Gay community hit hard by Middle East turmoil

By James Longman
BBC News

media captionWhat is it like to be a gay refugee? James Longman hears some Syrians' disturbing accounts of abuse

"There is nobody left in my life who hasn't hurt me."

Jawad worked in sales in Syria before the war began. When his father found out he was gay, he had him arrested.

After five years of hard labour, he emerged a broken man, only to find his country at war. Estranged from his family, he found himself dangerously exposed.

Soon after his release, he was gang raped at gun point by four men from an armed group.

"They could tell I was gay," he told me, through stifled sobs, looking out over the Beirut cityscape.

His vulnerability made him an easy target for this brutal weapon of war. Now in Lebanon, where he thought he could start again, he works as a prostitute.

"I have nothing but my body to sell. That was my reward for the Syrian revolution."

It might come as little surprise that gay men and women don't have the easiest time in the Middle East. But it was not always so.

In many ways modern attitudes to homosexuality in the Middle East are similar to western European attitudes of the 19th and 20th Century - religious zeal and a specific vision of gender roles.

Those convicted of committing homosexual acts in Europe faced the death penalty. In the Middle East at this time, same-sex relations were relatively commonplace and accepted.

But colonialism brought the influence of Western prudishness and a codification of anti-gay laws.

The result was that homosexuality became effectively illegal in every Arab country. From "debauchery" in Egypt, to anti-sodomy laws in Tunisia and "acts against nature" in Lebanon - now all enforced with varying levels of severity.

While western Europe became more accepting, the Middle East went the opposite direction.

Now in a context of increasingly deeply conservative cultural and religious attitudes, the prospects for change are grim.

Totally alone

But the distant memory of "the Arab Spring" did promise some change.

image captionThe gay community lacks a support network

Protests across the region called for "dignity" and "respect" - values long associated with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) movement.

From Egypt to Syria, these dreams have turned into nightmares for most - not just the gay community.

But meeting with gay refugees in Lebanon demonstrated why their plight is perhaps especially significant - gay people have become refugees from both their country, and their families.

This is a region where the family or ethnic network provides not just emotional support, but much of the practical help the state is unable to deliver.

In a time of war, where the state begins to break down, these connections become vital for survival.

When a Syrian refugee arrives in Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, they often have someone they can call - a relative, a friend, even just an old neighbour.

But without family support, a gay man or woman fleeing the war does so totally alone.

None of the gay men and women I met had anyone to call. And some - even after escaping the regime or Islamic State - had been hunted down by their own families.

The very opposite to the kind of care and help they needed. Gay people become targets of the state, the groups fighting it, and their own families.

"When you lose the familiarity of your surroundings, you are left exposed and in danger," says Tarek Zeidan, from Helem, a long running LGBT non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Lebanon.

"It is secrecy that keeps most gay people alive in the Middle East."

That familiarity is totally shattered when a gay refugee arrives in a foreign country, often living in close quarters with people who would do him harm. In some cases - such as Jawad's - they turn to what Tarek calls "survival sex".


It is not known what proportion of the millions of refugees fleeing Syria are gay because most don't register with the UN, but young LGBT men and women escaping the war appear every day at the offices of Proud Lebanon, one of the only NGOs in the region helping the LGBT community.

Its director, Bertho Makso, explained what it's like being gay and Syrian in Lebanon: "Well you know he will be carrying all the problems that he was facing in his country.

"He'll flee to Lebanon hoping that he will be accepted. It's true that the image of Lebanon is reflecting an open-minded society.

"However, it's not the case in all the societies in Lebanon, because Lebanon is many Lebanons. And in every society there is discrimination and trauma.

"He faces a double discrimination. First because he is Syrian, and second because he is LGBT."

It is perhaps their status as a minority that makes gay people vulnerable in the Middle East.

image captionBertho Makso says discrimiation is rife

The rise of Islamist regimes in the wake of popular uprisings may have reinforced already conservative attitudes towards them, but new regimes keen on consolidating power have - whatever their political or religious leaning - found in the gay community an easy target.

It is almost impossible to formulate an accurate overview of attacks or arrests of LGBT people.

They are rarely recorded on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and often governments simply deny them. Victims are also often too scared to come forward.

But in Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not reversed the practices of his predecessors.

Indeed, the crackdowns have got worse and anal testing - the crude medical procedure to "prove" homosexual activity - still goes on.

Most recently, the security services were accused of infiltrating online dating sites to entrap gay men.

One application, Grindr, actually urged users to hide their identities.

In Morocco recently a gay British tourist found himself in prison for "homosexual acts" - it was only after an online petition was set up that he was freed.

And in Lebanon, the country's morality police have been accused of brutalising the gay men they take into custody, and performing these same anal tests which are supposed to have been outlawed - charges they deny.

Class and freedom

One refuge in the region for some is Israel, one of the most progressive countries in the world for LGBT rights.

Same-sex relationships are protected by law, and the only annual gay pride march in the Middle East takes place in Tel Aviv - regarded as an international gay capital.

Since 1993 - well before the US and other Western countries - openly gay people have been allowed to serve in the military. Palestinians from conservative homes have also fled to Israel to avoid persecution.

And, of course, the experiences of gay people in the Middle East are as varied and contrasting as the region itself.

Living an openly gay life in Saudi Arabia, for example, would be impossible and vastly different compared with an open life in Lebanon.

But as with so much in the region, socio-economic status dictates relative freedom.

Bars and clubs for gay people do exist in Lebanon, for example, but these are only really accessible to those who can afford their expensive drinks.

Ahmed, a successful businessman from Sidon, is "out" to some of his friends.

But, he told me, this is because "I can afford to be". When it comes to telling his family, that is a different story.

They own the company for which he works, and he fears telling them would remove the very economic freedom that allows him to live at least part of his life as a gay man.

Jawad and the men I met at Proud live a very different life.

They have become the targets of a nation struggling to support the huge number of refugees coming into Lebanon.

Like other minorities, they are easily blamed for problems for which they bear little responsibility.

Facing these issues without their families - or even against them - makes their struggle almost impossible to deal with.

Fighting for their rights

Rights groups continue to fight for LGBT freedoms in the region, combating widespread homophobia in society to ensure political leaders can find no willing constituency for their anti-gay views.

Gay activism is difficult, and often restricted to the internet because of the lack of public support. was one forum for people to discuss their sexualities and religious beliefs in a safer place - but had to close under constant threat of infiltration by the security services.

Boris Dittrich, from Human Rights Watch, explains how the organisation tackles the issue.

"Our experience in the Middle East is that singling out LGBT people as a vulnerable group doesn't resonate with the general audience or with decision makers.

"They will view LGBT people as a separate category they can neglect.

"Best is to embed attention to human rights abuses against LGBT people in a bigger frame.

"For instance address the issue of police abuse against several vulnerable groups - migrants, people with disabilities, unmarried women, drugs users et cetera - and include information about abuse of LGBT people.

"Social attitudes might change when the general audience can relate to personal stories of LGBT people. They then will realise their son or daughter, their neighbour or colleague could be gay or lesbian.

"The problems of LGBT people thus become concrete and relatable. Usually, straight allies are convincing partners to address discrimination of LGBT people."

It may seem as though gay rights come far down the list of priorities in a region plagued by war and violence.

As a gay friend in Egypt told me when I asked him if he thought he'd have an easier life after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled: "One thing at a time."

But as Sherine el Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel, points out: "Gay rights are human rights. You can't distinguish one from the other."

It has been a turbulent few years in a region of people struggling to forge better lives.

A truly democratic system, some would argue, is a more pluralistic one.

Perhaps one of the true markers of success will be how its minorities come to be treated - including the LGBT community.