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Not a Monolith: What the Queer Response to the Beirut Blast can Teach Us about Lebanon and the Middle East

In seconds, everything changed. A city buzzing with mundane early-evening traffic came to a standstill as 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded into a rust-colored plume over Beirut on August 4, 2020. One of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, the Beirut Blast killed 218 people, injured around 7,000, and displaced more than 300,000. Swaths of the Lebanese capital were reduced to rubble. Already embroiled in political tension, the Blast hastened the onset of an economic crisis and energy shortage in Lebanon, and its effects were exacerbated by wildfires in the country; and yet, the year since the incident has largely been filled with political squabbling and blame-swapping rather than a genuine effort to pick up Lebanon’s pieces. 

While the disaster’s impact has reverberated throughout Lebanon and the Lebanese diaspora, its sting has been felt acutely by marginalized groups, particularly the Lebanese queer community. Highlighting this distinction between experiences exemplifies the work that Lebanese LGBTQ+ activists have done independent of Western forces to carve out a space for themselves in their country and the region and the importance of that work. Recognizing this work can help us arrive at a more nuanced understanding of Lebanon’s queer community and its identity in general, an understanding which can ultimately help combat the monolithic narratives often told about the Middle East in Western mainstream media.

When Beirut’s seaport district went up in smoke, it took with it Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh, the city’s two most prominent gay-friendly neighborhoods. Gone was access to many safe houses, spaces, and services as well as queer cultural institutions such as Helem, Lebanon’s first LGBTQ+ support organization, and Madam Om, a drag club. These institutions were painstakingly built, and their loss was profound for the community they served. As Emma Gration, a Lebanese queer activist and drag queen, said in an interview with Vice, “[Lebanon’s LGBTQ+ people] are disheartened, after having lost a lot of queer-friendly spaces for example, they want to get out of the country.” Existing research literature backs up this anecdotal evidence. In a 2020 report, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that LGBTQ+ people specifically are at heightened risk when disasters strike, and that research shows “after a disaster, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be socially isolated and face disrespect or harassment in settings such as emergency shelters.”

Lebanon is often seen as a progressive enclave in the Middle East. Beirut is often labelled the “Paris of the Middle East” and compared to a host of European cities by Western observers who nonetheless take great pains to emphasize its exoticism. As sociologist Ghassan Moussawi argues, “[Beirut] is represented as ‘European’ and ‘Western’ in its ‘glitzy nightlife’ and facade, but not European, due to its lack of cultural life.” 

This distinction is made especially clear in Western descriptions of Beirut’s gay scene that fetishize it as an exotic, semi-safe playground for white gay men to enjoy. As Moussawi writes, “the Lebanese are made intelligible by being both racialized and sexualized, whereby they are represented as sexually available, repressed, ‘closeted’ and ‘discreet.’” And so, the Lebanese queer experience becomes boxed into Western models of progress and “outness,” thereby reducing and rendering near-invisible the work that Lebanon’s queer community has done to carve out both physical and metaphorical spaces for themselves in the country. 

This is not to say that Beirut does not present a safer environment for queer people than the rest of the Arab world—it absolutely does in many ways. Sandra Melhem, LGBTQ+ activist and owner of a Beirut gay club, noted in an interview with NBC News that “when you want to look at Lebanon as a whole, at least from a personal queer perspective, you have to separate Beirut from the rest of it at least in terms of tolerance.” 

This recognition of Beirut as a safe space must not minimize the work its queer community has done to make it as such and the hardship many of them still experience. True, authorities in Lebanon do often look the other way when enforcing homosexuality laws, allowing pockets of gay culture to flourish, but this is due to the work of the country’s own activists and not some European predisposition as many Westerners might like to think. Additionally, despite some recent gains, the country still has written into its penal code the criminalization of “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature.” A 2013 Pew Research poll found that 80 percent of Lebanon’s population rejects homosexuality. These hardships have only compounded post-Blast. 

Still, Lebanon’s queer people have found a place for themselves in the country. Open queer activism first blossomed in the country in 2004 with the founding of Helem and has since grown to include a number of organizations and activist groups. LGBTQ+ rights also found themselves in the public discourse again during Lebanon’s 2019 anti-government protests, a movement heavily supported by the country’s queer population. More than just protests, many forms of LGBTQ+ resistance have simply come from Lebanese queer individuals choosing to live openly. A 2017 New York Times profile captured just some of these stories, describing the lives of individuals like Sasha (mononymy intended), a trans woman and fashion model who chose to appear in a runway show that aired on TV, and Alexander Paulikevitch, a gay choreographer and dancer who specializes in baladi, a traditional type of belly dancing usually reserved for women. In understanding LGBTQ+ activism in Beirut, it is important to understand what these forms of activism actually mean. As Lebanese LGBTQ+ rights researcher Rasha Younes writes, “our political movements are not about naming or claiming identities for the sake of being recognized or visible to a dominant gaze. They are primarily a fight for bodily autonomy, reproductive justice, access to socioeconomic power, and free mobility.” 

The Blast, in many ways, exemplified this fight. The loss of queer safe spaces was a loss of places built intentionally to exercise the right of LGBTQ+ individuals to exist openly in Lebanon. Rebuilding those physical spaces will also require a renewed assertion of that abstract right. This challenge is one that Lebanon’s LGBTQ+ leaders seem ready for, or at the very least are committed to facing. Grassroots initiatives such as the Queer Relief Fund and the Disaster Relief for Lebanese Transgender Community have sprung up, and members of the community have even opened their homes to fellow LGBTQ+ Lebanese who found themselves displaced after the explosion. Rather than just a tale of Middle Eastern tragedy, a familiar story the West seems to cling far too often, looking at the Beirut Blast through a queer lens provides us an opportunity to see the Lebanese queer community’s resilience, its limits, and its complexity. An exploration of the varied Lebanese experiences post-Blast should serve as a reminder to us all that at a broader level, the Middle East is anything but a monolith, an axiom that, these days, can become all too easy to forget.

Photo: Joelle Hatem (Flickr)