanon taking action to prohibit this conspiracy of a conference”, and was reinforced by the Committee’s close ties to the Grand Mufti Abdul Latif Daryan, Minister of Interior Nuhad Machnouk, and General Director of Lebanese General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim. The Lebanese security institutions’ inaction in response to the Committee’s threats has revealed how inadequate and arbitrary their observance of the right to freedom and security for all truly is. This has been proven through their systematic oppression, arrest, and torture of the most marginalized social groups within the LGBTQ community, especially refugees, sex workers, and transgender persons. The security institutions’ leadership also belongs to or has close ties with the Future Movement, which tries to comply with the wishes of Islamist forces in order to prove its commitment to religion, which it claims is larger than that of the scholars, in a desperate attempt to regain its popularity amongst the Sunni population.

The Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, made a speech on March 18, 2017 similar to the Committee’s statement and tone. He stated that homosexuality is a threat to families, adding that “homosexuality has destroyed a number of societies abroad, and it is now being imported to Lebanon and the Arab and Muslim worlds.” He encouraged “all those concerned over the purity of humanity and society to resist such projects.” Nasrallah’s speech was not engaged with, and did not face the same criticism as did the statement of the Muslim Scholars Committee. Also, many persons within and outside of Hezbollah’s orbit, who claim to be “intellectuals” and “defenders of homosexuals”, have purposefully overlooked or justified the tone of the speech, which was threatening LGBTQ individuals through its invitation to “counter this project.”
These reactions are grounded in the mechanisms of the patriarchal sectarian system, which demeans and oppresses all attempts at threatening its structure, and relies on the regulation of our sexualities, bodies, and relationships. The reactions occurred despite the Pride organizers distancing the event from politics, making no clear reference to the parties making threats, and avoiding criticism of the security establishments’ failure to protect the event; all in an attempt to be as unprovocative as possible.

It is essential that problems within the ideological framework and political strategy adopted by Beirut Pride be raised. Our critique on the subject stems from our unconditional support and interest in starting a political discussion, as allies, in order to contribute to the construction of a stronger and more inclusive, united movement for gender and sexual rights and freedoms.
First, the Beirut Pride organizers stated that the event is “apolitical” since it did not aim to confront dominant political parties in Lebanon, but sought, instead, to obtain the right to queer visibility. We believe that politics and the right to be queer in public cannot be separated for two reasons: The first is that “homophobia” does not occur in a cultural vacuum. It is a product of the patriarchal and capitalist system present in Lebanon which considers, for example, effeminate men to be immoral and unnatural. The second is that homophobia cannot be separated from the threat posed by homosexual relationships to the dominant ideological frame, which relates sex to procreation. Thus, the right to perform homosexuality and to live according to one’s wants and orientation is a struggle from which politics cannot be detached. The separation of politics from sexual liberation also increases the marginalization of minorities within the LGBTQ movement, such as women, trans* individuals and refugees, by erasing the intersectionality of their struggles, offering a platform instead primarily to cismen. Additionally, when politics are separated from the struggle for sexual freedom, the right to visibility is separated from the privileges which allow us be visible. This would insinuate that the freedom to project one’s sexual identity is a personal right, independent from material and social privileges. Overlooking such privileges transforms the struggle against homophobia into a personal struggle, and pictures sexual freedom as “openness” and visibility as “a definite good”, leading to the increased isolation of queer people from their own spaces of struggle.

Second, the discourse adopted by the Beirut Pride organizers on homophobia contributes to the reinforcement of the binaries that we are trying to break. These binaries divide society into “allies” and “homophobes” on one side, and into heterosexuals and homosexuals on the other. Thus, this discourse oversimplifies the struggle for gender and sexual liberation: it is, in fact, a fight against the heteronormativity which has been inculcated in all of us, regardless of our sexual orientations and gender identities. We are not leading a struggle against individuals, but against the dominant system with its legal, social, and medical institutions that organize and regulate our sexualities and genders. It is a struggle against a capitalist and patriarchal system that constantly reproduces society as a place free of sexual diversity, and promotes a heteronormative identity as if it were the only one allowed or natural.

Third, the concept behind Beirut Pride is based on proving one’s identity and making it visible. Making visibility the primary component of the queer struggle is a frame too limited for social change. It can erase initiatives that might, in Lebanon, be less visible yet just as important, considering our social and political frames. We do not mean to undermine the importance of individuals feeling empowered by their right to perform their sexual and gender identities in public. We are, however, weary of this visibility being framed as the primary mode of action. The ability to perform queerness – in Mar Mikhael street in Beirut – without having to worry about the surveillance cameras installed by the Beirut Municipality on every corner is indicative, of course, of great courage; but it also points to a form of privilege, rooted in social, economic or familial capital, which allows certain individuals to take on such a risk in a society that refuses and criminalizes homosexuality. This performance excludes persons of non-normative sexual orientations and gender identities who cannot afford to be visible – and they make up the bigger part of our society.

Fourth, we need to think of the unintended damage we cause and the legitimacy we grant an illegitimate state and political and bureaucratic structures once we are involved in political activism as consumers – once our main tool of claiming our right to exist includes participation in an economy entangled with the sectarian patriarchal system that is oppressing us. When a consumerist aspect is added to political activism, individuals display their oppressed identities by partaking in the market economy. The Beirut Pride events in Mar Mikhael, for example, indicated a lack of awareness of the realities of a neighborhood that has been struggling, both socially and economically, since the beginning of an intensive wave of gentrification in 2008. Older Mar Mikhael residents, some of whom have resided there for generations or are over 70 years old, have long struggled with bars and valet parking companies that disrespect their right to live comfortably. These companies have destroyed an entire economy that relied on manufacturing, forcing numerous families out of the neighborhood.

These types of activities that took place around Beirut Pride felt similar to the latest Crepaway advertisement which, while definitely a successful advertising tactic, targeted a social category that is marginalized, while relating it to trendiness, youth, and hipster culture. Plenty have defended the ad as a victory for the LGBTQ community, in the midst of a social and political reality that offers no hope. But will the video help fight homophobia? Or will it reinforce the idea that individuals with non-conforming sexualities and gender identities are “other”, Hollywood, theatricality, subcultural, or some new trend, especially when represented in a fast food advertisement video with English dubbing and dramatic background music?
We must think of the intersectionality of our struggles. What does that mean? It means thinking of the ways through which the marginalization of persons whose sexualities and gender identities are non-normative relate, structurally, to the marginalization of racial/ethnic minorities, and class/social minorities, and with the urgent need to build solidarity across diverse spheres of oppression to disentangle the umbrella structure propping them all up. How can we aspire to build a big movement for gender and sexual equality in Lebanon without viewing ourselves as victims of one system in which neoliberalism, homophobia, and patriarchy feed off of each other?

This is no new discussion. The radical feminist movement in Lebanon has brought it up repeatedly throughout the last decade. The crisis this movement has gone through in past years may have contributed to toning down that discourse in the struggle for gender and sexual freedom. During the last two years, however, we have witnessed an escalation of the discourse and activity of social movements in Lebanon and those belonging to them, ranging from lawyers, to feminist, queer, lesbian, gay, and trans* persons.

Finally, and back to the statement of the Muslim Scholars Committee and the speech of the Secretary General of Hezbollah, they did not occur in a vacuum. They were articulated in the context of escalating discourses and action concerning different but interrelated issues, such as domestic violence, civil status laws, child marriage, domestic workers’ rights, and the penal code, among others. It is worth mentioning the march which took place on International Women’s Day, under the slogan “Different Causes, One Struggle”, as well as the protest in front of the Jaafari Legal Court in condemnation of its judgments and their abjection of women. If anything can be said, it is that such events reflect the intensification of the struggle over the society we aspire for.

This is an important struggle we should not conceal by hiding behind a discourse of virtue or denying politicization. There is a struggle between two main views: the first aims to strengthen the unjust structure of this society, whereas the second aims to change it. In moments where this struggle intensifies, we must not fear or hesitate to express our wants and aims of destroying this society’s classist, sectarian, racist, and patriarchal structure. We must not fear expressing our refusal of and resistance against a model of the family that is based on violence, strictness, control, submission, and exploitation of women and children. It is the model the Muslim Scholars Committee defends, as well as Hezbollah, and other religious, security, partisan, legal, educational and health institutions. This model must be destroyed.

Published first in arabic on 1 June 2017