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Lebanese Gay Rights Activists Call for Legal Reform

By most accounts, Lebanon is the gay-friendliest country in the Arab world. But activists say behind closed doors, sexual minorities are often abused in this deeply patriarchal country. They call for the abolishment of a law that essentially makes homosexuality a crime..

At this club, it is just as cool for men to dance with other men, as it is for them to dance with women. That's because this is a gay-friendly party - an unusual event in the region.

But Beirut is different - complete with gay clubs and gay-friendly bars and restaurants, it is unique in the region, and even in other parts of Lebanon.

Georges Azzi is one of the founders of Helem, one of the only organizations in the Arab world that openly works to protect and provide health care for people that self-identify as LGBT. That’s lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Azzi says the nightlife in the capital doesn’t mean Lebanon is necessarily a bastion of tolerance. Like in the rest of the Middle East and much of the world beyond, gays in Lebanon commonly suffer physical and psychological abuse. The difference, he says, is that here, it’s mostly in private.

Despite Beirut’s modern façade, the country remains entrenched in old-world values. Azzi says the community he serves often fears for their safety, or even their lives inside their homes.

"There are people who were forced to stay at home, forced into marriage, or beaten by their families, or physically or verbally abused by their families or someone in the neighborhood," he said.

And when gay people are attacked in Lebanon, he says, they hardly ever seek legal protection, because technically, in Lebanon it is illegal to be gay.

The law is based on old French law that makes so-called "unnatural" sexual activity a crime. Azzi says as long as this article remains in the constitution, LGBT people remain vulnerable. "If you’ve been persecuted by your family, you cannot seek any protection from the police because, officially, you are illegal," he said.

Some political activists say resolving civil rights issues require social change more than legal change.

Ayman Mhanna, a member of the Democratic Renewal Movement’s executive committee, says his party doesn’t have an official position on the law, but he believes change will be slow moving in this patriarchal country, regardless of constitutional reform. "The real struggle goes beyond what is written in the law and not in the law. It’s an issue of awareness- social awareness, civic awareness- fighting a lot of misconceptions. That is an uphill battle," he said.

In other Arab countries, the battle has not even begun. In many places, gays are systematically arrested, beaten and threatened. In some countries, like Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan, the official punishment for being gay is death.

Even in Lebanon, where people are openly gay and the punishment of a maximum of one year in prison is not usually enforced, activists say abuses still happen on the streets, and in the workplace. Alex Paulikevitch says if an employer finds out a worker is gay, the worker is likely to lose his or her job.

And on the streets of Beirut, Alex says gay men are subjected to constant verbal abuse, and occasionally physical attacks.

Transgender people or people that appear overtly gay have it worse, he says. They are often attacked, and he personally knows many who have fled the country. LGBT people are followed, watched and sometimes even battered with stones. He says violence also worsens from time to time, when the local media vilifies sexual minorities, running programs that treat homosexuality as a disease or a dysfunction.

But in Lebanon, a country of deep social, political and religious divides, it is also not hard to find the other extreme: supportive, gay-friendly businesses and organizations seeking rights for a multitude of people, including LGBT people.

In 2009, Alex participated in what is believed to be the Arab world’s first gay rights protest, demonstrating against the public beating of two gay men by uniformed officers in Beirut.

Slowly the country is growing more tolerant, he adds, but for now, when he has a problem, he has to protect himself.