When talking about the forefront of the struggle for LGBT equality, many people will think about the horrific treatment of LGBT people in the Middle East. This is perception is warranted, as in many countries in the region face social stigmatisation and legal persecution. However news out of the Middle East in the last 24 hours offers a glimmer of hope. A judge in Lebanon has ruled that homosexual acts are not punishable under the Lebanese legal system. This is an important step forward for Lebanon and the Middle East in a number of different ways.
Lebanon is not one of the more liberal countries in the Middle East but that doesn’t mean that it was going to be embracing LGBT equality any time soon. In 2007 a global survey by the polling agency Pew found that 79% of people in Lebanon agreed with the statement “homosexuality should be rejected”, and that only 18% said that it should be accepted. The same survey showed Lebanon as better than some others in the region (89% against in Jordan, 95% against in Egypt), but also worse than others (50% disapproval in Israel, 57% in Turkey). Indeed this is reflected by the fact that homosexual sex was only decriminalised in 2014, after a judge ruled that homosexual acts are “not against the laws of nature”. If you were to take anything away from this description it’s the following: on LGBT rights, Lebanon is better than most Middle Eastern countries but still (very) bad.
The judicial decision that prompted my writing this article was made by Judge Rabih Maalouf. The case whether or not homosexual acts should be seen in the context of Article 183 of the Lebanese criminal code, which concerns the legal standing of the accuser. More specifically, Article 138 states that “an act undertaken in exercise of a right without abuse shall not be regarded as an offence”. Judge Maalouf, in citing Article 183, concluded that “homosexuality is a personal choice, and not a punishable offence”. In the immediate term this is a positive step forward but I have one caveat.
I think it’s important to push for a clarification of his intent because this, while sounding generally positive, could be used in future stall the LGBT rights movements. I am personally focusing on the wording of the judge’s statement, specifically his use of the word of the word ‘homosexuality’. If his intent is that homosexual acts are a personal choice, and therefore shouldn’t be considered an offence in terms of Article 138, that is fine. People choosing to have sex with each other, irrespective of their sexual orientation, is personal matter and a matter of choice.
If, however, the judge is arguing that homosexuality is a choice and shouldn’t be prosecuted, this is problematic. In the short term it doesn’t really matter as it is an interpretation of the law that, irrespective of intent, should result in less harassment of the LGBT community. My worry is that if LGBT progress is built on legal foundations that aren’t true, for example that people actively choose to be LGBT, future arguments about legal discrimination, marriage rights, adoption rights etc., will involve people having to challenge this initial premise. If a clarification of intent was brought forward by the judge, it would give the Lebanese LGBT movement a direction to focus their activism.
The implications for the Middle East could be numerous. In Lebanon, LGBT people will no longer live in fear of coercive repercussions from the state, but without changes in the social attitudes of wider society this will not feel like progress. Just because two men holding in hands in public won’t, necessarily, result in police harassment, this does not mean that more conservative elements of Lebanese society will not react negatively.
Lebanon is unique in the Middle East because of its history of, albeit fragile, inter-faith cooperation and more socially liberal attitudes toward minorities than other countries in the region. As such, I would be very surprised is people in Saudi Arabia took notice of this move. However, in more moderate countries like Turkey and Jordan, this ruling may energise activists to agitate for change. Furthermore, Lebanon, due to it’s status as a majority Shia nation-state, has a long-standing relationship with Iran. News in Lebanon is often reported inside Iran, and although it’s not clear if many ordinary Iranians will be exposed to this ruling, the ability of information to travel across vast distances because of advances in information technology make it infinitely possible.
The news out of Beirut is welcome, especially in a country so hostile to LGBT rights of any kind, and Judge Maalouf’s ruling should be considered courageous. The only thing that is worthy of scrutiny is the intent behind the ruling. Thinking in purely consequentialist terms, the ruling was a massive step forward because it reaffirms LGBT people’s ability to go unpunished by the Lebanese legal system. However, it would be much easier for the Lebanese LGBT movement if Judge Maalouf issued a supplementary piece outlining the meaning behind his wording. The implications for Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East are contingent upon grassroots activism, and if this ruling galvanises support for equality in other parts of the region then this will unquestionably be a positive step forward.