What Happened to Gay Beirut?

Yazan, a gay man in his early twenties from Damascus, Syria, said that he and his friends make the three-hour trip to Beirut as often as they can, and that since their high school days they’ve been fascinated by the climate of experimentation—political as well as sexual—that is on display there. They’re more cautious about visiting Beirut now, Yazan says, but they still take inspiration from the freedoms they see on display here.

“I remember coming out of Boa a couple of months ago,” Yazan said, referring to a popular gay club in central Beirut. “There were people striking for Hezbollah outside, in their tents. And here you’ve got all these gay guys coming out of a club, not hiding or being careful but just walking in the street, through the strike, and no one was bothering them. I thought to myself: ‘I’m standing in a free country.'”

Carla, a lesbian woman from Damascus, said that she was thrilled to find a pirated copy of the film “Brokeback Mountain” at her local DVD kiosk, until she noticed the Arabic translation on the cover.

“They’d translated it as ‘Perverted Mountain,'” Carla said. “But when I was in Beirut, I didn’t have to hide. We all go to Lebanon so we can breathe.”

Now, many gay Arabs who once frequently visited Beirut are staying away. This spring and summer, Lebanon saw tourist numbers plummet as the usual influx of tourists from the wealthier Gulf Arab countries went elsewhere, and dozens of restaurants and shops, especially in the downtown area still occupied by the protesters, have been forced to close.

Andrew Tabler, an American political analyst who has worked in the Middle East for more than a decade, said that Beirut, normally bustling with tourists from the other Arab countries during the summer months, has been quieter in recent weeks than he can ever remember seeing it.

“All the Lebanese I know are trying to find a way to leave, to get out of town,” Mr. Tabler said. “And the tourists from the Gulf are all going to Syria this year instead.”

The meaning of all of this for Lebanon’s openness is profound.

“Before the war, Helem fit in very nicely with the new discourse of ‘freedom and democracy,’ and was trying to take advantage of that,” a former Helem member, Rasha Moumneh, told Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper late last year, adding, “It’s just not the time for advocacy and it’s not the time for lobbying.”

“Lebanon is an oasis for many people from around the region, and not just in the realm of gay rights,” explained Samir Khalaf, a sociology professor at the American University of Beirut.

“But watching the Hezbollah demonstrations go on and on, many people are asking if not only the lifestyle”—Dr. Khalaf continued, referring to the relatively free gay life that has been possible in Lebanon in recent years—”but also all these manifestations of openness, freedom, experimentation might be under threat.”

What Happened to Gay Beirut?