LGBT rights organization Helem responds to report on its legacy

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Al-Akhbar Management

By: Helem

Published Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On September 30th and October 2nd, 2014, Al-Akhbar English published a two-part in-depth review of Helem, Lebanon’s and the region’s officially recognized and above ground LGBT rights organization. When one reads the title of this review, once expects that it will be a balanced and thorough look at the organization’s history that includes its successes and failures, as well as its vision for the future.

Instead, Benoist gives wide berth to her colleague in Al Akhbar English, Ghassan Makarem, who was a former director for Helem from 2010-2011, as well as two other anonymous sources, and provides them all with ample opportunity to publicly share their personal opinion. Using her colleague as the one verifiable source, Benoist attempts to paint Helem exclusively through a lens of failures that included sexual harassment, classism, transphobia, misogyny, and divulging sensitive information to the police – all designed to undermine Helem’s credibility and provoke a retaliation in a single rather over-ambitious swoop.

What Benoist fails to see in her narrow focus, is the bigger picture. Helem is an organization whose work has spanned a decade of triumphs and debilitating challenges against extreme odds. It is a complex and unique space whose history has mirrored the region’s struggle for civil liberties and encompassed all the challenges activists face both with the external as well as each other. Instead of exploring these vital issues seriously and in a balanced manner, Benoist reduces Helem to a list of accusations and reveals her and her “source’s” true intent by ending the piece with one of the anonymous interviewees declaring (rather authoritatively) that 10 years is the perfect time for Helem to “bow out.”

Since Benoist failed to elevate her article up to its title, we decided to do so ourselves. Helem’s triumphs are too many to name, but since the end of 2012 alone, they have included:

Working with the Lebanese Psychological Association and Lebanese Psychiatric Society to publicly affirm that homosexuality is not a mental disease and discredit the use of conversation techniques by mental health workers,

Working with the Ministry of Justice and the Beirut Syndicate of Physicians to ban the use of anal exams to determine the (homo)sexuality of detained individuals,

A continuous stream of aiding individuals and groups arrested under article 534 and other laws that are used to police their (sexual) bodies by securing their release, representing them in court hearings, and finding them housing when possible.

In 2013, Helem’s members also met and voted to revamp the organization and upgrade its mandate and focus. Our main current projects include; academic research on sexuality, gender and the policing of the state, establishing a web of communication with different actors in the judiciary body, academia and possible allies to introduce protection procedures and practices to LGBT individuals as well as creating a national action plan for LGBT rights in Lebanon. We have confidence that with our executive director Ghenwa Samhat – who brings a wealth of experience and leadership to us, particularly in her handling of Helem’s emergency cases – we will be able to push forward to fulfill these works and advance the struggle for LGBT rights in Lebanon.

Benoist chose to feature her colleague Makarem along with another ex-Helem director Georges Azzi as two primary sources to discuss Helem’s failures. To be clear, the only people qualified to speak on Helem’s behalf are its board and director. Azzi, and the other previous directors do not represent the organization anymore, nor do they speak on its behalf or are involved in its decisions. Benoist never discussed these accusations with Helem’s current board nor its director and she did not allow us to respond to them before she published her article. We truly wish Benoist had the vision to discuss Helem’s successes and failures to glean a comprehensive understanding of what LGBT activism is in Lebanon. We have decided, however, to take this opportunity to address the issues she mentioned in a more constructive capacity:

An issue that we take most seriously is the sexual harassment incident that occurred involving two individuals from Helem’s community members. Helem had already reached out with an apology to the person who filed the complaint and we have welcomed her decision and direction that the focus of her complaint was not and should not be the incident itself, rather the context and power structures in the organization that permit sexual harassment to occur and which hinders the victims from reporting it and fails to protect them from possible retaliation or shaming. On the other hand, what was never dealt with was the way Helem’s members and leadership at the time subsequently handled the matter, which was unprofessional, hurtful and damaging to everyone who tried to address it. This led the person who filed the complaint and many other members to feel hurt and sidelined. The complaint should have received nothing but the most serious and respectful attention, and we are sorry for the shaming and othering that targeted her and many others and contributed in turning Helem into an intolerant space.

In sailing the uncharted waters of LGBT activism in Lebanon, Helem was faced with a great number of unique challenges and great odds that are not endemic to the organization itself. We acknowledge that these challenges come with a societal and social context that is misogynist and exclusionary in principle against many groups of bodies. However, we also acknowledge that is a daily struggle that cannot be solved by writing up some policies and by-laws and sweep all the sexism and racist (and all other exclusionary “–ists”) under the carpet. We strive to live up to this challenge and against the tide to be able to have a working activist environment that is open and inclusive to everyone. We wish the article had been an honest review of this issue, not just in Helem but throughout the entirety of LGBT activism as this is an issue faced by many organizations worldwide, and we wish the reporter had included a genuine attempt to explore it and understand it.

Another issue we take most seriously is the insinuation that Helem somehow has collaborated with the Internal Security Forces and divulged the locations of gay cruising areas in order to insure the operation of “gay bars” that charge high prices and capitalize on the “pink dollar” at the expense of these cruising spots. What Benoist and her sources fail to realize is both the gravity of this slander but also that the ISF does not need Helem or the National Aids Program (NAP) to tell it where the gay cruising spots in Beirut are since they already knew about these places previously. What Helem had done was make sure that men who frequented these areas got access to condoms and information relating to HIV, sexually transmitted infections and safe sex. By being part of this network of organizations who also worked with people who use drugs and sex workers, Helem gained implicit recognition of its mandate to protect LGBTs by the authorities (represented via the NAP and the Ministry of Public Health) and allowed it to do its work uninterrupted and to reach hundreds of people. Benoist also failed to mention that the overwhelming majority of raids against LGBT people in Lebanon have been against private establishments such as the arrest of 36 men in the Plaza cinema in 2012, the closing down of the nightclub Ghost in 2013, and the raid on the Agha Hammam in 2014 which resulted in 27 men being detained and tortured. Makarem’s conspiracy theory in this regard seems to stem from his individualized reading and is not grounded in any form of truth.

Finally, the last accusation leads us to the main intent of the article, which is to announce that Helem is past its prime and is ready to close its doors to allow for “other groups” to step in. Benoist manages to barely disguise insinuations that the decline of other LGBT organizations in Lebanon was due to a calculated campaign by Helem to deny other organizations access to resources and stifle other voices in the community. She also clumsily attempted to support this by alluding to the alleged absence of trans* voices in Helem, while she was attending the very same event, IDAHOT 2014, where half of the event was dedicated exclusively to propose the need to mobilize a local trans* movement and explore routes to do so. Had she asked she would have also known that we are currently working with several trans* people in order to engage their community as a whole. We are also very disappointed that the author decided to read one of our speakers at that panel solely under the speaker’s visibility as a transwoman rather than listen to what she was presenting and report the messages that she was trying to convey.

Helem is working on the bigger picture, we are stepping away from specific identity-based projects in our and main working programs to reach an entirely diverse population that includes LGBT individuals, allies, parents, etc. and focusing on issues that affect the whole of these populations; such as the repeal of Law 534 which criminalizes homosexuality and documenting and reporting on police brutality against detained queers and the policing of our bodies and sexualities. The Agha Hammam case for example involved queer men, Syrian refugees and sex workers, groups that encompass three of the most marginalized in Lebanon. The article mentioned Helem’s spokesperson stating that the organization does not work with refugees or “lesbians” specifically as part of its strategic vision, but declines to produce the true intent of that statement.

For Benoist to allow her article to be used for an unsubstantiated attack on Helem under the guise of balanced journalism is dangerous and unprofessional to the extreme, and we are seriously disappointed with Al Akhbar English for publishing this piece thinking it would pass for a serious article. These campaigns to undermine Helem have gone on long enough, and we ask you to please end them now and allow room for all of us to work and focus on the challenges ahead.

And to be perfectly clear, Helem is not going anywhere.

Helem

Editor's note:

On September 30, and October 2, 2014, we published a two-part report examining the mark LGBT rights organization Helem has left on members of its community.

The two articles in question have generated strong reactions of both praise and condemnation – which we welcome – as their purpose was not to attack an organization we respect but to push forward the conversation on LGBT rights in Lebanon that has stalled for years. Al-Akhbar English is proud of its record and commitment to LGBT rights in the region and views itself as a participant in the struggle for those rights.

The author of the report, Al-Akhbar English writer Chloé Benoist, was not guided by feelings of animosity towards the organization. Rather, Benoist's intention was to reflect on a decade of organizing through the lens of historically marginalized and silenced voices. Indeed, the report was the outcome of four months of thorough research, hours of interviews and countless conversations with impacted communities who, themselves, guided the direction of the report. However, admittedly, by elevating these voices we inadvertently presented an incomplete image of the organization and thank Helem for providing our readers with the missing elements of its legacy.

For clarification purposes, two formers directors, Ghassan Makarem and Georges Azzi, were prominently featured in the piece due to the role they played in shaping the organization and since they were overseeing it during its most controversial periods. In addition, repeated attempts were made through Helem's spokesman to reach out to current members and decision-makers within the organization but they went unanswered. Al-Akhbar English confirms the credibility of all the sources referred to in the report, including its anonymous sources who chose anonymity for fear of negative repercussions.

We are pleased to be part of a community that strives to constantly challenge itself and does not shy away from looking at social, political and economic issues critically. As we continue to be receptive of our readers' responses, we welcome and encourage you to use Al-Akhbar English as a platform to continue this discussion ... until liberation.

Lara Bitar,
Acting managing editor

Comments

That is completely untrue. Ghassan resigned from Helem with the women and men who left because of the sexual harassment scandal and the shaming and silencing campaign by the leadership and members. He was never accused of corruption.

also i would like to add and i hope that al akhbar would have the decency to publish my comment that ghassan makarem was accused of corruption and was forced to leave helem. and benoist will always be remembered as the bad practice of journalism, especially foreign journalists who come here and claim they understand what they are talking about

Dear reader,

As indicated in our commenting policy, we welcome all opinions and comments on articles, as long as they do not contain libel, slander or defamation, etc.

Sincerely,
The Al-Akhbar English team

As one of the women who was subject to Helem's awful vilification campaign of smears and threats as a result of speaking out against sexual harassment, I want to thank Chloe Benoist for writing this article. This is the first time we have ever heard Helem acknowledge that we were attacked and demonized, despite the fact that this happened over two years ago. It is because of Chloe's expose in Al-Akhbar and Georges Azzi's indictment of himself in his own words that Helem was forced to issue an acknowledgement and an apology. It would never have happened otherwise. It is of course a disingenuous apology and a lie that they took our concerns seriously (the "apology" they mention was rejected because it was not, in fact, an apology at all), but I am still happy that the record has been set straight in public. Whatever one may think of the rest of Chloe's article, she has done us a great service. Thank you.

I am sorry but nobody in their RIGHT MIND would look at the articles the reporter wrote and not think she was out to undermine, rather destroy, Helem with the aid of her colleagues. Lara Bitar , the acting editor, seriously messed up when she green lighted this article, and this leaky explanation she provides in her editor's note is proof of that. First they attack, then they have the nerve to mention the word "liberation".

so so disappointed with Al Akhbar English. this was the one place you would go to read actual truth and now it is a platform for settling scores and unprofessional drivel. such a shame.

This is absolutist hyperbole. Al Akhbar published an article criticizing HELEM from the standpoint of people who have been integrally involved within it and, thereafter, it published HELEM's response. The degree of deflecting criticism off HELEM does not help its cause.

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