Beyond 534: A Gendered Perspective to LGBTQ Activism in Lebanon1,229 views
Lebanon-based LGBTQ organization Helem hosted on Thursday, August 26, 2010 a talk on sex and the law in Lebanon, by PhD candidate at Columbia University in New York, and academic researcher Maya Mikdashi.
Mikdashi, whose doctorate explores intersections and impasses between the practices of law and citizenship in Lebanon, discussed what “good” and “bad sex” are according to the Lebanese state. She also stressed the importance of having a holistic view of how sex is regulated in Lebanese civil, personal status, and criminal laws and questioned the focus LGBTQ activists put on the repeal of Article 534, which criminalizes “sexual acts against nature” with up to one year in prison.
Before outlining what constitutes “good sex” and “bad sex” for the Lebanese state, Mikdashi explained the relationship between the law and gender in Lebanon. “Law is not only regulative, oppressive or liberatory,” she said. “In fact, the relationship between law and gender is perhaps best described as productive.” In other words, both men and women are produced “as a particular practice of rights and duties.” As such, different sets of gendered laws are put into effect according to that recognition of sex. “The function of the law is not only to repress or grant rights to women and men, or heterosexuals and queers,” she stressed. “Laws help produce these gendered categories.”
By virtue of the systems in place in Lebanon, the rights and duties of male and female citizens are dramatically different. “These different rights and duties are found in the civil, penal and personal status laws in force,” Mikdashi said. “Due to the fact that the gendered differentiation of citizenship is dramatic, the legal positions of men, women and transsexuals in the LBGTQ community occupy are also very different.”
She stressed that while in practice, laws, and in particular Article 534 of the penal code, are used to prosecute homosexual acts, being homosexual is not illegal in Lebanon. “Because there is no recognition of the larger category of ‘homosexual,’” she pointed out, “the most important aspect of queer’s legal identity are still the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’, just as they are in the heterosexual community.”
Mikdashi offered the government-recognized transsexuals as the most striking example of the legal production of gender. “In Lebanon, when – and if – the government recognizes you as a transsexual,” she explained, “your sex in the government census record is changed from ‘male’ to ‘female’ and vice versa,” which subsequently grants or makes the person lose specific rights. “If you are a bio-woman who is recognized to be a ‘man,’” she continued, “you gain the right to pass on your citizenship to your children, to have more than one wife if you are a Muslim, and to ban your wife from the use of contraceptives if you are a Christian.”
While government-recognized FTM transsexuals gain rights, MTF transsexuals lose many rights associated with the male gender, if they win their legal case against the state and are recognized as “women,” such as the right to pass on their Lebanese nationality to their foreign spouses or children.
Mikdashi stressed that the aforementioned illustrations of the legal movement between the categories of “male” and “female” highlight the productive power of the law in ways that affect queer and heterosexual Lebanese citizens alike. “Laws that govern men and women differently, and heterosexuals and homosexuals differently, do not merely add or subtract rights and duties,” she said. “Rather different categories of citizenship are produced through the legal, state-sanctioned determination of bio-sex.” This most often occurs at birth with the issuing of a birth certificate, or re-occurs later in life, as in the case of transsexuals.
In Lebanon, there are two essential facts that parents must register about their children which will determine which category of citizen they will be produced as: their bio-sex and their religious sect. “Each religious sect has its own personal status law,” Mikdashi noted, “and a particular conferral of rights and duties to ‘their’ men and women. As such, there are fifteen different articulations of sex-based differentiated citizenship operating in Lebanon.”
“Activism that claims to be ‘LBGTQ’ inclusive must be versed in and committed to gender justice for all the members of that community.
For example, a Sunni Muslim woman and a Maronite Christian woman equally cannot transfer their Lebanese citizenship to their foreign husbands or to their children, but the Sunni Muslim woman can file for divorce under Hanafi personal status, while a Maronite Christian woman cannot under canon law.
In light of this process of producing specific categories of citizenship, Mikdashi cautioned: “Citizens may turn to the state for protection from the abuses of both sectarian and gender discrimination, rather than recognizing the state as invested in producing and maintaining these categories.”
While LGBTQ organizations such as Helem and Meem have emphatically promoted the repeal of Article 534 in their advocacy for queer rights in Lebanon, Mikdashi stressed that it was misleading to assume that the only law affecting queers in Lebanon was Article 534. “The legal system as a whole must be studied in order to deduce the different legal positions of female, male, and trans LBGTQs in Lebanon; to understand the ideology of the legal system [to] understand how, and why queer sex is being regulated,” she explained. “The goal of the Lebanese legal system is not to discriminate, per se, against gays and lesbians – although the laws are perhaps applied in that fashion – [rather] it aims to produce ideal female and male citizens who will then be married and produce another generation of citizens.”
As such, the state regards “good sex” as sex that leads to the birth of citizens through the acts of married heterosexual vaginal sex. “Bad sex” is all sex that falls outside this function, such as a married heterosexual couple having consensual anal sex. “Despite the fact that the collection of laws in Lebanon criminalizes almost all non-legally sanctioned procreative sex,” Mikdashi pointed out, “the repeal of Article 534 has become the rallying cry for much of LGBTQ activism in the country.”
Helem’s December 2009 study, which was based on five years of archival research in the courts of three Lebanese cities and authored by attorney at law and independent legal researcher Mr. Nizar Saghiyeh, documented 50 cases of the implementation of Article 534, proving that the law was indeed still in use.
For Mikdashi, however, more legal research was needed to understand fully the place of LGBTQs in the law, particularly that Mr. Saghiyeh’s study only found one example of 534 being used to successfully prosecute lesbian sex, which came in the form of a confession. “Researchers and activists in Lebanon simply do not know, for example, how many women have been ‘honor murdered’ for being queer or engaging in queer sex because the research has not been conducted,” she said. “They also do not know if ‘kidnapping’ laws or statutory rape laws are used in a discriminate manner against same-sex couples.”
She continued: “Emphasizing Article 534, while important, does not give a clear picture as to the myriad ways in which LBGTQ sex is criminalized in Lebanese civil, criminal, and personal status laws.”
To address this legal discrimination, Mikdashi called for a feminist approach or a strategy that goes beyond feminism even. “It is necessary to frame LBGTQ organizing in Lebanon as ‘gender justice,’” she stressed. “Activism that claims to be ‘LBGTQ’ inclusive must be versed in and committed to gender justice for all the members of that community.”
This holds true when you know that bio-women in the LBGTQ community are regarded as legally disadvantaged citizenry both as members of the female sex and as women who could potentially engage in unnatural sexual acts.
Mikdashi concluded: “Furthermore, a broader view of how ‘queer sex’ is only one type of ‘bad sex’ according to the Lebanese state may help view the struggle in different terms.”