“If Not Now, When?”

Queer and Trans People Reclaim
their Power in Lebanon’s Revolution

By Rasha Younes
Videos by Amanda Bailly

All the filth I had been taught about myself – everything I was told that made me hate myself – I am now using in this revolution to accept myself.”

—Malak, after James Baldwin

At the main protest site in downtown Beirut, a unified plea for change carries the crowd forward.

“We want to topple sectarianism; it must go!” a queer woman chants, as the crowd repeats the refrain.

“We want to topple patriarchy; it must go!” she says, and the crowd roars its approval.

“We want to topple homophobia; it must go!” she’s screaming now, and voices of the protesters reverberate, a mixture of cheering and emphatic agreement.

Topple “Transphobia, classism, racism…’’ the chant continues, as thousands of protesters repeat.

To the right of the crowd, the phrase ‘faggot is not an insult’ is etched on the wall. To the left, graffiti declaring ‘homophobia is a crime’ is spray-painted above the slogan ‘down with sectarianism.’ Words and images celebrating sexual and gender diversity fill the walls of central Beirut.

The October 17 uprising in Lebanon - fueled by rampant corruption and the country’s worst economic crisis since the end of the civil war in 1990 - has sparked a newfound collective consciousness where the rights and identities of marginalized groups are part and parcel of the protests. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, once considered taboo and excluded from the political terrain, have entered the mainstream as a pillar of resistance for the first time. They have become part of Lebanon’s revolution.

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Since day one of the protests, queer and transgender people have used the power of voice and presence to demand their rights in a country where authorities have relentlessly policed their existence, and officials have called themimported vices” that “disrupt social order.” Same-sex relations are punishable by up to one year in prison in Lebanon, and transgender people face structural violence and discrimination at every turn. By placing themselves front and center in this national uprising, LGBT people have moved their rights from the margins and pushed them toward becoming a public concern.

“All means all” is the revolutionary slogan that strives to hold all corrupt politicians accountable and embraces diversity, an unprecedented phenomenon in a country with deeply rooted sectarian factions. A new national identity is reimagined and enacted through the street protests. In this same spirit, queer and trans people find the space to mark their presence through poetic chants, bold graffiti, public discussions, and by taking their struggle to the streets day after day.

The exterior of The Egg, an unfinished cinema built in 1965, considered a landmark of downtown Beirut. “No Homophobia. No Racism. No! We just want peace.” “Mashrou’ Leila for Lebanon.” “You took everything, where is your humanity?” December 22, 2019. Marwan Tahtah for Human Rights Watch

The exterior of The Egg, an unfinished cinema built in 1965, considered a landmark of downtown Beirut. “No Homophobia. No Racism. No! We just want peace.” “Mashrou’ Leila for Lebanon.” “You took everything, where is your humanity?” December 22, 2019. Marwan Tahtah for Human Rights Watch

Security officer at a protest site in downtown Beirut. “LGBTQ+ Rights.” “A people’s revolution against their fear. October 17.” February 11, 2019.
Inside The Egg, in downtown Beirut. “Gay. Trans. Bisexual. LGBT. Queer voices are a revolution.” October 25, 2019.

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.

But this time, on the streets, LGBT people did not need to ask for permission to speak up. They re-claimed their own space and granted themselves this permission.

There are barely any designated public spaces for people to meet in Lebanon – no accessible public parks, no reliable public transportation, not even a public beach. This lack of public space has reinforced the status quo and perpetuated social inequality along class and sectarian lines. This inequality is part of the reason people took the streets in protest.

For Lebanon’s residents, the streets are for getting to where you need to go: the local shopping mall, the bank at the busy roundabout, or the rarity of a vacant parking spot. The October 17 revolution changed people’s relation to the streets - they became public spaces. For queer and trans people, the street has long been associated with anxiety, fear, and the possibility of violence. Far from denoting freedom, most of Lebanon’s streets are a living reminder of self-censorship – whereby queer and trans people are forced to hide who they are to navigate their daily lives.

“Self-censorship was part of my entire life – I used to think that my sexuality and femininity, which are considered private matters by society, should be repressed. 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,” says Malak, 26.

 

I was not expecting to be in Beirut and feel that it can be my city, that this street can be my street.”

—Malak

Marwan Tahtah for Human Rights Watch

Across the country, space is being transformed and public space revived. In Beirut, Solidere, the area named after the private real-estate company partly responsible for uprooting postwar downtown Beirut and displacing thousands of its residents, has been reclaimed by protesters as a site of symbolic and political resistance. By physically occupying downtown Beirut, the Lebanese people have taken back spatial, political, and economic power.

For a country divided by sectarian and demographic divisions, reclaiming the streets in unified resistance against a system that did not serve any of their interests presented an opportunity for people from all walks of life to meet each other, sometimes for the first time. In the protests, young men from the impoverished northern city of Tripoli stood side by side with queer women and men, each carrying their individual struggle, but united under the same demands – dignity and equality, transparency and accountability. People who were taught to fear LGBT people and hate refugees, chanted and danced alongside trans men and women who had once escaped transphobic violence in their home countries and sought refuge in Lebanon.

The exterior of The Egg, an unfinished cinema built in 1965, considered a landmark of downtown Beirut. “No Homophobia. No Racism. No! We just want peace.” “Mashrou’ Leila for Lebanon.” “You took everything, where is your humanity?” December 22, 2019. Marwan Tahtah for Human Rights Watch

Martyrs’ Square, in downtown Beirut, was the center of protests in the capital. “Strike like a dyke.” “Beirut to Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, the Amazon, Ecuador, Brazil.” “Hoping for change.” October 22, 2019. Ad Achkar

For some queer and trans people, being at protests was the first time they found a place to exist unapologetically, with a newfound degree of safety and belonging. Especially for transgender people, to occupy the streets and raise their voices in a country where they are denied their basic rights, where every security checkpoint is a potential site of violence, is indicative of how Lebanon’s revolution has challenged the status quo.

Maya, 38, residing as a trans woman refugee in Lebanon, described how Beirut changed for her after the protests began on October 17. “Before the revolution, I would never stay out later than 9pm. 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.”

 

The revolution brought together many people who in the past would have stayed away if they knew someone is transgender.”

—Maya

Amanda Bailly for Human Rights Watch

Stigma and discrimination against LGBT people have not ended with the revolution, but now LGBT people find safety in numbers, and solidarity with fellow protestors. Amidst the re-imagining of a country, a silent social contract has formed between people, a possibility for building a collective where individuals make room for each other, and in that process, for themselves.

Nidal, 33, is rarely seen at a protest without a megaphone. She has become known on protest sites as a writer and leader of chants. “When we chant in the squares, we chant for all the people who are unable to join us, who are unable to speak up.” She sees her contribution to the protest movement as highlighting issues that are of the most marginalized, including the rights of refugees and LGBT people.

“For gay people, we will not stay silent; For trans women, we will chant in the streets,” she sings. As an LGBT ally, she calls on protesters, “to those who incite against refugees and fear queer people, what do we say?” They respond, “fallen, fallen.”

 

Graffiti and chants are the language of the street! When I want to change anything, I start in the street.”

—Nidal

Amanda Bailly for Human Rights Watch

Chanting for LGBT rights in an open square in Beirut to an anonymous audience is a daring endeavor. Hearing the chant echoed by the voices of thousands is remarkable. This repetition is not only empowering for LGBT people, but also grants a public legitimacy to their rights and a shared acknowledgment of their struggle.

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The chants and marches travelled across the country. People start a chant for LGBT rights in Riad El-Solh Square in downtown Beirut and hear it echoed in a village of the Bekaa Valley. Women, including queer and trans women, march against sexual harassment in Beirut, and witness the scene recur in Saida and Tripoli.

Graffiti – like chanting – has been another notable channel for resistance, through which people’s demands are memorialized in a fixed space. In downtown Beirut, the phrase ‘LGBTQ Rights’ can be found on walls and store fronts, tucked between writing that says, ‘October 17 is the people’s revolution against their own fear,’ and statements cursing corrupt politicians. ‘Abolish article 534,’ ‘Intersex rights,’ ‘I am tired of being in the closet, ‘LGBT rights are human rights,’… the list is endless.

The exterior of The Egg, an unfinished cinema built in 1965, considered a landmark of downtown Beirut. “No Homophobia. No Racism. No! We just want peace.” “Mashrou’ Leila for Lebanon.” “You took everything, where is your humanity?” December 22, 2019. Marwan Tahtah for Human Rights Watch

Downtown Beirut, where building exteriors were marked with graffiti during the protests. “This is a class revolution.” “It is my right to love whoever I want.” “Remove your sect at the entrance of Beirut and come inside.” “Together for a better Lebanon.” November 6, 2019. Ad Achkar

The prominence of mediums of songs, writing, and images that address sexual and gender diversity amplifies the voices of LGBT people against a state intent on silencing them. These forms of expression are a public archive, a way for people to talk to each other and finish each other’s thoughts on a wall, a process of creating a collective oppositional statement.

The joy of hearing a chant or seeing a statement on a wall and thinking ‘this represents me,’ is tangible reassurance to marginalized people that their rights are not forgotten. More significantly, these messages reach a wide audience. Sometimes an otherwise unconcerned individual will be reminded, by repeating a chant or examining graffiti, of the importance of upholding the rights of sexual and gender minorities. In this way, the revolution has succeeded in creating a new political possibility in the street.

“It is important that this graffiti is going to remain,” says Lor, 28. “It’s very powerful to see how you can change the way the city looks. At the same time, there’s power in the performance aspect of carrying the spray can and writing something. You carry those memories and possibilities with you.”

 

Our presence in the street had no boundaries. It wasn’t that queers were in one place, separate from others. We were all together at the protest sites, healing collectively.”

—Lor

Amanda Bailly for Human Rights Watch

Not everyone has embraced the newfound visibility of LGBT people. “There were some negative reactions from people who said, “this [LGBT rights] is not part of the revolution,” or “now they [LGBT people] are trying to further their agendas,” said Rana, 32. “Whoever wants to join us is welcome, and whoever doesn’t, can criticize all they want, because we exist without their permission.”

Protesters have also mobilized chants and graffiti to respond to anti-LGBT rhetoric that emerged in the streets. In the earlier days of the protests, people would call politicians “faggots” in chants as a way of insulting them. Immediately, other protesters would chant back “faggot is not an insult.” Over time, this response to homophobic chants gained traction and became an effective counter-narrative, a way of correcting the public record and shaming those who perpetuate homophobia and transphobia. This disruption of the otherwise normalized oppression of queer and trans people allows them to build a new relationship with the familiar but often inhospitable spaces they inhabit.

Sexual and gender diversity in Lebanon’s protests is part of an authentic representation of Lebanese society. It is no surprise that LGBT people have been at every protest and roadblock, objecting to the same injustices that everyone is revolting against – they have been there all along.

Some claim that this revolution is not the time to talk about LGBT rights, women’s rights, refugee rights, or any marginalized group’s rights. “I tell them if the time is not now, there is not going to be a time later,” says Rana, 32. “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, not later, and we shouldn’t wait at all.”

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Through allowing people to build alliances in the streets, band together to transcend fear, and express solidarity with individuals at the margins, Lebanon’s revolution extended the practice of self-allowance, where marginalized individuals mobilize their political power against the system that oppresses them, into a social allowance rooted in reciprocity – a united front against all forms of exclusion.

Despite the inspiration and hope that the revolution has instilled in people, LGBT people will continue to live on the margins unless the Lebanese government introduces legislation that protects them 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 almost 50 percent, unfettered inflation, diminishing employment opportunities, and deteriorating health care have disproportionately targeted the most vulnerable. The COVID-19 health crisis and lockdown measures compound the economic spiral, and LGBT people, who often face healthcare discrimination and economic marginalization, are all the more compromised.

The transformative power of resistance and solidarity evident in the protests should serve as a warning to the country’s political establishment: without social, economic, and legal reform that uplifts the voices and rights of marginalized groups, Lebanon will face a renewed period of social unrest.

 

[The revolution] is a tipping point. There is no going back. What has started cannot be stopped and should not stop.”

—Rana, 32

Marwan Tahtah for Human Rights Watch

Indeed, there should be no going back – but even if Lebanon continues to deny LGBT people their basic human rights and chooses to silence their voice in public discourse, the streets and walls of Beirut will remember.

“Right before the revolution, I had tweeted that I am part of a generation that has nothing to wake up for and no one to go home to,” says Malak, 26. “On October 17, I felt for the first time that we had something to look forward to, and we are going home to the beautiful people we met on the streets. I want to look at the two queer young women who shyly asked me to take their picture at the protest and tell them that we had done everything for them to live a better life than we did.”

Read the press release »
More on Human Rights Watch’s work on LGBT Rights »
More on Human Rights Watch’s work on Lebanon »



Video editing: Teddy Tawil and Amanda Bailly
Drone cinematography: Antoine Eid