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Oasis of tolerance or 'Republic of Shame'? Two faces of gay life in Beirut

Marwan Naamani / AFP - Getty Images, file

Teddy, a Lebanese university graduate, performs a belly dance at a nightclub in Beirut, in this November 2007 file picture.

BEIRUT, Lebanon – It is 2 a.m. in an abandoned theater in Hamra, a neighborhood in the Lebanese capital.  Men pack the room, their fists pumping the air in time with the thumping music.  A bare-chested dancer in tight-fitting shorts glides around the stage, reaching his hand around another man’s neck, pulling him close and stealing a kiss.

These parties are popular with those who can afford the $33 entrance fee. For those looking for an alternative, around a dozen different bars and clubs aimed at gay men dot the city.

Beirut has for decades been a haven for gay men and lesbians, luring people from throughout the region, including deeply conservative countries like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. But while the city’s image as an oasis of open-mindedness attracts foreigners - and sells newspapers - the liberal veneer disguises a conservative underbelly that recent police sweeps and reports of invasive “medical” tests have exposed.

Family ‘would not accept it’
Many gay men in Beirut carry on double lives despite living in what is considered to be the gay capital of the Middle East. 

“I’m only out to my close friends,” said "Jad," 22, who asked that his real name not to be published. “My family is quite religious and would not accept it.  When I was younger my mother made it clear that she would disown me if I came out to her.”

Indeed, while gay bars and clubs are common, homosexuality – or behavior deemed “contrary to nature” –  is illegal according to article 534 of the Lebanese penal code.

Technically, this means that only those who have been proven to engage in such illegal acts are liable for arrest.  In practice, “people have been arrested just because a particular security officer thinks that person might be gay,” human rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh said.

“Despite the façade of tolerance, the reality is that a negative stigma of homosexuality persists,” said Georges Azzi, co-founder of Helem, a non-profit group working on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues.

The burden is heaviest for homosexual men who don’t have the right connections and cannot afford to pay off officials to avoid punishment.

“Unless you know your rights or know someone in a position of power to help you, you’re in trouble,” said Rebecca Saade, who works on LGBT rights with an underground group that focuses on lesbians and transsexuals.

Anwar Amro / AFP - Getty Images, file

Lebanese demonstrators hold signs against "virginity tests" on women - and men suspected of homosexuality - during a protest in Beirut on August 11.

Gay men who cannot afford to live outside of the family home are more likely to engage in sexual acts in places where they could be caught.

An incident in July revealed the contradictory attitudes toward homosexuality in Lebanon. Leading local television station MTV released footage of several popular gay hangouts and police then raided two establishments and arrested patrons.

“I think the internal security forces felt pressured to act and arrested people in these theaters because they felt no one would pay any attention or care,” Helem’s Azzi said. “The theater was in a poor neighborhood and the customers are on the lowest rung of Lebanese society, many of them were non-Lebanese Arabs.”

A surprising watershed
While a raid in Lebanon’s second city Tripoli went relatively unnoticed, journalists jumped on reports of a one in the outskirts of Beirut after it emerged that dozens of men arrested had been subjected to physical tests.

The controversial procedure, which human rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh said has “no basis in science and is used as a tool of intimidation,” involves examining the anus for indications of sodomy.

The test has been standard for many years, according to human rights lawyer Saghieh, but was never before brought into the media spotlight. He estimates some 100 to 200 procedures take place every year.

Paradoxically, news that the men had been subjected to the invasive test jump-started a discussion on how homosexuals were treated in Lebanon.  Until then, the debate had focused whether to grant equal rights to homosexuals and revoke article 534, said Saghieh.

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“But the debate was stagnant,” he added. “With the anal tests, the debate focused on a single aspect of how gays are treated and a lot of people, despite their view on article 534, felt the practice extreme.”

Indeed, the media was almost unanimous in condemning the practice following the revelations over the summer. Many referred to the practice as “tests of shame.”  One major TV channel went so far as to call Lebanon a “Republic of Shame,” a term that gained traction across social networking sites.

Following the furor, the Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi passed a decree calling for an end to the tests. Gay rights campaigners cheered the speedy policy change.

“It is probably the biggest success story in terms of gay rights in the Arab world,” Saghieh said.

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Saade agreed that the government’s decision was significant.

Still, it was just one victory in a long fight for equal rights in Lebanon, advocates said.

“We have come a long way in the past decade or so, but at this point I think revoking law 534 remains a dream,” Saade said.

Indeed, if you aren’t part of the wealthy and privileged Beirut elite, being gay in Lebanon can still prove treacherous.

"Mazen," a 23-year-old who asked for his real name not to be used, said he’s been encouraged by signs that many people are becoming more accepting in Beirut.  But these changes are largely limited to the capital and have not reached his village in the south where homosexuality remains a major taboo.

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Like others in his position, he hides his sexual orientation from much of his family.

“I have told a few cousins who are of similar age but I would never come out to my mother. She would be heartbroken, ashamed and make sure it stayed within the family,” he said.

“If I came out to her, I think she would never speak to me again.”

Shane Farrell is an NBC News contributor and a reporter at NOW Lebanon.

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