LGBTQ Rights graffiti spray-painted at a protest site in downtown Beirut. December 22, 2019.  © 2019 Marwan Tahtah for Human Rights Watch

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Lebanon are accustomed to finding innovative strategies to cope with crises and combat state-sponsored repression, from navigating discrimination in employment to developing safe networks for survival.

Enter COVID-19.

Lebanon was already grappling with its worst economic crisis since the end of the civil war in 1990, a devaluation of the Lebanese pound by almost 50 percent, and unfettered inflation. Covid-19 compounds the economic spiral, already disastrous for marginalized groups, including LGBT people. The lockdown has made an already dire economic situation devastating for many. For LGBT people, the usual coping strategies are simply no longer viable, and the Lebanese government should act swiftly to protect them and other vulnerable people.

Many LGBT people in Lebanon face employment discrimination based on their gender expression or sexual orientation, with no legal protection against discrimination. As social distancing measures are adopted and unemployment rates skyrocket, some LGBT people who hold low-income jobs in the informal sector, retail and service industries, and the gig economy, cannot perform their jobs remotely and are out of work. Others may lose their livelihoods as businesses struggle to stay afloat.

Lebanon’s businesses are mostly family-run. Due to family rejection, LGBT people often lack familial connections or “wasta” that are important in the labor market. For transgender people, lacking identification documents that match their gender expression already bars them from the labor market. Due to social stigma and violence by security forces, many transgender people prefer to go out at night and rely for what they need mostly on delivery services, which have dwindled due to the lockdown.

Lebanon’s social protection system is woefully inadequate, with no access to basic services. This leads to stark social inequality, reinforced by client and patronage networks, with political parties in control and doling out services to their supporters. LGBT people often shunned from the communities that provide political connections and access to these services.

Historically, in times of crisis, extended family and social relations in Lebanon become paramount for survival. But many families reject LGBT people, who often experience domestic violence at home or are forced to leave. Living in a close-knit society means that family rejection can lead to being ostracized by extended families, neighborhoods, or even entire towns. LGBT people who do not benefit from family or community safety nets are forced to look elsewhere.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, LGBT organizations and community centers in Lebanon served as a lifeline for some LGBT people, who relied on their services, including small cash assistance, psychosocial support, and mental health services. The economic crisis had already overwhelmed these organizations, and with the lockdown measures, these services have diminished dramatically. LGBT people who previously extended support to others in need, including by housing them temporarily, can no longer offer the same levels of help due to the biting economic crisis and the necessity of social distancing. This is why Lebanon should support groups aiding LGBT communities.

LGBT people in Lebanon had already faced structural marginalization prior to the economic and COVID-19 crises, and unless the government addresses their specific vulnerabilities and protects them from discrimination, the outcome could be catastrophic. The Finance Ministry estimated that inflation will reach 27 percent in 2020, drastically increasing prices for basics like food and medicine. Human Rights Watch warned that more than a million of Lebanon’s residents are at risk of going hungry due to pandemic-related lockdown measures.

On April 1, the cabinet announced that it would distribute 400,000 Lebanese pounds (about $150 at current market rates) to the poorest families. However, aid is insufficient, and there are no transparent criteria to assess need. Relief is likely to prioritize family units, which can effectively exclude many LGBT people.

 On April 8, the social affairs minister announced the details of the economic relief plan, telling families seeking relief to apply for aid via municipalities and “mukhtars” (local officials). These channels for distributing aid risk being manipulated by political parties, reinforcing the patronage networks from which LGBT people are often excluded, and not reaching those in dire need. Lebanon should clarify criteria by which people apply for financial assistance under this program.

LGBT people around the world are silently hit by crises. In Lebanon, criminalization, combined with gaps in data, means LGBT people’s vulnerabilities are not addressed. Lebanon has an obligation to bridge these gaps and use any international emergency assistance to expand the new emergency program for those in need, including LGBT people. With no end in sight to the crisis, and with entire systems at the brink of collapse, the government needs to start building an inclusive society and a resilient economy that addresses the needs of those most affected.

Lebanon’s October 17 uprising against rampant corruption and country’s dire economic situation brought together all factions of society in a united call for dignity and equality. LGBT people and their rights were front and center, with their presence in protests, putting the government on notice that socioeconomic and legal reform needs to include marginalized groups, including LGBT people.

Lebanon’s COVID-19 relief response is one test of whether the government listened.