Lebanon's gay-friendly reputation challenged by abuses

Human rights activists hold up a rainbow flag during an anti-homophobia rally in Beirut in April 2013 Gay rights activists are calling for Lebanon's penal code to be amended

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Lebanon's capital, Beirut, comes alive under darkness. Its narrow alleyways meander into streets full of bars.

The locals, many dressed in designer clothing generously splashed with expensive fragrances, sit on the verandas drinking cocktails till dawn. The city's liberal demeanour really does make it like no other place in a deeply conservative region.

But Beirut has another side to it that highlights this difference - it has an underground gay scene that is private yet very much alive.

There are bars and clubs specifically for homosexuals, but they are discreet and the media are not welcome when the crowds are in.

'Obscene scenes'

However, recent events are said to have challenged Lebanon's reputation as being relatively tolerant of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Last year, a Beirut cinema was raided by police and more than 30 people believed to be homosexuals were arrested. They were each subjected to anal examinations by a doctor at a police station to ascertain whether they had been having "unnatural" intercourse.

CinePlaza in Beirut The raid on the CinePlaza cinema in Beirut last year sparked public outcry

Then in June, psychiatrist Dr Nabil Khoury went on prime-time television and told the nation that homosexuality was "a disease that needs to be treated".

Four months later, censors blocked a screening at the Beirut International Film Festival of a French film that features a gay love story. The interior ministry cited a news report which attributed the decision to "obscene scenes of kissing between gay men, philandering, naked men and sexual intercourse between men".

'Demeaning' test

In an empty bar on the outskirts of Beirut, a man in his 20s told me how he had recently been arrested for being gay.

Start Quote

People who have been arrested told us that police officers had threatened them by saying that they would be subjected to [anal] tests unless they confessed to whatever charge they were facing”

End Quote Ahmad Saleh Helem

He did not want to be named because he feared being detained again.

The man revealed that he had been subjected to an anal examination that was painful and incredibly humiliating.

"Obviously it was really demeaning. It made me feel like I had no body rights, like the government had access to my body," he said.

"I wasn't stable psychologically. I was really depressed for a really long time. I was feeling so resentful, and was just staying by myself all the time."

Even though the government strongly condemned and banned anal tests after the cinema raid, the BBC has spoken to dozens of gay people in the country who strongly believe it is still going on.

"These tests have been banned by the ministry of justice and the syndicate of physicians," says Ahmad Saleh, from the Lebanese LGBT rights group Helem.

"However, we have reports from people who have been arrested, who told us that police officers had threatened them by saying that they would be subjected to these tests unless they confessed to whatever charge they were facing."

Anal testing is widely discredited as a method of determining sexuality. Some gay people avoid anal sex and people with other conditions can be wrongly identified as gay.

'Culture of impunity'

The Lebanese Psychiatric Society has now publicly stated that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and does not require treatment, but campaigners think that is not enough.

Beirut Lebanon stopped classifying homosexuality as a disease in July

They want Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code, which prohibits "sexual intercourse between two people that is contrary to nature", to be repealed.

The campaigners believe the article has been used wrongly to prosecute homosexuals, but there is little sign that the government will act any time soon.

"The way gay and lesbian people are treated by wider society, the serious abuse, the torture and ill treatment to which they're subjected to in police cells and detention is wrong," says David Mepham, UK Director of Human Rights Watch, which published a report in June on the abuse of LGBT people in police custody.

"We've documented very serious patterns of abuse. That abuse needs to end, and this culture of impunity needs to end."

In countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, being homosexual can lead to the death penalty.

The World Health Organisation and many countries in the West stopped considering homosexuality a disease years ago, and Lebanon became the first Arab country to do so in July.

Long journey

Even so, there are many in the country whose views are in line with the teachings of Islam and Christianity, which are traditionally opposed to homosexuality.

"For me, I know it is a sin so I will not accept it," says Samira Tabary, a primary school English teacher. "I know we commit sin every day but this is weird. We should stand against it. It's a big mistake - it's not normal.

"God created man and woman, not man and man. They should not only be arrested but told this is not right," she adds.

Gay bar Bardo in Beirut Staff and customers at a gay bar in Beirut were not keen to be photographed

Some gay people here are optimistic about the future.

They say the media is devoting more time and attention to the topic of homosexuality, and hope that this will help break down prejudices and stereotypes.

But as I sat in an empty gay bar in Beirut, I was reminded how concealed this scene is when the owner said: "I hope you are not recording any of this."

The fear is palpable and illustrates the long journey they have yet to travel in order to be accepted in this "liberal city".

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