Rana, 32, standing in Riad El-Solh Square, one of the main protest sites in downtown Beirut. December 22, 2019.  © 2020 Marwan Tahtah for Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and their rights in Lebanon are part and parcel of the nationwide protests that began on October 17, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today in a web feature.

The web feature, “‘If Not Now, When?’ Queer and Trans People Reclaim Their Power in Lebanon’s Revolution,” shares stories of hope and solidarity told by queer women and transgender people who are active in the protests. By taking their struggle to the streets, through chants, graffiti, and public discussions, LGBT people have moved demands of their rights from the margins to mainstream discourse in a country where same-sex relations are punishable by up to one year in prison and transgender people face systemic discrimination.

“LGBT people are using the power of voice and presence in protests to demand their rights,” said Rasha Younes, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Their visible contribution has sparked new possibilities for the recognition of their rights and identities in Lebanon.”

Maya, 38, a trans woman refugee in Lebanon, described how her relationship with Beirut changed for her after the protests began: “Before the revolution, I would never stay out later than 9 p.m. Beirut for me was a city of caution and fear. When the revolution began, I went to the street, I saw the diversity, and I felt that this place is going to be safe for me because regardless of what happens, I would be protected by the people’s presence.”

For queer and trans people, walking through Lebanon’s streets is an exercise in self-censorship, forced to hide who they are to navigate their daily lives. Less than one month before the protests started, a gender and sexuality conference, held annually in Lebanon since 2013, had to be moved outside Lebanon for the first time, following General Security’s attempt to shut down the 2018 edition. General Security also indefinitely denied non-Lebanese LGBT activists who attended the 2018 conference permission to re-enter the country.

For many, being at protests was the first time they found a place to be in public without fear and with a newfound degree of safety and belonging. “I used to think that my sexuality and femininity, which are considered private matters by society, should be repressed,” said Malak, 26. “I am gay, I am someone who expresses my sexuality in general, and my sexual desires very strongly. The revolution was the first time I did not censor myself, because I felt that I am not alone in my pain.”

LGBT people took to the streets with the same demands as fellow protesters – dignity and equality, transparency and accountability. “Our presence in the street had no boundaries,” said Lor, 28, “It wasn’t that queers were in one place, separate from others. We were all together at the protest sites, healing collectively.”

Despite the strides made in the revolution for LGBT rights’ acceptance in society, LGBT people will continue to live on the margins unless the Lebanese government repeals article 534 of the penal code, which punishes same-sex relations, Human Rights Watch said. The government needs to introduce legislation that protects LGBT people from discrimination and upholds their fundamental rights to dignity, bodily autonomy, socioeconomic mobility, and freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.

Lebanon’s dire economic situation and increasing social inequality have been most devastating for communities already marginalized prior to the crisis, including LGBT people. The devaluation of the Lebanese pound by more than 50 percent, unfettered inflationdiminishing employment opportunities, and deteriorating health care have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable. The Covid-19 health crisis compounds the economic difficulties and LGBT people, who often face healthcare discrimination and economic marginalization, are all the more compromised.

Lebanese security forces on many occasions have used excessive force to quell largely peaceful protests. On April 27, 2020, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) unjustifiably used lethal force against protesters in Tripoli, killing one protester and injuring scores more. But violence by security forces has not diminished the determination of protesters to demand their rights.

The power of resistance and solidarity evident in the protests should serve as a warning to the country’s political establishment that Lebanon needs social, economic, and legal reform that uplifts the voices and rights of marginalized groups, Human Rights Watch said.

Responding to claims that the protests are not the time to talk about LGBT rights, Rana, 32, said: “I tell them if the time is not now, there is not going to be a time later. The revolution must be one that defends the rights of oppressed people, and LGBT people are among those oppressed. This is why we have to get our voices heard now.”