First published on BIKYAMASR
Early in June, with the beginning of the summer, as visitors prepared for holidays in the shores of the Mediterranean, a couple of LGBT-sites ran features on Lebanon, describing it as a melting pot of cultures from East and West, and praised its vibrant night life: “A visit to Lebanon reveals Roman treasures, natural wonders, outstanding food, cosmopolitan fun and a growing gay scene.”
While there is no doubt that the traditional view of Lebanon as the freest country in the Arab world is not without foundation, the truth is that the Lebanese have fought very hard for those freedoms and those freedoms remain increasingly threatened due to a combination of laissez-faire policy and tight censorship.
A Lebanese user commented to the article “Beirut and Lebanon: The gay paradise of the Arab world” with singular wit: “It is really a terrific place once you get past the routine power outs, the incredibly high prices, the harassment of gays in virtually any public venue, the criminal status of homosexuality, the corrupt, racist and homophobic police department, the sporadic tire-burnings and gun fights and the control that Islamic and Christian fundamentalists have over large parts of the country both in terms of territory and media. But yeah, other than that it’s terrific.” It’s true as well that there have been some improvements in Lebanon in regard to LGBT rights, but the situation remains precarious and legal status unchanged.
It was also in June that French newspaper Le Monde reported – based on a report of Human Rights Watch – that the practice of invasive tests to determine homosexuality of the orders of the Lebanese judiciary goes against international standards on prisoners. According to article 534 of the Lebanese penal code, homosexuality remains illegal on the ground of outlawing unnatural sexual activity. Regardless the violation of medical practice that these tests constitute, doctors admitted then that they performed them four or five times a month, even though they themselves admit as well that they cannot be considered scientifically accurate or conclusive in determining homosexuality.
On May 23rd the seminar “Test of Shame” was organized by NGO Legal Agenda at St. Joseph University to discuss the violent practice, and the Lebanese Medical Society also held a discussion in which they concluded that the tests have no scientific value. Even though a Lebanese judge ruled in 2009 against the use of article 534 to prosecute homosexuals, the practice – albeit not generalized – continues and in the words of Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer, activist and founder of Legal Agenda, the ultimate goal of the tests was not only to humiliate but also to intimidate detainees, some of which are randomly detained on an arbitrary practice over which there are no clear arguments or policies.
A new incident involving arrests and performance of the tests took place on July 28th but this time with the added aggravation of being sparked by media celebrity Joe Maalouf during his talk show “Enta Horr” (“You’re Free”) on Murr TV (MTV). During the program, Maalouf made explicit reference to a porn cinema in Beirut where it is known that men have sexual encounters with other men. He claimed that the authorities were protecting “perverts” and demanded the authorities to act upon it. Quickly thereafter, the cinema was raided, 36 men arrested and were subjected to anal examinations, supposedly to prove their homosexuality. MTV reported on the arrest of the 36 men with viciously homophobic language.
This was not the first or only time that Maalouf not only expressed publicly his homophobic feelings but also invaded the privacy of citizens: In May his program featured an undercover camera filming men having sexual intercourse in porn cinema in the northern city of Tripoli and clearly exposing their identities. His show also abused the case of a horrible crime to prompt a vigilante attitude, using the grief of the victim’s family to spark sectarian remarks and incite for capital punishment. Previously, he had also come under fire for publicizing the names of victims of sexual harassment in a school in Lebanon.
A controversy ensued between Maalouf – who is not in the country – and LGBT activists and supporters in Lebanon, in which Maalouf, in spite of being a media personality, has resorted to vulgar language and threats, that speaks volumes for his professional standards and those of a show, that while apparently is meant to give a voice to the weak and underrepresented in Lebanese society, is often thriving on controversy and sensationalism, at the expense of the privacy, dignity and in this case, security of the people involved. Maalouf was outed as gay himself by gay activists; accusations that he insists on denying and has threatened to sue George Azzi, the co-founder of LGBT-organization Helem, for slander.
Timely enough, Lebanese channel LBC, in response, took a strong stand against homophobia and the constant violations of human rights during prime time, with their “Republic of Shame” that pointed clearly at the humiliating practice. Other media in Lebanon have also taken a stand against the position of MTV that so far remains unchanged. Whether Maalouf himself is gay or not is maybe not the greatest concern here, but the fact that in spite all the outrage, the penal code remains unchanged and people can still fall prey to the openly abusive practice of the tests. The responses of users on social media have been largely positive but it remains to be seen if that translates into concrete actions, which is hardly the case in Lebanon.
Naturally, a number of responses have emerged among the Lebanese to this disgraceful incident, from the commonplace sectarianism of accusing Christians (since the surnames Murr and Maalouf obviously are) of being criminals, pimps and drug dealers, to the apparently liberal response that Maalouf is an “homophobic gay” and that therefore gays themselves are to be blamed for the crackdown. The lack of accountability on all levels of society is remarkable but hardly surprising: Anyone familiar with Lebanon knows full well how widespread homophobia is in the country, and how supportive a big percentage of the population is of the ordeal that LGBT people go through daily.
Lebanese doctor Hasan Abdessamad wrote on Maalouf’s Facebook page: “How does it feel to have 36 men arrested, taking them away from their families and out of the safety of their closets, throwing them under the cruelty of our merciless judgmental society, putting them at risk for losing their jobs, and throwing them in a jail where they already got abused by exposing them to “dignity anal testing”? Why is your target always the misfortunate and weak? Go after all the corrupt people in power dressed in suits and causing real harm to our Lebanese society.” Many citizens – including prominent activists – have spoken for a boycott of MTV.
MTV was originally launched in the aftermath of the Civil War in 1991 and for many was considered an alternative to the more traditional networks, but as it often happens to be the case in Lebanon, they have also caught up quickly with the opportunism, sectarianism and sensationalism that plague the entire Lebanese media. LGBT and civil society organizations are getting organized to act and the incident is unlikely to pass unnoticed. Maalouf himself denied accusations of homophobia and excused himself saying the exposé was an effort to highlight the mistreatment of teenagers who frequent such cinemas; George Azzi, however, has pointed out that no one appeared to be underage in the aired footage.
Most of the men have been released and activists have filed an appeal to the Justice Ministry to end the practice of the tests. In yet another display of blatant hypocrisy, the Internal Security Forces said through a spokesman that ISF opposed article 534 and supported its abolition, after having stood by the practice only a few days beforehand. It often happens in Lebanon that when such shameful acts are exposed, the whole society mobilizes with loud cries and demands, but yet just as often it dies there, until the next time another case is exposed. In a country so praised by others for its freedoms, it seems freedom is a luxury only available to irresponsible celebrities like Joe Maalouf and his channel MTV, but denied to the citizens who are condemned to anonymity and illegality for simply being who they are.