Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?
No place for queer people


For years, Lebanon was seen as a safe haven for LGBTQ+ people from the region, but that is changing. Religious leaders and conservative politicians are fanning the flames of intolerance, and queer people say they are being scapegoated and blamed for the country's economic and social failings.

In episode 1 of "Lebanon: should I stay or should I go?" we hear from Adam, Joe and Karim who tell us how they are coping with this increasingly hostile environment in their homeland. We also speak to activist Maya Al Ammar about the current state of LGBTQ+ rights in the country.

"Lebanon: should I stay or should I go?" is produced by Sowt for Context, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s digital news platform and it is the story of a nation's collapse as told by its own people.

This episode was produced by Jawad Rizkallah and Basant Samhout, hosted by Nazih Osseiran. Sound Design by Siham Arous. Editorial support by Rana Daoud. The show's Executive Producer is Nada Issa. Original score is composed by Firas Abou Fakher.

Read the full transcript below or via the transcript tab above.


Nazih: This podcast was produced before and during Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and South Lebanon. 

Adam: There’s literally nothing that I can do. If I don't have a choice, if I can leave or not. Either financially or familial or whatever the reason be, I'm just anxious and afraid of what’s going to happen. 

Joe: I have not made the decision to leave or stay. I think I'm leaning more towards staying even though it might cost my safety. I want to stay, but I think the smarter decision would be to leave. 

Nazih: Over the last four years, Lebanon, my country, has suffered its biggest economic meltdown in more than a century. Our currency has lost 90% of its value. Our annual inflation in 2023 is more than 250%. As each day passes, people have less and less, while everything costs more and more: food, medicine, electricity, even water. So what are our options? Well, those who have the means to leave the country are leaving. And the rest of us? Do we wait and hope that things get better? Or do we figure out how to get out of here for better opportunities elsewhere? What happens to those of us who can't leave or have nowhere to go? I am Nazih Osseiran, Middle East correspondent for Context, the Thomson Reuters Foundation's digital news platform. And this is “Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?” A podcast about how this country's crisis is hitting its most vulnerable people, and how they are grappling with the choice of staying here or leaving.

Clip: Translation: This is Satan's home. Promoting queers. Not allowed on our turf! Promoting queers/homosexuality is not allowed! We have spoken to you, and this is just the beginning. This is just the beginning. We have warned you a hundred times… 

Nazih: These are the voices of the members of a Christian extremist group known as the Soldiers of God, as they raided the boy in Beirut's nightlife district during a drag show in August this year (2023). People from this group sometimes carry weapons and have repeatedly raided places associated with Lebanon's LGBTQ+ community, accusing them of promoting homosexuality. All at a time when we're seeing an increase in homophobic rhetoric from the country's politicians. Lebanon has long been considered a liberal and tolerant country compared to others in the region, with gay friendly clubs, bars and civil society organizations spread out across the capital. Spaces of relative safety flourished despite growing pressure from conservative elements in Lebanese society. But lately, many queer people tell us they've noticed a shift from that tolerance. They say they are now being scapegoated for the country's

problems, instead of fixing the economy or pushing for justice, in the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut blast, politicians, along with some leaders of Lebanon's more conservative groups, have instead taken aim at LGBTQ+ people. 

Clip: Translation: A man with a man, a girl with a girl, what a hideous thing. In the case of homosexuality, there is no distinction between a single person and a married person. In this instance, from the very first time, even if the person is unmarried, he is killed. 

Nazih: That's Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the powerful Hezbollah movement, which is based in Lebanon. He has targeted LGBTQ+ people in several recent speeches, claiming that according to Islam, gay sex is punishable with death and calling them an imminent threat to society. In this episode, I'll be speaking with LGBTQ+ people Adam, Jo and Karim to try and understand how they navigate this environment. Their government doesn't support them and powerful groups hate them. So what do you do when your homeland becomes so hostile? 

I wanted to hear from people who had faced abuse, but many didn't want to talk to me on the record, afraid of what the consequences might be. But then, in spite of the risk, a 35 year old gay man from a conservative Muslim family agreed to talk on condition that we conceal his identity. We'll call him Karim. 

Karim: In a nutshell, my family is a pure Beiruti family, Sunni, very traditional. So growing up I would be questioning my own self. Why am I like this? Why am I not like everyone else? Why am I so different? Imagine you have around 18 years where you hate yourself and you wish death upon yourself. You're a disappointment to yourself. The economic collapse happened and then covid, and then you started feeling as if your freedom is slowly and slowly being taken away from you. It feels kind of suffocating. The spaces the friend, the gay-friendly spaces, or the gay-labeled spaces have been taken, have been closing due to the economic collapse. So that also played a huge role in your sense of home, as if the home that you have kind of diminished. 

Nazih: In 2015, Kareem took a job in Saudi Arabia. He was looking for economic stability, but instead found himself in a place vastly more conservative than Lebanon. This had a detrimental impact on his mental health. At one stage, he became suicidal and someone close to him convinced him to return home. 

Karim: Luckily for me, with the therapy, it was solved. I was able to come out to my mother. So when I reached that moment, when I came out to my mom, I was actually crying. And she was the one who is calm, which was very weird for a gay coming out. So what happened is that after a while, she told me that I don't care about anything else. If that's how God created you, who am I to judgment God's creation? That to me, still hits the nail every time. 

Nazih: That kind of acceptance isn't common here, so it's surprising to meet people like Joe, a 20 year old trans man and university student who transitioned two years ago.

Joe: My family is Christian, very Christian, and that I wasn't planning on coming out as trans, actually. It was just hiding from my family. 

Nazih: Joe struggled for years with his identity, but eventually he mustered the courage to confront his family. His mother, however, rejected him at first.

Joe: I left the house for a few days and then came back thinking it would be the exact same. I don't know, it was completely different. My mom had learned some new things. She was actively trying to understand and be like, make me feel comfortable in my space with them. That was when she started using the right pronouns and calling me Joe, and it actually, like, really made me happy. So everything changed in a few days, really. 

Nazih: What was the most surprising thing about it?

Joe: The fact that I felt I was in such a terrible place just a few days before I came out, and that slowly started to change. Seeing her trying, just seeing her, trying her best, it warmed my heart, really. And yeah, that was the most surprising thing. So my parents managed to separate religion from their relationship with their child, unlike some other people who used religion against our community. 

Nazih: Maya Al Ammaar is a journalist who collaborates with leading human rights groups in Lebanon, some of which focus on LGBTQ+ issues. She has been reporting on cases of violence aimed at the queer community over the last year. 

Maya: Attacks are spreading. They are growing in magnitude and scale. They're perpetrating the attacks, including physical assaults, harassment, intimidation in public on the streets, online blackmail, including on dating apps. In May 2022, the Minister of Interior issued a decision to ban the gatherings that defend LGBTQ+ rights in Lebanon. 

Nazih: Maya also collaborates with Helem, a leading NGO which focuses on LGBTQ+ rights in Lebanon. They've set up an emergency hotline for anyone facing abuse, through which they're also able to provide some statistics. 

Maya: We know that since May 2022, Helem received 193 cases of domestic violence, 14 of confinement in the household, 614 blackmail and death threats. There has always been abuse, but according to Helem, abuse now constitutes 25% of the total number of recorded cases, whereas it was only 9% of the total number of complaints they received in 2021. 

Nazih: And these are just the cases that have been reported to Helem. You would expect that the actual number is much higher. 

Maya: Absolutely. We don't have nationwide statistics and the numbers are likely to be much, much higher. 

Nazih: These people who are brave enough to come forward and 

report the abuse they've been subject to, do they have any legal remedies they can resort to?

Maya: According to Lebanese law, everyone deserves protection from violence and from attack, and perpetrators must be held accountable. But when it comes to LGBTQ individuals, they don't trust the police and they don't trust judges. They don't even reach that phase. They fear that they will be outed and exposed and even punished for being gay. 

Nazih: The attacks that we saw in recent months, they've increased in tempo. Can you please explain to us why all of this is happening now? 

Maya: There's a global wave of hostility against LGBTQ people and also a national one. They did this to scapegoat the LGBT community and blame individuals for the country's problems and divert attention away from the country's problems. In May 2022, the Minister of Interior issued a decision to ban the gatherings that defend LGBTQ+ rights in Lebanon, the incitement to violence that's coming from high level figures and and very influential religious giants in our society, such as the Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah leader and other Sunni and Druze communities, and so on and so forth. I mean, when you have that combination, it's fatal and it's lethal. It's no coincidence that these attacks come right after these speeches. They embody, I think, this repressed anger and violence and culture of rejection of whatever is looks different. So these people are already very misogynist and they're homophobic. They are vigilante groups who claim to be protecting their neighborhoods. If they don't like your gender expression, then they will attack you. We've seen testimonies by partygoers, by a guy friend who was just happening to be walking in the streets at night, going back to his house. He was attacked because of the way he dressed. Also a girl I know who was attacked because of her haircut. There was collusion between the internal security forces and groups of men, street gangs coming and besieging protesters who were defending their rights to public and private freedoms in Beirut. They allowed them to attack the protesters who were there in a very peaceful manner, while the others were very visibly violent against them.

Nazih: Even at home, people are under attack.

Adam: I was living alone back then, in the middle of Beirut, in Ashrafieh thought I was safe and in a fancy area. I had a lot of people from all places and all looks and gender identities, all these people used to come and gather at my house. 

Nazih: Adam, who also refused to share his real name, is a 27 year old trans man. His home was a refuge. But then that safety disappeared almost overnight.  

Adam: This group of very right wing conservative Christians, who are also a part of a political party, very prominent in the area in the Lebanon, these guys were like out terrorizing people verbally. Any people who are out of the norm of the area. So any person who looks out of the norm like perhaps, um, effeminate, more masculine than they should be. 

Nazih: The group Adam's referring to is called the Soldiers of God. He told me it is growing in numbers and is ramping up its social media presence. In the summer of 2022, the group first made its presence felt, smashing a billboard displaying the pride flag near Adams home. Their activities have only grown since then. 

Adam: Knowing that members of such violent group are always right next to your house, knowing who's coming to your place, who's leaving from your place. But that's just more enough to hurt a person and make them feel unsafe. Because what separates me from them is a mere metal door with some glass around it. And they are like 20 guys, so I'm outnumbered. Of course, I always have this fear, I always have this paranoia.

Nazih: Driven to despair, Adam felt he had no choice but to leave his apartment, breaking his lease and leaving him out of pocket. 

Adam: So yeah, I chose to leave. I chose to leave the area. 

Nazih: Shortly afterwards. Adam's worst fears were realized. Soldiers of God, the right wing Christian group, attacked the drag show in Beirut. They were brazen enough to record what they did and share the video on social media as a warning.

Clip: Translation: Promoting queers/homosexuality is not allowed! We have spoken to you, and this is just the beginning. This is just the beginning. We have warned you a hundred times… 

Nazih: From the testimonies our team has heard and the videos we've seen, you can't help but conclude that Lebanon is becoming an increasingly hostile place for its LGBTQ+ citizens. Queer spaces are being forced to shut down, and queer people are fleeing their homes and neighborhoods, fearing the attacks will only grow in number and intensity. Religious and political leaders have not only been at the forefront of these attacks, but in some instances praised and encouraged hate crime. To date, no arrests have been made. No one has been charged with any crime. But not all have lost hope. There are those like Joe, the 20 year old trans man who refused to give in to the pressures that seemed to be coming from everywhere, all at once. 

Joe: Since I started uni and going out with my friends and stuff, I realised I did feel less lonely knowing that there were more people like me out there. And um, most of my friends are queer now. You don't even need to know the person to really feel safe around them, knowing that they have been going through the same stuff you are going through. That alone could make you feel really safe around the person and comfortable. 

Nazih: Safe. That's the word that keeps coming up during my conversations with every queer person I speak to. We want to be safe. Safe from discrimination. Safe from attacks by vigilante groups. Safe from being scapegoated by our political leadership.

Adam: Where are you going to sit? We need something affordable to just gather. Safe places to exist and be whoever you want to be. Many places get closed and banned temporarily or permanently. Others get raided. You know, there's no sense of safety. 

Karim: Okay, so imagine what do you like to do in your life? 

Nazih: I like to read. I like to go out. I like to see my friends in bars. 

Karim: Where would you like to go out? 

Nazih: Mar Mikhael.. Gimmayze.

Karim: Imagine Mar Mikhael is closed. No longer exists anymore. Imagine something that substantial in your life. When you're going to be going there, you're going to be treated as a member of a family, not just as a visitor. You belong there. A sense of belonging is there. And then suddenly someone decided to close it down. So we choose our families, we build a home for this family. And then at one point, someone comes and decides we're going to shut it down. The family scatters all over. Person decides to have a war in this country. The whole population scattered all over the world. Imagine that impact on this community. The closing of Bardo was not the first shot at the gay community. It was one of many that started and had a snowball effect. And then slowly things started happening faster and faster till we reach today where any sign of a rainbow is being removed, which is beyond stupid in my opinion. But this is the country that we live in. If we had the chance to leave, we would have left. 

Nazih: Bardo was a bar in central Beirut that welcomed LGBTQ+ people. It was a safe space where people like Karim could meet and mingle free from judgment and hate. But two years ago, after receiving homophobic abuse and threats, it was forced to shut down. 

Karim: I don't feel any, uh, how do you say it? Patriotism towards this country at all? I got a job, so I decided, fine, I'll stay. My parents are here. My brothers and my other siblings are not in the country. Fine. I'll stay here and I'll support my family to the best of my abilities. And the scene was fine. Everything seemed normal. Comes the economic collapse. Everything changed. Everyone who had the chance to leave, left. All the savings that I had were gone, just like everyone else's savings. And then covid hit. Also, another round. Everyone who was able to leave left. Everything started shutting down, even the spaces that we had as gays started shutting down, especially Bardo. Now my home is scattered all over the world. I'm using this country as a stepping stone towards where I want to go. I'm gaining experience at the office where I work in an advertising agency. I'm proving myself so that I can use the mobility tool that's available in order to transfer to another office that would give me my freedom. Freedom to enjoy life as I'm supposed to enjoy it. I'm looking for a place where I can simply be safe. Having my freedom, having my right to date another gay person, having the right to marry. I don't want something privileged. No, no, no. Just the same life that you are having here as a Lebanese straight man in this country. I want to have that as well. My country doesn't offer me that option, so I leave my country. 

Nazih: Karim's family is the only thing keeping him here. But as violence against the LGBTQ+ community spikes, so does his desire to leave. But where to go? And will he be any safer there? A lucky few have the money and the means to leave the country. Emigrating to the Gulf states or Europe to claim asylum. But we all know how hard it is to be a migrant, a refugee or an asylum seeker. Add to that being queer and the odds stack up against you. This gives Adam pause. 

Adam: The amount of activities in Lebanon is crazy. The amount of creativity people have. Also, there's something that keeps me here. I feel like if I go into a country where a lot of people do not understand the context where I came from and what's going on, I will feel a bit weird because most of the people I have around me right now, we've lived through shit and beyond and good days and beyond together. If I'm going to be traveling somewhere unknown, without my chosen family, without my blood family, without these spaces, without these memories, I started losing people who leave and go live in a country where all of the services are there, have better medical, educational services, but they're quite alone. So right now I'm very confused. I was very adamant to travel and I was saving up, and I had plans like which universities to apply to, where to go, where to get out to. And right now I think I might just stay. Not that I completely want to, but unfortunately also, you know, blood ties and family and life happens and you have to stay with the loved ones who are not able to perhaps function perfectly except a few day to support them. I don't have a choice if I can leave or not, either financially or familial or whatever the reason be. There is literally nothing that I can do, so I don't have any thoughts. I'm just anxious and afraid of what's going to happen. I'm just tired. I don't want to have a cause to battle for. I would like to have a small atelier open. A small business perhaps, I don't know, I swear I would love that. 

Nazih: In my conversations with Adam, it feels like his vision for a safe and secure future in his home country couldn't be further from his unstable and insecure present, but he's choosing to stay for now. Joe is also unsure of what future he can have in his country, but like Adam, he's reluctant to leave. 

Joe: Since I started uni, last year, you know, I started seeing more things in the country and really, there's so much to see, and I've only seen half of it, maybe not even. You start going out with your friends, seeing, going out to nightclubs and meeting new people and stuff. You know, I'm just trying to live a safe and happy life and yeah, normal life, really. I have talked about this with my partner. We are planning on leaving and maybe hopefully starting a family outside, since it would definitely be safer for our children outside raising them there. And I also want to leave because healthcare is not you know, it's not ideal for us trans folks here. I experienced that when I went in for top surgery a few months ago. People kept asking me about, like, they were just baffled. They, like, they wouldn't get it. I tried explaining it a thousand times to each nurse alone, and none of them got it. But I'd spoken to my surgeon before, obviously, so he knows what was going on. It was mostly just the nurses and the hospital. They didn't really get what was going on since they don't really come across these cases a lot. I do want to leave when it comes to that stuff, but, you know, my family, my friends, it's a whole thing that you're leaving so much behind.

 It's not that easy. I am giving myself the time to think about it. Deep enough to know what to do and not regret my decision. But I do think I'm still going to regret what I'm going to do, even though I think it's the right decision. Because it's a lose lose situation really. It is very frustrating, the fact that I feel stuck in between two decisions that I can't really make, you know, I have not made the decision to leave or stay, but I think I'm leaning more, more towards staying, even though it might cost my safety, but I really think it might, it's going to change. But I'm talking purely from, like, my feelings and emotions. I think that, okay. I know, like, feelings wise, I think I want to stay, but I think the smarter decision would be to leave. It does make me resentful. Obviously, staying in a space where you don't feel safe, it does make me scared to stay. But I think my love for my family and friends and the country itself kind of takes over the wins over the hate. 

Nazih: Thanks for listening to this episode of “Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?” 

Special thanks to Karim Nameyour for providing us with valuable insights for the episode. And of course, thanks to our guests for sharing their experiences. If you like what you've heard, subscribe to our podcast on your preferred podcast or music apps. Tell your family and friends about us, and don't forget to leave us a rating on Castbox and Apple Podcasts. This episode is produced and written by Jawad Rizkallah and Basant Samhout. Sound design by Siham Arous, with music by Firas Abu Fakher. Nada Issa is our executive producer. “Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?” Is a production of context, the Thomson Reuters Foundation's digital news platform and Sowt Podcasts. If you want to send us feedback, you can email us at contact@context.news or follow us on Twitter or Instagram at Context newsroom. I'm Nazih Osseiran in Beirut. See you next week.