Intersectional communities: LGBTIQ+ Activism in Lebanon with Araz Basmajian

Pride month is celebrated across the world every June to mark the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in the USA, a watershed event for LGBTQI+ rights. This year, because of Covid-19 pride celebrations have been cancelled in most parts of the world and/or have gone online. We have gathered five stories of young LGBTQI+ activists from across the globe to showcase their resilience in the face of uncertainty and how they are celebrating pride during the pandemic. 

This interview is part of our Pride 2020 series spotlighting LGBTQI+ Activists around the world. In this instalment, Aapurv and Jenny spoke with Araz Basmajian from Lebanon.

Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your activism?

I am an ambitious queer activist from Beirut. I am a chef with a background in hospitality and the teaching of culinary arts. I found out about Helem, an organisation for the empowerment of the LGBTQI+ community a year and a half ago through one of their community centres. I found a place I felt I belonged, and there was a noticeable change in my mental health and my feeling of freedom to express my gender was clear. 

After months of volunteering, training and advocacy work, I came to represent Helem’s women’s committee in the past two annual International women’s Day marches. They drove me to serve my community and share my passion and talents. Along with a fellow member from the Helem community I pitched an idea to instruct art classes with storytelling and different methods of artistic expression. We wished to give the community a platform to share their feelings and thoughts through collective and/or individual art. One year, and more than 50 sessions later, “Unleash your Talents” workshops are still being instructed and enjoyed. 

Family, Sense of belonging: Araz and other members of Helem.

Since then I have taken on the role of humanitarian response officer. We collect and distribute emergency food, and generally support and assist members of the community. Our community keeps growing, in governorates all over Lebanon, with many making use of our service department for legal help and other support. A lot of our members are persecuted, many are refugees and need support to apply for immigration. I help instruct employment courses to teach groups of LGBTQI+ members, to enhance their linguistic and employment skills, so that they are better prepared to apply for work. Some have been accepted to work or study abroad in places like Canada. 

What are the biggest concerns of LGBTQI+ communities in Lebanon?

In Lebanon homosexuality is still criminalised, and despite our best efforts LGBTQI+ individuals are always in danger of abuse and/or arrest. The overall lack of awareness especially in certain suburban areas and religious extremism compound this danger. Many LGBTQI individuals face non-accepting families, and families that pressure or force them to get married after a certain age and start a family.

This abuse and lack of acceptance also results in a lot of mental health concerns amongst the LGBTQI+ community, and is generally not awarded the importance it should be. That is why we, hand in hand with other institutions and NGOs, are trying so hard to work on providing safe spaces and therapists with affordable prices or even free services.

Lebanon is 10452 square miles, we wrote 10452 messages with Embrace (Suicide Prevention Hotline) and put them on cars all over Lebanon.

Perhaps the biggest concern for LGBTQI+ individuals is employment. This is especially difficult for the trans community and any non-confirming LGBQI who face transphobia and instant discrimination when applying for jobs, having incorrect names and different pictures on their IDs. LGBTQI+ refugees face similar obstacles. Systemic racism in employment practices, including the boycotting of non-Lebanese peoples leaves many jobless and dependent on financial assistance. These systems are never sustainable throughout the whole duration of their stay in Lebanon. 

Healthcare services are already a commodity to the lower classes and refugees with unaffordable services and surgeries. Trans individuals face further problems with access to, and treatment in, healthcare facilities. 

How has Covid19 impacted the LGBTQI+ communities in Lebanon? 

The impact of COVID19 on LGBTQI+ communities in Lebanon can be seen most clearly in a deteriorating economic situation. Many have been pushed to dire situations, unable to sustainability meet their basic needs, where the demand for food and rent have tripled in the past few months. Sex workers have always faced safety issues due to their gender identities and work, whether it be from civilians or police. This period has seen more pressure on sex workers where the pandemic and other factors have taken away their means of livelihood.

Humanitarian Drive Distribution for the community this June.

LGBTQI members are already persecuted based on their gender identity and in a lot of cases lack Lebanese papers, as many are refugees awaiting processing to other countries, who have escaped militias, death threats, and forced military service in nearby countries. COVID19 means that all travel has stopped leaving these individuals in constant fear of arrest or deportation. Financial assistance provided is not enough and many are left homeless or moving from friends places to shared rent with small rooms in crowded houses. Many people live 7 or more to a room in extremely difficult situations.

Moreover, a lot of non-confirming LGBTQI+ youth and adults are now forced to live with their families, due to the rent difficulties or the fact that schools/ universities have stopped. These individuals are often quarantined with their homophobic/ transphobic families. Unfortunately, as a result instances of domestic violence have risen. Mental health and psychotherapy services are in high demand. Many of my friends have told me how much of a dysphoric state they are in when forced to be at home. Embrace, the only suicide prevention hotline in Lebanon, has seen significant amounts of calls, needless to say many from the LGBTQI+ community. Hope is in short supply. 

How can International NGOs support LGBTQI+ communities in these times?

In these difficult times, amidst the pandemic and economic crises, International NGOs as well as donors can assist by directly funding service departments in charities like Helem. Services range from legal assistance, to help when individuals are arrested. Arrests are common as Lebanon criminalises homosexuality. These LGBTQI+ individuals need emergency bail. 

The pressures of the current situation make mental and physical healthcare services more important than ever. With the collaboration of other medical institutions, we serve the community with free physical check-ups once or twice a month, and run support groups able to make psychotherapy referrals. As mentioned, due to the unimaginable high demand of these services, donors can help out in offering ways to provide our LGBTQI community with these urgent services. 

Taking a part of Embrace’s “Into the Dawn” annual walk to commemorate and remember members that we have lost to suicide.

Moreover, many need urgent rent and food assistance as government financial assistance has slowed due to the rising numbers of individuals in need. Our own financial situation is making it extremely hard to be able to assist urgently, therefore international help is much needed. Global solidarity is significant in these times of need, where the needs of the community have been increasing day by day all around Lebanon’s governorates. Organisations that have their mission and vision aimed at the empowerment and protection of LGBTQI+ people in Lebanon can be counted on one hand and we need international support. 

And how did you mark Pride month?

Pride Month was very different from previous years, due to the pandemic and partial lockdown. Virtual celebrations were held with some online events taking place. However an intersectional march for the equality and rights of marginalised groups took place towards the end of Pride month. We took part and called for the protection of rights for migrant workers, women, refugees, LGBTQI+ along with other causes.

Palestinian Lives Matter, taken from the intersectional march June 2020

We also celebrated the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in May quite differently. Usually we would hold storytelling and open-mic events, a talent show at the LGBTQI+ Bar, movie nights and other activities. This year, online videos and advocacy were carried out. 

LGBTQI+ communities in Lebanon
Intersectional March during Pride month, June 2020

Personally speaking, Pride did not feel as powerful as before, because we were unable to see all the members of the community and our centre and many other safe spaces were temporarily closed (to everything but emergency relief work, food drives, etc.). But of course, our community and everyone else’s safety for that matter is much more important currently. And this does not erase or carry away the Pride that we have and celebrate.

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Intersectional communities: LGBTIQ+ Activism in Lebanon with Araz Basmajian

by Aapurv Jain Reading time: 6 min