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Out of the closet, into the fire

Lebanon is gay-friendly by Arab standards, but that's not saying much.

BEIRUT — Elias Haddad had his first sexual experience as a teenager, with a friend from his small village in north Lebanon. Haddad said the encounter left him feeling confused and guilty, “like I was doing something wrong.” He visited the village priest, who told him sexual activity of any kind, before marriage, was a sin. He didn’t have another homosexual experience until 10 years later.

“I didn’t want to be gay, I tried everything to be straight,” said Haddad, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “I went out with girls. I started to do sports, did what all the guys do, just to be straight.”

Now, Haddad is out of the closet to everyone he knows, except his parents and family.

“I decided not to tell them because they will not accept it,” he said. “They will treat me as a sick guy. They will do anything to reverse me to a straight guy. They will tell me to marry a girl without telling her I’m gay. They won’t accept the fact that their only boy turned into a gay guy. They will not talk to me.”

Still, Haddad lives a life not unlike a gay man would in Europe or America. Lebanon is one the most tolerant countries in the Arab world for gays and lesbians. But it is illegal to be gay here, and conservative social rules and honor codes can stigmatize gays and their families, jeopardizing jobs and security.

“It’s difficult being gay in Lebanon,” said Ghassan Makarem, an activist with Helem, a Lebanese civil society organization that advances the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders. It’s the only overt organization advocating gay rights in the Arab world, with an office and community center near downtown Beirut.

“Our idea is to normalize the issue in the society as a whole, and not just find a ghetto to live in,” Makarem said.

Makaram said gays and lesbians have found what he calls “space between the cracks” in Lebanon’s diverse religious and ethnic mix, where the state recognizes 18 different religious sects and people are generally tolerant of other forms of expression. Incidents of public assaults on gays are rare, although Makarem says they are underreported, along with assaults on gay prisoners at police stations.