Imagine living in a country with a corrupt government, rampant unemployment, a devastating economic crisis, a revulsion for anyone queer, and an overwhelming pandemic.
So, far you might think this scenario sounds familiar? A description of our current plight here in the U.S.? Well, think again. What we’re going through cannot conceivably compare to the depths of desolation and despair that has been occurring in Lebanon for the last three decades.
Then, to add more injury to insult, an explosion of epic and ruinous proportions in its capital city, Beirut, last week sent shock waves and damage from more than 150 miles away. The burst of energy released so powerful that it registered as a 4.5 earthquake. The disaster has killed over 100 people, with thousands still missing, and upwards of 300,000 left homeless.
We’ve all seen the utter destruction caused by the blast, and now in the aftermath, we’re witnessing violent protests, with many demonstrators breaking into public buildings to illustrate the ineffectiveness of a corrupt and useless government.
Lebanon and its government has had a long history of denouncing and criminalizing the LGBTQ+ community, including an antiquated law that prohibits having sexual relations that are “contradicting the laws of nature,” which is punishable by up to a year in prison. To live in this country now, and Beirut in particular, as a queer person, is to literally be scared for, and fighting for, your life.
Amidst all the ruin and wreckage, I was able to connect by phone over the weekend with Tarek Zeidan, the executive director of Helem, the first LGBT rights organization in the Arab World, founded in Beirut in 2004, and the largest LGBT group in Lebanon. Asking Zeidan how he was, seemed to me, like a senseless question.
“It’s like you almost can’t tell time. You don’t know what day it is, or what hour it is. Just constant confusion,” Zeiden said with a clear tone of exhaustion in his voice. “The day is divided up between checking on people in our community, checking on the center’s work, and all the damage to our office, and to all the members of our staff, some of whom were injured.”
To Zeiden, the real damage isn’t limited to the physical and material damage, and to those who were injured or tragically lost their lives. There’s a more profound dimension to this catastrophe. “Deep physiological trauma has been compounded in an already traumatized place and population,” he implored. “We are exhausting ourselves spending so much time taking care of one another, but you know very little about what’s going on, what’s being done or what needs to be done. It stings and it hurts so bad to see yourself abandoned by the very government that is ostensibly there to take care of you.”
Disastrously, the Helem office is less than 700 meters, almost ½ a mile, from the epicenter of the explosion, and the building where the office is located was virtually demolished. “We are in the area that was designated the most heavily damaged, and there’s really nothing left of our office,” Zeiden explained. “Some members of our staff were hurt, and so many members of our community were hurt. It’s been horrendous trying to pick the pieces.”
Zeiden said that the heavily damaged area included some of Beirut’s most popular nightlife and restaurants and some of its most opulent buildings. “Our center was in one of those magnificent buildings, and that beautiful seaside promenade was bustling at the time of the explosion since people were leaving work to go out.”
“It’s probably the most picturesque place in the city and the country, and maybe the entire world, and now that small enclave is gone,” Zeiden lamented. “I’ve experienced, bombs, assassination attempts, the 2016 war, but nothing can compare to what it’s been like these last few days.”
All of the successes that Zeiden and Helem had over the years through building coalitions with other communities that share their values has helped the survivors’ collective approach to trying to move forward.
“Right now, we are taking care of each other. Right now, we are working to make sure there is a community for us to fight for. It’s hard to do that if the community is left starving and homeless. We’ll get there eventually, but it will take a lot of time and a lot of sacrifice.”
In the meantime, the rise of COVID-19 cases in the city has made it much more difficult to cope with the fallout. “Because of the epidemic, we have to try and safely interact with each other, and we can barely hug each other,” Zeiden said. “The inability to adequately console one another because of the pandemic really makes it a perfect storm of suffering, injustice and heartbreak."
Zeidan kept reiterating that his organization and the country’s people will get through this.
However, don’t call him, or the Lebanese people, resilient. “One of things we are always praised for is our resilience. But we don’t want to be known as resilient anymore, because that means people become content with the status quo, and then adjust to it again when something goes wrong. In this case resilience has become a bad word from where I am right now. We want change. Everlasting change.”
But how to enact real change when the deck seems firmly stacked against you? “You’re right. It’s really hard to see the horizon at the moment, because we’re still clearing away the rubble, searching for missing bodies, and walking around buildings that are inhabitable,” witnessed Zeidan. “There’s so much uncertainty, and no one is able to handle the uncertainty, and there has been for over two decades now, so we need a huge political change to address all that uncertainty.”
Zeidan said the government needs to resign. “Our government is illegitimate. It has failed in protecting people. It has failed in protecting us from COVID, has failed to fix the economic depression, and failed to stop the political stalemate and political crisis. The country is in a state of continued chaos.”
Zeidan’s words were prophetic. On Monday it was announced that Lebanon’s beleaguered government had finally fallen, with the country’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, claiming the disaster was the result of endemic corruption. Diab announced the resignation of the government after more than a third of ministers quit their posts, forcing Diab himself to resign.
I asked Zeidan if he thought the powerful blast that shook Beirut may have also shaken people to push for that everlasting change. “One of things I’m hoping will happen with this event is that the people responsible will not be able to hide behind a façade anymore. Hopefully, the political process itself is jump-started, and people who are not part of the old guard can make their way into politics and find ways to make people’s lives better.”
“With this tragedy, people can come together, start coalitions, and get down to strategizing about what it’s going to take to build a new country where all of us can live in freedom,” Zeidan pled. “And queer people are definitely a part of that, because we are relying on that narrative to win – to make this country a place where everybody feels like they belong, not just people that are a part of a particular class. That’s why we are fighting, and we will continue to fight as we pick up the pieces and deal with the pain from the catastrophic blast and everything else that has tormented us for the last few decades.”
The international LGBTQ equality organization OutRight Action International has started a fundraiser to help Helem get back on its feet, so the group can continue to help members of our community who are suffering in the wake of the Beirut blast. If you would like to make a donation, you can click here.