Beirut's reputation as a haven of tolerance in the Arabic-speaking world has taken a knock this spring. In the past, U.S. media have labelled Lebanon's only major city the party capital of its region and even (ludicrously) as the "Provincetown of the Middle East," thanks to its hedonistic, occasionally gay-friendly nightlife scene. There's some truth in this. Despite a hazy legal situation concerning same-gender sex, Lebanon is indeed alone among Arabic speaking countries in having a more or less open gay social scene, as well as the Middle East's first activist groups for both gay and lesbian rights. Last month, however, reports emerged of a brutal raid on a Beirut gay bar called Ghost, where several patrons were arrested, stripped, photographed and manhandled by police on orders from a local mayor. So is Beirut a tolerant haven or a city on the brink of an LGBT crackdown?
Talk to Beiruti gays and lesbians, and you'll find the truth seems to be as complex as the rest of Lebanon's social politics. In a country held together by a wary part-truce between many religious and ethnic splinters, most things there seem to have a spirograph-like intricacy on closer inspection. Beirut's waxing and waning reputation for tolerance reflects both Lebanese governments' conflicted attempts to align themselves with the West and anxieties about the country's future.
Since the Civil War ended in 1990, Lebanon's various governments have been keen to present a Western face. This yen has a long history in Lebanon, where much education beyond primary level takes places in French and English. It taps into a tendency among some Christian Lebanese to identify themselves not as Arabs but as descendants of the ancient Phoenicians, a self-identification only strengthened during interwar French rule. In more recent years, this Western orientation has exhibited itself through cautious social tolerance mixed with neo-liberal economic policies, a shift that can be seen clearly on the streets of Beirut.
Beirut's high-end consumer culture and party scene have consequently boomed, attracting tourists from elsewhere in the Middle East who are keen to wear fewer clothes and drink alcohol more freely, as well as Europeans discovering cafes, bars and beach clubs that wouldn't be out of place in Barcelona or Mykonos. This liberal attitude has had some interesting side effects – it has helped, for example, the spread of reality TV made in Beirut throughout the Arab world, as Big Brother-style shows that mix genders are easier to produce there without raising social hackles. Accompanying this post-war reboot have been many problems residents of Western cities will also recognize. Beirut's city center has seen a contested land grab by government-linked companies, the displacement of poorer Beirutis from the area and an ongoing speculative building boom that has seen old structures bulldozed to make way for luxury high-rises.
This anything-goes approach has appealed to some Lebanese governments' Western allies. It has also helped to promote Beirut's hedonistic reputation within the Middle East (the city and its environs are also a regional center for the sex industry), a reputation that has proved lucrative. Coupled with brave campaigning activities from LGBT activists, it has given some currency to the idea that permitting activities traditionally considered unsalubrious can have its advantages as long as they remain reasonably covert (and, allegedly, as long as those involved pay off the right people).
Lebanon's complex inter-community politics have also helped. With a population divided into many religious and ethnic groups, there is a long history of leaving people to police themselves providing they don't step beyond the confines of their group. Managing the divisions within Lebanese society takes so much energy and focus that politicians are usually too busy to sweat the presence of a few low-key gay bars.
This pragmatic approach, however, is not the same as real tolerance for LGBT culture. As this AFP article testifies, violence against gays, lesbians and trans people is common. The New York Times piece linked to above that dubbed Beirut the Middle East's Provincetown actually caused serious problems for the bars mentioned (many of which are now closed) when it outed them as gay, scaring off customers and attracting unwelcome police attention.
To people whose lives haven't been affected by homophobia, discussing this might seem trivial while Syria (whose capital is just 55 miles from Beirut) is pushing ever closer to Armageddon. In complicated Lebanon, however, the two issues are not unconnected. Local activists who asked to remain anonymous told me that patrons harassed at Ghost, the raided gay bar, were actually Syrian refugees, disobeying an autocratic ordnance by the local mayor to stay home after 7 p.m. Many Syrian refugees have arrived in Lebanon recently, often to mistrust and hostility from locals who remember Syria's occupation of the country and fear the war next door spreading. The fact that their appearance in a Beirut gay bar might have been enough to spark a crackdown suggests how capricious and unstable Beirut's no-questions-asked tolerance really is.
Top image: Flickr user Ahmad Moussaoui, via Creative Commons