Noor never felt completely safe as a gay man in Lebanon. But over the years, the 25-year-old pharmacist had begun to lower his guard, meeting with friends and even performing at drag shows in LGBTQ-friendly venues in Beirut.
He now chooses to stay at home following a wave of anti-LGBTQ hate speech following a wave of anti-LGBTQ hate speech following last month’s decision by Lebanon’s Interior Ministry to shut down any programs aimed at promoting “sexual perversion”.
The blow is part of a wider crackdown on marginalized groups and freedoms, which activists say is meant to distract the public from Lebanon’s growing economic and financial crisis, which has drawn three-quarters of the population into poverty.
Millions of people in the once middle-income country are grappling with rising inflation, massive power cuts and drug shortages, while tens of thousands have left the country in search of opportunities abroad.
“It really felt like they wanted to distract the public from everything and focus on this hot topic,” he told the Associated Press.
Security forces have since cracked down on several events for the LGBTQ community, forcing their organizers to eventually shut them down. He also visited the offices of Helem, the country’s first registered LGBTQ advocacy group, asking for their registration papers and other documents.
The move came after heavy complaints from religious officials who publicly called them unrighteous and said they were not in line with Lebanese customs.
In a statement on June 24, the Interior Ministry said that LGBTQ-friendly programs “violate the customs and traditions of our society, and are contrary to the tenets of the Abrahamic religions.”
Helem’s executive director, Tarek Zidane, condemned the statement, saying it “pitted the Lebanese people against each other.”
“It was very clear that this was a deliberate decision to create moral panic to divert attention from the general political and economic disaster that is Lebanon today,” Zidane said.
Lebanon has been grappling with a severe economic crisis since late 2019, which the World Bank says is one of the world’s worst crises since the mid-1800s. The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value against the dollar, while much of the population struggles to cope with rising prices for diesel fuel, gasoline, medicine and food.
Citizens and experts have blamed decades of financial mismanagement and corruption at the hands of Lebanon’s ruling elite for the crisis.
Human rights organizations say the recent blow to the LGBTQ community is part of an economic crisis as well as a broader clampdown on civil rights and liberties.
In May, religious clerics recently elected lawmakers and advocacy groups promoted civil marriage and state-mandated personal status laws independent of religious courts.
Last month, comedian and rights activist Shaden Fakih stood before the military court, accusing him of damaging reputation and insulting the country’s internal security forces in a prank call during the country’s COVID-19 lockdown, in which he asked to leave the house. asked permission. order to buy sanitary pads
And earlier this month, the Lebanese government announced it was negotiating with Syria on a forced refugee return plan for the more than one million Syrians in the country.
Some activists and human rights advocates say Lebanese authorities are trying to find scapegoats as they halt investigations into multiple financial crimes, the 2020 Beirut port explosion and rising cases of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“The state is either completely unwilling or unable to act on serious rights violations like corruption, torture, hate speech, but on the other hand acts very quickly under pressure to crack down on the rights of religious and other powerful institutions in the country. does. of marginalized groups,” Aya Majboob, a Lebanese researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the Associated Press.
In some cases, residents have responded to religious leaders by taking matters into their own hands.
In the predominantly Christian Achrafih district, partisans dubbed the Soldiers of God – a protest group advocating for socially conservative values and laws – broke down a billboard promoting events for Pride Month. Elsewhere, residents of the Sunni Tariq Jadeedeh neighborhood gathered to condemn the incidents and their supporters of the LGBTQ community, calling them “infiltrators” in their community.
Rev Abdo Abu Qassem, director of the Catholic Center for Information, the media arm of the Maronite Church, expressed sympathy for the angry protesters, though he opposes any violence and bullying.
“You have your freedom at home, but you can’t promote it in the community because it’s really against nature. The law says so and almost all Lebanese obey it,” said Abu Qassem, an angry protest. The reaction was “Our society is not ready for this.”
Lebanon’s LGBTQ community remains one of the most vibrant and open in the Arab world, despite a relentless battle against discrimination and abuse, and has made significant gains over the years. Although homosexuality is still considered a crime, there are at least half a dozen active LGBTQ advocacy groups in the country as well as bars and clubs that openly cater to the community.
Now, Noor and her friends avoid meeting at their usual places for fear of being raided and persecuted.
“We have a WhatsApp group, so whenever someone is going out, we inform others and when we expect to be back home,” he explained.
As Lebanon’s grim economy continues to unfold, activists fear that authorities will continue to target marginalized groups to distract from the real issues.
“We are seeing the start of a full-on attack, as this ruling regime fears losing control,” Zedan said. “What we’re saying loud and clear is that they’re coming for all of us. First, they came for the refugees, and nobody cared. Then they came for the queers and somebody Didn’t even give a damn.”