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Gays in Lebanon More Outspoken About AIDS, Rights... and Partying

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Aug 10, 2009
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The persistent belief that AIDS is primarily a "gay disease" has long been part of the Western world’s discussion of the topic. But in Lebanon, where sexuality and AIDS are not discussed openly, the association of HIV with homosexuality is a recent one, and is being touted by the country’s religions, according to a Lebanese newspaper.

An Aug. 10 article in Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star quoted GLBT equality activist Georges Azzi, who said, "The stereotype that AIDS is a ’gay disease’ is a stereotype of the West."

Added Azzi, who heads the GLBT equality group HELEM, "I didn’t have this idea that AIDS was a gay disease until I went to France," but now religious Web sites are pointing to gays as the demographic that is typically afflicted with the disease.

Public awareness about AIDS is increasing in Lebanon, and with it moere people are being tested. Before, the article said, more heterosexuals than homosexuals were being tested for AIDS by HELEM, which makes testing services available to all.

But as the stereotype of gays as the group primarily at risk takes hold, Azzi worries that gays will be discouraged from getting tested.

Already, efforts to stem the spread of HIV have been made more difficult because the police view possession of a condom as evidence of illicit sexual practices, the article said.

The article noted that Lebanses law criminalizes "sexual acts against nature"--heterosexual nature, that is, with consensual sexual intimacy between adults of the same gender being legally banned.

Of course, that doesn’t stop men who have sex with men (MSMs) from carrying on with the practice, but it might mean that fewer people will be willing to undergo testing to find out their HIV status.

Recent testing statistics show that just over half of those found to be HIV+ in 2007 identified as straight, with slightly more than one-quarter of new HIV cases identifying as gay.

This year, however, 40% of new HIV cases involved heterosexuals, with gays making up 34%.

The article said that Azzi thought increased testing accounted for the demographic shift in testing results, proving the importance of stopping stigma from being attached to testing.

A growing public awareness of HIV and of gay issues, at least in Beirut, where HELEM is based, might also be due to Beirut’s comparative acceptance of gays.

Indeed, an Aug. 9 travel article in The New York Times refers to Beirut as the "Provincetown of the Middle East," where gays congregate not only from around Lebanon, but also from other Arabic nations and even from Western countries, including the United States.

To be sure, the article said that security guards even in gay clubs might break up any displays that are too sexual, but even so gay Arabic men say Beirut is a center for companionship, maybe even romance.

A gay Syrian man identified only as Asu was quoted in the article as saying, "I thought I would meet other gay men at university in Syria, but it didn’t happen, and then I thought as an adult man living in Damascus that it would happen, but it hasn’t."

Added Asu, "I’m 35 years old. I feel very lonely at home. There’s only the Internet for me, to e-mail with other gay men.

"The Internet, and Beirut," Asu continued. "I try to come here every year now, because it is a relief."

A Syrian emigre from Spain, Ricardo, noted how Arabic nations and cities exist on a continuum of tolerance that has been picked up upon by gays living in those countries.

Said Ricardo, "Gays who live in the Arab world or regularly visit have a good idea about the good places and the bad for gays.

"Cairo--bad, some police harassment," Ricardo continued. "Istanbul and Amman are better.

"Damascus--bad, with lots of police harassment too."

The article also cited a gay Jordanian man, Abdul-Azeem, who said that while Jordan was not as unfriendly to gays as other Arabic nations, he still could not live openly there.

That impacts his ability to find love. "We met on my last trip here," said Abdul-Azeem said of his partner, who lives in Beirut.

"I hope we will be in love in the future," said Abdul-Azeem of the long-distance relationship he and his partner are tyring to make work.

"But I had to travel here to find a man who maybe I will love," the Jordanian man added. "I wish we were together every day."

Even in Beirut, the greater sense of openness and relaxation is relatively new, spurred in part by a rally for GLBT equality sparked when two gay men were attacked and beaten by the police there.

Adding to the optimism of Beirut’s GLBT population is a new, less restrictive government, the article said.

The article quoted gay travel writer and editor Michael T. Luongo, who put together the book "Gay Travels in the Muslim World."

Said Luongo, "What’s interesting is that the Arab areas that were once controlled by the French, like Lebanon, are the ones with laws against homosexuality, because the French felt comfortable talking about sex."

However, colonizing nations with a cultural uptightness about human sexuality transmitted that to their former colonies, Luongo noted, adding that, "the areas controlled by the British didn’t have those laws because they didn’t talk about sex.

"As a result, flowing from that French history is a relative familiarity with homosexuality in places like Lebanon. You have more gay life where the laws exist against it."

(Others disagree: a document from the Human rights Watch, a 66-page publication called "This alien Legacy," recounts the damage done to societies colonized by the British, who left behind a legacy of anti gay laws.

Reads text at the human Rights Watch site, "This 66-page report describes how laws in over three dozen countries, from India to Uganda and from Nigeria to Papua New Guinea, derive from a single law on homosexual conduct that British colonial rulers imposed on India in 1860.")

The Times article goes on to profile several gay clubs, including one night spot for bears.

But the bar scene exists against a checkered backdrop. A Wikipedia article on gay life in Lebanon notes how anti-gay police activity and enforcement of existing anti-gay laws are intermittent. For example, one gay club was shut down for several months, possibly by the authorities.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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