I have been silent for a while as I have preferred to follow and observe the debates and repercussion of the article “Lebanese lesbian and gay rights: Down with sectarianism” published by Ms. Hiba Abbani, Helem’s Chair and Board Member.
Abbani raises some interesting points, indeed highlighting the important issue of accessibility. LGBT venues provide an important space for gay and lesbians to meet, socialize and discuss issues as well as enjoy themselves. It also provides important opportunities to reach LGBT people on important issues such as our rights within Lebanese society as a whole, HIV awareness and many others. We must recall that Helem initially started its HIV awareness campaigns in such venues, including bars, Hammams, parties, Bear event, etc…
Such places are thus vital for people to feel safe and comfortable where they have no other place to go to. Of course some have to be already comfortable about identifying as LGBT to go there in the first place, but that would be where Helem and other NGO s and activists could help. Surely here they can be providing social, psychological and educational support.
Now some of such venues may indeed charge cover, entry or sell expensive drinks, but not all. Furthermore businesses, gay or straight, need to make a profit in order to operate, it is not their scope nor function and even ability to provide subsidized or profit free spaces/events. Surely that is the function of NGO’s like Helem. Furthermore such businesses employ people, many of them gay and lesbians, who – through engagement in such establishments make surely contributions to LGBT causes directly and indirectly.
In other words attacks on such venues, establishments, and events are not going to change anything, they will not provide solutions that indeed need to come from Helem. Such solutions would be all the more helpful if they are in collaboration with LGBT businesses. Rather than denounce and alienate them. Such establishments are also bound, besides economics, to legal restrictions – such as section 534 and other laws, for example, that forbid the “promotion of immorality and prostitution.” It is here where Helem can also help, by campaigning to reform or repeal such laws rather than attacking businesses which are doing their best to operate within such constraints and yet empower LGBT people. The result of the article may have opened a debate but at the same time also reinforced a negative stereotype of gays and lesbians being bitchy, confrontational even between themselves, and a general alienation of businesses from Helem even further.
After all we must recall here that perhaps the most significant moment in modern LGBT activism, the Stonewall riots, happened in collaboration with local activists, residents and businesses. Harvey Milk also was able to bring progress by collaborating with local businesses, grassroots activism and residents to create a lasting heritage and change in San Francisco. Creating a positive collaboration between businesses and non-elitist grassroots all inclusive activism that create long-lasting results and changes. It shows people positive examples of successful collaborations, where spaces are created for them and which can also help and facilitate activism. People are not just mindless consumers of lifestyle products, they select and shape their lives, which, can empower them to feel good about who they are, in this case gay and lesbian. This leads to greater awareness and participation in political activism that results in real gains. This has worked even in non-western countries such as India, Honk Kong, and Brazil.
Here we can take the example of IGLTA which is a non-profit trade association – a space for LGBT owned and LGBT friendly business to promote businesses and countries to bring not only attention but even investments to these venues and destinations. It was an opportunity I laboured to build very hard on – for the association to come to Lebanon so they can discover it and see that Lebanon is the place in the MENA (Middle East & North Africa) where the LGBT community is rising and growing and on the right tracks to make from Beirut the best spot in the region. This was attacked in a scandalous way by Al Jaras magazine, and in particular accusing me personally as spy and traitor. I got no assistance from any NGO, and had to try and build a defense with a straight lawyer.
During the Symposium, and in front the diplomats, foreign travel agents, foreign journalists, professional photographers, and some of IGLTA board members faced more attacks, more tension, by a very young member of Helem. Again instead of trying to reap positive and potential, highlight the achievements of the Lebanese LGBT community, it gave them the impression that we are a divided and immature yet to be able to host tourists and able to promote our destination.
Now let us return to the present article in discussion; I was informed that Ms. Abbani does not represent Helem nor is on the board in the media. Yet her article, published in al akhbar was signed as Helem’s official position, and thus responsible for the businesses and people criticized in it.
Isn’t it better to concentrate on defending and working for LGBT rights, diversity and respect instead of creating conflicts and frictions? Helem should be creating a more cooperative and trustful environment where activists can help business grow and understand the needs of the LGBT community. This can create a positive loop which empowers in partnership activists, businesses and the LGBT community to grow and express itself, challenge stereotypes, legal obstacles and sectarian and economic divisions. It would be more productive then attacking creating mistrust and conflicts. Far from being sectarian approach,as Ms. Abbani, effectively is in essence advocating, a more positive approach and engagement both on a legal/political and business wise would have been far more helpful for our cause. Of course we can debate things healthily and with maturity.
Lastly I would like to highlight that LGBT businesses is part of our community. Moreover, it has historically around the world played a key part in the process of visibility, reconciliation and acceptance of LGBT communities within the fabric of societies worldwide. Furthermore, I do not believe that anyone should be excluded from the struggle for rights: LGBT rights are inclusive and are for everyone who is part of the community, regardless of how they choose to live their lives. I believe that diversity and tolerance are very important for our LGBT activists – we should accept the choices people make and respect them even if we sometimes do not agree them.