Lea, a 25-year-old young lady, sought refuge in Beirut's Mar Mikhael area, hoping to escape the fear she experienced as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in a neighborhood dominated by Islamic conservatism. However, the very fears she fled from have managed to catch up with her in the Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze areas, which were once considered relatively safe havens for LGBTQ+ individuals in Lebanon. She tells Raseef22, "There is no other solution; it's either I live as I am or I die. I escaped to Mar Mikhael to live in peace, and what I had been fearing for years reappeared in a different form, one of Christian extremism, and now it's haunting me."
Today, the neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze, along with other areas that were once considered relatively safe spaces for members of the LGBTQ+ community, have witnessed a transformation. A radical religious group, known as the "Jnoud el Rab" ('Soldiers of the Lord'), has emerged, posing a direct threat to the security of these remaining safe spaces. In a recent incident, this group targeted a café in Mar Mikhael where a "drag queen" performance was taking place, citing indecency and sexual innuendo by artists expressing their sexual orientation in the show as their reasons. A passerby recorded the event, leading to "Jnoud el Rab" arriving at the scene brandishing weapons. They proceeded to besiege the café for three hours, before launching a violent assault on both patrons and performers then threatening to kill them if they dared hold similar gatherings or shows in the future.
The group first appeared in 2019 at Sassine Square in the Ashrafieh area, when they objected to a concert by the band "Mashrou' Leila" in Jounieh as part of the Byblos Festival. They halted the concert by force, accusing the band of promoting "sexual deviancy". They have consistently positioned themselves as adversaries of the LGBTQ+ community, abortion, civil marriage, and anything "the West led by the United States tries to promote, which contradicts the values of Abrahamic religions."
Today, the neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael, Gemmayze and other areas that were once considered relatively safe spaces for members of the LGBTQ+ community, are witnessing a shift. "Jnoud el Rab", a radical religious group, is posing a direct threat to these spaces
After this group first appeared, Lea found herself isolating at home for a month, trying to make sense of the changing dynamics. She reflects on the situation, saying, "Life was very quiet; the neighborhood I live in was serene, and my neighbors love me very much. We were on friendly terms with everyone, and I was living normally. I could walk around freely without encountering any harassment, bullying or hateful speech. I felt a kind of freedom in many ways prior to the arrival of Jnoud el Rab." However, as the group's presence continued to grow and expand to Achrafieh, Gemmayzeh, and Mar Mikhael, Lea endured a psychological shock and the painful realization that her safe space was gradually shrinking. She adds, "If I once could roam the streets unaccompanied, today, that has become impossible, particularly after nightfall. 'Jnoud el Rab' now resides nearby; they live here. The very terror I fled from in my original neighborhood has found me once more."
A shrinking safe space
The group defines itself as "Children of the Lord Jesus, Sons of the Church". According to them, anyone baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is a disciple of the Lord Jesus, as per the Bible, and that every word they utter comes entirely from biblical texts. In December 2022, the group gained notoriety after an altercation in Sassine Square, Ashrafieh during celebrations by Lebanese people from another region (Muslim) over Morocco's victory and their qualification for the World Cup semi-finals, taking place in Ashrafieh – an event that raised concerns and stirred controversy in Lebanon. Images and videos circulated widely, showing the group's members carrying swords and pointed crosses, dressed uniformly in black, marching through the streets of Ashrafieh in Beirut to the sound of religious hymns.
"Once they conclude their campaign against LGBTQ+ and queer individuals, they will begin targeting other groups, seeking to impose their regressive and reactionary cultural norms on society and the entire region they are live in. So will we stand idly by?"
"Sultana," a 28-year-old member of the LGBTQ+ community who performs drag shows, views this art form as a means to express her identity. She has been a resident of Mar Mikhael for years. She tells Raseef22, "Ever since my university days, I've been frequenting this area to feel safe and be myself. In Mar Mikhael, I could go out and express myself without any issue; the neighborhood was our space. But since the Beirut Port explosion in 2020, Mar Mikhael has transformed, and then 'Jnoud el Rab' arrived and took root in the area. It's no longer the same. The space has grown even more constricting. Their actions don't terrify me; this community has deep roots and a history. It can't be erased but, today, there is greater caution".
The two neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze, where members of the LGBTQ+ community once felt relatively secure, have now become increasingly oppressive, and fear looms over a significant portion of their residents. Sultana continues, "In my opinion, we are facing even graver challenges than before, more daunting than what we've ever experienced, and it's a terrifying reality. We hope that nothing worse will happen, but sadly, it is happening. We must confront it through various means to safeguard what little space remains for us. I don't believe the recent attack by the Soldiers of the Lord will frighten us. There is solidarity and unity within this community, and I believe we are resilient."
She adds, "I express myself, but each of us has endured hardships in the past. Thus, what happened won't fundamentally alter who we are. We must exercise vigilance to maintain our safety. LGBTQ+ individuals, especially in Europe, didn't secure their rights without enduring significant struggles. There's a lack of awareness about homosexuality; instead, there is a prevalence of hate speech and discrimination. Some are fearful, while others will confront this and return to Mar Mikhael."
"There is no other solution; it's either I live as I am or I die. I escaped to Mar Mikhael to live in peace, and what I had been fearing for years reappeared in a different form, one of Christian extremism, and now it's haunting me."
"Sultana" firmly asserts that 'Jnoud el Rab' do not inspire the same level of fear in her as the inaction of the security forces who merely stand witness to their assaults on members of the LGBTQ+ community, who endure beatings and threats without these enforcers taking any action, despite being entrusted with the responsibility of safeguarding the nation's security.
Diversity undermines the status quo..
"In actuality, Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael in Beirut offer pockets of safety for members of the LGBTQ+ community, unlike other areas in the Lebanese capital. These neighborhoods serve as spaces for nightlife, socializing and gatherings, fostering a welcoming atmosphere," states Doumit Azzi Draiby, a political activist and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon, in an interview with Raseef22.
He adds, "On the night that sparked terror in Mar Mikhael when a drag show by a group of LGBTQ+ individuals at a local café was targeted by an attack from 'Jnoud el Rab', where they employed violence and wielded weapons to intimidate those present, the security forces remained passive observers. After the assault, they entered the café in search of evidence against our community, but found none. The performance did not transgress any boundaries of decorum, and there were no children present. There are numerous comedy shows featuring sexual themes and innuendos, with 'Marioka' being one of the most well-known in Lebanon."
Azzi Draiby argues that the emergence of 'Jnoud el Rab' has brought about "significant changes in the region. Each year, the situation deteriorates further due to the intimidation tactics they employ. Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael represent the last bastion for the LGBTQ+ community, and this increasing scrutiny is dangerous; and threatens this vital space. Life in these two districts has undergone a profound transformation for this community, and it appears that more and more spaces where queer individuals gather are now under threat."
He underscores that "'Jnoud el Rab' are the very same individuals who aligned with Lebanese authorities to ban the 'Barbie' film. They are the very same ones who supported religious figures in their efforts to restrict women from wearing bikinis on a public beach in Sidon. Today, once they conclude their campaign against LGBTQ+ and queer individuals, they will inevitably target other groups, such as women, seeking to impose their regressive and obscurantist cultural norms on the broader society and the region they are in. This situation is immensely dangerous, as it is an alarm call for the entire community."
Azzi Draiby further adds, "We, the LGBTQ+ community, stand at the forefront of defending freedoms in Lebanon. If the spaces that are integral to this community's existence are lost, we would have no choice but to move to another country, and Lebanon would undergo an irrevocable transformation."
"Attacks on unarmed civilians by armed religious extremists, with no accountability whatsoever, has made the city less safe for everyone. It's not just the LGBTQ+ community under threat; now all individuals not aligned with this extremist group are at risk"
LGBTQ+ individuals used as an excuse
In that locality, particularly Mar Mikhael, the patrons encompass not just members of the LGBTQ+ community but also ordinary individuals who lend their support to the LGBTQ+ community by attending the performances of its members in Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze. They support the choices and freedoms of this community. George (pseudonym) is one such attendee of drag shows and performances, expressing solidarity with this community. He conveys to Raseef22, "In recent times, regular people have emerged who stand in solidarity with this community and frequent the shows of its members in Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze. Unfortunately, following the recent incident, they began harboring concerns about coming to this area."
He maintains that "Jnoud el Rab have grown increasingly audacious. However, the latest events – the assault on the café – suggest that they have crossed a red line. They conform to the prevailing public sentiment; they do not champion any particular cause. Given that Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze are inclusive and welcoming to all, the LGBTQ+ community has become their arch enemy. They require a pretext to justify their presence amidst the populace."
He goes on to say, "Presently, we extend our support to the LGBTQ+ individuals and other diverse segments of society, encouraging them to return to Mar Mikhael and attend the performances. This region is a space that belongs to everyone. There has been no conduct that violates decorum within these cafés, for when you demand your rights, you must also be mindful of your duties and responsibilities. This space merely serves as a platform to support LGBTQ+ individuals."
No safe spaces left
Lebanon has recently been marked by a surge in hostile rhetoric directed towards the LGBTQ+ community, stemming from both politicians and religious leaders. However, on July 12th, nine parliamentarians from various political blocs put forth a proposal to abolish "Article 534" of the Penal Code. This article currently stipulates that "any sexual intercourse contrary to nature is punishable by imprisonment for one year." It's noteworthy that this article, despite its vague definition of "contrary to nature", has been utilized by some judges to prosecute homosexuals and queer individuals.
This development came in the wake of a consultative gathering held in Deir el Qamar, with participation from politicians, ministers, parliament members, and representatives of political parties. During this meeting, Culture Minister Mohammad Wissam Mortada emphasized the need to halt the screening of the movie "Barbie" in order to "preserve public morals and in opposition to the promotion of homosexuality and transgenderism". This further fueled campaigns against the LGBTQ+ community and the rejection of any symbols associated with them, extending even to social media.
"In Mar Mikhael, I could go out and express myself without any issue; the neighborhood was our space. But since the Beirut Port explosion (2020), everything changed. 'Jnoud el Rab' arrived in the area, and it was no longer the same. The space became smaller"
Religious authorities from various sects in Lebanon have united in the fight against the LGBTQ+ community. Earlier in July, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, during an Ashura gathering, declared a comprehensive social, cultural, and intellectual battle against the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon, calling for the implementation of Sharia rulings against what he called "perversion". Nasrallah framed this as a battle transcending "party or sect," characterizing it as a "battle for the entire community, including its Muslims and Christians alike". This campaign garnered substantial support from diverse political and religious affiliations in Lebanon, even if they do not necessarily agree with Hezbollah in general.
Lebanon's acting Interior Minister, Bassam Mawlawi, issued a memorandum on June 24, 2022, to the Internal Security Directorate and the General Security Directorate, urging immediate measures to prevent any form of celebrations, meetings, or gatherings promoting what he termed "sexual deviation."
Tarek Zeidan, the Executive Director of the Helem Foundation, underscores in conversation with Raseef22, "The space for the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon has undeniably been restricted. The attacks on innocent, unarmed civilians by armed religious extremists, with complete impunity and no accountability, render the city less safe for everyone. It's not just LGBTQ+ individuals under threat; now, all individuals not aligned with this extremist religious group are at risk."
Zeidan asserts that "there are no safe spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals in Lebanon. The assaults and lies propagated by political and religious elites about the community have rendered all spaces unsafe. People aren't secure even in their own homes if their families buy into the lies told about them."
He concludes, "Given Lebanon's current state, where not only LGBTQ+ individuals but all those exercising their freedom of expression and belief are under attack, it's uncertain what the future holds. Instead of addressing Lebanon's economic and political challenges, the political system has opted to use innocent individuals as a distraction from their failures. This fundamentally alters Lebanon's essence as a bastion of freedom and tolerance."