In this Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009 picture, Lebanese police stand guard as protesters carry banners during a sit-in for gays and lesbians in Beirut. In February, about two dozen gays and lesbians held a rare sit-in on Beirut's major intersection of Sodeco to protest what they called the beating of two gay men by two plainclothes police. Police officials denied the men were beaten by their officers. 

© 2009 AP Photo/Hussein Malla

When a Lebanon court of appeal upheld a ruling in July that adult, consensual same-sex conduct is not an “unnatural offense,” a wave of excitement rippled through Lebanese lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.

Article 534 of the Penal Code, a relic of the French mandate in Lebanon, bans “sexual intercourse contrary to nature.” It has long been used by police to harass, arrest and sometimes prosecute people based on  their presumed sexual orientation or gender identity. People who face multiple forms of oppression in Lebanon – transgender women, for instance, or gay Syrian refugees – are often the most likely to be targeted, say Lebanese activists who provide legal aid and other services.

The appeal court decision upheld a 2017 acquittal on “unnatural offenses” charges of nine people, most of them transgender. The judge found that “homosexuals have a right to human and intimate relationships with whomever they want, without any interference or discrimination in terms of their sexual inclinations.” That ruling followed three earlier lower court rulings to the effect that consensual same-sex relations are not unnatural.

In the first and most poetic of these rulings, in 2007, a judge wrote that human actions cannot be seen as contradicting nature “even if the act is criminal or offending.” He added, “If the sky is raining during summertime or if we have hot weather during winter or if a tree is giving unusual fruits, all these can be according to and in harmony with nature and are part of its rules themselves.”

The July ruling was the first by an appellate court. Under Lebanon’s civil law system, such a ruling has moral authority but does not establish a binding precedent. Other judges could, in principle, still convict people under Article 534. The prosecutor’s office could appeal the ruling to the Court of Cassation, Lebanon’s highest court, although it has so far not signaled an intention to do so. Only Parliament can rescind the law. Meanwhile, other laws, such as those prohibiting vague “offenses against public decency,” may still be used against LGBT people.

LGBT people and activists in Lebanon also face obstacles to freedom of association. In May, citing “incitement to immorality” and “breach of public morality” laws, police detained the Beirut Pride organizer, Hadi Damien, overnight and pressured him to shut down events that included a poetry reading, a karaoke night, a discussion of sexual health and HIV, and a legal literacy workshop. In 2017, police ordered Beirut’s Crowne Plaza hotel to cancel a workshop hosted by the Arab Foundation of Freedoms and Equality (AFE), a human rights organization that advocates on behalf of LGBT people.

But the series of court rulings shows that Lebanon has, in some ways, been a recent beacon of progress on LGBT rights. LGBT civil society movements are dynamic and operate strategically in a complex environment. The court rulings resulted from assiduous legal advocacy by defense lawyers in collaboration with LGBT human rights groups, who crafted arguments to convince judges that terms such as “unnatural” should be critically examined.

Legal Agenda, a Lebanese nongovernmental group that represented the accused in the most recent case, has been at the forefront of such efforts. Helem, Lebanon’s oldest LGBT group, runs a community center and conducts research and public advocacy. AFE is building a regional movement, bringing activists from throughout the Middle East and North Africa together for capacity building, including training focused on digital and physical security. Despite the closure of Beirut Pride, activists frequently hold other events without police interference.

Lebanese LGBT activists recognize that progress may be uneven. While the law comes down hardest on gay men and transgender people, cisgender women face significant barriers to openly identifying as lesbian or bisexual, including family pressure to get married or not to “shame” their families by coming out. Much activism has focused on lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues, while significant gaps remain in terms of service provision, research, and advocacy focused around the specific concerns of transgender people. Most LGBT groups have limited reach outside Beirut, a multicultural urban hub that is not representative of Lebanon’s overall social conservatism.

Still, the victories, like last month’s court of appeal ruling, are meaningful, and they nourish the movement, allowing activists to savor success before moving on to the next challenge.