Throughout the world, LGBT people must contend with increasingly hostile governments. LGBT people are criminalized in over 70 countries. People have been arrested, tortured and murdered. The Middle East has been a particularly challenging region, with recent crackdowns in Egypt and Iran. In Lebanon, however, there have been modest gains due largely to the hard work of LGBT activists like Georges Azzi.
As part of our ongoing #DecriminalizeLGBT campaign, we wanted to highlight the work of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms (AFE). We spoke with Executive Director Georges Azzi to learn how coalition building and activism can have an impact on the lives of LGBT people.
Hornet: What are some things your organization is doing to help advance LGBT rights in Lebanon?
Azzi: AFE’s main activities are in capacity-building to support a healthy culture of gender and sexual activism in the Arab world. There’s advocacy and security, regional networking and protection. AFE provides activists with support, guides and legal instruments they can use to protect their work. We recently opened the first gender and sexuality media center of the region.
In addition, AFE maintains a resource center where it conducts research on gender and sexuality across different countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in one online database, accessible for everyone.
What are the biggest issues facing LGBT people in Lebanon?
The situation in Lebanon has improved a lot since 2004. Since the beginning of the movement in Lebanon, the LGBT community is much more visible. The relationship with authorities has gotten better thanks to this visibility and our alliance building with members of civil society and the media.
We have had many wins. Anal exams have been banned and we’ve won several court cases. But even if the police do not receive official orders to crackdown on the community, they haven’t been told to stop arresting LGBT people either. Police reaction varies depending on the area they are operating in.
How would you advise LGBT activists in the Middle East region who want to do more?
When we started the first organization in Lebanon in 2009, we had no other experience in the MENA region to learn from. Now, there are more than 20 organizations working on LGBT rights here. However, the growing movement might also face a growing backlash. That is why it is important to learn from each other, support each other and make sure we are able to respond to crisis on a national and regional level.
We also must find non-LGBT allies. These allies play a crucial role when we’re faced with state persecution. Our allies in the media, in civil society and the legal system played an important role.
What has been your personal experience with the authority’s crackdown on LGBT people?
Official crackdowns on LGBT spaces have decreased considerably since 2005. When we first started working publicly on LGBT rights in Lebanon, the police used to raid LGBT-frequented places very often. Back then, we didn’t have allies in the media like we have now.
Even as activists, when we announced the creation of Helem (an LGBT centre in Lebanon) in 2004, we were questioned by the police several times. Fortunately, we had worked on building some support systems before coming out as an LGBT organization. The police can be creative in terms of intimidating human rights defenders, and I personally have faced direct interrogations and indirect threats. Thankfully, that stopped in 2008.
What do you think it will take to change anti-LGBT policies in Lebanon?
I think mainstreaming the conversation about LGBT rights is the reason we’ve made so many advances. We need to continue doing this and increase our support network, especially within the legal and political sphere. We need to learn how to work with the system to try to change it.
What are some specific actions people can take to support the efforts of LGBT activists around the issue of decriminalization?
It is important to remember that LGBT rights are not a luxury. People should never say, “This isn’t a priority right now.” Listen to and share our stories. Support us when we ask for support and speak out about decriminalization. Raise awareness whenever you have the opportunity.
What are some things people who live outside of the region can do to protect and defend the rights of LGBT people?
There is no doubt that our work was made possible with the support of our international partners, and that’s beyond just financial support. Many organizations put pressure on their government to offer political support when needed, not to mention the role of international media in providing visibility to our issues. It’s also important we promote and support our allies internationally.