BEIRUT, Lebanon—The Middle East's first openly lesbian bar, Coup d'Etat, was launched in Beirut late last summer, shortly after an internationally-brokered ceasefire ended the month-long war between Israel and the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah.
There was little fanfare. Beirut's streets were no longer reverberating to the sound of nightly Israeli air strikes, but as thousands of refugees returned home and reconstruction efforts commenced, it didn't seem like the right time to throw a wild party, Coup d'Etat's owner, Raed Habib, said.
"We kept things very low-key," Mr. Habib recalled. "It was a terrible war that we had last summer, and we knew we'd offend some people by celebrating this very sexual place in that context. There was a small party, yes, but Coup d'Etat opened quietly."
Yet Coup d'Etat opened all the same, and the launch of the cozy two-story lounge bar on a side street in the western Beirut neighborhood of Hamra a year ago became one in a series of historic Beirut firsts for the Middle East's often beleaguered gay community.
In a region where even well-educated and reform-minded citizens often regard homosexuality as an imported Western vice, where homosexuals are frequent victims of honor killings and where in some places (Saudi Arabia, Iran) those convicted of homosexual activity may even be subject to the death penalty, relatively liberal Beirut has in recent years become both a beacon of hope and a safe haven for many gay Arabs.
"Beirut in the last decade has become for gay Arabs what San Francisco was in the 1970s for Americans," explained a British gay man who has spent several years living in Beirut. "It's the place in the region where people come to be gay, to feel free in their sexuality."
Though homosexuality is still technically illegal in Lebanon, he explained, it is widely tolerated, and a handful of gay and gay-friendly clubs have opened in Beirut in recent years, helping to turn Lebanon's capital into an important destination for gay men and women from around the region. Helem, the first gay civil rights organization in the Arab world, was founded in Beirut in 2005, and that same year held the first marches for gay rights to be held in the Middle East outside Israel. Barra (the Arabic word for "out"), the first gay-interest magazine in the Arab world, was launched soon after.
As meaningful as these freedoms are for Arab gays with the means to visit Lebanon, Lebanese scholars and activists warn that their days may be numbered. In January, the first lesbian bar in the Middle East closed its doors as quietly as it first opened them, because gay Lebanese women were staying at home, and gay visitors from other parts of the Middle East simply weren't coming to Lebanon any longer. And though Helem's office is still open and the organization still produces health and information pamphlets and offers free counseling sessions, its founders say that they have all but ceased formal political activism on behalf of gay rights.
"During the war last year, we stopped activism entirely and simply joined the relief work," explained a young Helem volunteer who asked not to be identified because his family doesn't know of his sexuality.
"And now, well, volunteerism is down across the board. All the non-governmental organizations are suffering. We were making a name for ourselves, and gays from the other Arab countries were even coming to us. But because of the situation, everyone is turning their attention to political work."
The situation in question is the Lebanese government's nine-month-long political deadlock. After UN resolution 1701 put an end to last summer's 34-day war, there was a very brief period of calm as the country threw itself into the rebuilding effort and monies flowed in from abroad. But by fall, a new spate of assassinations and factional scuffles had commenced, and by December, thousands of opposition protesters, led by Hezbollah, were occupying downtown 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."