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

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A man holds up a sign saying "What do you know about nature" as part of a gay rights protest in Beirut. (Photo: Marwan Bou Haidar)

By: Chloé Benoist

Published Tuesday, September 30, 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 – whose name means “dream” in Arabic and is an acronym for the “Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders” in the same language – 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 critics of Helem say that the organization has gained notoriety at the expense of the many in the Lebanese LGBT community.

Birth and evolution of the Arab world’s first LGBT organization

Although Helem was officially created in 2004, the organization’s roots stemmed from earlier efforts in the early 2000s, particularly in the aftermath of the 2001 Queen Boat raid in Egypt and the arrest of 52 gay men, 50 of whom were charged with debauchery and obscenity.

“By the year 2000, maybe 1999, there were a lot of discussions – at least in part of the far left that I was in – about issues related to freedoms,” Ghassan Makarem, one of the founding signatories of Helem and an Al-Akhbar English employee, said. “At the beginning of the 2000s, we started noticing an increase in the campaigning in the region in general on the question of sexuality.”

“When the Queen Boat case happened in Cairo, it brought up several points, especially in Lebanon at the same time there were similar actions by the police [...] and an increase in the visibility of LGBTs.”

Georges Azzi, a co-founder of Helem and a former director of the organization, said that Club Free, an LGBT social group, was created around this time period.

“It was an underground group and you couldn’t join unless you knew (someone in the organization), because there was this paranoia that the police would infiltrate,” he told Al-Akhbar English.

Article 534 of the Lebanese legal code criminalizes ‘unnatural’ sexual relations, which is often legally interpreted as including homosexuality. So far, in only two instances – in 2009 and 2014 – have Lebanese judged that Article 534 did not pertain to homosexuality.

By the early 2000s, a growing number of Club Free members became increasingly interested in turning the group into a more politically active movement, and in 2004, Helem submitted its notice of association to the Lebanese government. To this day, Lebanon’s Ministry of Interior has still not issued a registration number to Helem, leaving the organization in an administrative limbo without outright declaring it to be illegal.

Helem faced a lot of pushback at its inception, Azzi recalled.

“When Helem started in 2004, it was a little bit of a shock for the media, for the police,” he said. “Journalists were afraid of seeming too sympathetic to the community.”

“There was also some moral pressure” from security forces, he added. “I remember a raid the police made at a club, they went in and specifically asked if there were members of Helem there, then left.”

But attitudes changed as Helem began gaining notoriety by reaching out to civil society, media and the police, efforts which are credited by many for breaking the taboo of homosexuality in Lebanon.

“I think we’ve reached a stage where there’s recognition that this community exists and there’s huge support, not only from media but from civil society,” Azzi said. “And I think the work with the media, the work with civil society, the visibility of the gay community… all of this is the work of Helem.”

Tarek Zeidan, the spokesperson for Helem, said that the organization had become a landmark for LGBT individuals even outside of Lebanon.

“Helem gets around 10 emails a week from people all over the region,” he said. “Its name is still synonymous with gay rights in the Middle East. It’s the NGO that a lot of gay rights movements in the region try to emulate.”

Azzi said he also thought “things had changed with regards to the LGBT community” at the Hbeich police station in Beirut, which is known for tackling so-called indecency cases.

Several weeks after Al-Akhbar English’s interview with Azzi, Hbeich police raided a gay-friendly hammam and arrested 27 men.

The continued occurrence of police raids in Lebanon are proof for Makarem that things have changed for only some parts of the LGBT community.

“You hear a lot of people say that there are more freedoms, which is something I completely disagree with,” he said. “What's happening is that you have a process where LGBT people are being confined in certain areas where you have excess freedom, and at the same time you see a gradual breakdown of all types of gay spaces.”

“So the police does not even question Bardo or the nightclub,” he added, referring to a well-known gay bar in Beirut, “but they would go around and attack people and arrest them in the cinemas.”

The differing views of how much good Helem has done for the LGBT community have to do with the internal conflicts which have occurred within the organization over the years, as many members left due to serious controversies, including over the group’s handling of gender and class issues.

(Mis)dealing with sexual harassment

Despite the fact that Helem ostensibly identified as an organization welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans members, many women had serious issues with how they were treated by fellow Helem members.

Strained relations emerged over Helem’s oversight of the activities of Helem Girls, a subset of the organization meant for women.

According to K., a former female member of Helem, “there were tensions around Helem Girls, because Helem leadership insisted on having a man present at the meetings and on the e-mail list.” K. declined to be named in this article out of concern for eventual pushback.

These type of demands led some female Helem members to make the decision to break off from the organization and found the independent LGBT women’s group Meem in 2007.

“The relationship with women inside the organization began with a normal disagreement on how to organize,” Makarem said. “Then over the years it became one of the most serious issues within the organization. There was an attempt to isolate the feminists inside the organization, and this happened for a while and led to several disagreements on the direction of Helem.”

But the issue that led to the departure of many men and women from Helem was the prevalence of sexual harassment and the lack of an appropriate response from the organization’s leaders.

K. said that she was one of the women who was sexually harassed by male members of Helem. When she spoke up against the harassment, there was a backlash against her involving personal attacks, some of them gendered. Top leadership in Helem also joined in on the personal attacks against critics with slut-shaming and classist comments, she told Al-Akhbar English.

“A lot of the women who went to the center did not feel very safe with the boys who were there,” Makarem said. “It was a boy's atmosphere and a lot of the harassment happened in this context.”

“A lot of the women were verbally harassed, and then it developed when they (Helem leaders) refused to address it. It started developing into more serious types of sexual harassment, and then using the excuse of ‘oh we are gay, we couldn't be sexual harassing if we were touching breasts.’ That was something that was actually said,” he added, noting that the lack of accountability for the harassment occurring at Helem was one of the main reasons why he chose to leave the organization.

“The gay community in Lebanon is really small so it’s very difficult to say whether this happened just inside Helem or in the bars, but there was always this counter-campaign against women, especially women who tried to introduce a more radical and more feminist perspective,” Makarem said, noting that some of the backlash against women peaked after the election of the first woman president of Helem and during her brief term in office.

“Everyone who had attempted to address the question of sexual harassment and women in the organization was being kicked and pushed out,” he added.

“I think by that time Helem had this identity that was anti-feminist in every sense of the word.”

While not denying the occurrence of sexual harassment, Azzi downplayed the gravity of the issue, chalking it up as “part of the maturing of the community.”

“For many people, it’s a joke, it’s fun, even sometimes between the lesbian and gay communities. This was something where it was always ‘where do you stop?’” he said, echoing arguments negatively mentioned by Makarem.

“This issue exists in society, and this issue exists in Helem,” he added, mentioning instances of harassment within other civil society organizations as proof that “no organization is perfect.”

Azzi also criticized the way the women who were harassed chose to discuss their experience.

“It’s not that we don’t have the right to feel sexually harassed, but how was it expressed, the message didn’t go through or wasn’t said in the right context, in the right way,” he said.

Makarem said he fully realized that the mass departure of many of Helem’s leftist and feminist members meant change within Helem on sexual harassment and other issues became much less likely.

“This was the fight that was lost. We know that this amount of people leaving, especially people who have had leadership positions in the organization, might hurt the organization and it did,” he said. “They are no longer connected to anyone outside the confines of their services.”

Interestingly enough, current Helem member Zeidan did not mention the harassment crisis when asked about the scarcity of LGBT women in the organization, saying that it was Helem’s “strategic decision” not to focus on certain “advocacy routes.”

“Helem in its beginnings was a LGBTIQ organization, and it still really is,” he told Al-Akhbar English. “The decision not to pursue certain advocacy routes or advocate for certain rights, especially when it comes to deal with capacity building for example, or with Syrian refugees, or with lesbians, is because it was a strategic decision.”

The question is not whether Helem can divorce itself from a sexist societal context, but why it hasn’t tried harder to do so. While LGBT rights are often seen as tied to the feminist struggle, the marginalization of women in Helem – a well-known fact among Lebanon’s LGBT community, but unfamiliar to casual observers – is a troubling sign of the organization’s unwillingness to address social stigma outside of its narrow mandate on homosexuality.

Class, urbanization and respectability

Critics of Helem have lambasted what they claim to be the organization’s focus on issues affecting middle-class gay men, often to the detriment of other members of the LGBT community.

Some of the most prominent gay safe spaces in Lebanon, like Bardo, exhibit prohibitive prices for many in the country, de facto limiting access to a select few.

Azzi agreed that the gains obtained by Lebanon’s LGBT community were at least partially contingent on class.

“The freedom we have now is limited to the people who can afford it,” he said. “not just financially, but those who have an understanding family that supports them.”

Another issue is how Helem, as well as other smaller LGBT and LGBT-friendly groups, has confined the vast majority of its efforts to Beirut, a fact seen by an anonymous former member as short-sighted and ignoring the needs of LGBT individuals living outside of Lebanon’s urban spaces.

“Beirut may be the center, but it is not the source,” said the source, who requested anonymity so as not to be excluded from future activist work. “The real struggle is happening in the rooms and schools and villages and those unmapped informal spaces that evade the Beirutis. This is where the shift is happening.”

Efforts by Al-Akhbar English to reach out to Lebanese LGBT activists living outside of the capital for this article were not successful, pointing to a continued monopoly by urbanized LGBT voices.

According to Makarem, efforts to legitimize the fight for gay rights in the eyes of the Lebanese state have led to concessions in order to preserve some privileges.

“At the last meeting I attended at the national AIDS program, the police representative said very clearly that there are two types that he is dealing with: there are the respectable gays who are from good families and go to respectable places, and the men who have sex with men, the rabble who don't go to such places and might have sex in the street and who are poor,” he said. “Even the state has created this distinction through a lot of the involvement upper-class and middle-class gay men.”

Makarem said he believed Helem has contributed to this distinction between middle- and lower-class LGBT as a way to preserve certain gay hangouts at the expense of ‘cruising spots,’ low-key locations where gay individuals meet to look for sex partners.

“Due to some of the gay community's relations with government programs and police-run programs, the police has been presented a list of all cruising areas in Lebanon by people who have been working on LGBT issues,” as part of HIV/AIDS health programs, he said. “I don't think this is not related.”

A member of SIDC, an HIV/AIDS awareness group which has collaborated with Helem on the issue, confirmed that a project SIDC did with Helem included compiling a list of cruising spots and working in conjunction with the police. However, the employee declined to answer questions by Al-Akhbar English on whether the information on cruising spots was shared with the police as part of the program.

Azzi denied that Helem had communicated information about cruising locations to the police as part of its HIV/AIDS efforts.

“We did not mention the names of places with them. No, of course, but what happened is that we had a meeting, and we said that ‘listen, we go to places where gay men meet (as part of the HIV/AIDS program), and we know that you raid these places,’” he said.

“Funnily enough, they already had the names of the places.They knew the places.”

Whether or not Helem’s cooperation with the police went as far as suggested by Makarem, the organization has undeniably stood by – and possibly abetted – the distinction between middle- and lower-class LGBT individuals.

The insertion of respectability politics in LGBT activism is not new or unique to Lebanon, but reveals a troubling trend in the quest for social recognition of the rights of queer individuals to live as they choose, so long as their choices remain discreet and not too radical in the eyes of broader society. The marginalization of queer women in Helem also points to the perception of gay rights as discrete from other struggles for social justice, a troubling vision of activism. Helem’s decision to depart from intersectional activism, as we will see, has impacted the group’s vision and impact, all the while stifling the growth of alternative movements within Lebanon.

This is the first of a two-part report on Helem, the second part was published on Thursday, October 2.

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


It is truly disappointing to see that after all that happened, Helem's former leadership refuses to acknowledge what happened and continues to deflect blame. Ghassan Makarem was the only person in a leadership position who publicly apologized, took full responsibility for everything that happened under his watch, and stood in complete solidarity with the women who were harassed and intimidated. The letter he wrote is still online: http://nfasharte.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/good-faggots-and-male-privilege/ That is more that I can say for you and the rest of Helem's membership and leadership.
The incidents mentioned above happened under your directorship Charbel, and your response was to publicly call the women liars and "barking dogs" when they spoke out, among many other choice phrases.

lets see if al-akhbar has the decency to publish the truth

This article misses the point completely.
In every country in the world, it's easier to be gay and rich than being gay and poor.
In every country in the world, upper and middle class gays attained their rights before the rest. Same for women.
Intersectionality discourse started to materialize in the US when upper and middle class white women and gays started to gain more and more rights while the rest didn't.
There was a need for intersectionality.
It's not Helem's doing, it's how society i shaped.
And you're missing that a night club, ghost, was closed not long ago, so it's not only poor places that are being closed.
As for the gay men vs queer women issue, it's a classic one that happened in each LGBT organization in the world. It's not proper to helem. Gay men and Queer women have nothing in common but their attraction to the same sex. Each have their own agenda and they eventually clash over the lines of identity vs queer politics.
All the people you spoke to are middle class Beiruti residents, including the ones that claim to have the rest in their best interests. This is a thing everybody agrees on but that nobody can solve. Ghassan was executive director, what did he do for the marginalized? Did he expand helem outside of beirut?
As for Ghassan insinuations that Helem gave up the locations of cruising areas to the police in some capitalist conspiracy. It's completely ridiculous.
Helem's legacy (which you fail to mention completely) is a huge lot, whatever its detractors might think. Make some room for it.
I know all the poeple you mention in your article and have sit and spoken to them and know their ideas. I can clearly see that you are biased to Ghassan and put other's discourse in a way that might hurt their argument and prove ghassan's one. Tarek saying that he doesn't care for Lesbians! Come on..

Sexual harassment in Helem were at the time while Ghassan Makarem was the executive director. He did nothing toward that matter not even thinking of primary prevention plan to avoid such unfortunate incidents to happen later on

People are now attacking Helem were part of the board of directors back then

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