Lebanese gay rights organization Helem marks 10 years with a mixed legacy

A man holds up a sign saying "What do you know about nature" as part of a gay rights protest in Beirut. (Photo: Marwan Bou Haidar)

A man holds up a sign saying “What do you know about nature” as part of a gay rights protest in Beirut. (Photo: Marwan Bou Haidar)

An in-depth two-part story analyzing the legacy of Lebanese LGBT organization on its tenth anniversary, published in Al-Akhbar English in September and October 2014.

On September 24, Lebanese gay rights organization Helem celebrated its tenth anniversary. In the past decade, Helem, the first group of its kind in the Arab world, has grown in prominence and become an inevitable actor when discussing LGBT rights in Lebanon. Over the years, Helem – whose name means “dream” in Arabic and is an acronym for the “Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders” in the same language – has received accolades for raising awareness about gay issues in Lebanon and becoming a high-profile regional player for the cause.

But the organization’s position as a rare advocate in a country where homosexuality can still be considered illegal has often overshadowed the struggles within LGBT activism in Lebanon. The group has been plagued by allegations of discrimination and harassment, as critics of Helem say that the organization has gained notoriety at the expense of the many in the Lebanese LGBT community.

Birth and evolution of the Arab world’s first LGBT organization

Although Helem was officially created in 2004, the organization’s roots stemmed from earlier efforts in the early 2000s, particularly in the aftermath of the 2001 Queen Boat raid in Egypt and the arrest of 52 gay men, 50 of whom were charged with debauchery and obscenity.

“By the year 2000, maybe 1999, there were a lot of discussions – at least in part of the far left that I was in – about issues related to freedoms,” Ghassan Makarem, one of the founding signatories of Helem and an Al-Akhbar English employee, said. “At the beginning of the 2000s, we started noticing an increase in the campaigning in the region in general on the question of sexuality.”

“When the Queen Boat case happened in Cairo, it brought up several points, especially in Lebanon at the same time there were similar actions by the police […] and an increase in the visibility of LGBTs.”

Georges Azzi, a co-founder of Helem and a former director of the organization, said that Club Free, an LGBT social group, was created around this time period.

“It was an underground group and you couldn’t join unless you knew (someone in the organization), because there was this paranoia that the police would infiltrate,” he told Al-Akhbar English.

Article 534 of the Lebanese legal code criminalizes ‘unnatural’ sexual relations, which is often legally interpreted as including homosexuality. So far, in only two instances – in 2009 and 2014 – have Lebanese judged that Article 534 did not pertain to homosexuality.

By the early 2000s, a growing number of Club Free members became increasingly interested in turning the group into a more politically active movement, and in 2004, Helem submitted its notice of association to the Lebanese government. To this day, Lebanon’s Ministry of Interior has still not issued a registration number to Helem, leaving the organization in an administrative limbo without outright declaring it to be illegal.

Helem faced a lot of pushback at its inception, Azzi recalled.

“When Helem started in 2004, it was a little bit of a shock for the media, for the police,” he said. “Journalists were afraid of seeming too sympathetic to the community.”

“There was also some moral pressure” from security forces, he added. “I remember a raid the police made at a club, they went in and specifically asked if there were members of Helem there, then left.”

But attitudes changed as Helem began gaining notoriety by reaching out to civil society, media and the police, efforts which are credited by many for breaking the taboo of homosexuality in Lebanon.

“I think we’ve reached a stage where there’s recognition that this community exists and there’s huge support, not only from media but from civil society,” Azzi said. “And I think the work with the media, the work with civil society, the visibility of the gay community… all of this is the work of Helem.”

Tarek Zeidan, the spokesperson for Helem, said that the organization had become a landmark for LGBT individuals even outside of Lebanon.

“Helem gets around 10 emails a week from people all over the region,” he said. “Its name is still synonymous with gay rights in the Middle East. It’s the NGO that a lot of gay rights movements in the region try to emulate.”

Azzi said he also thought “things had changed with regards to the LGBT community” at the Hbeich police station in Beirut, which is known for tackling so-called indecency cases.

Several weeks after Al-Akhbar English’s interview with Azzi, Hbeich police raided a gay-friendly hammam and arrested 27 men.

The continued occurrence of police raids in Lebanon are proof for Makarem that things have changed for only some parts of the LGBT community.

“You hear a lot of people say that there are more freedoms, which is something I completely disagree with,” he said. “What’s happening is that you have a process where LGBT people are being confined in certain areas where you have excess freedom, and at the same time you see a gradual breakdown of all types of gay spaces.”

“So the police does not even question Bardo or the nightclub,” he added, referring to a well-known gay bar in Beirut, “but they would go around and attack people and arrest them in the cinemas.”

The differing views of how much good Helem has done for the LGBT community have to do with the internal conflicts which have occurred within the organization over the years, as many members left due to serious controversies, including over the group’s handling of gender and class issues.

(Mis)dealing with sexual harassment

Despite the fact that Helem ostensibly identified as an organization welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans members, many women had serious issues with how they were treated by fellow Helem members.

Strained relations emerged over Helem’s oversight of the activities of Helem Girls, a subset of the organization meant for women.

According to K., a former female member of Helem, “there were tensions around Helem Girls, because Helem leadership insisted on having a man present at the meetings and on the e-mail list.” K. declined to be named in this article out of concern for eventual pushback.

These type of demands led some female Helem members to make the decision to break off from the organization and found the independent LGBT women’s group Meem in 2007.

“The relationship with women inside the organization began with a normal disagreement on how to organize,” Makarem said. “Then over the years it became one of the most serious issues within the organization. There was an attempt to isolate the feminists inside the organization, and this happened for a while and led to several disagreements on the direction of Helem.”

But the issue that led to the departure of many men and women from Helem was the prevalence of sexual harassment and the lack of an appropriate response from the organization’s leaders.

K. said that she was one of the women who was sexually harassed by male members of Helem. When she spoke up against the harassment, there was a backlash against her involving personal attacks, some of them gendered. Top leadership in Helem also joined in on the personal attacks against critics with slut-shaming and classist comments, she toldAl-Akhbar English.

“A lot of the women who went to the center did not feel very safe with the boys who were there,” Makarem said. “It was a boy’s atmosphere and a lot of the harassment happened in this context.”

“A lot of the women were verbally harassed, and then it developed when they (Helem leaders) refused to address it. It started developing into more serious types of sexual harassment, and then using the excuse of ‘oh we are gay, we couldn’t be sexual harassing if we were touching breasts.’ That was something that was actually said,” he added, noting that the lack of accountability for the harassment occurring at Helem was one of the main reasons why he chose to leave the organization.

“The gay community in Lebanon is really small so it’s very difficult to say whether this happened just inside Helem or in the bars, but there was always this counter-campaign against women, especially women who tried to introduce a more radical and more feminist perspective,” Makarem said, noting that some of the backlash against women peaked after the election of the first woman president of Helem and during her brief term in office.

“Everyone who had attempted to address the question of sexual harassment and women in the organization was being kicked and pushed out,” he added.

“I think by that time Helem had this identity that was anti-feminist in every sense of the word.”

While not denying the occurrence of sexual harassment, Azzi downplayed the gravity of the issue, chalking it up as “part of the maturing of the community.”

“For many people, it’s a joke, it’s fun, even sometimes between the lesbian and gay communities. This was something where it was always ‘where do you stop?’” he said, echoing arguments negatively mentioned by Makarem.

“This issue exists in society, and this issue exists in Helem,” he added, mentioning instances of harassment within other civil society organizations as proof that “no organization is perfect.”

Azzi also criticized the way the women who were harassed chose to discuss their experience.

“It’s not that we don’t have the right to feel sexually harassed, but how was it expressed, the message didn’t go through or wasn’t said in the right context, in the right way,” he said.

Makarem said he fully realized that the mass departure of many of Helem’s leftist and feminist members meant change within Helem on sexual harassment and other issues became much less likely.

“This was the fight that was lost. We know that this amount of people leaving, especially people who have had leadership positions in the organization, might hurt the organization and it did,” he said. “They are no longer connected to anyone outside the confines of their services.”

Interestingly enough, current Helem member Zeidan did not mention the harassment crisis when asked about the scarcity of LGBT women in the organization, saying that it was Helem’s “strategic decision” not to focus on certain “advocacy routes.”

“Helem in its beginnings was a LGBTIQ organization, and it still really is,” he told Al-Akhbar English. “The decision not to pursue certain advocacy routes or advocate for certain rights, especially when it comes to deal with capacity building for example, or with Syrian refugees, or with lesbians, is because it was a strategic decision.”

The question is not whether Helem can divorce itself from a sexist societal context, but why it hasn’t tried harder to do so. While LGBT rights are often seen as tied to the feminist struggle, the marginalization of women in Helem – a well-known fact among Lebanon’s LGBT community, but unfamiliar to casual observers – is a troubling sign of the organization’s unwillingness to address social stigma outside of its narrow mandate on homosexuality.

Class, urbanization and respectability

Critics of Helem have lambasted what they claim to be the organization’s focus on issues affecting middle-class gay men, often to the detriment of other members of the LGBT community.

Some of the most prominent gay safe spaces in Lebanon, like Bardo, exhibit prohibitive prices for many in the country, de facto limiting access to a select few.

Azzi agreed that the gains obtained by Lebanon’s LGBT community were at least partially contingent on class.

“The freedom we have now is limited to the people who can afford it,” he said. “not just financially, but those who have an understanding family that supports them.”

Another issue is how Helem, as well as other smaller LGBT and LGBT-friendly groups, has confined the vast majority of its efforts to Beirut, a fact seen by an anonymous former member as short-sighted and ignoring the needs of LGBT individuals living outside of Lebanon’s urban spaces.

“Beirut may be the center, but it is not the source,” said the source, who requested anonymity so as not to be excluded from future activist work. “The real struggle is happening in the rooms and schools and villages and those unmapped informal spaces that evade the Beirutis. This is where the shift is happening.”

Efforts by Al-Akhbar English to reach out to Lebanese LGBT activists living outside of the capital for this article were not successful, pointing to a continued monopoly by urbanized LGBT voices.

According to Makarem, efforts to legitimize the fight for gay rights in the eyes of the Lebanese state have led to concessions in order to preserve some privileges.

“At the last meeting I attended at the national AIDS program, the police representative said very clearly that there are two types that he is dealing with: there are the respectable gays who are from good families and go to respectable places, and the men who have sex with men, the rabble who don’t go to such places and might have sex in the street and who are poor,” he said. “Even the state has created this distinction through a lot of the involvement upper-class and middle-class gay men.”

Makarem said he believed Helem has contributed to this distinction between middle- and lower-class LGBT as a way to preserve certain gay hangouts at the expense of ‘cruising spots,’ low-key locations where gay individuals meet to look for sex partners.

“Due to some of the gay community’s relations with government programs and police-run programs, the police has been presented a list of all cruising areas in Lebanon by people who have been working on LGBT issues,” as part of HIV/AIDS health programs, he said. “I don’t think this is not related.”

A member of SIDC, an HIV/AIDS awareness group which has collaborated with Helem on the issue, confirmed that a project SIDC did with Helem included compiling a list of cruising spots and working in conjunction with the police. However, the employee declined to answer questions by Al-Akhbar English on whether the information on cruising spots was shared with the police as part of the program.

Azzi denied that Helem had communicated information about cruising locations to the police as part of its HIV/AIDS efforts.

“We did not mention the names of places with them. No, of course, but what happened is that we had a meeting, and we said that ‘listen, we go to places where gay men meet (as part of the HIV/AIDS program), and we know that you raid these places,’” he said.

“Funnily enough, they already had the names of the places.They knew the places.”

Whether or not Helem’s cooperation with the police went as far as suggested by Makarem, the organization has undeniably stood by – and possibly abetted – the distinction between middle- and lower-class LGBT individuals.

The insertion of respectability politics in LGBT activism is not new or unique to Lebanon, but reveals a troubling trend in the quest for social recognition of the rights of queer individuals to live as they choose, so long as their choices remain discreet and not too radical in the eyes of broader society. The marginalization of queer women in Helem also points to the perception of gay rights as discrete from other struggles for social justice, a troubling vision of activism. Helem’s decision to depart from intersectional activism, as we will see, has impacted the group’s vision and impact, all the while stifling the growth of alternative movements within Lebanon.


Lebanese gay rights organization Helm marks 10 years with a mixed legacy: Part II

On September 24, Lebanese gay rights organization Helem celebrated its tenth anniversary. In the past decade, Helem, the first group of its kind in the Arab world, has grown in prominence and become an inevitable actor when discussing LGBT rights in Lebanon. Over the years, Helem has received accolades for raising awareness about gay issues in Lebanon and becoming a high-profile regional player for the cause.

But the organization’s position as a rare advocate in a country where homosexuality can still be considered illegal has often overshadowed the struggles within LGBT activism in Lebanon. The group has been plagued by allegations of discrimination and harassment – as discussed in the first article of this two-part series – as well as criticized for its Westernized view of activism and its quasi-monopoly of LGBT activism in Lebanon.

The rise of depoliticized activism

Many of the tensions surrounding Helem and its actions stem from disagreements present since the organization’s inception.

“From the beginning, there were several issues that came out,” said Ghassan Makarem, one of the organization’s founding signatories and an Al-Akhbar English employee. “This could come from the fact that some parts of the group were activists and were coming from a politicized environment and joining what was more of a ‘bar crowd,’ and of course this meant that there were several different priorities.”

“People from the left were introducing more of a comprehensive discourse that related to gender, sexuality, and feminism, and sexual freedoms,” he added. “On the other hand you had gay men whose only concern was having a bar and then trying to impose questions like marriage, which at the beginning of Helem we agreed there were questions that we were going to avoid. This unfortunately created a big clash.”

Makarem said that these members were disinterested in Helem taking a more social justice approach to LGBT activism.

“It was quite obvious that the more Helem got involved in political questions and in changing laws, the more the rich people left the organization,” Makarem said.

However, after many of the more socially conscious members left over disagreements on the direction of the group and the handling of sexual harassment cases, Helem lost much of its political and activist edge, becoming more of a “community center” according to an anonymous former member who spent around two years with Helem and requested anonymity so as not to be excluded from future activist work.

“Yes, it’s good to have a community center, to provide a safe space for those who need one,” he said. “But the reality is such spaces become about a very limited, very select group of people.”

“Helem has been around for 10 years, and they have failed to break through to a larger or more diverse audience,” he added, saying that the small size of the Lebanese community contributed to the centering of activism around a select few prominent individuals.

“I can say that ever since we (leftists) left Helem, Helem has not been involved in anything outside of its very narrow and narrowing mandate of providing some services,” Makarem said.

While Helem has regularly condemned instances of police raids and harassment of LGBT individuals over the years, it has not organized a protest since April 2013, and most of its events – with the exception of IDAHOT – remain fairly muted.

“The most dangerous thing that happened to the organization was the depoliticization and the claim that civil action is non-political,” Makarem added. “This allowed a lot of reactionary forces to control the organization.”

Debates over ideology and funding

The departure of many of the more politically-inclined members from the organization has coincided with Helem embracing a more Westernized approach, according to some critics.

“Helem embraces US politics of mainstream LGBT movements, which see gay marriage as the end game,” former female member of Helem K. said, adding that many progressive LGBT activists believe the institution of marriage should in fact be deconstructed.

K. declined to be named in this article out of concern for eventual pushback.

“Structurally they are LGBT International and they have a certain ideology,” the anonymous former Helem member concurred. “They will always be bound to it. No matter what they say, what they do, they will always have a Western model in a non-Western environment.”

Helem spokesman Tarek Zeidan disagreed with this assertion, saying that he believed the organization tries to take into account local specificities.

“How can one begin to think how to craft their advocacy campaigns and address what is important without actually knowing what a gay person feels, and what makes a gay person in this part of the world?” he said.

“It is not necessarily the same as the West, so if we use Western mechanisms of advocacy we might be hurting people, we might be pushing something that isn’t ready to be pushed right now, or may never be ready to be pushed,” Zeidan added.

According to Makarem, a lot of the funding available to LGBT organizations in the region comes with strings attached from Western donors.

“I spent several years with the organization (Helem) within the leadership, and I know its relationship with international movements, donors or big LGBT organizations in Europe, whose support was conditional on our accepting their priorities: gay marriage, whatever rich white men like,” he said.

“This was what was being imposed by the movement as a whole, and if they cannot impose it politically through discussion, they will impose through funding or by focusing their funding only on questions related to them.”

Georges Azzi, another founding signatory of Helem, its former director, and currently the executive director of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, also noted that funding was available, but at a price.

“I think the funding (for LGBT activism in Lebanon) is there, money is available,” he said. “The issue is what kind of funding there is, and what are the conditions.”

Helem does not publicly disclose its funding on its website. However, a 2008 study on the organization by the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health listed some of the backers of the group at the time. The list includes Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, the Ford Foundation and the Heartland Alliance, organizations which academic Joseph Massad has included as being part of the “Gay International” movement, a term coined by Massad himself to designate LGBT organizations pushing a Westernized agenda.

Helem’s sexual health programs have also been funded indirectly by the World Bank and UNAIDS, and USAID has confirmed meeting with the group regarding its HIV and AIDS efforts in June 2013.

For Makarem, the involvement of some big international donors, particularly in HIV/AIDS awareness programs tied to the gay community, can end up being counter-productive.

“It’s very easy to impose your agenda through services,” he said. “The UN says that it wants to use the question of HIV to get into LGBT issue in the third world, but it’s a very dangerous thing they are doing. It’s more of the work of intelligence services, rather than humanitarian work or UN work, and it creates a huge backlash, and it creates a stigma in places that there is no stigma.”

Western liberal organizations exploit the situation and try to push forward an agenda. This means that many Middle-Eastern organizations – not just Helem – have to face the difficult decision of picking between politicized funding or underfunded integrity. This paradox falls both within and outside of Helem’s control, as the organization’s de facto monopoly of LGBT activism in Lebanon stifles the growth of a more diverse movement.

Erasure of trans issues

Much like in Western LGBT movements, the struggles of transgender individuals in Lebanon often take a back seat to issues affecting gay men (and, to a lesser extent, lesbians).

“Even though it would make a lot of sense for an NGO to be specialized in some issues, particularly transgender, there’s no one else [but Helem],” Zeidan said.

Zeidan went on to add that trans women preferred to join groups like Helem, claiming that trans women were not “comfortable” in feminist organizations.

“Transwomen do not feel comfortable in a feminist setting, or in a gay man setting either, but they are maybe a bit more comfortable (in the latter),” he told Al-Akhbar English.

Randa, a trans woman who previously worked in Helem, said that this kind of generalization was just not true.

“It depends on the person,” she said. “There are feminist trans women and trans women who are in the cliche of the beautiful and weak woman.”

“Before I joined, transgender people did not identify with Helem. It’s true that it was an LGBT organization, but in practice, it’s a gay organization,” she added.

In 2011, a Bekhsoos article denounced the uproar against instances of homophobia when compared to the silence regarding numerous occurences of discrimination against transgender individuals, highlighting a certain hierarchy of concern for members of the LGBT community.

Randa recalled that during her time in Helem, while there wasn’t “direct sexual harassment” against trans women, they were also subjected to misogynist attitudes.

“There was no direct sexual harassment against trans women, but there was a disdain towards women,” she said.

This attitude, she said, was tied to the perception of men – especially those who identified as “tops”– are innately “conquering” compared to women or “bottoms,” who are often seen as “weak.”

“It’s very insulting, and it needs to change,” she said.

Moreover, the contribution of trans people to LGBT rights have often been minimized in Lebanon. A January 2014 ruling in Jdeideh, in which the judge acquitted a trans woman accused of having homosexual relationships, was appropriated as a “gay” victory. And this, despite the fact that the judge’s key ruling was the recognition of the defendant’s identity as a woman, which rendered accusations of ‘unnatural relations’ moot.

The erasure of transgender individuals is an endemic issue in LGBT activism, and Helem has in some ways contributed to this fault, although the group had a trans woman speaker at its 2014 IDAHOT event, a first for the organization after nine years of putting together the event.

Nevertheless, statements by Zeidan saying that “Helem decided to be a neutral space” ignores the reality that in many spaces, ‘neutral’ often means the rights of minorities populations fall by the wayside.

A dearth of alternatives

The problems occurring inside or outside of Helem are worsened by the lack of diversity of alternatives for LGBT activism in Lebanon.

Some organizations dealing with LGBT issues have sprouted over the years. One of them, the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality is led by Azzi, the former head of Helem.

One of Helem’s most lauded efforts was the creation of Marsa, a sexual health center.

“I think Marsa are the ones who are doing it best” within Helem, the anonymous former member said. “It’s not an LGBT space per se, but they are the ones who get it right. They do actual things that transcend the people who are there.”

But while some Helem offshoots have grown, several organizations which were started by critics of Helem have more or less died out over the years. Lesbian organization Meem, which started in 2007, has lost most of its fire, K. said, adding that “Meem is no longer a public space” as accessible to LBTQ women as it once was. Nasawiya, a feminist organization including some former women members of Helem, has also slowed its activities in the past year.

For the anonymous former member, one of the biggest problems in maintaining queer spaces in Lebanon was some of the personal dynamics within these groups.

“The biggest barrier of entry in LGBT spaces is the people. It’s not financial, it’s very much social,” he said. “You are in or out, you adhere to our group-think or you don’t. There’s always polarization of opinion, you can notice it in every discussion, and for me that was pretty scary.”

Zeidan mentioned that volunteer turnover was also an issue inside Helem.

“Helem is made up of community members, it’s very vulnerable to fragmentation, meaning that people don’t always agree, and when people fall out people leave,” he said. “Also don’t forget that it’s hard to find people in their 20s and 30s in Lebanon because they are all in Dubai, so the institutional memory of Helem is very, very shallow.”

K. said one of the reasons why there were so few alternatives was the struggle to obtain funding.

“There are only a handful of funders, and only a few people [in the Lebanese LGBT community] who stand as references” recognized by donors, she said.

She added that the competitiveness in the field led to intimidation tactics being used against emerging groups. She said that “word spreads fast” whenever an attempt to form an alternative organization sprouts, and alleged that some Helem leaders have in the past “unleashed everything,” including rumors, to discredit these new groups.

“Helem has lost its respect in a lot of circles,” K. said. “Ten years is the perfect time to bow out.”

Randa said she believed LGBT activism in Lebanon needed to be more receptive to issues of gender.

“Feminism must be a part of LGBT activism, because it is narrowly linked to women’s rights. After that, there needs to be work on gender and the definition of gender,” she told Al-Akhbar English.

She also advocated for the creation of a trans organization.

“Transgender people shouldn’t wait for the LGB, they must fight for their rights,” she said. “They need an independent organization to be considered an important and equal part of the LGBT community.”

For the anonymous former Helem member, the future of queer activism in Lebanon needs to expand drastically to include a variety of voices.

“I think we have failed to foster a culture of collaborative activism in Lebanon,” he said. “I would love to see a plurality of NGOs and collectives that represent the various ideologies and forms of activism. I want that. I really wish for plurality. This is how we keep each other challenged.”

“I really see the future of activism being decentralized, out of Beirut. I see it becoming more Lebanese,” he added. “We need 70 feminist organizations and a million LGBT ones to accommodate all thoughts. And we need to remind their leaders that a movement is not about people. It is for people, it’s not about them.”

Helem has undeniably been a trailblazer for LGBT awareness in Lebanon. But ten years later, many believe that the organization has served its purpose and should cede its monopoly on queer activism, arguing that it is time for a new, more diverse generation of LGBT organizations to build on Helem’s accomplishments and learn from its mistakes. First and foremost, this new generation of activists must recognize that LGBT individuals’ lives don’t exist in a “gay rights” vacuum, and that intersectionality is a crucial tool in the fight for social justice. To think otherwise will only alienate much of the community they vow to fight for.


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