(This Nov. 13 story corrects paragraph 5 to make clear Zeidan did not found Helem)
By Hugo Greenhalgh
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nationwide protests that have thrown Lebanon into political and economic turmoil could end up being an opportunity for the LGBT+ community, according to the head of the country’s most prominent LGBT+ rights organization.
Tarek Zeidan, executive director of Helem, said the anti-government demonstrations that prompted Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign could usher in a new leadership “more willing to relax its iron grip ... on social and human rights issues”.
Despite being seen as a bastion of relative freedom in the largely conservative Middle East, Lebanese society remains reluctant to extend rights to the LGBT+ community.
By law “sexual intercourse against nature” - often interpreted by authorities as gay sex - remains illegal with a possible jail term of one year, although there have been six recent cases in which judges have refused to enforce the law.
Zeidan, leader of Helem - which was the first LGBT rights organization in the Arab world when it was founded in 2004 - said there had been headway in the courts but the recent protests could be a major driver for change.
“It is not the work of the revolution to change homophobic and transphobic attitudes for us,” said Zeidan,35, ahead of speaking at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference on Thursday.
“(But) the hope is that it ushers in a level playing field for us to engage in this important work on these very difficult subjects of gender identity and sexuality.”
Lebanon was pitched into deep turmoil on Oct. 17, when a wave of protests against the ruling elite began that led Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign on Oct. 29.
The unprecedented protests were fueled by concerns over poverty, joblessness and lack of basic services such as electricity, and also anger at a ruling elite widely perceived to have overseen rampant state corruption for decades.
Talks to agree an urgently needed Lebanese government remain deadlocked, raising fears that Lebanon’s political impasse will worsen pressures on an economy gripped by its deepest crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.
Zeidan said many issues faced by the LGBT+ population in Lebanon revolved around economic hardship, homelessness and violence.
In September organizers of Beirut Pride canceled the event’s opening concert after threats meant they could not guarantee the safety of attendees at Lebanon’s third annual LGBT+ week.
“There are many instances of people being forced to work in the informal labor sector, including sex work, where many are often very vulnerable, facing sexual harassment or violence and blackmail,” Zeidan said.
Zeidan said this was why the current political upheaval was so critical.
Political change could “usher in new, younger actors ... and younger people tend to be much more embracing of sexual diversity”, he said.
Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org