Lebanon used to be known as a port in a storm for human rights defenders from the Arabic-speaking world – especially those working on gender and sexuality – to organize freely and without censorship.
A major space for this was the annual NEDWA conference, hosted by the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE).
Even as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people faced grave human rights violations over the years ranging from murders in Iraq, to jail time and forced anal examinations in Egypt, to rigid censorship of LGBT content in Qatar, Lebanon was a haven where embattled activists could meet at NEDWA to cultivate their movements’ resilience, tactics, and communal healing in the face of adversity.
That safe haven in the Middle East no longer exists.
Amid a targeted crackdown against free expression and assembly around gender and sexuality in Lebanon, resulting in an unlawful raid by General Security on the 2018 NEDWA conference and a discriminatory entry ban imposed on non-Lebanese participants, AFE was forced to move its conference outside the Middle East and North Africa region for the first time.
The activists adapted. Two hundred human rights defenders, artists, and academics from the region gathered in another country. They discussed health, human rights, and movement building. Queer and trans artists from Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt inspired the conference attendees with performances that reconfigured the meaning of resistance, embodying creative ways to combat state-sponsored repression.
Instead of safeguarding much-needed platforms such as NEDWA and celebrating these activists, the Lebanese government chose to forego its international obligations by claiming that the conference “disrupts the security and stability of society,” and collectively sanctioning its participants.
Lebanon’s suppression of LGBT activism is part of a larger crackdown on free speech in the country. Hamed Sinno, the lead singer of the indie band Mashrou’ Leila, whom the Lebanese government censored in July, spoke at this year’s NEDWA conference, condemning Lebanon’s decline as a center for art and tolerance, while reassuring activists that the fight continues.
Lebanon should take note: intimidation and threats will not silence the voices of resilient activists who will continue to fight for their right to live and love. By closing its doors on activism, Lebanon is divesting its image as the hub for freedom and diversity in the region.