Lebanon: LGBT ruling only the first step

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A man holds a sign saying "So what, I'm proud," during a gay rights protest in Beirut. (Photo: Marwan Bou Haidar)

By: Chloé Benoist

Published Thursday, March 6, 2014

The recent acquittal of a transgender woman by a Lebanese court has been hailed by gay rights activists as a historic ruling, but only marks the beginning of a long process towards eradicating homophobic legislation in the country.

Beirut-based NGO Legal Agenda made public on Tuesday a January case by Jdeideh’s criminal court, in which a transgender woman was charged with having homosexual relationships with men. Judge Naji al-Dahdah ultimately ruled that the case did not fall under Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code, which penalizes ‘unnatural’ sexual relations.

Dahdah also ruled that the defendant’s gender should not be determined solely based on her identification documents, but on her self-perception and presentation, the legal activist group reported.

Advocates for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Lebanon have applauded the case.

“This is a big step towards decriminalizing homosexuality,” Georges Azzi, the executive director of the Arab Foundation for Freedom and Equality, told Al-Akhbar. “More judges need to say this article (534) doesn’t apply to the LGBT community.”

The case comes almost five years after a similar ruling by Judge Mounir Sleiman from Batroun. In 2009, Sleiman held that consensual same-sex relations were not “unnatural,” and therefore shouldn’t be subjected to legal penalty.

“The main statement in the (2014) sentence is regarding the legal lack of definition of ‘unnatural,’” Legal Agenda founder Nizar Saghieh noted.

“Such (legal) interpretation is taking into consideration actual developments in science and society,” he said, mentioning the evolution of the concept of “unnaturalness” in conjunction with changing social and biological perceptions.

“I think this is proving that the first judgement (in 2009) was not isolated,” Saghieh added. “It’s becoming a judicial trend, more so than a judicial precedent.”

Unlike the common law system, in which rulings can serve as legal precedents in subsequent cases, the Lebanese system is modeled on the more codified French civil law, where the government has the power to enact legal changes. This means the two cases could remain anecdotal unless more Lebanese judges decide to follow suit.

Saghieh said he expected more judges would follow this interpretation of Article 534.

“We can expect the next similar judgement to come very soon,” he predicted.

“I think these two rulings do undermine the law by highlighting the futility of attempting to define the natural,” Rasha Moumneh, a PhD student in gender studies, told Al-Akhbar.

“While it doesn't set a precedent, it can still be part of a snowball effect.”

Little hope for legal reform

Even though Lebanon has seen broader awareness of LGBT issues in the past several years, queer rights advocates have little hope of effecting legal reform.

“There is definitely higher awareness than before in Lebanon. There is a certain acceptance that this community exists, but accepting its rights is a different issue,” Azzi said.

He cited “political instability” as an obstacle to any attempt at repealing Article 534 in Parliament, pointing to “less controversial” issues currently facing political opposition.

“We are concerned about the possible debate in Parliament, given their position on the domestic violence bill,” Azzi said. “An LGBT rights law will be even more challenging.”

As a result, the most likely best case scenario would be a de facto legal redefinition of ‘unnatural’ relations by Lebanese judges, as opposed to the government officially scrapping the discriminatory article.

Even as the Jdeideh ruling marks tangible progress for LGBT rights, Moumneh cautioned that the judge’s legal legitimization of the defendant’s transgender identity is problematic.

“The trans angle [of the case] is really important, in which gender identity is determined through appearance and mannerisms rather than through biology or what is on the ID,” Moumneh, who was formerly involved with LGBT activism in Lebanon, noted.

“The problem here is it normalizes certain versions of femininity and masculinity. Trans people who are not ‘feminine enough’ or ‘masculine enough’ may therefore be excluded.”

Official discrimination over issues of sexual freedom - beyond the stigmatization of the LGBT community - remains rife, she said.

“I think it's interesting and telling to contrast the gains being made for the rights of gay men - I say men here deliberately - and the public legitimization of their struggle over the past few years with the tremendous obstacles faced by women's rights activists who are lobbying for the domestic violence law,” she said.

“One of the most contentious aspects of the (domestic violence) law, which was unfortunately dropped, was the criminalization of marital rape, also an issue of sexual autonomy,” she added.

“Of course we're talking about different (governmental) bodies here - the courts versus the legislature - but it's still telling of the gendered nature of sexual regulation.”

The Jdeideh case represents hope for those living in fear of legal reprisal or police brutality because of their sexuality or gender identity. But with two rulings in favor of decriminalizing queer sexuality in the past four years, the current odds of an LGBT individual being acquitted of such charges are as slim as winning the lottery.

Ultimately, a real victory for the LGBT community would mean not only higher rates of acquittal, but fewer trials altogether. The enthusiastic response shows Dahdah’s ruling is a first step in an ongoing battle for equality and inclusion that many are aspiring to.


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