Voguing for freedom: Lebanon's LGBTQ fight for equal rights

Story highlights

  • Lebanon's appeals court has ruled that homosexual sex is not unlawful
  • Lebanon is one of the more liberal countries in the Middle East, but the LGBTQ community faces social pressures
  • LGBTQ individuals are exploring different ways to express themselves

(CNN)Seven years ago, Hoedy Saad started teaching himself how to vogue after watching "Paris is Burning" -- a seminal 1990 documentary that spotlights the drag ball scene in 1980s New York City.

But Saad's dance floor is not in America. It is in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, where the 23-year-old veterinary medicine student has been teaching classes for the past four years.
Video by Rouba Noureddine
    New York City was where voguing, a dance form featuring elaborate body movements, first emerged. Named after Vogue magazine and inspired by the model poses within its pages, the dance and its origins can be traced to the Harlem ballroom scene in the 1960s -- and it is, to this day, closely associated with the LGBTQ community.
    "Voguing is not just a dance form -- it's self-expression," Saad says. "You tell your story when you vogue and you let everything out."

    New ways of expression

    When it comes to gay rights, Lebanon is known as one of the more liberal countries in the Middle East -- yet homosexuality has had a complicated legal status.
    The Lebanese Penal Code's Article 534 says that sexual relations "contrary to the course of nature" can incur a punishment of up to a year in prison.
    However, in July this year, an appeals court in the country ruled that consensual sex between two people of the same sex is not unlawful -- marking the highest level court ruling of its kind.
    But long before the ruling, individuals in Lebanon had been creating new ways of expression for the LGBTQ community.
    Saad says he was the first person to "take voguing seriously" in the Middle East.
    Video by Rouba Noureddine
    "I'm not sure of any voguing scenes elsewhere in the Middle East -- and that's because, in other Middle Eastern countries, people are more discreet about such issues," he says.
    "Voguing means everything to me," he says. "It helped me build a strong character (and) to face the world with no fear. I felt that I belong somewhere and I'm not alone," he adds.
    Saad says he has had positive feedback from the community. "A lot of places around Beirut are LGBTQ-friendly -- from clubs to bars to cafes to beauty salons," he adds. "And many NGOs are working on spreading acceptance within the country."
    Despite this, negative attitudes are not uncommon.
    Makeup artist-turned-entrepreneur Kim Mouawad, 30, opened Out Beauty Boutique in Beirut in 2017 with the goal of creating a safe haven for the LGBTQ community.
    "I've heard several disturbing anecdotes from friends and clients in the LGBTQ community vis-à-vis beauty services," she says. "They would receive nasty comments regarding their appearance or choice of clothing."
    "They often described being refused service and being addressed in a rude manner."
    The main motivation behind opening Out was her brother, Joey, who was "a closeted gay man for the first 24 years of his life."
    "I was so upset by what my brother had to endure growing up in Lebanon, and for years I brainstormed ways I could help young people similar to Joey (to) feel like they belong, and that there is room for them here."

    Social pressures

    While Mouawad says the reaction to her business has also been positive, this has not been the case for other LGBTQ-friendly endeavors.
    "The life of a Lebanese gay man in Beirut is similar to that of any other Lebanese citizen based in Beirut, in addition to expressions of hate and discrimination based on our sexual orientation," says Hadi Damien, initiator of Beirut Pride, which was held for the first time in 2017.
    Beirut Pride consisted of a series of social and cultural events. In May 2018, Damien was arrested during its second edition. "Being the head of Beirut Pride, I was arrested for the investigation as I was believed to be coordinating and organizing events that disrupt public order and incite debauchery and immorality," he says.
    Beirut Pride in 2017.
    Damien says that an "ill-intentioned" Arabic translation of the Pride program had been circulated on messaging app WhatsApp, addressed to the authorities.
    "The people behind it (the Arabic translation) are motivated by their homophobia based on their misunderstanding of sacred scriptures and based on their preconceived ideas about homosexuality," he adds.
    On legal advice, Damien says he signed a pledge acknowledging that he was being informed of the authorities' decision to cancel the events.
    However, some events that were suspended were reinstalled, and Damien says that Beirut Pride is working with new groups on future projects.

    Changes ahead?

    The new ruling is the latest in a string of events that signal a shift in attitude towards gay rights in the country. It has been welcomed by the LGBTQ community, says Georges Azzi, the executive director of Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality. He says he hopes it becomes "more and more (of) a common practice."
    In Lebanon's elections in May this year, electoral candidates actively promoted gay rights for the first time. Four candidates who publicly backed the LGBTQ community won seats in the election -- though Azzi says it is not known whether their support for gay rights played a role in their victory.
      Ultimately, Damien says the new court ruling brings the community "hope and determination to keep moving forward."
      "We cannot move forward if we do not continuously educate ourselves," he reflects. "Embrace diversity, focus on what brings us together."