Why you should care
Because revolutions can’t be copy-and-pasted.
He sat blindfolded in a military compound in Lebanon, listening to the sounds of metal gates slamming shut and detainees screaming in pain. The guards had called him in to answer “a few questions.” But when he arrived, they told him they knew he was gay, and he understood they would try to pin any crime they could on him. One officer asked, “Have you ever paid for sex?”
Joseph Aoun chuckled. “Of course not,” he said. “I’m a handsome man.”
Most people would not crack jokes while being held in an underground cell, but Aoun is not most people: He is a 33-year-old former lawyer and one of the most influential LGBT activists in the Middle East.
As the community center coordinator of the LGBT advocacy group Helem, Aoun is determined to develop a model of grassroots, pragmatic activism that does not merely emulate Western NGOs but fits the unique needs of his community in the Arab world.
Imposing foreign models of activism doesn’t work, so we have built our own style, one that others in the region can relate to.
Joseph Aoun, LGBT activist
It’s a herculean effort. Most countries in the region persecute homosexual and transsexual individuals through harassment, fines or imprisonment. In places like Iran, Syria or Yemen, the legal punishment is death.
Crackdowns are often unexpected. Just recently, a man flew a rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo, prompting the Egyptian government to arrest several LGBT activists, trolling gay dating apps like Grindr to entrap them.
Yet Aoun doesn’t feel like a martyr. “I refuse to be a victim,” he says, sitting on a sofa at Helem’s headquarters in Beirut. The young activist is a fast talker who chain-smokes, laughs loudly and routinely drops F bombs. “I know I’m fucking privileged. Because I don’t experience any discrimination in my daily life.”
Lebanon has long been an oasis for gay people in the Arab world because of its diverse and socially progressive culture. Helem’s office is located in Beirut’s artsy neighborhood of Mar Mikhael and down the street from several LGBT-friendly establishments. In fact, that’s where Aoun began his activism, as the manager of Bardo, one of the city’s most famous gay bars.
Still, Beirut’s progressive bubble floats on an ocean of social stigma and discriminatory policies. Article 534 of Lebanon’s penal code prohibits “sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature” and is often used to prosecute homosexual men. Lesbian and bisexual individuals also suffer from harassment and discrimination, while transgender people are regularly arrested by police.
That’s why Helem’s office is deliberately hard to find. There’s no name on the buzzer, affixed to a plain door in a residential apartment block. Don’t try checking their website, either — it has been down since an Islamist group hacked into it several months ago.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, keeping people safe,” says Aoun, lighting his sixth cigarette of the afternoon. He admits he never pictured himself working for an NGO. Growing up with two brothers in a middle-class family on the northern outskirts of Beirut, he studied law and dreamed of a career as a diplomat.
He was 20 years old when he first slept with a man, and for three years after that, he kept his relationships secret. Then, “I fell in love,” he says, smiling. “I didn’t want to hide that.” Aoun decided to go public with his sexuality but refrained from telling his parents directly. “I lived my life freely. But I wanted to give them the chance to face it or not.” His mother eventually confronted him after a photo surfaced of him kissing a man, and he confirmed her suspicion.
Coming out also meant letting go of his career goals. Being a litigator or diplomat would have required going back into the closet, and “that was out of the question.” Instead, he took the job at Bardo.
Bardo is a trendy restaurant that turns into a dance club at night, where customers can eat, drink and mingle without being judged for their choice of date. But Aoun’s job went beyond scheduling shifts and buying booze. He also provided a safe space for his community and made the bar available to LGBT organizations for meetings. “I saw my work as activism,” he says, “and I loved it.”
Then, one day, the military police summoned him to their headquarters. They accused him of homosexuality, using drugs and other trumped-up charges — only to release him for lack of evidence. “I acted strong because I had no choice,” says Aoun, but the experience left him paranoid and gave him nightmares for eight months.
After that, his role as Mr. Congeniality, keeping the peace with patrons and policemen, didn’t fit so comfortably. He recalls one night when he came face-to-face with this contradiction. “A gay client asked me why I allowed transgender women in the bar,” he recalls. “I could feel my blood boiling. I knew the good-manager thing to do would be to brush it off, but instead I lectured him.” He soon accepted a 50 percent salary cut to work for Helem.
Even so, his hosting days are far from over. As the center’s coordinator, Aoun makes newcomers feel welcome and runs a myriad of events — from art therapy to movie screenings and storytelling nights. At 5-and-a-half feet tall with olive skin, a perfectly trimmed beard and a penchant for dark, slim-fitting shirts, he stands out in a crowd, and he especially looks forward to Wednesdays, when Helem provides food and showers to underserved members of the community.
Helem is at the epicenter of the LGBT rebellion, not only in Lebanon but in the entire Middle East. What started as an online chat room for gay Lebanese men back in 1998 grew to become the first such nonprofit in the Arab world, established in 2004.
In recent times, the group has claimed many victories — not least of which has been the battle over language. Arab media often used “degenerates” and other pejorative terms to refer to LGBT people. But after nationwide campaigning, Helem and its partners convinced journalists in Lebanon to use a neutral word, equivalent to the English “homosexual.” They even got the Lebanese Syndicate of Psychiatry to declare that homosexuality is not a mental-health disorder — a claim some TV shows repeated.
Publicly linking the LGBT movement with political activism is ‘just not smart.’
Hadi Damien, organizer of Beirut’s first Pride Parade
As a lawyer, Aoun is particularly encouraged by the progress underway in Lebanese courts. In 2009 and 2014, Helem was involved in landmark cases where judges ruled that homosexuality could not be designated as unnatural. And just last year, a judge allowed a trans man to legally change his gender for the first time.
The secret behind such victories? Not following the Western playbook, says Aoun. “Imposing foreign models of activism doesn’t work,” he says, “so we have built our own style, one that others in the region can relate to.”
Aoun says many of the symbols used in the U.S. or Europe just don’t translate in Lebanon, including the rainbow flag, which was only recently amended to add brown and black stripes. He also thinks that focusing on issues like gay marriage may be counterproductive. “We don’t even have civil marriage in Lebanon! So equating LGBT rights to gay marriage only puts the public against us.”
Given the sexually conservative context in which they operate, Helem’s strategy is to frame LGBT issues in terms that make them more relatable. That’s how they tackled the delicate issue of rectal exams, a prevalent practice in which police physically “checked” men for signs of homosexuality. Helem launched a campaign condemning it as a form of sexual assault and police brutality, which earned them widespread public support. Soon after, the general prosecutor called for the halting of such exams.
“Helem is the best example of grassroots LGBT activism in the region,” says Barbara Zollner, professor of Middle East politics and social movements at Birkbeck, University of London. “Their work shows that campaigns have more impact when they cater to their specific cultural context.”
What’s more, Aoun thinks LGBT rights in the West were granted in increments of privilege — first to gay men, then lesbians and bisexual individuals and finally transgender and queer people. This is misguided, in his view, and he is adamant that the movement in the Arab World not leave anyone behind. “It’s a matter of priorities,” he says. “Should the right of two men to get married matter more than that of our transgender friends not to be beaten up? I don’t think so.”
As if on cue, Suzy — at 50, she is considered the oldest transgender woman in Lebanon — walks into the center, sporting a miniskirt, striped tights and purple lipstick. She gives Aoun a long hug and pinches his cheek: “Isn’t he beautiful?” Last week the police arrested her, and Helem’s lawyers helped get her out of jail.
But every victory has a price, says Aoun. “In the West, progress was really gradual, but we are moving faster, so there is bigger backlash.” According to Helem, the number of LGBT arrests in Lebanon is actually on the rise. During this year’s Pride Parade, Helem was forced to cancel an event because of threats from an Islamist group. Aoun claims they “won the battle” by streaming the talk online and reaching 100,000 viewers, while conceding that the war is far from over.
That’s why his organization is forging alliances with other civil rights movements in the country, such as women’s rights groups and freedom of speech activists. “We [activists] need to support each other, because all our causes are linked,” Aoun says.
Experts agree. Neela Ghoshal, a senior researcher in LGBT rights for Human Rights Watch, calls Aoun’s intersectional strategy “very smart” because “the more support they get from other groups, the less vulnerable they will be to attacks.”
Still, not everyone in the LGBT community thinks mixing causes is a good idea, especially when it comes to politics. Hadi Damien is the organizer of Beirut’s first-ever Pride Parade, which took place last year. Damien introduced the gathering as nonpartisan and spoke in conciliatory terms about the country’s political establishment. In his view, the key to progress is pragmatism and “good marketing” — and publicly linking the LGBT movement with political activism is “just not smart.”
But Aoun says calling Pride “apolitical” is “bullshit,” adding, “When our friends are being thrown in prison, it’s not time to parade, it’s time to protest!” Still, Helem did decide to participate in Beirut’s Pride Week, which in turn elicited criticism from other LGBT members who accused the organization of being too soft.
“Helem is deteriorating because they are copying Western models and reducing the struggle to issues like health or employment,” says public policy consultant and gender researcher Nizar Aouad. “But without a mature political identity, the movement will not be able to achieve any meaningful impact.”
Aoun admits he struggles to walk the line between principles and pragmatism. Just recently, he wanted to organize a protest in front of parliament calling for the repeal of Article 534, but his team voted against it. “It gets frustrating, yes, because I am very impulsive. But it’s good to have someone to balance you out.”
While the road ahead is long, Aoun sees the LGBT movement gaining momentum regardless of internal discord and political volatility. He compares the fear he felt a decade ago when he first came out to his excitement today about a vacation he’ll be taking with his boyfriend.
As for those police officers who questioned his morality and Muslim clerics who call for people like him to burn in hell? He savors one last drag on his cigarette: “They’ll just have to come around. You can’t stop social progress.”