Gay Community Thrives in Lebanon

Homosexuality is forbidden in most of the Arab world, and is against the law in Lebanon. But the gay community is quietly flourishing in Beirut, and some young Lebanese are hoping to spark a dialogue about homosexuality in their country.

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Back now with DAY TO DAY.

Homosexuality is forbidden in almost all of the Arab world. In Saudi Arabia, for example, sodomy is punishable by death. But Beirut's Lebanon is different. It's a city where the gay and lesbian community is quietly and unexpectedly thriving.

NPR's Shereen Meraji has a report.

SHEREEN MERAJI: Down a narrow cobblestone street in West Beirut, spray-painted graffiti covers the wall. One image in particular stands out. Hin Gandur(ph) on her way to class at Beirut's American University stops and describes it.

Ms. HIN GANDUR (Student, West Beirut): It's a face of a man covered in black. The rims of his eyes are all that shows. It's the question; it says who's homosexual? Well, your mother is homosexual. I am homosexual.

MERAJI: Can you say it in Arabic, too?

Ms. GANDUR: (Arabic spoken)

MERAJI: The graffiti is confusing to a lot of people who see it, including Hin.

Ms. GANDUR: (Unintelligible) means the same. I don't know what's he's trying to use it to symbolize or to say.

(Unintelligible) means homosexual. He's using the first two lines, but in the third line he uses (unintelligible) which I'm confused about.

MERAJI: He is graffiti artist and graphic design student Hamed Cino(ph). Hamed is 19, Muslim, and gay.

Mr. HAMED CINO (Graffiti Artist; Student): The thing is, in Arabic, people describe homosexuality as (unintelligible) which translates to deviant, literally. And it's the most popular way of describing it, and it's kind of offensive, you know, like someone's basically calling you deviant and it stems from a lot of - like a lot of cultural understandings that are very oppressive. So the graffiti - the guy wearing a mask says who's a deviant? Your mom is a deviant. I'm homosexual.

MERAJI: Hamed himself has been the target of anti-gay graffiti, so he's using his graffiti to express frustration at his own treatment. He hopes to spark a dialogue about homosexuality in Lebanon, where it's still against the law. For Brian Whitaker, a journalist and author of "Unspeakable Love," a book about gay and lesbian life in the Arab world, writes that in terms of opportunities for gay social life and activism, Beirut is as good as it gets. Whitaker credits Beirut's ethnic and religious diversity.

Mr. BRIAN WHITAKER (Author, "Unspeakable Love"): You have the Sunni Muslims, the Shia Muslims, the Druze, various kinds of Christians, and so on. No one faction is able to get the upper hand. That leads to something which I wouldn't really describe as tolerance, because I don't think it is. But it's a kind of live and let live attitude.

(Soundbite of music)

MERAJI: One of the most popular night clubs in Beirut is Acid. Men line up to enter surrounded by the Lebanese army, which provides security for this and a handful of other night spots in the city. The men in fatigues ignore the men in tight pants and (unintelligible); guys like Haisam(ph).

HAISAM: From east to west, coast to coast, Acid is still the best.

MERAJI: Haisam drove to Beirut from the northern city of Tripoli. He told me Acid is like home sweet home, a place where he feels free to dance and dress as he pleases. Gay men and women from all over the Middle East come to Beirut to socialize in the city's gay-friendly nightspots.

SALLY: That is Pride, there is Bardot, that is Basement, there is (unintelligible)

MERAJI: Sally is a lesbian born and raised in Beirut.

SALLY: I'm so happy here. I'm living my gay life openly (unintelligible) why do you want to leave?

LARA: I always have to live with my parents until I get married.

SALLY: If you want to leave, you have to find new friends, new gay friends, actually. You have to find new places to go out. I'm happy here.

MERAJI: Sally's girlfriend Lara is not satisfied with gay life in Lebanon. Both refused to give their last names, fearing their family's reaction. Lebanese culture is hardly free of the stereotypes that have plagued gay people everywhere. Lara.

LARA: If you're a gay, you're a junkie. You're a sex addict. You're wild. You have no boundaries. You have no limits. You don't believe in God.

MERAJI: Lara plans to leave Lebanon after college and move to the U.S. This is the Middle East, where family honors everything. A majority of young people do live with their parents until they're married. So if you're gay, that often means leading a double life, heading to the West, or never leaving home. And for Muslims like Lara, coming out even in Beirut can mean a complete loss of freedom.

Sheikh Ali Merhi(ph) is an Islamic scholar who instructs teenage boys on the tenets of Islam in one of the Beirut's Shiite neighborhood.

Sheikh ALI MERHI (Islamic Scholar): In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, the Koran said (Arabic spoken) which means that any woman makes relation her husband or her father or her brother, any man have authority on that woman, must prison her in - at house. This prison must continue until death.

MERAJI: The punishment for a gay man, according to Sheikh Ali, isn't imprisonment, it's death, in order to maintain family honor. Bilaw(ph) is a 24-year-old Shiite who won't give his last name. Bilaw walks a very thin line, hiding his sexuality from family while living as an openly gay man outside the home. He talks about what happened when his uncle suspected he was gay.

BILAW: They said to me they wanted to kill me. For them it's an honor crime.

MERAJI: Bilaw has been able to keep his sexual orientation a mystery at home, even as he makes gay activism his life's work.

(Soundbite of cell phone)

BILAW: Helam(ph). Hello?

MERAJI: He's one of the leaders of Helam, which means dream. Helam is the only gay rights organization openly functioning in the Arab world. Bilaw sees nothing wrong with being gay and a devout Muslim.

BILAW: I'm very religious. I pray, I fast, I have my boyfriend and we have sex, for sure. I'm gay because I was born gay. So I'm not shooting anybody. I'm not doing anything wrong. So why to be punished at the end? This is my philosophy.

MERAJI: It's a philosophy that Bilaw hopes will spread from gay-tolerant Beirut throughout Lebanon to the rest of the Arab world.

Shereen Meraji, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: Shereen Meraji traveled to Beirut as NPR's Bucksbaum Fellow for the International Reporting Project.

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