Georges Azzi is a LGBTQ, gender, and sexuality activist, blogger, and the Executive Director of Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, a Lebanon-based NGO that supports grassroots activist groups and regional partners that are working on a wide range of initiatives including human rights, gender, and sexual health. Georges is also the co-founder and former coordinator of the gay rights group, Helem.
Muftah recently had the pleasure of speaking with Georges, where he generously gave his time to answer a wide range of questions. Below is an excerpt of the conversation, which focused on LGBTQ-activism in Lebanon and the greater Middle East and North Africa region.
Dominic Bocci (DB): Georges, take us through your background a little. What sparked your interest in social activism?
Georges Azzi (GA): Well, I grew up as a gay man in Lebanon where, at the time, LGBTQ individuals had no voice. The only images portrayed on television were negative, and not fitting a certain masculine-image could expose you to varying forms of bullying. I chose to leave the country for Paris in 1999, while staying in touch with a group of activists in Lebanon, who were exploring opportunities to get the LGBTQ community organized. While in Paris, I got involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy and gay activism. I had a dream to start an equivalent of the LGBTQ Center of Paris in Beirut–a center that would give bullied LGBTQ young men and women an opportunity to find support from their peers–something I wish I had when I grew up in Beirut. And, like a dream, in 2004, I received an email from activists in Lebanon asking me if I would be willing to be the legal representative of a new organization, Helem, and to sign the registration papers. It was truly like a dream come true, and I moved back to Beirut.
DB: What are the main issues you feel are affecting the LGBTQ community in Lebanon today?
GA: The situation for the LGBTQ community has improved a lot in the past ten years. That being said, we have a long way to go. A few years ago I wrote a short history of the LGBTQ rights movement in Lebanon. In that piece, I discussed the role that Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code has played in sparking LGBTQ activism in Lebanon. Article 534 condemns “unnatural intercourse,” and is used to persecute many individuals throughout the country. The law has been used to prevent groups from formally organizing, and has led to the police harassing LGBTQ individuals and raiding movie theaters, nightclubs, etc. So with this in the background, in the late 1990s, the Internet helped a lot of activists and gay people in Lebanon connect. Our conversations online through listserv mailing lists and forums led us to form an underground group called “Club-free,” which ultimately led to the registration of Helem.
As far as the main issues of concern today, I would say these are primarily the harassment and prosecution of the LGBTQ community, as a result of the enforcement of Article 534. Because the police still enforce this law, individuals do not feel comfortable going to the police to report verbal and physical abuse they encounter on a daily basis. This makes LGBTQ individuals extremely vulnerable to blackmail and attacks, especially if they are living in rural areas. Repealing Article 534 would help in preventing attacks against the community, like the police raid on Ghost, a popular gay-friendly nightclub located in the Beirut suburb of Dekwane in April 2013.
I would also say that the nuclear family plays an important role in the life of Lebanese youth, who are often socially and economically dependent on their family. Family acceptance plays an important role in the well being and self-assuredness of LGBTQ individuals.
DB: When it comes to media coverage on LGBTQ related issues, there seems to be an overwhelming focus on the closing of nightclubs in Beirut and the enforcement of Article 534. At the same time, Beirut is marketed as a gay tourism destination? What is your reaction to this dichotomy?
GA: The dichotomy perfectly represents the situation in Lebanon. Lebanon is a schizophrenic country. It gives the impression of being a free and open, European-style state, but it still has some of the most archaic laws. The Lebanese government is always trying to find a balance between satisfying religious communities and politically conservative groups, while maintaining a space for tourism and increased amounts of sexual freedom. The fact that the media, both internationally and locally, is now increasingly supportive of the LGBTQ community and the fact that LGBTQ individuals are more visible than before in some of Lebanon’s large cities, has resulted in more spaces for the LGBTQ community to gather. These spaces are, however, only accessible to those who can afford living in big cities such as Beirut. While there are still troubling incidences that appear in the media, the police are showing signs of a changing attitude toward the LGBTQ community.
DB: I would imagine that, as a result of the increased visibility of the LGBTQ community, younger, next-generation LGBTQ individuals and activists may have an easier time building off the work of those that came before them. Do you have any role models when it comes to your work? Or alternatively, what keeps you motivated? Who do you turn to for guidance?
GA: I do not really have one specific role model, but rather many individuals who inspire me with their work. I am especially inspired by those who managed to make LGBTQ issues mainstream. What keeps me motivated is seeing a stronger local LGBTQ community and the improvements that we have helped achieve. Knowing that our community is not taken for granted the way it was before…well…this is kind of a personal revenge for me. [smiling]
DB: Other than your own organization, what individuals or groups in Lebanon are doing the most interesting LGBTQ oriented work? What about in the broader Middle East and North Africa?
GA: Organizations who have active LGBTQ programs in Lebanon include places like Marsa, Helem, and meem. (My current organization the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality is focusing on capacity building, more generally). The LGBTQ community has become more and more mainstream, and the visibility of LGBTQ individuals is not limited to activists anymore. More and more, journalists and those in the media are actively expressing their support for the community. Most recently, this was seen following the Dekwane incident. We were also surprised when politicians expressed their support for us on Twitter. Also, I should note that Mashrou3 Layla is one of the first openly gay friendly bands in Lebanon.
DB: Activists like to talk about coalition building and strategic partnerships. We have seen in Lebanon that that doctors and the medical community have protested against anal examinations for those arrested under suspicion of violating Article 534. Have you found any other unique strategic partners?
GA: I think the key success of LGBTQ activists in Lebanon is being able to build alliances with different sectors. Despite its focus on LGBTQ issues, Helem was active in different networks working on issues that concern Lebanese citizens, in general, such as women’s rights, electoral reforms, and refugee issues – specifically during the 2006 Israeli invasion. Also LGBTQ activists invested a lot in the media. Both civil society and media partners are beginning to play a very important role, such as through campaigns to make anal tests illegal. They have also been important allies in cornering the mayor of Dekwane, and forcing the general attorney to declare the municipality’s closure of Ghost illegal. The media also pushed the Minister of Interior to change his discourse against LGBTQ people and to declare that if the mayor acted incorrectly he would face court proceedings.
DB: How do you think Lebanon’s LGBTQ community is misunderstood by those outside the country?
GA: I think while LGBTQ rights are universal, there are different ways to approach these rights and discourses that should adapt to local contexts. Even within Lebanon, tackling LGBTQ rights in different regions takes on various shapes. Helem learned a lot from the experiences of western LGBTQ communities. However, in Lebanon, gay pride and gay marriage are not indicators of the movement’s success. Rather, it is acceptance of our community by different sections of Lebanese society that is most important.
DB: One final question: some have pointed to events like the so-called Arab Spring as bringing great potential for the LGBTQ-rights movement throughout the Middle East. What do you envision for Lebanon’s LGBTQ community ten years from now, and what roadblocks stand in the way?
GA: The Arab Spring will definitely affect democratic movements in the Arab world, even though Islamist movements are increasingly gaining power and representation in various governments. It is a needed phase for more liberal movements to organize. There is an opportunity for LGBTQ activists to join these movements from the beginning. I am optimistic about change in the Arab world that will influence Lebanon as well, even though we have already taken a big step forward.