Lebanese gay rights organization Helem marks 10 years with a mixed legacy, Part II

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A man holds up a sign saying "No to violence...no to discrimination...no to homophobia" at a gay rights protest in Beirut. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Chloé Benoist

Published Thursday, October 2, 2014

On September 24, Lebanese gay rights organization Helem celebrated its tenth anniversary. In the past decade, Helem, the first group of its kind in the Arab world, has grown in prominence and become an inevitable actor when discussing LGBT rights in Lebanon. Over the years, Helem has received accolades for raising awareness about gay issues in Lebanon and becoming a high-profile regional player for the cause.

But the organization’s position as a rare advocate in a country where homosexuality can still be considered illegal has often overshadowed the struggles within LGBT activism in Lebanon. The group has been plagued by allegations of discrimination and harassment – as discussed in the first article of this two-part series – as well as criticized for its Westernized view of activism and its quasi-monopoly of LGBT activism in Lebanon.

The rise of depoliticized activism

Many of the tensions surrounding Helem and its actions stem from disagreements present since the organization’s inception.

“From the beginning, there were several issues that came out,” said Ghassan Makarem, one of the organization’s founding signatories and an Al-Akhbar English employee. “This could come from the fact that some parts of the group were activists and were coming from a politicized environment and joining what was more of a 'bar crowd,' and of course this meant that there were several different priorities.”

“People from the left were introducing more of a comprehensive discourse that related to gender, sexuality, and feminism, and sexual freedoms,” he added. “On the other hand you had gay men whose only concern was having a bar and then trying to impose questions like marriage, which at the beginning of Helem we agreed there were questions that we were going to avoid. This unfortunately created a big clash.”

Makarem said that these members were disinterested in Helem taking a more social justice approach to LGBT activism.

“It was quite obvious that the more Helem got involved in political questions and in changing laws, the more the rich people left the organization,” Makarem said.

However, after many of the more socially conscious members left over disagreements on the direction of the group and the handling of sexual harassment cases, Helem lost much of its political and activist edge, becoming more of a “community center” according to an anonymous former member who spent around two years with Helem and requested anonymity so as not to be excluded from future activist work.

“Yes, it’s good to have a community center, to provide a safe space for those who need one,” he said. “But the reality is such spaces become about a very limited, very select group of people.”

“Helem has been around for 10 years, and they have failed to break through to a larger or more diverse audience,” he added, saying that the small size of the Lebanese community contributed to the centering of activism around a select few prominent individuals.

“I can say that ever since we (leftists) left Helem, Helem has not been involved in anything outside of its very narrow and narrowing mandate of providing some services,” Makarem said.

While Helem has regularly condemned instances of police raids and harassment of LGBT individuals over the years, it has not organized a protest since April 2013, and most of its events – with the exception of IDAHOT – remain fairly muted.

“The most dangerous thing that happened to the organization was the depoliticization and the claim that civil action is non-political,” Makarem added. “This allowed a lot of reactionary forces to control the organization.”

Debates over ideology and funding

The departure of many of the more politically-inclined members from the organization has coincided with Helem embracing a more Westernized approach, according to some critics.

“Helem embraces US politics of mainstream LGBT movements, which see gay marriage as the end game,” former female member of Helem K. said, adding that many progressive LGBT activists believe the institution of marriage should in fact be deconstructed.

K. declined to be named in this article out of concern for eventual pushback.

“Structurally they are LGBT International and they have a certain ideology,” the anonymous former Helem member concurred. “They will always be bound to it. No matter what they say, what they do, they will always have a Western model in a non-Western environment.”

Helem spokesman Tarek Zeidan disagreed with this assertion, saying that he believed the organization tries to take into account local specificities.

“How can one begin to think how to craft their advocacy campaigns and address what is important without actually knowing what a gay person feels, and what makes a gay person in this part of the world?” he said.

“It is not necessarily the same as the West, so if we use Western mechanisms of advocacy we might be hurting people, we might be pushing something that isn't ready to be pushed right now, or may never be ready to be pushed,” Zeidan added.

According to Makarem, a lot of the funding available to LGBT organizations in the region comes with strings attached from Western donors.

“I spent several years with the organization (Helem) within the leadership, and I know its relationship with international movements, donors or big LGBT organizations in Europe, whose support was conditional on our accepting their priorities: gay marriage, whatever rich white men like,” he said.

“This was what was being imposed by the movement as a whole, and if they cannot impose it politically through discussion, they will impose through funding or by focusing their funding only on questions related to them.”

Georges Azzi, another founding signatory of Helem, its former director, and currently the executive director of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, also noted that funding was available, but at a price.

“I think the funding (for LGBT activism in Lebanon) is there, money is available,” he said. “The issue is what kind of funding there is, and what are the conditions.”

Helem does not publicly disclose its funding on its website. However, a 2008 study on the organization by the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health listed some of the backers of the group at the time. The list includes Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, the Ford Foundation and the Heartland Alliance, organizations which academic Joseph Massad has included as being part of the “Gay International” movement, a term coined by Massad himself to designate LGBT organizations pushing a Westernized agenda.

Helem’s sexual health programs have also been funded indirectly by the World Bank and UNAIDS, and USAID has confirmed meeting with the group regarding its HIV and AIDS efforts in June 2013.

For Makarem, the involvement of some big international donors, particularly in HIV/AIDS awareness programs tied to the gay community, can end up being counter-productive.

“It’s very easy to impose your agenda through services,” he said. “The UN says that it wants to use the question of HIV to get into LGBT issue in the third world, but it’s a very dangerous thing they are doing. It's more of the work of intelligence services, rather than humanitarian work or UN work, and it creates a huge backlash, and it creates a stigma in places that there is no stigma.”

Western liberal organizations exploit the situation and try to push forward an agenda. This means that many Middle-Eastern organizations – not just Helem – have to face the difficult decision of picking between politicized funding or underfunded integrity. This paradox falls both within and outside of Helem’s control, as the organization’s de facto monopoly of LGBT activism in Lebanon stifles the growth of a more diverse movement.

Erasure of trans issues

Much like in Western LGBT movements, the struggles of transgender individuals in Lebanon often take a back seat to issues affecting gay men (and, to a lesser extent, lesbians).

“Even though it would make a lot of sense for an NGO to be specialized in some issues, particularly transgender, there's no one else [but Helem],” Zeidan said.

Zeidan went on to add that trans women preferred to join groups like Helem, claiming that trans women were not “comfortable” in feminist organizations.

“Transwomen do not feel comfortable in a feminist setting, or in a gay man setting either, but they are maybe a bit more comfortable (in the latter),” he told Al-Akhbar English.

Randa, a trans woman who previously worked in Helem, said that this kind of generalization was just not true.

“It depends on the person,” she said. “There are feminist trans women and trans women who are in the cliche of the beautiful and weak woman.”

“Before I joined, transgender people did not identify with Helem. It’s true that it was an LGBT organization, but in practice, it’s a gay organization,” she added.

In 2011, a Bekhsoos article denounced the uproar against instances of homophobia when compared to the silence regarding numerous occurences of discrimination against transgender individuals, highlighting a certain hierarchy of concern for members of the LGBT community.

Randa recalled that during her time in Helem, while there wasn’t “direct sexual harassment” against trans women, they were also subjected to misogynist attitudes.

“There was no direct sexual harassment against trans women, but there was a disdain towards women,” she said.

This attitude, she said, was tied to the perception of men – especially those who identified as “tops” – are innately “conquering” compared to women or “bottoms,” who are often seen as “weak.”

“It’s very insulting, and it needs to change,” she said.

Moreover, the contribution of trans people to LGBT rights have often been minimized in Lebanon. A January 2014 ruling in Jdeideh, in which the judge acquitted a trans woman accused of having homosexual relationships, was appropriated as a “gay” victory. And this, despite the fact that the judge’s key ruling was the recognition of the defendant’s identity as a woman, which rendered accusations of ‘unnatural relations’ moot.

The erasure of transgender individuals is an endemic issue in LGBT activism, and Helem has in some ways contributed to this fault, although the group had a trans woman speaker at its 2014 IDAHOT event, a first for the organization after nine years of putting together the event.

Nevertheless, statements by Zeidan saying that “Helem decided to be a neutral space” ignores the reality that in many spaces, ‘neutral’ often means the rights of minorities populations fall by the wayside.

A dearth of alternatives

The problems occurring inside or outside of Helem are worsened by the lack of diversity of alternatives for LGBT activism in Lebanon.

Some organizations dealing with LGBT issues have sprouted over the years. One of them, the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality is led by Azzi, the former head of Helem.

One of Helem’s most lauded efforts was the creation of Marsa, a sexual health center.

“I think Marsa are the ones who are doing it best” within Helem, the anonymous former member said. “It’s not an LGBT space per se, but they are the ones who get it right. They do actual things that transcend the people who are there.”

But while some Helem offshoots have grown, several organizations which were started by critics of Helem have more or less died out over the years. Lesbian organization Meem, which started in 2007, has lost most of its fire, K. said, adding that “Meem is no longer a public space” as accessible to LBTQ women as it once was. Nasawiya, a feminist organization including some former women members of Helem, has also slowed its activities in the past year.

For the anonymous former member, one of the biggest problems in maintaining queer spaces in Lebanon was some of the personal dynamics within these groups.

“The biggest barrier of entry in LGBT spaces is the people. It’s not financial, it’s very much social,” he said. “You are in or out, you adhere to our group-think or you don’t. There’s always polarization of opinion, you can notice it in every discussion, and for me that was pretty scary.”

Zeidan mentioned that volunteer turnover was also an issue inside Helem.

“Helem is made up of community members, it's very vulnerable to fragmentation, meaning that people don't always agree, and when people fall out people leave,” he said. “Also don't forget that it's hard to find people in their 20s and 30s in Lebanon because they are all in Dubai, so the institutional memory of Helem is very, very shallow.”

K. said one of the reasons why there were so few alternatives was the struggle to obtain funding.

“There are only a handful of funders, and only a few people [in the Lebanese LGBT community] who stand as references” recognized by donors, she said.

She added that the competitiveness in the field led to intimidation tactics being used against emerging groups. She said that “word spreads fast” whenever an attempt to form an alternative organization sprouts, and alleged that some Helem leaders have in the past “unleashed everything,” including rumors, to discredit these new groups.

“Helem has lost its respect in a lot of circles,” K. said. “Ten years is the perfect time to bow out.”

Randa said she believed LGBT activism in Lebanon needed to be more receptive to issues of gender.

“Feminism must be a part of LGBT activism, because it is narrowly linked to women’s rights. After that, there needs to be work on gender and the definition of gender,” she told Al-Akhbar English.

She also advocated for the creation of a trans organization.

“Transgender people shouldn’t wait for the LGB, they must fight for their rights,” she said. “They need an independent organization to be considered an important and equal part of the LGBT community.”

For the anonymous former Helem member, the future of queer activism in Lebanon needs to expand drastically to include a variety of voices.

“I think we have failed to foster a culture of collaborative activism in Lebanon,” he said. “I would love to see a plurality of NGOs and collectives that represent the various ideologies and forms of activism. I want that. I really wish for plurality. This is how we keep each other challenged.”

“I really see the future of activism being decentralized, out of Beirut. I see it becoming more Lebanese,” he added. “We need 70 feminist organizations and a million LGBT ones to accommodate all thoughts. And we need to remind their leaders that a movement is not about people. It is for people, it’s not about them.”

Helem has undeniably been a trailblazer for LGBT awareness in Lebanon. But ten years later, many believe that the organization has served its purpose and should cede its monopoly on queer activism, arguing that it is time for a new, more diverse generation of LGBT organizations to build on Helem's accomplishments and learn from its mistakes. First and foremost, this new generation of activists must recognize that LGBT individuals’ lives don’t exist in a “gay rights” vacuum, and that intersectionality is a crucial tool in the fight for social justice. To think otherwise will only alienate much of the community they vow to fight for.

This is the second of a two-part report on Helem, part one was published on Tuesday, September 30.

Chloé Benoist is a staff writer for Al-Akhbar English. Follow her on Twitter: @chloejbenoist

Comments

What's truly pathetic are all the anonymous commentators (or, I would venture, one repeated commentator) who are tossing ad hominem attacks at the author and persons mentioned in the piece, revealing how closely involved they are in the same shrill, hyperbolic, punctuation abusing manner, all the while refusing to put a name to their opinion(s).

There is an abundance of substantive reporting and details here. Various parties with differing perspectives were interviewed. What is ironic is that the most damaging revelations are from those who refuse to take any responsibility for what happened, who continue to blame and shame those that spoke out, who are now also shooting the messenger. You have no one to blame but yourselves.

Wow, just wow. Al Akhbar are you SERIOUS? do you have any idea of how damaging and horrible this article is??? Do you know what it means for people to read this and think it is true?? In Makarem's fanatical campaign to destroy Helem, and in you sending Benoit the note-taker - not a journalist - to cover this story you have SERIOUSLY set back LGBt rights in Lebanon and the region by publishing this garbage.

I do not know where to read news in Lebanon anymore when Al Akhbar, which is supposed to be the one source advocating for our rights, has been reduced to this. The reporter should be fired and the editor seriously needs to ask herself some questions on what kind of tabloid she is running.

disgusting to the extreme.

A lot of the comments above come across as being a tad hyperbolic. Whereas I see the contradictory endeavor of tagging epithets of "westernized" or "orientalist" within a milieu that cannot but drag in, to some if not to a large extent, western conceptualization of sexuality and human rights -indeed, within a society, Lebanon, where the interface between the so-called West and East is (depending on the sub-community) a complex and broad matter- the author of the article does present explicit demands being made on Helem by others to prioritize gay marriage and suchlike. Therefore, it is not true that the author does not present examples of external puppeteering, nonconductive locally;

In my opinion, from my perspective as an outsider (outsider to Helem, that is, and does not know much about it----and my lack of knowledge should be the concern here, given that Helem should have been an outreach - for gay people and straight- and not a cliquey set) the article strikes well when considering Helem's gay-male-centricity and tendency towards the apolitical and suggesting the cliquey nature of the group.

To be honest, my qualm is a bit broader. Having stated some reservation about West vs East, let me say that I find the contemporary western formula - it is very evident where you go, the US, Canada, Europe- of the parceling of human rights amongst different groups, each tethered to a source of funding and largely rendered panels for advertisements for consumerist products (be they mainstream, sexual paraphernalia, skimpy wear, pornographic studios, etc), each increasingly drifting into its self-centric world, I find this formula prohibitive of a vibrant rich culture where human rights is not about political correctness and tolerance to specific groups, not to say over others, say gay people over muslims -and this shows that human rights, within the bounds of this formula, is open to mainstream biases- not a guarantee for the dignity and richness of the human life....but rather a guarantee for the increased commercialization and ghettoization of the society.

Lebanon has certainly been, like many other acquiescent countries in the world, subject to the dictates of neo-liberalism. (although, of course, it is anyway traditionally a place well suited to the merchant entrepreneurial spirit and to gate-guarding shady politics). And, whatever Helem is, a good reading of that entity needs to take the tendency of the surrounding society (the exodus to Dubai was a good point, for instance) and economic and political structure in place.

This article does not capture the nuance of HELEM's founding and continued work, about which Makarem himself has published several pieces to fill this gap. In one article he defends HELEM agains claims made by Massad stating: "While it is true, as with any association, that “Helem represents only its own members and can only speak for them,” it seems that Massad has a serious problem with those members; people, I might add, whom Massad has never met. Is Massad claiming that Helem was set up by foreigners (Westerners) trying to create facts on the ground for the Gay International conspiracy? The circumstances of Helem’s formation will show that the main problem with Massad’s attack is that it is based on outright ignorance of Helem’s positions and the facts on the ground." This is from an article entitled "We are not agents of the West" published as part of a debate between him and Massad on the website Resetdoc.org (www.resetdoc.org/story/1542). There is also his piece in the Journal of Middle East Women's studies that details the forms of border activism HELEM has been involved in, entitled "The Story of HELEM" Vol. 7, No. 3 (Fall 2011). These articles are useful in filling the massive gap this article leaves behind in understanding the complex history of HELEM.

There are terribly inherent contradictions in this article: first it attacks Helem for deriving too much of its work from western models of queer politics without specifying what that model is, or what kinds of political claims to visibility and rights it makes. Then it attacks them for not focusing enough on intersectional, feminist, and trans right and political claims, which are themselves shaped by the same western-derived models connecting political visibility, state and legal rights, gender and sexuality. This article may have actually make sense had the relationship between these things been sussed out more. Without these details, it is just an attack from all sides.

Also where are the opinion of those on the ground? Can one or two people really speak for the diversity of an entire collective?

And, why link to a review of Massad's book by Brian Whitaker, one of the biggest propagators of a western-derived models of LGBT rights in the Middle East. There are several more nuanced reviews of his work writing by scholars of gender and sexuality in the region, like Dina Georgis and Wilson Chacko Jacob. Unfortunately, this reveals that the author herself is unclear about the boundaries between western and local understandings and interactions of gender, sexuality, politics, and activism.

For such an article one would think that the writer would speak to someone from Helem and let them respond. But that was not the case!
What transpires from the article is that the people who left Helem and started their own organizations failed to keep them going since it seems those were people who are unable to work in groups and compromise with others. Their frustration with Helem was repeated when they tried to form new groups, since their own inability to work collectively is the real problem. But then Helem is blamed for "spreading rumors" to kill these groups; this is thrown in with no proof or backing.
This is a piece of yellow journalism par excellence !
It is a shame it appears in Al Akhbar. Helem is certainly not perfect and a balanced and objective review of its legacy, in the very difficult context it has to work in, would have been a great contribution to LGBT rights in Lebanon, but this articles is not.

This article sounds like a naming and shaming article. Too bad! I don't want to understate sixual harassment nor the unfortunate attitude that most LGBTQI organizations have towards women, but this article and this effort would have been much better if it brought examples of the sexual harassment a and the oppression women endured in the organization. Where they nis represented in the board for example? Weren't they a part of the decision making? Couldn't they effect the projects that were held? Where there a policy against sexual harassment in general? Not only women? I think there is much more to learn from the experience of the interviees. It is very normal that LGBTQI organizations in the arab world start from the normative lgbt rights, but after a while they grow up, they mature. I hope that part III will have a more educational role than the Naming and Shaming this article does. As much as I want to respect the report, it is honestly disgusting!

Lol seriously al-Akhbar, you already lost most of your credible journalist and now this trash, are you hiring kids now ? Makarem and a bunch and failing people blaming their failiur on Helem ? Lol

Dear Chloé, although the first part was totally subjective and was obviously dictated to you by others (or at least reviewed and edited by people who hate Helem), at least it contained few arguments to be discussed, but this one is a total failure, highly subjective and unprofessional. The paranoia portrayed in this post is just silly and delusional, and is a sign that you know nothing of Helem and should have done more research. If Helem was planning to reply on your first part, i suggest they stop coz you just replied on yourself and destroyed all of your arguments. Whoever is pushing you to attack Helem in a time where the organization is working hard to save the Agha detainees from incarceration, is leading you to the pit and an early end to your journalism good career, one would think you had your "internship" at AL jaras magazine.
Finally, it's fool to judge NGOs for taking western money because the government or any local donors would never fund human rights work let alone LGBT rights and if you're so keen (alongside your mates) to be patriotic, you should have written your piece in Arabic and not get supported by individuals (who you quoted widely here) who pursued their education in the states, UK and AUB/LAU while most of them work in western organization fitting the same profile you and your "quoted" friends are attacking.

cheers and have a good career

Seriously, this is the article? Is this a review of Helem's achievements or just an attack by two of Al Akhbar's employees on Makarem's previous place of employment? Horrible journalism

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