Beirut Madinati to Beirut Pride

This post originally appeared on Al Araby under the title ‘Beirut Madinati to Beirut Pride: What’s Nasrallah afraid of? (although it was not exclusively about Nasrallah and I don’t chose the title). It was published on May 22 (forgot to republish it here).

Last week was no ordinary week for many of Beirut’s residents. Lebanon’s capital witnessed its largest organised Beirut Pride to date, and many people came out to support what should be a basic truism by now, namely that the rights of everyone, LGBTQ+ included, should be defended.

Beirut Pride’s aims were modest. As they explained in their statement, they wished to defend the belief that “the sustainability of our country and its good health stem from the consecration of an inclusive society that preserves us in our essence and humanity, so we all feel we belong to one strong entity where fear and toxic social hiding do not rule”.

They appealed to Lebanon’s pledge to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After all, we are reminded time and time again that we were one of the founding members of the United Nations. It’s a source of pride when we manage to muster enough energy through our daily disgust and anger to express some pride, so might as well use it strategically.

In many ways, momentum was on the side of Beirut Pride, and its organisers ostensibly knew that. It was easier – relatively speaking – to organise 2017’s Beirut Pride, in comparison to previous years. Changes in Lebanese attitudes and law in recent years are widely viewed by supporters as positive steps towards full recognition of LGBTQ+ rights.

We cannot overstate the significance of this. LGBTQ+ activism in Lebanon has only been visible for just over a decade or so with the founding of Helem, the Arab world’s first LGBTQ+ advocacy group in 2004, and the first International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) in 1999.

That said, LGBTQ+ rights remain a struggle in Lebanon, one which continues to pose an existential threat to those who do not conform to established patriarchal norms. It therefore came as no surprise that Beirut Pride was met with threats.

Naturally, these came from the conservative religious-political establishment which dominates the bodies of LGBTQ+, women, migrant domestic workers, refugees and others in Lebanon.

It started with a group of ‘Ulemas’ whose threats led to a major hotel abandoning the group that it was supposed to host for IDAHOT. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Tripoli, Koura & Dependencies joined in by effectivelyasking its members to pray against homosexuality, which they described as a sickness.

And both followed the now-notorious March 2017 speech by Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose horrific misogyny and demonisation of homosexuality is matched only by some of the most extreme elements in Lebanese society.

That such high-profile groups and personalities feel the need to condemn people who wield little to no political capital speaks volumes. What are Nasrallah, the Ulemas and the Archdiocese (among others) afraid of exactly?

The answer is simple. Recognising the humanity of LGBTQ+ people poses an existential threat to the very patriarchal structures that have allowed Nasrallah and his ilk across all sects to thrive. Their obsession with a romanticised notion of “the family” is nothing more than a facade for maintaining a status quo that benefits them over everyone else.

With no real challenge, their traditional followers aren’t left with many options. That is why the establishment felt the need to throw its entire weight against the Beirut Madinati (Beirut my city) campaign in 2016. It had to be crushed precisely because it provided a viable alternative to the usual circus of familiar warlords-turned-politicians and their business associates.

And despite everything, the months-old Beirut Madinati managed to get 32 percent of the vote. This proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that there are very real cracks in the system. Its defenders are mostly old, tired and petty. They repeat the same old tunes, make the same promises and fail at everything other than filling their own pockets.

They might have sighed a breath of temporary relief but, to quote Dr Bassel F. Salloukh, “Beirut Madinati has showed us one way of organising and contesting the sectarian system”.

The key term here is “organising”. Usually, the momentum of such movements seldom lasts for more than a few months, if that. But the breakthrough achieved by the ‘You Stink’ movement in 2015, itself a result of previous movements and initiatives – some of which were Queer and Radical – established a model to be emulated.

It became very hard for the establishment to “go back” after it exposed itself when it cracked down on protesters, and repeatedly failed to meet any of the popular demands being put forward at the time.

The resulting outrage grew louder and the momentum was picked up by Beirut Madinati in 2016, and now Beirut Pride in 2017. These are movements that have not only abandoned the language of sectarianism, but actively fight against it.

One hopes that subsequent movements will strive to become even more inclusive, and encompass those often ignored by Lebanese law, namely refugees, Lebanese workers and migrant domestic workers.

It is worth noting that the LGBTQ+ movement in Lebanon has generally proved itself to be intersectional, or at least has tried to, actively defending women’s rights and workers’ rights, as well as taking part in pro-secularism and environmental causes.

This is something the establishment fears profoundly. Without sectarian and patriarchal oppression, none of the warlords-turned-politicians, their (mostly male) business associates or their (exclusively male) religious allies can operate. They are dependent on the status quo, and therefore invest heavily in preserving it, with only minor cosmetic changes allowed from time to time to maintain the illusion of progress.

When another LGBTQ+ group faced threats and had to cancel a public event, they chose to change the format. The government failed to guarantee their protection – as is legally required – so they opted for the relative safety of social media instead. The resulting conference, live-streamed on Facebook with the title “stigma”, was principled and defiant.

This is why Beirut Pride represents nothing less than the massive potential many of us see in Lebanon, a potential that has so far struggled to breathe under sectarian violence, patriarchy and clientelism, all of which are deeply institutionalised throughout Lebanese society.

You can also read ‘On Beirut Pride: 5+ Reflections.’

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