The first ever gay pride event is taking place this week in Lebanon, a country where homosexual acts are still considered a crime.
Instead of the usual gay pride parades seen in the West, Beirut Pride will include an exhibition on gender fluidity in fashion as well as a storytelling get-together centered on coming-out stories and a gay-themed party in one of the Middle East’s biggest night clubs.
Several anti-homophobia events and demonstrations have taken place in Lebanon in recent years, but activists are hailing Beirut Pride as a “first”.
“This is definitely a big milestone. I’m very excited that this is happening,” said Diana Abou Abbas, a member of the queer community since its genesis more than 15 years ago and manager at Beirut sexual-health center Marsa.
The event could break significant ground, just as a recent online and television advertisement did by featuring a lesbian couple. One of Lebanon’s oldest and largest restaurant chains, Crepaway, commissioned the ad — a first for Lebanese advertising — “to include people we see everywhere around us,” its head of communications Mario Thoumy told CNN.
Crepaway received an outpouring of support after the ad ran. “Now we realize more and more how much this has affected people who needed someone to give them attention or respect,” Thoumy said. “We really didn’t want to exclude anyone.”
Abou Abbas thinks the ad goes a long way toward affirming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. “It’s really significant that a corporation as huge as Crepaway and that has been present as part of Lebanese culture for a while acknowledges that even if you are a lesbian couple you are welcome to come to Crepaway,” said Abbas.
The organizers say Beirut Pride is an event of the city’s own making — a culmination of years of grassroots mobilization that first emerged from secret meetings and online chat rooms.
Hadi Damien, initiator of Beirut Pride, told CNN that the first week-long pride campaign with more than a couple dozen events was the result of many meetings with nongovernmental organizations, artists and nightclubs. They came together to help improve the visibility of LGBT people across multiple venues and audiences.
Damien said that Beirut Pride is not looking to promote legal rights such as gay marriage — Lebanon has not fully legalized civil marriages. Nor do organizers seek to repeal Article 534 of the penal code, which prohibits sexual acts “contrary to the order of nature.”
They’re seeking to “banalize” LGBT people, to help “transcend labels” that alienate individuals of certain sexual identities.
“This is an initiative that is coming to denounce — and in very peaceful means — all kinds of hate and discrimination, but we specifically work with sexual identity,” Damien told CNN.
It is part and parcel of the environment in Lebanon as the country continues trying to bind the wounds of a civil war that drew in virtually every facet of a diverse society. Beirut Pride is entrenched in a larger effort to combat hate and reconcile communities, Damien said.
Asked if Beirut Pride could have come any earlier, the activists CNN spoke to answered with a resounding “no.”
They said the movement’s history has been rife with backlashes from the country’s religious and security apparatus.
Various anti-homophobia campaigns have been met with protests, and venues have been reluctant to host their events. According to organizers, a hotel in central Beirut that was meant to serve as a venue for a Beirut Pride launch event canceled less than 24 hours before it was set to begin after saying it had received security threats. CNN cannot verify their claims.
There have also been a series of security crackdowns on gay-friendly night clubs and bathhouses, events that stirred sizable debate in the national media.
But there are indications that resistance to LGBT rights may be weakening. Earlier this year, a fourth Lebanese judge ruled against Article 534 in a court hearing. And in 2015, the Lebanese Psychiatric Society called for its abolition.
“Now is the right moment,” Damien insisted. “I just feel it. We must be catalysts.”
One feature of Beirut Pride is a night of storytelling by members of the LGBT community. On the roof of a repurposed warehouse, people will take to the stage, pick up a mic and lay themselves bare.
One of the four speakers so far listed has announced her performance on her personal Facebook page.
“First time I tell this story in public,” she wrote. And then, a plea: “Familiar faces would ease the butterflies. Come.”