"We Invite People to Think the Unthinkable"

An Interview with Nizar Saghieh

by Sara Scalenghe
published in MER230

What prompted you to found Hurriyyat Khassa, and what are its goals?

There was no particular event that inspired our group's formation. It was Lebanese socio-political conditions as a whole. Despite diverse backgrounds, all of our members agree that individuals should have sovereignty over their private affairs, while also having access to equal participation in public affairs. This is called for by the public interest, as well as justice and reason. However, Hurriyyat Khassa members have found that the Lebanese regime often systematically aims for the opposite -- to interfere in private affairs while restricting participation in public affairs. Confessional sentiments and interests are always used to implement this policy. (The elaborate system of political power sharing and social interaction between Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, Druze, and other communities is known in Lebanon as the confessional system.) Therefore, our members include in the notion of private liberties the freedom of creed and the freedom not to belong to any confession at all. Hurriyyat members also lobby for a personal civil status law that allows people to form bonds outside of confessional constraints. Such a law would lead to the democratization of the family and equality of the sexes, decriminalization of homosexuality, and protection of the rights of sex workers and domestic workers who are stuck in virtual or actual slavery. Hurriyyat believes that the current official multi-confessional lifestyle and political system that is imposed in Lebanon actually encourages the persistence of sectarianism, threatens the fulfillment of many individuals and alienates many from participating in the public sphere. The idea is that advocating for personal and private liberties -- including those that are in conflict with religious values -- would empower dissidence and weaken confessional affiliation and identity.

Why would your type of advocacy necessarily lead to broader political change?

Spinoza argued that reason remains inefficient vis-a-vis emotions unless it becomes emotion itself. We believe we can succeed only by allowing reason to grant legitimacy to non-recognized emotions, which may then become much stronger than the predominant community feelings and interests. Our membership includes independent lawyers, artists and journalists who previously worked on various human rights issues. Others are leftist activists belonging to the group Khatt Mubashir. A few identify themselves as gay and are members of an ad hoc group called HeLeM ("dream," in Arabic). We use both reason and emotion to lobby for various causes, including gay rights. We conduct research and we hold conferences, but we also produce creative short films and posters to capture the emotions behind the issues. Activism and participation in demonstrations are often as important to us as conferences and research. For example, on January 16, 2004, Hurriyyat led a sit-in against the death penalty in front of Parliament. Our researchers and lawyers took part in an earlier "die-in" covered by the Lebanese media. But our main focus has been to examine amendments to the penal code, proposed in November 2002, which conflict with human dignity. Three main points grabbed our attention in this pseudo-reform of the penal code: privatization of the public sphere, increasing interference in private space and the marginalization of many segments of society. We organized a very successful conference last May, and continue to lobby with other NGOs to implement its published recommendations.

How is Hurriyyat Khassa involved in promoting the rights of sexual minorities in Lebanon?

Although some of our members identify as gays or lesbians and promote community solidarity, Hurriyyat Khassa's approach is less concerned with founding communities upon sexual orientation than with fighting against exclusion or marginalization. We address sexuality issues through the wider scope of the right to human dignity, the right to be different, the right to decide freely about private affairs, the right to be fully recognized as an individual and a citizen, and the freedom of creed. The challenge for us is to put an end to the social taboo related to homosexuality without being marginalized or considered extremist. While pursuing this objective, we always strive to create a forum for discussion and, in particular, to find appropriate discourse that is in harmony with the ambient culture. We have learned to adopt the Trojan horse method -- to introduce a socially unaccepted idea under the umbrella of a socially accepted idea. During last May's forum on human dignity in the penal code, for example, we showed the filmed testimony of a young gay man, threatened with death by his own family, and claiming his need for love. Also, we addressed homosexuality in a paper for a session on marginalized identities that also included war victims and the poor. Of course, our lawyers do not hesitate to defend people for practicing homosexuality without covering it up under another issue. However, it is rare that we are solicited for such cases, as homosexual practices are rarely prosecuted by themselves. They are generally prosecuted when there is some other crime, or the homosexual act involves a minor, or there are some other special circumstances. One of the cases we have addressed involved Hizballah, whose security forces arrested many young men for same-sex sexual acts in 2003 and delivered them to the Lebanese police. The men were charged under the current penal code, which penalizes "unnatural" copulation with up to one year of imprisonment. They were released shortly afterward and, as yet, no hearing date has been set. The [May] conference's recommendations include the decriminalization of homosexuality and were adopted by many other human rights organizations. So we have succeeded in inscribing homosexual rights on the Lebanese human rights agenda.

How has the Lebanese government responded to Hurriyyat Khassa?

The standard response of the government to civil society initiatives is: no repression, no encouragement, distant monitoring, no guaranteed rights. Our actual legal status is a "civil partnership," almost a research center, so we did not require any government-issued authorization. Has there been any attempt to intimidate us or to restrain our activities? No, although we are openly raising controversial issues and have many times strongly criticized the government's position. Is there, on the other hand, any cooperation or encouragement? Not really. We have been invited to send the recommendations of the penal code conference to the parliamentary committee on human rights and we are expecting more cooperation from other deputies and committees. We are often invited by government bodies, such as those working on children's rights or AIDS, to attend meetings and so on. At any rate, one may say that, at this stage of our development, we are more enthusiastic about finding allies within civil society, raising awareness in the public sphere, finding the most convincing language and otherwise building our capacities. It is too early to appreciate the government's willingness to cooperate. In six months, maybe things will be clearer.

What about the media and the general public?

The press is our favorite partner, and has given our activities extensive coverage. Of course, the extent to which homosexual issues are tolerated varies from newspaper to newspaper, and even from journalist to journalist. One time, a major newspaper published one of our communiques only after it had removed our reference to "gay rights." The same newspaper refused to publish our communique related to the aforementioned Hizballah incident, for political reasons, I think. Another time, a female journalist from a minor Lebanese newspaper asked us to abstain from talking about homosexuality if we wanted to be covered by her newspaper. Of course, we refused to comply. I learned afterwards that this journalist, who had attended the entire penal code forum, had a hard time with her editor, but in the end she succeeded in publishing a story on the forum, with a brief reference to homosexual rights. Access to TV networks is more difficult, though we managed to get coverage of the forum from some channels. Also, we were hosted by a morning program for six consecutive days to talk about the forum. Concerning the public, I think we have succeeded mightily in breaking the taboo without being rejected, labeled or considered extremists. In 2002, we had true difficulty in attracting well-positioned people, but now Hurriyyat is ranked among the major human rights organizations in Lebanon. In the beginning, we were bothered by the fact that once the topic of homosexuality was mentioned in meetings, it became the sole subject of debate. We have now learned how to overcome this blockage, in order to keep the principles or the concept of Hurriyyat Khassa present in people's minds. Finally, I think that the public in Lebanon is more flexible on homosexual issues than is generally perceived. It is enough to break the taboo in a non-confrontational manner. One member of the audience at the forum discussions, in the course of five minutes, renounced many times his a priori ideas regarding homosexuality in response to the audience's reaction. To think the unthinkable -- that is what Hurriyyat invites people to do.

How do Lebanon's religious parties and authorities relate to sexual minorities?

To define homosexuality legally as an "unnatural act" aims mainly at giving transcendental basis to its criminalization. Yet homosexuality is generally only prosecuted in cases in which it is otherwise morally difficult to mount a defense. In general, there is a great deal of hypocrisy and denial about homosexuality in Lebanon. In February-March 2002, a widespread, baseless rumor about "Satan worshippers" linked to homosexual practices was given credence by police raids and never-completed legal proceedings, as well as official statements. During that period, religious voices took advantage of the occasion to reiterate their traditional position against homosexuality. They urged parents to safeguard their children's morality against "satanic" bid'a (new practices which are contrary to religion) such as homosexuality. Moreover, the "Committee for the Preservation of Moral Values," representing the main recognized sects in Lebanon, used the word bid'a to demonize homosexuality and even civil marriage. This committee is currently preparing draft essays on "moral values" and lobbying to integrate them into school curricula. Apart from the aforementioned case, Hizballah generally avoids social debates even though it propagates its moral values among its members and supporters.

If there is a gay subculture in Lebanon, is it limited to the capital, Beirut?

In the absence of statistics and real scientific studies, I can only share my impressions with you. Maybe one can say that this subculture is being formed and thus presents lots of uncertainty and contradictions. There are some practices which vary from one area to the other. Sure, Beirut is more accustomed to various practices than other areas. Nevertheless, same-sex practices are widespread and some cities are even traditionally known for their particular practices. Most of these practices remain at the stage of behavior, not lifestyle. They are clandestine and thus marginalized. They are more widespread among the poor and outside Beirut. As for the manifestation of homosexuality as an identity, the predominant model to follow at this stage is the Western model. In both cases, the people involved are in a state of rupture with their society, a fact that renders interaction and communication more difficult.

Do you mean that "the Western model" is inappropriate within Lebanese culture?

Hurriyyat speaks with an Arab voice, as we aim to legitimize homosexual feelings and relations in the Lebanese context. We believe, of course, that the homosexual choice responds to human needs and that, therefore, it has a universal basis. However, we believe that social recognition requires interaction between the individual and the society. Such interaction is more likely to occur if the society recognizes its history related to homosexuality and the human needs of its citizens, instead of denying them. Further, the possibility of interaction presupposes that homosexuals themselves have reached a certain stage of reconciliation between their sexual identity and the surrounding culture. Producing literature and art in Arabic related to homosexuality is an important step towards reconciling homosexuals with their native language. Also, the study of actual Arab history -- laws, practices, poetry -- is the best way for society, and in particular homosexuals, to reconcile with the Arab memory regarding homosexuality and also to find out the rational rules for the present time. For example, some notions in the Arab legal heritage may constitute a basis for the right to privacy, such as the well-known precept "man satar 'ala muslim satar Allah 'alayhi" (whoever keeps confidential information related to unlawful sexual acts, his/her reputation will be preserved by God). At any rate, Hurriyyat always focuses on the public interest. We try to prove that the criminalization of homosexuality in Arab history was related to the Islamic regime requirements (rationalite axiologique, to use Weber's classification), and has never been justified by reasons inherent to homosexuality (rationalite intrinsique). So, yes, the emerging Lebanese gay subculture has been influenced by the West in many ways, through TV, films, the Internet, periodicals, nightclubs and especially through contact with the Lebanese diaspora following the civil war. If such influence seems predominant in homosexual practices and behavior, it is because it is the only public model for those having such tendencies. In advocating for legitimacy on the basis of Arabo-Islamic values and human needs, we hope to render non-Western models possible, too.

How does religious sectarianism affect gay identity politics in Lebanon?

First, it is well-known that all recognized religions in Lebanon condemn homosexuality. One may expect, in theory, that this fact would render homosexuals rebellious against the confessional system. However, reality seems different -- the homosexual's confessional identity is still stronger than his/her sexual identity. The solution to this contradiction is to render homosexuals more confident in the legitimacy of their sexual identity or choices. A positive example of solidarity across sectarian lines is the organization of the families of persons who "disappeared" during the civil war. Those families, coming from different sects, have successfully cooperated since 1983, even during the war. Their love overcame their communitarian identities. In Hurriyyat, as well as in HeLeM, there is no room for confessional cleavages. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the various confessions are unevenly distributed across economic and geographic divisions. This implies a certain difference as to the acceptability of homosexuality in one confession or another.

Do you mean that gay identity politics are mainly confined to the (often Western-) educated middle and upper classes?

I think that the imitation phenomenon in Lebanon -- the communication of new practices and manners -- is important and things are evolving very fast, in particular inside Beirut and its suburbs. However, while those who identify themselves as gay people do not belong to one particular social class, those who assume their sexual identity socially are mostly from the middle class. Class considerations are also present in homosexual relationships, in the sense that homosexuals of different social status are less likely to form relationships.

Is Hurriyyat Khassa working on AIDS-related issues?

Hurriyyat works on AIDS issues from a human rights perspective, that is, we work to institute the necessary legal reforms to prevent AIDS or discrimination against HIV-positive people. The institutions working on AIDS always express their unhappiness about the criminalization of homosexuality which, by virtue of its targeting of homosexuals, somewhat hinders progress on AIDS issues. To the best of my knowledge, HeLeM, our sister organization, is the only organization which is making the link between the gay community and organizations working on AIDS. So far, however, HeLeM has not received any funds.

Does Hurriyyat Khassa cooperate with LGBT rights groups in Europe and in the US?

So far, there has been no cooperation with those organizations. Our current focus in Lebanon is on decriminalizing homosexuality, while Western gay rights organizations overcame this obstacle decades ago. Hurriyyat is very concerned with its independence vis-a-vis all kinds of power, in particular the problem of donor-driven agendas. That said, we are interested in building relations based on mutual respect with international or Western organizations, provided they are also independent and share Hurriyyat's main ideas about justice and human dignity. However, I think that our focus, in the future, should be to create a network for private liberties in the Arab world.