Lebanon is hosting an LGBTIQ+ Pride week, in what organizers are calling a "first". Many other activities have taken place around the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) for several years.

The weeklong event, which launched on Sunday and coincides with IDAHOT on Wednesday, is positioning itself as a "collaborative platform that takes a stance against hate and discrimination." In Lebanon, LGBTIQ+ individuals face societal discrimination as well as the threat of prosecution under Article 534, which says sexual acts that "contradict the laws of nature" can be punished by up to one year in prison.

Although recent court rulings have set a precedent against using the law to target the LGBTIQ+ community, and many civil society movements have greatly advanced awareness about the community in recent years, social stigma and misconceptions remain a pervasive problem throughout Lebanon. This is what the organizers behind Beirut Pride want to challenge.

We talked to Hadi Damien, the man spearheading the platform, about how the Pride event came together, what it means for the LGBTIQ+ community and his hope for the future.

On why Beirut Pride is important

"We live in a society that is violent, aggressive, constantly stressed and constantly insecure when it comes to its identity and what makes a Lebanese a Lebanese man or a Lebanese woman. You have these stereotypes or these generalized patterns that everyone needs to fit in," Damien told StepFeed.

"People who are very much criticized or very much attacked because of who they are LGBTIQ+. They very often find themselves depicted as a joke on television. They find a lot of speculation and misinformation going in the general media about who they are, what they do ... The media just want a scapegoat to make fun of and laugh at. And this is not OK, because people should not be humiliated and criticized in their humanity," he said. 

What is Beirut Pride?

Damien explained that he wanted to create a "happy" and "chill" event that would "bring people together." He also stressed that Beirut Pride is not an NGO, it is a collaborative platform with numerous participants from various Lebanese NGOs and the country's creative community. 

"For the first edition, we refused to work, to receive money and to collaborate with political parties and embassies. We even refused to host events at embassies and places that have a political leaning or that are somehow linked to politicians. We have also rejected corporate money, because at the end of the day, this is not a platform that needs money, it’s a platform that is funding itself," Damien said. 

While Beirut Pride avoids being affiliated with any political group or organization, Damien positions the platform in the an official statement as "aligned with the new administration discourse that seeks to improve the well-being of the Lebanese citizens through initiatives and reforms that reject hate and violence and stand up for a safe society for all citizens."

"It is a collaborative platform where people are bringing their projects together, because they believe in the statement and the positioning of Beirut Pride," Damien said.

Pride is about tolerance first and foremost

Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War, politicians and organizations have been advocating for tolerance between Lebanon's various religious sects. 

"Political discourse has been asking Christians not to discriminate against Muslims, and Muslims not to discriminate against Christians," Damien explained.

"Beirut Pride comes as a platform that transcends all these labels, be they political, religious, or racial, and invites people not to discriminate at all," he said, adding that people should learn to work with each other simply because they are human, regardless of what groups or labels they ascribe to or associate with."

Hundreds have already participated in the week's events

With numerous events – including workshops, exhibitions, and even a drag show – taking place each day this week, hundreds have already participated. Many more, who live outside Beirut or abroad, have expressed their support and solidarity on social media. 

"At the storytelling night we had more than 450 people, give or take," Damien said, saying it is so empowering to see "people speak about themselves behind a microphone in front of an audience." He pointed out that when you hear real human stories, one starts to wonder why stigmatization occurs.

Damien also said that Beirut Pride is only possible because of the many individuals and organizations that have paved the way for years, making it possible. 

"If today we are where we are, it is thanks to people who came before us," he said.

Numerous events for the LGBTIQ+ community have been held in the past, with several organizations working to raise awareness in the country. In 2006, Helem organized a three-day event to coincide with International Day Against Homophobia. Earlier this year, LebMASH organized an LGBTQ+ health week focusing on the community's marginalization in Lebanon and how it negatively impacts health. 

"Homophobia is considered one of the main obstacles facing individuals and professionals. These behaviors make individuals address others based on personal beliefs and stereotypes where people are categorized as sinners, ill or disease creators [sic],“ Nadia Badran, president of the Order of Social Workers in Lebanon, said at the LebMASH event earlier this year. 

Beirut Pride endeavors to challenge those stereotypes and misconceptions by putting spotlight on the Lebanese LGBTIQ+ community.

Lebanon's LGBTIQ+ community has already made significant strides

While social stigmas and misconceptions about homosexuality persist, Lebanese courts have sided with the LGBTIQ+ community in four high-profile cases since 2009.  

The most recent ruling was handed down by Lebanese judge Rabih Maalouf on Jan. 26. In the decision he said, "homosexuality is a personal choice, and not a punishable offense." 

LGBTIQ+ individuals are prosecuted under the controversial Article 534, which says sexual acts that "contradict the laws of nature" can be punished by up to one year in prison. Maalouf's ruling denies that this law applies to the LGBTIQ+ community, following three previous rulings that argued it was impossible to define what sexual acts are natural.  

Along with these court decisions, the Lebanese medical profession supports the LGBTIQ+ community. The Lebanese Psychiatric Society stated that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and does not need to be treated in 2013 and called for the abolition of Article 534 in 2015.  

In 2012, the Lebanese Order of Physicians banned doctors from conducting the infamous "egg test," which involves inserting a metal egg-shaped object into the rectum of suspected homosexuals. The bizarre test has been and is still used by some to "examine" whether someone has had anal sex.  Any member of the order now faces disciplinary measures if they are found to be conducting the test.  

Lebanon's Ministry of Justice echoed its support to the physician's ban, asking public prosecutors to follow suit. With all of these developments over the past few years, some have speculated that Lebanon is on the path to decriminalizing homosexuality.

But Beirut Pride isn't challenging any specific laws

As Damien explained, Beirut Pride is all about challenging misconceptions and social stigma. It's about pointing out that individuals should not mistreat or hate others simply because they are different.

"Just because someone is different it doesn't mean it's OK to harass them, bully them, stigmatize them, hurt them, etc.," Damien said.

"If people just want to think for themselves for awhile, they would know that they have no reason to attack any person," he said. "These skies are large enough to fit everybody under them, the land is big enough to fit everyone." 

When it comes to marriage equality, Damien said it's not something that's even on the table, pointing out that Lebanon doesn't even have civil marriage for heterosexual couples. 

Damien also emphasized that Beirut Pride is something very local and very Lebanese specific. 

"This is also why we are not throwing a westernized parade, because it's not something that has to do with Lebanese traditions and customs and the specificity of the place," he said. 

Damien sees a bright future for the LGBTIQ+ community

"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," Damien said.

He said that young people are less likely to mock or attack others simply because they are different.

"They just want to live," Damien said. 

And Damien definitely feels optimistic about the future.

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