Helem Speech at IGLTA symposium, Beirut, 14 October 2010

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Good evening,

First of all, I would like to welcome you to Beirut, and hope you enjoy your stay here as a tourist in a foreign country.

I would like to begin with a very brief introduction about Helem. Helem was founded in Beirut in 2004 and is one of the first above-ground organizations that advocates for the equality rights of people who identify with a sexual orientation or gender identity that doesn’t conform with the norms and traditions of society.

Helem’s work mainly consists of lobbying for the removal of articles in the Lebanese penal code that incriminates homosexuality and transsexuality and supports lobbies against a number of articles that are discriminatory, sexist, or pose limitations to any of the personal freedoms of an individual, regardless of class, race or nationality. Helem also provides a an above-ground and accessible community center in Beirut that makes possible an environment where one can freely express their sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as providing legal services in cases of arrest or assault. As for health services, Helem’s Health Outreach Unit actively works on projects and campaigns to raise awareness and deliver necessary information on sexual and reproductive health, and Helem collaborates with the newly formed Al Marsah clinic which currently provides secondary health services free of stigma and discrimination and works from a human right’s perspective.
Helem recognizes the political aspect of sexual liberation, and, as an organization rooted in Lebanon and the Middle East, takes into consideration the local politics and the context of the region it belongs to, without necessarily adhering to the systems for LGBTIQ liberation that have been established, encouraged, and at some point enforced by international gay communities and organizations.

It is no surprise that Helem’s past experiences with IGLTA can be described as turbulent, especially the boycott against IGLTA in its promotion of Tourism in Tel Aviv and occupied Palestine. As I said before, a human rights organization cannot and should not operate in a country without taking into consideration the local politics and context it thrives in, can we, as an organization that fights oppressive systems, support, instead of condemn, the oppression of the Palestinian people? In the 2006 war on Lebanon, Helem opened its doors as a relief center for refugees from the areas of aggression in Lebanon, fleeing bombardment and the destruction of their homes and livelihood. In a discourse of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, and Queer rights, we are aware not to depoliticize the issue of sexual liberation, and also understand the global systems and power dynamics that come into play in such a discourse. We are also aware that the discourse of sexual liberation is a tool and decoy used by Western and Western-oriented governments such as the US government and the Zionist regime in Occupied Palestine to wash their hands clean of the major human rights violations committed. We are aware that the very countries that promote themselves as the progressive leaders in human rights, are the very same countries that have devastated Iraq and Afghanistan, and have attempted the eradication of the Palestinian people, and have therefore committed some of the largest human rights violations of our time. We are aware that the promotion for sexual rights isn’t always for the sake of the cause, but for the sake of a political agenda. It is for this reason that we stand firmly against pinkwashing of Israeli crimes by using gay and lesbian rights as a decoy of being liberal and progressive, and has participated in the boycott of IGLTA’s conference in Tel Aviv.

This year, we had decided to participate in LebTour’s familiarization tourism symposium in Lebanon, knowing the relationship it has with IGLTA. This decision was met with healthy dissent from the queer activist community of Beirut, due to various reasons including but not limited to the above. Eyebrows were raised at the methods used to promote Lebanon’s so called ‘vibrant gay life’ and to market Lebanon’s queer community by presenting a false reality that would be appealing and profitable to the tourist industry only. I am not saying that tourism is bad, for it is your right as well as it is mine to explore, attempt to understand, and visit different countries and cultures, but it is the tourist industry in general that can be harmful to a country such as Lebanon. The stereotype and exoticism promoted by the gay and lesbian tourist industry and the gay international agenda moulds the local lesbian and gay identity into the homonormative depoliticized persona that directly harms the progression of identity formation and the struggle for equality rights. De-politicization, in this case, is how a person is forced to ignore his lived reality for the sake of conforming to an adopted western stereotype. The reaction of the queer activist community, and other components of the community, is justified, since this form of tourism is directly related to the queer identity of Lebanon.

It is problematic when Lebanon is described as a ‘very liberal’ country, when the reality of the situation is that Beirut is a liberal city, not for the local LGBTIQ community that lives under the daily threat of police violence and imprisonment, blackmail, and homophobia and stigma, but liberal for the foreign tourist. It is problematic when the video promoting the event, which implies a representation of ‘gay life’ in Lebanon, only represents an extremely small privileged fragment of the wider spectrum of queer life in Lebanon. It is problematic when the beneficiaries of the tourism industry are businesses that market themselves to the queer community, but practice transphobia, sissyphobia, and homophobia on several levels, and economic discrimination through classism and do not take active steps towards advocating for the health and equality rights of the community from which they profit.

There is a small amount of truth in saying that the very fact that this event is happening in Lebanon is a step forward for Lebanon when it comes to LGBT rights, but the question that needs to be asked is whether promoting LGBT tourism is a step forward for equality rights in Lebanon, when it does not impact in any way the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and other gender-variant people in Lebanon?”

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