Post-blast, Beirut's LGBTQ+ community beset by homelessness
When Zuhal moved into her new apartment in Beirut’s Geitawi/Achrafieh neighbourhood on August 1 last year, it was meant to be a new beginning for her. The drag queen, well known for her monthly tongue-in-cheek astrology videos, had been living with flatmates for around four years in Furn El Shebbek before moving into her small apartment where she could live by herself.
But three days later, her world turned upside down.
“The explosion happened while I was sitting in my bed eating some snacks and daydreaming,” she recalls.
“The apartment got f*cked. The owner and my parents helped me fix it which made it look like a fixed house and not in a good way.”
The Beirut port explosion itself left more than 200 dead, 6,500 injured, 300,000 people homeless and destroyed entire neighbourhoods where queer people had found refuge over the last decade
Less than a month after the Beirut port explosion, Zuhal returned to her apartment to film a now-viral video clip that provided a searing, no-holds-barred account of the Lebanese crisis – much of which still remains relevant.
It’s now been almost one year since the devastating blast, and Zuhal’s flat is still damaged and without electricity. She admits to losing motivation to look after it and lives in a hotel instead. But, like countless others, she now wants to leave Lebanon.
“[The port explosion] psychologically destroyed me and took away so many efforts I invested in my mental health,” she tells The New Arab.
“I’ve decided to leave my country. The reason that made me stay this much was having the chance to change something and to empower the LGBT community, but there is no electricity to even do that on stage.
“I have no basic rights here. I refuse to be treated as an object. There is nothing to change here. It’s like adding a cherry on top of a shit plate. Queer or anyone else, we’re all finally equal in here, and in the worst way.”
|A year after the August 4 explosion that killed more than 200 people and levelled entire neighbourhoods of the city, no official has been brought to justice|
Zuhal is not alone. Her experience is mirrored across the Lebanese queer community. The Beirut port explosion itself left more than 200 dead, 6500 injured, 300,000 people homeless and destroyed entire neighbourhoods where queer people had found refuge over the last decade – namely Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael, Achrafieh, Geitawi, Burj Hammoud and Karantina.
According to a recently published Oxfam report, Lebanon’s queer communities have been among the hardest hit by the combined impacts of the blast, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the ongoing economic crisis. The Queer Community in Crisis: Trauma, Inequality & Vulnerability report is one of the first that analyses the impact of the multi-layered crises on Lebanon’s LGBTQ communities and their unique needs. Oxfam interviewed 101 individuals, civil society organisations and informal aid groups, an urban planner, and business owners in the areas affected by the blast.
The research found that Lebanon’s LGBTQ community was facing a housing crisis: 41 percent of those surveyed said that could not pay their rent, 58 percent said their homes were damaged in the blast, 35 percent were forced to relocate or change their living arrangements, while 39 percent did not have a safe living space.
Compounding the housing crisis for the LGBTQ community was job security. Oxfam found that 70 percent of the people it surveyed lost jobs since the port explosion, and nearly half had relied on family support and humanitarian aid to make ends meet. It’s worth noting that many queer refugees from the region – mostly from Syria – also live in Beirut, and their limited employment rights coupled with a lack of family support network make them vulnerable to exploitation.
Perhaps the most worrying statistic in Oxfam’s report was the fact that around 73 percent of survey respondents said their mental health wellbeing had worsened over the last 12 months.
73% of survey respondents said their mental health wellbeing had worsened over the last 12 months
Helem, a non-profit organisation that works to improve the legal and social status of LGBTQ people in Lebanon, helped provide Oxfam with community access. Its headquarters were also heavily damaged from the blast since as is located only 600m away from the port. Executive director Tarek Zeidan says the Oxfam report’s emphasis on housing and mental health as the top two issues of concern is “very reflective” of the needs of community members.
Indeed, Helem experienced a 40 percent increase in suicide ideation calls to its hotline, while its list of people in need of humanitarian aid and assistance had tripled since last year, with now more than 2,000 households in need of food, shelter, and medication. Helem has also received more enquiries about immigration and asylum than it did before the blast, and the number of new cases – individuals who have never needed Helem's services before – has grown 40 percent.
While the state of LGBTQ rights in Lebanon is often regarded as the most liberal out of the Arab nations, cultural stigma endures and same-sex relations are criminalised – although this is rarely enforced
“Helem was able to secure some funds to cover emergency housing and is working on creating a permanent shelter for the community,” Zeidan says.
He added that Helem supported repairs to damaged residences of LGBTQ individuals within the blast area and distributed several rounds of food boxes for 1,000-plus households. The organisation established a free medical clinic offering free diagnosis, tests, and medicine from trained staff able to handle LGBTQ cases, and established a free mental health support clinic for more than 300 individuals and counting. Helem also provided more than 500 individuals with emergency funds for the shelter.
Proud Lebanon, another civil society organisation, offered similar services for the LGBTQ community after the blast: it distributed food and hygiene kits to around 500 people, cash for rent for around 350 people, and continues to offer basic psycho-medical services.
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Zeidan went on to highlight how Oxfam’s report suggested that 11 percent of individuals had been forced back with their families after the blast, where many said they faced abusive, unsafe or unaccepting environments. He said this was particularly the case for residents of Burj Hammoud and Karantine, where the majority of working-class queer individuals lived.
“The area was not only destroyed due to its already failing and neglected infrastructure by the state but was also swarmed by armed forces and police forces after the explosion, which made it extremely unsafe for LGBTQ individuals to remain there, especially when so many were renting, often without contracts, and were not homeowners themselves,” Zeidan explains.
“Those who could go back to their family homes did and went back into the closet, which affected their mental health, and those who would not – especially trans individuals, sex workers, refugees, and migrant workers – were at extreme risk of violence and exploitation due to their homelessness.”
Previously, Helem had been the locus of a community support system through which members of the community would frequently host individuals seeking shelter in their homes for extended periods. However, in the wake of the pandemic, this service became limited for safety reasons.
“Helem worked very hard to secure resources to be able to keep households intact and individuals in their existing domiciles to counter this. But since the housing market is deregulated, and there is no national housing policy, much fewer protections for individuals from discrimination in housing practices, the ability to maintain this for an extended period is impossible,” Zeidan tells The New Arab.
“It is also worthy to mention that there currently is no equipped shelter for queer people in Lebanon and that existing shelters refuse to accept queer and trans individuals despite their cases being the most vulnerable.”
Sandra Melhem – the founder of Ego nightclub as well as the House of Ego drag family, which Zuhal was a part of – is among the group of community activists that created the Queer Relief Fund (QRF). Through the $65,400 in donations it received, much of which came from abroad, QRF members were able to be present on the ground to see things firsthand and respond to those in need. As a result, Melhem believes the community solidarity and unity that was visible after the explosion allowed people to seek support when they needed it – especially around housing.
“We were working hand-in-hand with several organisations to ensure that whoever had to move back with family that is homophobic/transphobic post-explosion was removed from that situation,” she recalls.
“Most – if not all – individuals who found themselves in situations that were dangerous either mentally or physically were relocated to safe housing. After the blast, there really was a consolidated effort by several people with the aim of supporting the queer community.”
The QRF is still active today and is now part of a coalition made up of eight grassroots and civil organisations, whose aim is to draw on their strengths to efficiently serve community members in need. Nonetheless, Zeidan believes more help is needed.
“Despite all of this work and the work of other organisations on the ground, the community is still suffering from chronic lack of access to health care, housing, employment and food security,” he says.
“The funds that came into the country following the blast proved to be insufficient to maintain the exponentially growing needs of the community as more and more individuals became impoverished and have to now rely on civil society initiatives in the wake of the total lack of government resources, responsibility, and accountability.”
Separately, Oxfam’s research also shows a pressing need to rebuild queer-friendly spaces and create new ones in Beirut. However, the Lebanese government has shown little interest in doing so.
While the state of LGBTQ rights in Lebanon is often regarded as the most liberal out of the Arab nations, cultural stigma endures and same-sex relations are criminalised – although this is rarely enforced. Nonetheless, Beirut has long been home to a handful of LGBTQ bars and nightclubs, such as Bardo and Melhem’s Ego. Another popular community hub is Madame Om in Gemmayze. Overlooking Beirut port, the 19th-century building that housed the drag queen salon sustained heavy damage in the blast.
“A group of artists and I were in the midst of preparing a show that was supposed to take place at Madame Om on the 7th of August 2020, and one of the last rehearsals we had agreed on was set on the 4th of August around 6 pm,” recounts Narcissa, a drag queen who hails from Karantina.
“Luckily, we had to postpone the show due to Covid cases rising around that time. Then the explosion happened and completely destroyed Madame Om… almost a year later and the owners are in desperate need of donations to try and rebuild what's left of the space, or at least relocate.”
Narcissa says the community – in particular its drag queens who have enjoyed a surge popularity in recent years – had relied on these "safe" areas of the city to feel "free" as much as one can in a country where basic LGBTQ rights do not exist. On the other hand, Zeidan says the areas in question were never safe per se, only "safer" and only for individuals with privilege and access to resources.
Despite the challenges facing the community, hope for the future continues to prevail – although this is easier said than done.
"[We are] fighting a war that not only has to do with gender and sexual orientation, or feminism and oppression – a war against years of corruption instated by criminals and terrorists that use religion and sects as a weapon to brainwash the masses and turn them against each other"
“Beirut's queer community is very resilient and personally I still prefer to hold on to the hope that a day will come when the community and the country as a whole will find itself in a better place and we would all be able to live in Lebanon,” Melhem reflects.
“However, given the current situation and the daily deterioration of literally everything, makes it somewhat impossible to hope for anything long term.
“The community is strong and perhaps more united than before and that keeps one still holding on to hopefully one day be able to make the change and push for equality and rights, but at this point, this is all dependant on what happens with the country and at least begin by assuring we get basic rights such as electricity, water and medicine.
“When and if the country starts pulling out of the current state of things, I believe then the queer community would find more space than before to flourish. Until then, we are here and we will keep trying our best to push boundaries and raise awareness and keep trying to promote tolerance in our environment and support each other as much as possible.”
Narcissa echoed Melhem’s sentiments.
“We as a community are resilient, but the question remains until when? And how much more can we take?” she says.
“Beirut's queer community is very diverse. There are the ones that left, the ones that remain and the new generation that's going to keep fighting alongside us.
“Fighting a war that not only has to do with gender and sexual orientation, or feminism and oppression – a war against years of corruption instated by criminals and terrorists that use religion and sects as a weapon to brainwash the masses and turn them against each other.
“There is hope. There's always hope, we only have to remember that we are not alone. And to keep fighting for the right to live.”