AMMAN/BEIRUT — In Damascus, Amira al-Tabbaa lived her life in murmurs. Officially, homosexuality and offenses against “public decency” are illegal in Syria. That is why when Amira met with friends in ‘gay-friendly’ cafes they spoke “only in whispers.”
The 36-year-old Syrian dates her LGBT activism back to 2004 when she, along with other queer people, would help “gays or lesbians who were kicked out of their work or their home,” or those who had been beaten or sent to prison.
In 2008, Damascus felt a bit more open to Amira. “You could raise your voice a little bit, but still it was not safe to go out in a big LGBT group or have a party in an LGBT place,” she told Syria Direct.
Amira was 24 when she came out to her family. It had taken her years to discover why she was not interested in having a boyfriend and why she always liked the female characters in the movies. “For years I thought, am I coming out of space in this country? I felt like I was the only person like this.” In 2000, she came across the LGBT acronym for the first time while surfing the internet, finally finding the acceptance she could not find at home.
Her mother told her they would rather her be “paralyzed or have cancer” than be a lesbian. Her family told her there was an “evil” in her. “Homophobes will fight you with small verses of religion as if you are the worst person on earth, but I am not doing anything wrong, I am living my life,” she said.
As for Madonna Adib, a 34-year-old queer Damascene filmmaker now living in Beirut, she experienced a different kind of homophobia than Amira: internalized homophobia.
“There was no space for me to think back then. The whole environment does not allow you to think about your body’s freedom. It was very slight and sneaky, but in retrospect, I see that this is what made me come out to myself at the age of 28,” Madonna told Syria Direct.
It was not until Madonna moved to Beirut in 2014 that she discovered that she was queer. However, the years prior were essential to her acceptance of her identity, as she lost many things after 2011: her country, and her partner at the time, who was a male.
Though she acknowledges that Lebanon as a whole is not very LGBT friendly, in Beirut she was able to carve out a space for herself where she could freely explore and express her identity.
Similarly, when Amira landed in Lebanon in 2014, going to gay-friendly bars and night clubs in Beirut “was like a dream come true,” she said. In Beirut, “you feel at home and you have freedom in very small spots, but there are also risks. It depends on where you walk, but still...it is the best worst option.”
The more Amira became vocal about the LGBT struggle on her Facebook profile and in the media, the more pressure her family and society put on her. She was threatened and her house was attacked. But at the same time, she received “amazing messages” from people who were in the closet: “When I saw that I gave them hope, I felt satisfied, as I know what it feels like to be alone.”
“Lebanon is not a safe place for LGBT people; it is less dangerous than a lot of other Arab countries but that does not mean it can be labeled as safe,” said Basel Dakak, Project Officer at the Arab Foundation for Freedoms & Equality (AFE).
Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal code outlaws “sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature” with up to one year of prison. Two months ago, a 29-year-old Lebanese man was detained for having “inappropriate LGBT” pictures on his phone and in November will have a court hearing. “We are still in danger, we need this legal system to hold accountable anyone who will discriminate against or cause harm [to LGBT individuals],” Dakak added.
Despite its safe spaces, Lebanon suffocates queer people. Gay couples cannot display affection in public like heterosexual couples can.
Madonna related one instance when she was kissing her girlfriend on the beach and was accosted by public security officials (Darak). “They told us they wanted to take us to the [police] station, but in the end, they did not, maybe because I have a Canadian passport,” she said.
“It’s humiliating and uncomfortable. After that, I have not done anything in public with a woman.”
Syrian society ‘does not accept us’
Under Article 520 of the Syrian Penal Code, “unnatural sexual intercourse” is punishable by up to three years in prison. The article is rarely applied; instead LGBT individuals are prosecuted under other petty charges, such as disturbing public order. This makes it harder for LGBT Syrians to know where the red line is, George, a 20-year old gay man from Barzah, a neighborhood of Damascus, told Syria Direct under a pseudonym due to concerns of social reprisals.
“In some areas of Damascus, like Malaki and Bab Touma, you can do whatever you want,” George said, describing how the more affluent neighborhoods of Damascus serve as a safe space for LGBT Syrians. “In more conservative neighborhoods, I would hold my partner’s hand in a certain way, with the hands clasped, so people just think we’re friends, but when we get to a ‘safe’ neighborhood, we will interlock our fingers and no one would look at us twice,” he added.
However, for many Syrians who do not have access to these more affluent and tolerant spaces, it is not the law that they fear, but rather how society will cast judgement upon them.
For Ammar (a pseudonym), a 20-year old gay man living in the central city of Homs, who first discovered his sexual orientation as a teenager, telling his parents about his sexual desires was an impossibility.
He started using a dating app to find people like him. There, he struck up a virtual relationship with another teenage boy. Throughout, Ammar took pains to make sure no one found out about his hidden lifestyle, downloading the dating app in the morning and deleting it before his father returned home at night.
One day his phone was confiscated at school, and his teachers read aloud his messages with his partner. There he endured “the ugliest moments in my life, as all the teachers were gathered… calling me gay,” he wrote to Syria Direct.
After the public humiliation, his mother was called to the school. “My mother had a meltdown over the fact that her son was louti,” he said, an Arabic slur.
When he got home, his father turned violent towards him. Now he is no longer allowed to leave the house and his phone has been confiscated, destroying any sense of privacy he once had. “Whenever I argue with my mom, she calls me androgynous, dirty. I can’t leave the house, and they threaten to imprison me or burn me [alive] if I ever go back to being gay,” Ammar said.
Syria Direct communicated with seven other LGBT Syrians living in Damascus, Latakia, Suwayda and Homs provinces, and with the exception of one, all had experienced some form of physical and verbal abuse, public humiliation or had received threats from their peers. Three of the Syrians had attempted suicide, and one succeeded after being continually beaten and imprisoned by her family, according to her sister.
One 25-year old trans man (born a woman but identifies as a male) from Latakia who spoke under the condition of anonymity, realized he was transexual at the age of 16. Two years later, when he was 18, his parents confronted him about changes in his dress and behavior.
“They beat me, and told me that I was no longer a part of the family and would be locked up in the house from now on,” he told Syria Direct. He remains locked up in the house to this day, seven years later.
“It just breaks my heart that a family can’t accept their son because they live in an environment where doing so could mean they would be murdered or have their reputation ruined,” he said.
LGBT Syrians often rely on a network of LGBT friends and allies as an outlet. Many of them connect virtually, through social media, like Instagram, where they can find like-minded individuals who understand their struggles.
“Oftentimes random people will add me on Instagram, saying they are LGBT and they had heard of me and just want to be friends,” Layla (a psuedonym), a 21-year old bisexual woman living in Latakia, told Syria Direct. Layla is out and proudly displays her sexual orientation online and in real life.
She attributes her positive relationship with her sexuality to her father’s acceptance and support of her identity. “My father sat me down when I was fifteen, even before I knew I was bisexual, and asked if I liked girls. He told me it was okay if I did. He was the most supportive and loving man.”
She hopes that she can play a role similar to her father’s for other LGBT people in Syria.
“My friends all call me mama, even though I’m younger than most of them,” she said, laughing. It is clear she revels in the title, proudly discussing how she often counsels other LGBT friends, some of whom she knows in real life and others she has only met through a screen.
In March, Layla participated in a solidarity campaign started by LGBT Arabic, posting a picture on social media of her hand with an LGBT slogan—‘Wahed Menkum’ (One of You)— written on it. The picture went viral, receiving tens of thousands of views and comments. Some people were able to identify her identity through the picture, and she began to receive threatening messages on Facebook, one of which told her: “We know where you live.”
She was unfazed by the messages and unapologetic about her activism. “I don’t give a f**k,” she said. “What we need is awareness.”
From Hama to Toronto via Beirut
When Maher was nine-years-old, he loved to dress in his sister’s clothes, “with the makeup and the hair,” the 26-year old Syrian said with a smile. Being different was dangerous in his hometown of the central city of Hama. “In Syria people would beat me up on the street, just because of how I look or when they hear my voice, they would say ‘you are like a woman.’”
“Our region is conservative. The religion, the morals, the traditions, prevent us from being us. The law is against us, the society is against us,” he summed up. Maher’s family threw him out of the house in 2018, and since then he has not had much contact with them.
In Lebanon, where he sought asylum from persecution on the basis of his sexual orientation, Maher has found “a bit more space and acceptance,” but he still faces discriminatory attacks.
On his way to the interview with Syria Direct, he said, a man verbally abused him in the street. “He shouted at me, ‘Are you a woman or a man? Why are you dressing like this?’” He is wary that beyond safe areas like the neighborhood of Ashrafieh in Beirut, “there is big danger for us.”
Maher is counting the days to join his boyfriend - also a Syrian refugee - in Canada. His resettlement has been approved but he does not yet know when he will be allowed to travel. His partner left for Toronto nine months ago.
While dreaming of Toronto, Maher is active in helping the LGBT community in Beirut. He is one of the ten participants of the AFE’s Social Change Program, where Syrian LGBT activists go through a training to learn advocacy skills and develop their own project to help the LGBT community.
Maher wants to create a support group and use drama therapy to help the community from a psychological point of view; he plans to design a training to teach participants to write CVs and practice job interview skills, and create a hotline to report Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in the workplace.
“I went through a lot of things but I am standing; thanks to my friends and the NGOs around, there is a lot of support, love and acceptance,” he said.
At constant risk of harassment
“LGBT people in Lebanon are already systematically marginalized and violated, then being Syrians makes them more susceptible to arbitrary detention,” Rasha Younes, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told Syria Direct.
Eighty-eight percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack legal residency, living in permanent fear of detention and fear of authorities. “Security forces feel they can abuse them [LGBT Syrians] with impunity because the law does not protect them,” said Younes, adding that this sense of impunity extends to individuals who abuse LGBT Syrians “because they know that police will not respond to any complaint.”
When subjected to violence, for LGBT people in general – and Syrians in particular –going to the authorities is a far-fetched scenario, since many fear being persecuted or deported unlawfully. On a scale of vulnerability, Syrian transwomen face the most risk. “We’ve documented cases where Syrian transwomen were detained in Roumieh prison for months without even being allowed any visits, with no charge or legal basis,” Younes said.
In 2019, HRW documented instances of physical and sexual assault, harassment and detention against 25 Syrian transpeople in Lebanon at the hands of the general public, security forces and family members.
Last July, HRW and Helem - a Lebanese non-profit organization working to improve the legal and social status of LGBT people - documented 40 cases involving Syrian men, boys and transgender women who suffered rape, sexual harassment, genital violence by state actors in Syrian detention centres and non-state actors. Many of the male survivors who fled to Lebanon were also subjected to sexual violence in Lebanon.
The hotline of MOSAIC, an NGO that helps marginalized communities in Lebanon, receives desperate calls reporting sexual abuse, domestic violence, and sex trafficking, revealed Charbel Maydaa, MOSAIC’s founder and Executive Director. In the last six years, only one survivor of sexual violence agreed to file a report with the police. In 2019, out of the 243 beneficiaries of MOSAIC, 220 suffered from sexual abuse or assault, but none of them reported it to the police.
“We have this culture in our country where we always blame the victim when it comes to sexual abuse or rape, it is really hard to talk about it,” denounced Maydaa. If the survivor is a male, there is an added layer of shame, given that in the “patriarchal system, you will be shamed for letting other men sexually abuse you, they will question their virility and masculinity,” he added.
MOSAIC has been training medical workers in hospitals and clinics on how to care for male rape survivors. Given the difficulties in creating a shelter for LGBT survivors, groups like MOSAIC find safe spaces by reaching out to “friendly landlords'', hotels or other activists who may have spare rooms.
Further marginalized at work
Already engulfed in an economic debacle, the shockwave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Beirut blast has left half of Lebanon’s population at risk of failing to meet their basic food needs. This economic insecurity is “exacerbated for LGBT Syrians because of the lack of any kind of resources provided for them including shelters, emergency housing, and opportunities for employment,” Younes explained.
Plus, many queer people have seen their family ties cut. “If you don’t have housing you can go to a relative’s house temporarily, but when it comes to Syrian refugees, specifically LGBT people, they don’t have that safety net,” Younes said. In addition, several LGBT NGOS have been affected by the blast, further compromising the available support.
Amira has spent the last couple of years unsuccessfully applying for jobs in the NGO sector, but she says the employers tell her they cannot hire her because the quota for Syrians is full. Today, she survives thanks to the help of friends and cash assistance from an NGO. Her partner is Lebanese and lives in France, so Amira is trying to get to France with the help of NGOs.
Amira knew the journey to Lebanon was risky, but she does not regret it and is happy that she has paved the way for others. However, she warns those who want to come out to have a plan B, as “you may lose people that you think are your family.” She no longer speaks to her brothers, though currently her and her mother are in good terms.
Having escaped Hama, Maher gets emotional when looking back. “The past was very difficult, we lost many members of the LGBT community, we are tired from death, war, and blood.” Maher asserts: “We need to be the owners of our future, we have to fight the laws that keep hurting us and we need to answer every attack.”
He added, “We need to break the door of the closet that they put us into and get out: We deserve life.”
This report is part of Syria Direct’s project promoting gender equality, supported by the Canadian Embassy to Jordan's Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI).