Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International, a global LGBTI advocacy organization, was among the more than 80 people who were attending the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality’s annual conference on Sept. 29. Stern wrote on her organization’s website she was having lunch with Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality Executive Director Georges Azzi when “his colleagues alerted him” that two “plain-clothes officers” from Lebanon’s General Security Directorate had arrived at the hotel.
Azzi told the Washington Blade on Oct. 5 during an interview from Beirut that the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni Muslim group that is based in the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, criticized the conference on Facebook.
Stern wrote the General Services officers “came to investigate a complaint” from the Association of Muslim Scholars.
“The group had issued a statement accusing the conference of promoting homosexuality and drug use, and they called for the arrest of the organizers and for the conference to be cancelled on grounds of ‘incitement to immorality.'” she wrote.
Azzi told the Blade the officers questioned him about the conference for more than two hours before they left the hotel.
Stern wrote seven General Security officers — “including muscular men wearing uniformed vests” — returned to the hotel a few hours later and “informed the hotel management that they were shutting down the conference, no rationale given other than ‘orders.'” Azzi told the Blade the officers asked him to sign a “pledge” that he would agree to cancel the conference.
“I said no,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what would happen.”
Stern wrote some of the conference attendees remained in the lobby “to be witnesses” in case the officers took Azzi and others into custody.
“We debated whether to contact the press and diplomatic community,” wrote Stern. “A woman came over to another foreigner and me and said, ‘Please stay here. Your presence reminds them they have an audience, and you make us safer.’ I took her words seriously, and I also wondered if we were a liability. LGBTIQ+ rights are often associated with the West and colonial imposition.”
The Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality and representatives of Helem, a Lebanese LGBTI advocacy group, ultimately agreed to hold an LGBTI-specific meeting at another hotel the following day. Stern wrote that Azzi “said nothing about other days or venues.”
“It was a quiet triumph,” wrote Stern.
Stern and Azzi both told the Blade the incident scared many of the conference attendees, in part, because they are from Middle Eastern countries in which LGBTI people face persecution from the police and/or their own governments.
“People were concerned,” said Azzi.
Evangelical church tried ‘to convert’ conference attendees
Azzi told the Blade an evangelical church, the Messiah Evangelical Lebanese Church, was holding a conference at the hotel at the same time the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality event was underway. He said “there were a lot of Americans there” and “they were trying to convert people, but we aggressively told them to stop harassing people.”
Azzi told the Blade the group later placed flyers on his car and those of other Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality conference organizers that asked Lebanese officials to prosecute them under Article 534 of the country’s legal code, which states “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature is punishable” by up to a year in prison.
Lebanese judges in recent years have opted not to use Article 534 to prosecute LGBTI people for having consensual same-sex sexual relations. A court in July applied this legal precedent when it acquitted nine people who had been convicted of engaging in homosexuality.
Conference organizers handled incident ‘very skillfully’
Lebanese LGBTI activists have become more visible over the last decade, but discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity remains pervasive in the country. The Lebanese government has come under increased pressure from the Association of Muslim Scholars and other religious groups to crackdown on this activism.
Helem Executive Director Tarek Zeidan pointed out to the Blade during an Oct. 5 interview that organizers of Beirut’s first Pride event, which was to have taken place earlier this year, cancelled the event after organizers received threats.
A Beirut hotel in May 2017 cancelled an Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality workshop that had been scheduled to take place in one of its conference rooms, citing the need to postpone it until “after the month of Ramadan” because it might “irritate certain people.” The Association of Muslim Scholars the same year publicly asked General Services to stop an International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia commemoration from taking place in Beirut.
Zeidan, Azzi and Stern all noted the hotel at which the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality conference was taking place is considered LGBTI-friendly by Lebanese standards.
Stern told the Blade that Azzi and other conference organizers handled the situation with the General Security officers “very skillfully.” Stern also said the incident highlights the continued pressure under which Lebanese LGBTI and human rights advocates are working. ”
I was surprised and disturbed to see that in spite of AFE (the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality) being a legally registered organization and the recent court decision, there was a perception of criminality just because it was an LGBTIQ+ meeting,” she told the Blade. “I was also disturbed to see how much (influence) this religious fundamentalist organization has on the government.”
Zeidan said the incident shows the Lebanese government faces pressure to crack down on LGBTI advocacy efforts “when LGBT people are getting organized and political.” He also sharply criticized Facebook for not cracking down on what he described as hate speech on its Arabic language platforms.
“It sort of signals that the fight for freedoms in Lebanon need to continue,” Zeidan told the Blade.
The Lebanese government has not responded to the Blade’s request for comment.