Pictured: A Lebanese deomonstrator shouting slogans during a protest in the capital Beirut's downtown district to protest against a political elite accused of corruption and incompetence earlier this year. Similar protests have emerged over delays in forming a new cabinet to address the country's growing economic crisis.
Lebanon, a country ravaged by war for 15 years, had its most devastating blast on August 4, 2020. The blast killed 180 people, injured more than 6,000, and has rendered 350,000 people homeless.
The blast that is being reported to have created seismic waves equivalent to a 3.3 magnitude earthquake felt as far as one kilometer away according to the United States Geological Survey. While the exact cause remains undetermined, all seems to point to a port warehouse negligently storing 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate as the cause of the explosion.
With the entire country suffering, many in the LGBTQ+ community are suffering disproportionately as the country spirals even deeper into a larger humanitarian crisis.
Much like the many homes and business that were destroyed in the explosion, LGBTQ+ people also found their much fought for community destroyed in a mere three seconds.
With the destruction of Gemayze and Mar Mkhayel neighborhoods, two districts known for being gay friendly, many are left without safe places to go. While same-sex relations are still punishable by law, the LGBTQ+ community was able to build, albeit quite underground, a lively gay scene — places where DJ’s spin electronica, you can take a class in drag, and the trans community is free of harm.
While this community has become more open over the years, many fear that much of this progress will be reversed. Following the blows of an economic crisis, the global pandemic, and the recent explosion, many in the LGBTQ+ community are beginning to feel hopeless.
“We have not had a break from anything. We are all choking. Not that we had any sort of life before, but we had bits of hope, we used to have the energy to keep going and surviving," a lesbian rights activist, who chose not to be named for safety concerns, tells The Advocate. "Before all of this we were able to live 5 percent of who we are, you could not be anything all the way, but we had that 5 percent. Now it is slowly disappearing, and I do not know what is going to happen next."
SIDC, a local United Nations-funded NGO that works with the LGBTQ+ community, has reported seeing an increase in reports of workplace discrimination.
"Since the beginning of the economic crisis many in this community have been the first ones fired, making an already vulnerable group at a higher risk for housing and food insecurity," explains SIDC community organizer Rania Ramlawi.
As the Lebanese pound (the country's currency) lost nearly 80 percent of its value, supplies have become limited and prices are continuing to soar. This has only been exacerbated with the explosion as some communities’ supplies have all but disappeared. Things like bread, medications, and even electricity have become even more limited than before the explosion.
“Within the LGBTQ+ refugee and transgender community, we are seeing a sharp rise in need," adds Ramlawi. “Some of the services we offer include cash support for medications, housing, and food and we simply cannot meet all of the demands.”
Of the 6.8 million people living in Lebanon, 1 in 5 are refugees. This gives Lebanon the highest per capita refugee populations in the world, according to the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency. Most of this population are among the poorest and first to lose work in informal “cash” sector jobs.
LGBTQ+ refugees already have a difficult time finding jobs in this sector due to discrimination within the refugee community, but are at an additional disadvantage as thousands of Lebanese join them in poverty. This has only been exacerbated by COVID lockdowns and now an explosion that has destroyed neighborhoods that often support many of these informal sector jobs.
“Unfortunately, with nowhere to turn, many are forced into drug dealing or crime to support themselves.” explains Ahmed El Hady, an LGBTQ+ Syrian refugee. “It is sad to see this because many of them become addicted to opioids and get sick.”
SIDC also reported similar findings as well. “We use harm reduction [needle exchange] in our prevention methods for preventing the spread of HIV and hepatitis," explains Ramlawi. "Unfortunately, there has been an increase in the use of this service among our refugee populations. But even more noticeable is the increase in drug usage and rates of HIV among the transgender community in Lebanon. We anticipate seeing this number rise after the explosion.”
Trans people in Lebanon have always found it difficult to find work, especially since the economy started to decline. According to reports, nearly 70 percent of the community has at one time been, or is currently, a sex worker. Many of those involved in sex work in Lebanon are hardly paid enough to buy food — much less shelter. With inflation rising, many are left hungry and are transitioning in and out of homelessness.
Many who can find stable housing often live with six other people in a one-bedroom apartment. With such tight living quarters, a higher risk of infection from COVID-19 exist, which is especially dangerous for those with preexisting conditions like HIV. With services meant to support the trans community disappearing, many are seeking asylum in other places. But with COVID measures in place, many are unable to leave.
Following the explosion, an even larger light has been shined on Lebanon. Around the globe countries, NGOs and other international partners have rushed in to help. A country that is often split by sectarian lines now has seen a time where enemies of the state, like Israel, are willing to send aid and help in the recovery.
While things in Lebanon are still very bleak, there still exists hope. A Lebanese man with whom I speak to frequently is looking ahead to a brighter tomorrow.
“We might be bleeding, we might be broken, but we will not be defeated," he said. "No matter how strong the pain, our will to resurrect will overpower, and the world will see us back on our feet and stronger than ever."
Learn how you can help by visiting GlobalCompact-Lebanon.com.
TAYLOR HIRSCHBERG is a global health worker, humanitarian, educator, and researcher who has spent nearly a decade working in underserved communities around the world. He now resides in Denver with his partner doing research on planetary health and HIV in older adults.