As Lebanese head to the polls on Sunday for the first time in nine years, they will have the chance to vote for nearly 100 candidates who have openly called for the decriminalization of homosexuality.

"Before now, there was no politician that was able to publicly endorse the removal of article 534 [a Lebanese law used to target the LGBTQ community],"  Georges Azzi, the director of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, a Beirut-based sexual-rights group, told CNN.

The relatively large number of politicians stands out as the highest-profile and largest-scale political endorsement of LGBTQ rights in the Arab world.

"What we say very simply is that we are against discrimination between Lebanese, between male Lebanese and female Lebanese, between any Lebanese community and any other Lebanese community," parliamentary candidate Rania Masri, who is part of the independent Kollouna Watani list, said.

"We want to end all discriminatory policies. So naturally that includes the LGBTQ community."

According to Lebanon's Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, some 800,000 young Lebanese will be able to vote in the election for the first time. In a country of roughly four million citizens, that's a sizable portion of the electorate.

"I think they will make a real impact on political life ... When you have 800,000 new voters, you have to change your attitude," Machnouk said.

Although it remains to be seen how these young voters will impact the election, it is clear that many young people in the country are far more supportive of the LGBTQ community than older generations.

Beirut Pride
Facebook/Beirut Pride Source:

LGBTQ rights have growing support in Lebanon

A year ago, Lebanon's capital city – Beirut – hosted its first-ever large-scale pride week. The events included workshops, exhibitions, and even a drag show, as well as various parties throughout the city.

"Upcoming generations are empowered, are strong, are consistent, they know what they want, and we are getting to a place where people want to be on good terms with every other person," Hadi Damien, the lead organizer behind the event, told StepFeed last May.

"We need to start somewhere – we have a wonderful momentum and we are surfing on a very good wave," he added.

The highly-publicized pride event followed in the footsteps of other efforts by the LGBTQ community and its allies.

 In 2006, the LGBTQ organization Helem organized a three-day event to coincide with International Day Against Homophobia. The organization LebMASH has also organized two LGBTQ health weeks, this year and last year, focusing on the community's marginalization in Lebanon and how it negatively impacts health. 

Court rulings have supported the LGBTQ community

LGBTQ individuals face societal discrimination as well as the threat of prosecution under the infamous Article 534, which says sexual acts that "contradict the laws of nature" can be punished by up to one year in prison.

However, recent court rulings have set a precedent against using the law to target the LGBTQ community. 

The most recent ruling was handed down by Lebanese judge Rabih Maalouf in January of 2017. In the decision he said, "homosexuality is a personal choice, and not a punishable offense."

Maalouf's ruling denied that Article 534 applies to the LGBTQ community. His decision also followed three previous rulings that argued it was impossible to define what sexual acts are natural.

Despite the recent court decisions, social stigma and misconceptions surrounding the homosexual community remain a pervasive problem throughout Lebanon. Article 534 is also still used by the authorities to harass, arrest and imprison LGBTQ individuals.

The rise of such a large number of politicians voicing their support for the LGBTQ community is, however, a signal of change within the country.

"This is the first time in the Arab world that we see LGBT issues being discussed on such a high political level," Azzi said. "We're hoping that the Lebanese experience goes elsewhere."

At the same time, many Lebanese are skeptical that Sunday's election will bring any real change to the country. Many of the political candidates advocating decriminalization are independent, and face an uphill battle against established political parties.

Nonetheless, the open advocacy and support of the LGBTQ community stands out as a significant moment for Lebanon and the region.