Are the Lebanese becoming more tolerant to homosexuality?

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The Lebanese may be becoming more tolerant to homosexuals in the country, an article in The Economist reported earlier this week, commenting on recent announcements from Lebanese medical authorities.

Statements from the Lebanese Psychiatric Society (LPS) this week and previously the Lebanese Psychological Association declared that “homosexuality is not a mental disorder and does not need to be treated.”

This brings the medical authorities in line with the positions of the American Psychiatric Association, a mental health world leader, and the World Health Organization.

The statement, celebrated by gay rights supporters and activists this week, is a groundbreaking move for a medical authority in an Arab country.

But it may be too soon to jump the gun and expect a change for homosexuals in Lebanon, where homosexuality isn’t losing its taboo.

The legal status of homosexuality in Lebanon remains a grey area. Article 534 of the country’s criminal code bans “unnatural sexual acts” between two people, which has often been interpreted to include homosexual behavior.

Negative popular and religious opinion in Lebanon, and the wider Arab world, is a large part of the difficulties faced by homosexuals, with Muslims citing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as an “example” of divine punishment for homosexual behavior.

Lebanon’s many Christians tend to be equally conservative, arguing that the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman only.

In response to the news, Lebanese cleric Sheikh Bilal Doqmaq told Al Arabiya English that despite his criticism of homosexuality, he agrees with the LPS’s statement.

“I agree – homosexuality is not an illness, but it is a sin,” Doqmaq, the head of a Lebanon-based Islamic society “Iqra’a,” said on Saturday.

“I think being gay should be considered a crime and have legal consequences in order for homosexuality, a shameful and horrific sin, not to spread,” he added.

Asked what he believes the societal response to the LPS statement may be, Sheikh Doqmaq said it was important for Lebanese authorities to “continue raising awareness over the dangers of homosexuality.”

He also called on intellectuals in the country to warn of these “dangers.”

“Islam, Christianity and Judaism all criticize the unnatural act of homosexuality,” Doqmaq added.

The move was hailed by equal rights supporters.

“Today, Lebanon witnessed an important milestone for our healthcare system and [drive] for equality among all citizens,” the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health said in a blog post.

Nadine Moawad an activist at Nasawiya, a Beirut-based feminist collective, told Al Arabiya English the news was “wonderful.”

“A lot of homosexuals seek out psychiatrists for help, and so it’s wonderful that psychiatric organizations have issued these statements.”

But Moawad said the move in Lebanon came decades late.

“International psychiatric associations had announced that homosexuality is not a mental disorder decades ago. It’s a little late for acknowledging this in Lebanon, but still it’s great news for gay people here.”

“A lot of parents and friends of homosexuals look to psychiatrists for advice and so this is great for dealing with what a lot of young people have to go through in Lebanon due to homophobia.”

“It’s up to us as a society to diminish the discrimination they face,” she added.

The statement from the LPS came after the publication of a Human Rights Watch report documenting alleged abuses of homosexuals in Lebanese police custody, including beatings and forced medical examinations to “prove” whether they had practiced anal sex.

One man, given the name “Nadim” in the report, told of his ordeal. He was arrested after the police were looking for his brother who was suspected of drug dealing.

“[An officer] asked me why I had messages and names of gay men on my phone, I asked him whether it was illegal to speak to gay men…He forced me to sign a confession that I have sex with men, all the while hurling punches and abuse at me,” Nadim was quoted in the HRW report as saying.

There was also a controversial television appearance from Lebanese psychiatrist Dr. Nabil Khoury last month in which he discussed different views that explain homosexual tendencies, including that of religious law which sees homosexuals as sinners, and referred to homosexuals using derogatory slang words.

However, the response by both the psychiatric authorities and the media, which largely criticized the incidents documented in the HRW report, seems promising for homosexuals in the country.

“The media is very supportive of our cause—a change from ten years ago,” George Azzi, who co-founded Helem, a Lebanese lobby for gay rights, told The Economist.

Helem, alongside the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health, had played a part in pushing the LPS to come to a firm position on so-called “cures” for homosexuals.

*Faith Barker contributed to this report.

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