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Lebanese LGBT Group Makes Stand Amid Regional Persecution

An online video released by Proud in the run-up to Sunday's International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia activities features a number of celebrities promoting LGBT equality and has received a largely positive reaction from Lebanese media.

Activists in Lebanon are joining a global call for LGBT equality.

On Sunday, Beirut will host a day of events promoting acceptance as part of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT).

Amid a regional landscape in which instability and conflict have driven further persecution of an already embattled minority, Lebanon has become a platform for the promotion of LGBT rights.

Even in a country relatively seen as a beacon of tolerance, however, the struggle for equality remains a long one.

Finding a community

Yasir fled Baghdad for Beirut in February, having lost virtually everything because he is gay. Outed about his sexuality against his will, he was disowned by his family, some members of whom he then overheard talking about killing him.

In Lebanon, he found a community at Proud, the LGBT organization behind the IDAHOT event, and he'll be performing in a play exploring the lives of those who fled persecution.

Yasir, 37, who also took part in writing the script for the performance, said he wanted to take part "to reflect what Iraqi homosexuals think and feel, and what they are suffering from."

"They are a community that is marginalized — they feel they have no value," he said.

For Yasir, who previously had a high-powered job in Baghdad, living as a refugee without steady accommodation or a job has been difficult. But now that he has found support at Proud and is able to be open about his sexuality, he said the move has been worth it.

"I now have my well-being, and that is the most important thing," he said.

Growing threat

The Middle East is home to some of the most draconian anti-gay legislation in the world, with homosexual acts in countries such as Iraq, Iran and Yemen potentially punishable by death.

Post-Arab Spring, the situation for many in the LGBT community across the region has become worse, argued Hossein Alizadeh, Middle East/North Africa program coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

Alizadeh told VOA that militias and groups like the Islamic State were operating in "a vacuum of power."

"What you see is vigilante groups going after easier targets, like LGBT communities, in order to show their strength," he said, adding that such groups also sought to present their efforts as a way of clamping down on so-called "Western influence."

Alizadeh, however, said there had also been a growth of LGBT organizations, with Lebanon leading the way regionally in this regard because "there is a space to talk about rights."

For Bertho Makso, director of Proud, it is because of this that Sunday's activities, which will include a photography exhibition and film screenings, must not just be about Lebanese LGBT rights, but those of refugees and people spread across the Middle East more broadly.

Calling the country "an oasis compared to the countries around it," he said the performances were to "highlight the region itself."

"At Proud we have beneficiaries coming from all over — Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians and of course the Lebanese themselves," he said.

Continuing discrimination

Although Lebanon is seen as a relative haven compared with some of its neighbors, domestic discrimination remains rife.

Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code states that "sexual intercourse contrary to nature" is punishable by up to a year in prison and has been used to clamp down on the LGBT community.

Public acceptance remains low; a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013 found that only 18 percent polled agreed "society should accept homosexuality."

Meanwhile, LGBT refugees, already restricted in their rights, were particularly at risk of "falling into further vulnerability," Makso told VOA.

Like the others performing in Proud's play, when Tarek takes to the stage on Sunday, he will be wearing a mask to hide his identity.

Having left Syria in August 2013, he told VOA that the difficulties of being a refugee in Lebanon were compounded by being gay.

His boyfriend was among those arrested in a series of raids by Lebanese police last year targeting gay men. Also, Tarek and his boyfriend were attacked by a neighbor when he realized they were a couple.

Tarek's experience is far from unique. A recent report by the American social services organization Heartland Alliance on Syrian LGBT refugees found that 56 percent had been physically assaulted in Lebanon, while 58 percent described their mental health status as poor.

"The police and the public don't like us," Tarek said. "We've stopped going out and we try to stay hidden."

Meanwhile, because of gender inequality, life for female members of the LGBT community remains even more hidden, said Proud's advocacy officer, Cosette Maalouf.

"Often in the region, women are not supposed to have a sexuality at all, and women are often more able to hide in society than men," she said.

But there has been progress

Proud is just one of a number of groups promoting LGBT rights in Lebanon, including Helem, which began more than a decade ago as one of the first groups in the Middle East advocating in support of the issue.

Last year, a case against a transgender woman charged under Article 534 was thrown out in what some campaigners claimed was a landmark decision.

Meanwhile, an online video released by Proud in the run-up to Sunday features a number of non-LGBT celebrities and has received a largely positive reaction from local media, reflecting slowly changing attitudes among some.

Alizadeh saw this growing acceptance among some Arabic media outlets based in Lebanon, and their use of a more accepting "frame of reference and vocabulary" when describing the LGBT community, as important.

"The things that happen in Lebanon can trickle through to other countries," he added. "I've seen it happen culturally, and it is a very important part of the battle."

Although Tarik has faced discrimination both as a gay man and Syrian refugee, it was only in Lebanon that he was finally able to acknowledge his sexuality.

With three roles to play in Sunday's theatrical performance, he cannot wait.

"It is a very nice feeling to be in the play, and I am very affected by it. Last night I couldn't sleep as I was chatting to a friend about it all night long," he said.

"I know I will reach people, and I feel it is a responsibility to my community to help carry their voice."