BEIRUT: A judge presiding over a case prosecuting homosexuality has ruled that a notorious piece of legislation criminalizing gay sex is not valid, a decision that has been hailed as a major achievement by activists in Lebanon.
The latest edition of The Legal Agenda, a quarterly magazine published by the non-governmental organization of the same name, reported Tuesday that, in January, Judge Naji al-Dahdah cleared a transsexual woman of having a same-sex relationship with a man, an act criminalized under Article 534 of Lebanon’s penal code.
“It’s a big step; it shows we’re moving in the right direction,” said Georges Azzi, a prominent activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights who is also the co-founder of Helem, a Lebanese group that has long been campaigning to change the law.
“The more we have decisions like this the more Article 534 becomes irrelevant,” Azzi told The Daily Star. “Any legal change takes a lot of time but at least this article might stop being used to persecute gay and transgender people in Lebanon.”
The case was held in the Metn town of Jdeideh and concluded on Jan. 28. The defendant, whom the report does not name, was born with deformed or incomplete genitalia, but was described as male on her personal status registry. However, she said she always felt she was a woman, and underwent surgery in the 1990s to remove her male genitals and create a vagina.
Dahdah ruled that Article 534, which criminalizes “unnatural sexual intercourse,” did not provide a clear interpretation of what was considered unnatural.
The verdict relied in large part on a December 2009 ruling by Judge Mounir Suleiman that consensual homosexual relations were not against nature and could therefore not be prosecuted under Article 534.
Suleiman said: “Man is part of nature and is one of its elements, so it cannot be said that any one of his practices or any one of his behaviors goes against nature, even if it is criminal behavior, because it is nature’s ruling.”
The February case is thought to be the first ever involving a transsexual, and although Dahdah initially referred to the defendant as male, he later switched to using “he/she.” This demonstrates “the matter’s complexity and depth,” wrote the author of the Agenda article, trainee lawyer Youmna Makhlouf.
In his final ruling, Dahdah said that a person’s gender should not simply be based on their personal status registry document, but also on their outward physical appearance and self-perception.
“Dahdah is not someone that we know is particularly involved in these issues,” said Azzi. “He’s not part of the circle of activists, lawyers and judges [who campaign for gay rights], which makes his decision even more impressive.”
Azzi nonetheless insisted there was still much to do. “On the judges front we are making huge steps. Now we need to change the attitude of the police and security forces,” he said.