Before the Beirut Port blast last August that killed hundreds and destroyed entire neighborhoods, Lebanon’s economy was already under enormous pressure due to long-standing political challenges and the Covid pandemic. Amid all of this, Lebanon’s LGBTQ+ community has been particularly hard hit. Social entrepreneurs like Tarek Zeidan are building a better economic future for Lebanon that elevates queer voices.
We are publishing this story on March 31, in honor of the International Transgender Day of Visibility.
Zeynep Meydanoglu: You head-up Helem, the first LGBTQ+ organization in the Arab World. Tell us about it.
Tarek Zeidan: We provide services and protection to the LGBT community in Lebanon and the region. Whether it means representing people in court, getting them out of jail, providing assistance around domestic abuse, suicide prevention. Whatever it is, you call our hotline, and we’re there to help you.
The community center is where it gets more interesting. Anyone can join Helem, as long as they respect our rules, rights and responsibilities. In the center, people can start all sorts of projects for and with the LGBT community. As an organization we provide the space, the resources and the technical know-how. Some of our best ideas have come from these convenings of people that come together and debate solutions to our biggest challenges.
For example, we have a committee of trans* sex workers. They prioritize their work around the community’s needs. Many of them want to start small to mid-scale businesses that support trans* people. Some want to learn computer skills because working online feels safer and it would make them more competitive on the global job market. Our job is to listen to their dreams and help to make them happen.
Meydanoglu: How did 2020 impact your work?
Zeidan: 2020 has been a hard year for everybody, and particularly in Lebanon, because of the political and economic crisis, followed by the pandemic; and then, of course the Beirut Port blast. So many of the things that we knew for sure last year are not necessarily what we know for sure now. All of a sudden, we have 40 to 50 percent of the LGBT community that has been plunged into poverty, into homelessness. This isn’t something that we had six months ago. Direct aid, economic empowerment, workplace equality, and labor law reform are our top concerns right now.
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Meydanoglu: Can you give us an example of how you are responding?
Zeidan: Growing LGBT inclusive businesses can boost Lebanon’s tourism in staggering ways. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that the government is not letting into the country because of their archaic mindsets. This is the kind of information and action our movement needs to have in our arsenals, not just shaking our fists in the street. That’s amazing to break the ice, but if we don’t also have a long-term vision, it’s a missed opportunity.
Meydanoglu: You mentioned labor law as well. When does that come into the picture?
Zeidan: Before being able to change labor law, we have to change the behavior. Many people in the global North generally believe that law reform comes first, but in places like Lebanon, where the rule of law is contested, that’s not necessarily the best first step.
So, we are starting by creating a critical mass of young, entrepreneurial LGBT individuals that are trying to solve problems on the ground. For example, instead of handing out food boxes for people affected by the blast we created a community kitchen, which can become self-sustaining. It also creates an opportunity to get people together to learn and mobilize, rather than just receiving a food box.
But if we don’t also work on the labor law, we’re actually just throwing people into the jaws of the wolves. Workplace equality and economic empowerment for queer people is the carrot, but it requires shifting values in the workplace and beyond. That’s something even a robust anti-sexual harassment and inclusion policy can’t do. A reformed and inclusive labor law can be the stick that gives queer employees recourse to justice. The amounts of abuse and exploitation of LGBT people by the private sector is astonishing, so we need to approach it from both ends in order to ensure prosperity and protection simultaneously.
Meydanoglu: How do you bring people along?
Zeidan: We have to convince people that changing their attitudes towards LGBT people is not a betrayal of who they are, who their parents were, and what our culture represents. We’re retaining what’s important in our values system, and we’re choosing to let go of what no longer is relevant to the times.
That’s easier said than done but, for example, when it comes to accepting trans* individuals working with you in your company. We’ve found that it is not simply about countering all of the misconceptions and the phobias that people have. It’s also about the fact that people have no idea how to communicate with people that seem so different from them. There’s a deep anxiety there. People tend to hire people that look like them, that are from the same religious or educational background. This is really detrimental to a place of business, because we’re not prioritizing the work itself, we’re prioritizing people that reinforce our world view and assuage our anxiety.
So we as queer and gender non-conforming people bring ourselves to the table and engage with employers directly. Everything changes once we are face to face in the same room, because so much of the phobia and the hate is based on mythologies that feed on estrangement. We use what we call compassionate and courageous confrontation. We never use guilt or shaming as a tool. We recognize that people don’t resist change, they resist loss. Paradoxically, queer people represent a certain sense of loss to those who oppress them. We help them see that by releasing old habits or views (like homophobia) they are not losing who they are. They can thus see that our community is not responsible for their sense of loss.
Meydanoglu: Have you found some surprising allies along the way?
Zeidan: What has been surprising is the amount of people who agree with us but have not found the space to express that agreement and support. The parameters of what constitutes support have been incredibly narrow. If your only option to support LGBT rights is to become an activist, the vast majority of people who agree with you cannot express their support. The more we diversify how people can come and join in, the stronger we will be.
Meydanoglu: What are some of these new entry points?
Zeidan: We’ve been trying to work with youth for a very long time, but parents were simply not going to let us onto high school campuses. So, we weren’t able to deal with critical issues like bullying or sexual health. Some of the most elite schools in the country are still doing conversion therapy on LGBT youth, even though the Lebanese Psychological and Psychiatric Association has banned the practice. So, how on earth could we reach the kids? The scouts became one of our answers. We are now able to reach the same kids through a different venue! Interestingly, our meetings and events take place in the basement of a church, because the priest who runs it wants to support queer kids with his actions even if he can’t do it with his sermons.
All we have to do is find these people – that makes all of the difference! That’s how we’ve been able to get legal and security information to youth, as well as workshops on how to counter bullying and hate speech. We’re helping young queer people feel better about themselves and make things better for others who share their challenges.
Meydanoglu: You bring up the Church. How important has it been to bring these large institutions along?
Zeidan: Engagement with institutions, like the church or our government is nearly impossible to do here. People may be privately sympathetic, but publicly won’t touch this issue. This is not just about LGBT people, but about any controversial topic. Where we’ve had a lot of success is precisely in ignoring the top hierarchies and identifying instead the layers of power within them that can shift. For example, we don’t talk to Ministers, who are political appointees. We talk to the permanent staff of each ministry. Senior and junior staff across multiple key ministries have proven to be very LGBT inclusive, so we’ve been able to facilitate funds and access for HIV medication, aid for gender affirmation surgery, access to social security and more. We did not need to go through parliament to make the lives of LGBT people easier in the short and medium run.
We’ve also worked this way with priests and sheikhs. We weren’t trying to find people who would publicly challenge the church on LGBT inclusion. We simply wanted individuals who believed faith and sexuality are reconciled to come and speak with LGBT people of faith, to help them reconcile their own internal struggles. We started by addressing the problem that the community was facing, as opposed to the problem that we as activists were facing.
That allows these clerics of both Christianity and Islam to gradually expand and evolve their role into something that’s a lot more political, in terms of their actual support of the cause. And it also requires us as a secular organization to change our own inner culture to allow LGBT people of faith a safe space, to be heard and to be seen, to organize and be part of the solution.
Tarek Zeidan leads Helem, the first LGBT rights organization in the Arab World, founded in Beirut in 2004. He was an ELI fellow at the Harvard Center for Public Leadership and an emerging human rights fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard. Tarek joined Ashoka’s network in 2020. You can follow him on twitter @tarekzeidan @HelemLebanon
Zeynep Meydanoglu is the Country Co-Director of Ashoka Turkey, and the field leader of Next Now/Gender. Prior to Ashoka, Zeynep led civil society strengthening initiatives and contributed to Turkey’s women’s movement in organizations like TUSEV, KAMER and Purple Roof Foundation.
Next Now: Ashoka’s Next Now highlights innovations in areas ripe for transformation, including Tech & Humanity, Aging and Longevity, Gender, and Planet & Climate. This series sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders creating an equal world for people of all genders. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 of the series.
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