Lebanese LGBT group honored in New York

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Wednesday April 1, 2009

Gay Lebanese activist Georges Azzi never thought he would see the day a government official or entity would publicly call for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Yet the Lebanese Ministry of Health did just that late last year.

"Everything is possible," Azzi told EDGE in a recent interview. "If it's possible in Lebanon, its possible anywhere."

The International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission honored Azzi's organization Helem, which means "dream" and translates into the acronym Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender in Arabic, at a ceremony at New York University on March 30. Founded in 2004, the organization is based in Beirut and has affiliates in Montreal, Paris, San Francisco and Sydney. Helem opened the Arab world's first LGBT center in the Lebanese capital. And the country's Ministry of Health has acknowledged the organization as Lebanon's leading HIV/AIDS service provider.

"What we are living now was an impossible dream a few years back," Azzi said.

LGBT Lebanese have become increasingly visible in Beirut since Helem's inception. More than 200 people participated in the country's first LGBT march in February. And local media have covered Helem and its ongoing activism.

In spite of this progress, LGBT Lebanese still face harassment from local officials, neighbors and even their family. Police raided three gay clubs in Beirut in 2005. And Azzi told EDGE they arrested two gay men in February.

Law 534, which criminalizes homosexuality with up to a year in prison, remains on the books even though judges rarely impose the sentence. Azzi noted, however, he feels corruption remains a serious problem in the country.

"The fact this still exists means police can use it at anytime," he said.

Another factor behind Helem's activism (and increased support for it within Lebanon) is the alliances into which it has entered with other groups and non-governmental organizations. Helem opened its center to people displaced by the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The majority of those who sought refuge were Shiite Muslim, and Hezbullah representatives visited the center and other shelters to ensure they were receiving care.

"If it's possible in Lebanon, its possible anywhere."

Helem members also participated in marches and other protests against Israel's incursion into the Gaza Strip earlier this year. A front page article in Helem's annual newsletter accused Arab leaders and the United Nations of "enjoying a massacre done with bestiality-something they don't see every day." The article further opined the scenes from Gaza caused people around the world to demonstrate and even riot in the streets.

A handful of people walked out of a panel discussion at the LGBT Center in lower Manhattan on Tuesday on which Azzi was a panelist after a journalist asked him about the article. Azzi was quick to point out it attacked the Israeli government-and not Israelis themselves. He added, however, he feels Helem has a responsibility to show what he described as solidarity with Gazans and those who spoke out against the Israeli incursion.

"We cannot sit here and say we're not concerned," Azzi said. "We should be there and say we support them."

Activists in New York were quick to applaud Helem.

"We're talking about a region that has had little exposure to homosexuality," IGLHRC communications director Hossein Alizadeh said. "So far they've had a tremendous amount of success."

Carson Kressley, who emceed the NYU ceremony, agreed as he praised both Helem and the IGLHRC.

"Organizations like this allow people all over the world to be who they are," he said.

Azzi conceded he feels his organization has a long way to go before it achieves equality for LGBT Lebanese. He added, however, he remains optimistic.

"Our struggle is far from finished, but I truly believe that we are reaching a critical point in the battle for our right to be who we are and to love who we love without fear, discrimination or persecution," Azzi said.

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.