BEIRUT (AP) — Rainbows, school books, movies and drag shows have all been targeted in Lebanon in recent weeks as politicians, religious leaders and vigilante groups step up a campaign against the LGBTQ+ community in a country that has long shown relative tolerance.
At a time when Lebanon is in the grips of one of the world’s worst economic meltdowns in more than a century, the country and its leaders have been deeply split on how to deal with the crisis. Political factions have been so divided they haven’t been able to choose a new president for 10 months.
But in recent weeks they united to fight the LGBTQ+ community. Politicians and religious leaders have intensified a campaign that in many ways mirrors the culture wars in the United States, raising alarm over symbols and trends that might normalize queerness as an existential threat to society.
It comes at a time when an escalating crackdown on the LGBTQ+ community is also underway elsewhere in the region.
In some cases, the targeting comes after a spate of recent Quran burnings in Europe, which sparked angry protests in Iraq and other Muslim-majority countries. Local religious and political leaders have painted the LGBTQ+ community as part of Western attacks on Islamic values. In these demonstrations, many protesters burned rainbow flags.
In Iraq, some lawmakers are pushing a proposal that would expand a 1988 law on prostitution to include a paragraph imposing life in prison or the death penalty on those who have same-sex relations.
Lebanon was once seen as a place of relative tolerance in the region when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. That has changed in recent years, as crackdowns on free speech and expression have surged.
In recent months, both rhetoric by politicians and harassment by individuals have increased.
Last week, several dozen men from a Christian extremist group dubbing itself the Soldiers of God trashed a Beirut club hosting a drag show. They beat up several people, driving some patrons to hide in a bathroom.
“This is the venue of Satan!” one member yelled while filming on his mobile phone. “Promoting homosexuality is not allowed! This is just the beginning!”
The education minister also recently banned a game of Chutes and Ladders that was distributed to schools as part of a USAID project because it was decorated with a rainbow, Lebanese media reported. A video circulated online showing a man in the northern city of Tripoli using black paint to cross out a rainbow on the side of a van distributing books.
In early August, Culture Minister Mohammed Murtada requested for the General Security Directorate to ban the movie “Barbie,” saying it “promotes homosexuality and transgenders.” The Directorate, however, ruled that the movie is permitted, and it is reportedly expected to start showing in early September.
The Islamic Cultural Center submitted a request to the public prosecutor’s office to shut down Helem, the first LGBTQ+ rights organization in Lebanon and the Arab World, founded in 2004. The prosecutor’s office referred the case to the Interior Ministry, which has not yet acted on it.
Some shops have removed rainbow-decorated cakes or T-shirts from display. In June, the Interior Ministry restricted events connected to Pride month.
The anti-LGBTQ+ campaign is being spearheaded by religious figures from Lebanon’s multiple of Christian and Muslim sects, as well as political officials.
In a meeting earlier this month, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, several government ministers and the head of the Maronite Church Cardinal Beshara Rai discussed homosexuality. Afterward, the premier told reporters that “there is unanimity to abide by moral Lebanese and family values.”
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, called in a recent speech for the death penalty on people engaged in same-sex acts, calling homosexuality “a clear and present danger.” He accused NGOs of circulating books for school children that promote homosexuality and called for the books to be banned.
The group Soldiers of God was formed in 2019 as a sort of Christian self-defense group. Its young men would tour Beirut’s predominantly Christian eastern neighborhoods acting as guards against strangers coming in — at a time when frictions with rival supporters of Hezbollah often broke out.
Lebanon does not have a law that clearly bans same-sex acts. But Article 534 of the penal code prohibits sexual relations that “contradict the laws of nature” and has been used to penalize homosexuality, although some judges have held that consensual same-sex relations do not fall under the law.
In July, a handful of legislators called for abolishing Article 534. One of them, independent lawmaker Mark Daou, accused Hezbollah of using LGBTQ+ “to create a diversion” and to “terrorize a group within society.”
The attempt sparked a backlash. The spiritual leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community, Sheikh Sami Abou el-Mouna, said eliminating the article would promote “vice and permitting what is prohibited.” Some lawmakers took back comments backing the abolishment.
The backlash made some strange political allies.
In response to the call to repeal Article 534, Ashraf Rifi, a staunchly anti-Hezbollah Sunni legislator, said he is working on a draft law that criminalizes any attempt to legalize homosexuality.
Meanwhile, the Union Center for Research and Development, a reportedly pro-Hezbollah think tank, put forward a study titled “Resisting Homosexuality in Lebanon,” which calls for criminalizing homosexuality.
Hussein Ayoub, an official at the center, said he hopes a parliament member will adopt the study’s proposals to put into law. He denied that his center did the study on behalf of Hezbollah.
Khaldoun Oraymet, a senior Sunni cleric religious judge, called homosexuality “satanic” and “a very dangerous phenomenon.” He said mosques, churches, schools and families should fight it.
Many LGBTQ+ people are laying low, even in areas where they once could freely mingle and express themselves.
Tarek Zeidan, who heads Helem, told The Associated Press that political leaders are scapegoating a vulnerable group to distract from their failure to solve the country’s economic and political breakdown and infrastructure collapse.
“Do any of these people have solutions for water, electricity, and health care? They have nothing,” Zeidan said. “And when they have nothing to offer, they create an enemy.”