How did you become interested in this type of activism?
When I was younger, I worked a lot with the trans sex worker community because I used to go to work in the area with a high concentration of brothels where trans women lived and worked. These were always individuals that I felt were braver than me because they went out and did what I only dreamed of doing: challenging the system from a place of powerlessness but having that much power within themselves. I would save up money and donate, or do a bit of the drive to help someone fix her teeth when they got busted by an angry customer, or take some girls out for dinner. That’s how it started. I wanted to go into politics but became more of an organizer and journalist. I later worked in think tanks for Brookings and then for Carnegie and I’m very glad that I did because part of what makes me effective now as an activist is this way of understanding politics. I learned how to think more systematically. I decided to get back into LGBT advocacy and when Helem was about to close down, I decided that maybe we shouldn’t let this die. It’s the first of its kind in the entire Arab world. I decided to take it over and I’ve been with it ever since.
Can you tell me more about Helem?
Helem’s mission is to protect and empower LGBT people to lead their own liberation. We are a grassroots organization and have a community approach to solve problems because without community you can’t do anything. It’s not just about Lebanese laws: there are cultural, policy, and procedural elements we approach. At Helem, we focus on three main aspects. The first is protecting individuals. This may relate to homelessness, domestic violence, lack of healthcare, or workplace discrimination. We make sure you are protected to fight your own fight. Second, we have a community center. Before COVID-19, we had around 500 people passing through per week. The community center focuses on education, empowerment, and awareness through classes and debates. We seek to create and celebrate queer culture, politics, organizing and mobilizing. Our third major focus is advocacy, especially regarding labor rights and workplace equality. We focus on socioeconomic rights as the primary basis for all of this.
What’s it like for LGBTI people in Lebanon right now?
The Lebanon that I left in 2006 and the Lebanon I came back to in 2012 are two completely different places when it comes to LGBT people. The amount of visibility that LGBT people have now is by and large much more than anywhere else you will see in the region. One statistic from 2015 found that 34% of Lebanese people said they were all for decriminalizing LGBT people. That may seem low, but when you compare it with the rest of the Middle East and North Africa region, the next highest number was Tunisia at 3% in favor. In this region, yes, we are countries united by language and history, but that doesn’t mean diddly squat when it comes to society, politics, public opinion, and the ways religion is constructed. North Africa is totally different from Sudan, is different from the Levant, is different from the Gulf. We need to let go of the illusion of a regional formula for liberation. People need to figure out what works for them in their own particular contexts. Once one country in the region gets to a place of progress, osmosis will help a lot: other countries will start getting bolder and will be more willing to talk about it. What I can tell you is we still have a long way to go but change happens rapidly. That’s a lesson we learned from observing the U.S. experience. Within a decade, things flipped 180 degrees.
Increasing members of the political elite, especially members of parliament, are adopting stances favoring LGBT rights. It is a barometer to see how LGBT topics became an undeniable reality. Policymaking in the Middle East and North Africa region before, during, and after the Arab Spring, was not somewhere that you could hope to have any influence on. No matter how you structure your arguments, it’s one guy or a bunch of guys who make decisions at the top. Even when members of parliament represent hyper-conservative parties, they can’t afford to ignore you anymore or assume that you don’t exist and that in and of itself is progress. We’re winning because we’ve been gaining public support every time they suppress something that we do. There really is a massive amount of progress that has happened in Lebanon with the health sector, the media, and the judiciary system.
What’s spurred this progress in Lebanon?
The Lebanese revolution in October 2019 was a turning point. October 17, 2019, is what I call Beirut’s first pride parade. There had been a pride parade before, but the LGBT community didn’t trust the organizer and saw it as another chance to corporatize. In the Lebanese revolution, it was amazing to see how much visibility the queer community had in Lebanon. It was women, queer people, young people, and students who led and shaped the revolution. It was grounded in social and economic issues, where queer people went to demand rights as people, not just as queer people. The projectivity of LGBT rights in our part of the world does not need to mirror what happened in the West. It doesn’t need to look like Stonewall or South Africa where they got a constitution before any practical rights. We don’t need to think about individual rights, then healthcare, then police violence, then the distribution of wealth. In Lebanon, these issues acted as the political debut of LGBT people.
How can readers support Helem’s ongoing work?
Any donations now go toward queer people affected by the latest crises: the COVID-19 lockdown and the socioeconomic situation caused by hyperinflation. After the August 4th blast, Lebanon is a different reality. People cannot afford meat and vegetables anymore and donations will go towards fighting food insecurity. Donations will also provide funds to avoid eviction and homelessness, as well as secure access to healthcare and medication for chronic diseases. There is a mental health crisis in Lebanon at the moment that’s been compounded by loneliness in the COVID-19 lockdown and the situation post-blast and one of our top priorities is mental health care for our LGBT community here.
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