BEIRUT: For the most part, Karim has a good relationship with his father. His father loves him, he says, but only the version of him that he knows. He doesn’t know his son is gay, and Karim doesn’t intend to tell him anytime soon.
“When the topic of homosexuality comes up in a family lunch, he cannot stop talking about how I disgust him,” the 17-year-old says. “Without realizing it, he calls me a sinner, a monster, a pedophile, a freak of nature.”
Homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon, and views like those of Karim’s father aren’t uncommon. Article 534 of the Penal Code, which outlaws “unnatural sexual acts,” means being openly homosexual is risky, although the law is used infrequently.
A homophobic opinion piece in the American University of Beirut’s student newspaper Outlook published earlier this month was an example of the extent to which such views remain in the mainstream.
Despite this, homosexuality is becoming more visible in Lebanon, particularly in Beirut, with groups such as the nonprofit Raynbow following in the footsteps of Lebanese NGO Helem, the first gay rights group in the Middle East, to bring issues into the spotlight and lobby against homophobia.
To mark International Day Against Homophobia Thursday, a group of activists and bloggers with Raynbow put up posters around the capital city, with slogans decrying the censorship they felt Lebanon imposes on homosexuality, in tandem with a website that allows people to share their experiences of homophobia.
“The thought behind it was to allow a space for people to share their own stories in order to make the effect of homophobia on people more personal,” says Hasan, the founder of Raynbow and the manager of website Lebanese LGBT Media Monitor.
He believes that raising awareness, particularly in changing the media’s representation of homosexuality, is vital in changing attitudes, and Raynbow is currently raising funds to erect a billboard in Beirut with a pro-gay message.
Hamed Sinno, the lead singer in rock band Mashrou Leila, and a rare openly gay public figure in Lebanon, says raising visibility of homosexuality is important, and not only to change the opinions of those who might oppose it.
“I think it’s important for there to be more ‘out’ public figures,” he says. “When you’re young and you’re gay and you live in Lebanon, there’s not a lot to identify with and that’s a really important part of growing up and discovering your sexuality.”
Despite this, he also believes that a change in attitudes to homosexuality is tangible. “I’ve seen my direct surroundings over the past seven years change so much, [largely] because of the Internet,” he says. “I look at young gay men now and people in their teens and the way they live and there’s so much more gay life than when I was that age.”
Change may be happening, but for Karim it’s not enough to persuade him to tell his parents the truth.
“I hope that one day I will have the courage to break this silence, but I depend too much on my family to take this risk right now,” he says.
There’s also a feeling that real change will only come when the law gives equal protection to homosexuals and heterosexuals.
“I don’t think there’s going to be much drastic social change before there’s political and legal change,” says Sinno.