Why Is Lebanon Still Using Colonial-Era Laws to Persecute LGBTQ Citizens?

Lebanese protesters call for the abolition of Article 534 in May 2016.

Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, the New America Weekly. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

Many draconian Middle Eastern laws are homegrown constructions, ranging from Jordan’s Penal Code 308, which allows rapists to avoid jail time if they marry their victims, to Saudi Arabia’s infamous ban on women drivers. Others are hangovers of colonialism that Middle Eastern governments have been all too happy to uphold.

Lebanon, long called the Switzerland of the Middle East, fancies itself an exception to Middle Eastern authoritarianism: a bustling, cosmopolitan country that serves as an oasis of co-mingling cultures in an increasingly unstable region. A shame, then, that Lebanon applies long-outdated French laws against minority groups such as its LGBTQ population. It seems surreal that in 2016, the state harasses and tortures its own citizens based solely on their sexual orientation and gender identity., Violence against LGBTQ citizens in Lebanon is shockingly common, and stateside human rights defenders should take notice.

Lebanese Penal Code 534, a historical quirk left over from the French mandate that ended in 1943, enables the state to punish “unnatural” sexual acts. The statute’s vague terminology allows officials to apply the law according to their whims; it is presently used to persecute LGBTQ people, who face up to a year in prison if convicted.

Of course, LGBTQ people aren’t marching into police stations to proclaim their sexual orientation. Instead, when their paths cross with authorities, officials use any pretext (often based on stereotypes relating to appearance, mannerisms, and speech patterns) to justify rifling through suspects’ personal belongings for evidence of homosexuality.

Gay men report having their phones searched at routine checkpoints, only to be arrested and beaten for having gay dating apps like Grindr installed or for possessing nude photos of other men. Belonging to LGBTQ-aligned Facebook groups is also sufficient—even if there is no evidence of having participated in homosexual activities. The Lebanese authorities’ opinion of homosexuality is made evident in the purview of the Morality Police, who oversee cases related to homosexuality, along with other suspects accused of drugs and prostitution.

Even benign legal matters can turn dangerous. A police officer who met with a Syrian man attempting to gather the paperwork needed for refugee resettlement in North America interpreted the refugee’s mannerisms as “uneven,” a code word for effeminate and possibly gay. So the police officer orchestrated a 2014 raid on the hamam (Turkish bathhouse) where the man formerly worked; 27 people were arrested, after which they were subjected to compulsory HIV tests and torture severe enough to incite forced confessions. A similar raid on a movie theater in 2012 saw the arrest of 36 people who endured rectal exams and were lambasted as “perverts” on Lebanese television.

Unfortunately, these incidents of state-sponsored violence are not anomalies. Police often resort to beatings and outright torture in order to elicit confessions. Victims report enduring anti-gay slurs from law enforcement and situations that would constitute entrapment under U.S. law. A Lebanese LGBTQ news outlet reported that in April 2016 a transgender woman was arrested and tied to a chair for three days. A male officer demanded she sleep with him and, had the woman agreed, reportedly planned to use the incident as evidence against her.

Perversely, the Lebanese government’s attempt to tighten security in the face of Islamist extremists like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah have worsened the situation for LGBTQ individuals by increasing the number of checkpoints and security officials throughout the country.

Certainly, robust digital security practices can help protect LGBTQ people who choose to organize or find potential dates online. Tools like Tor allow for anonymous browsing; basic digital hygiene, like using screen locks, can prevent casual observers from peeking at one’s dating apps; and the messenger app WhatsApp now has end-to-end encryption on all its messages. And, luckily, there are plenty of Arabic-language resources for LGBTQ people in Lebanon who want to learn about these options. But the very fact that LGBTQ people (as well as religious and other minorities) must seek out technical means of protecting their private information—especially as it relates to consensual acts between adults—speaks to privacy’s fragility in the face of unfair laws.

Even worse, Lebanese society at large fails to sympathize with LGBTQ victims. A Pew Research study conducted in 2013 showed that 80 percent of people in Lebanon disapproved of homosexuality. One hopes that tolerance has increased in the intervening three years, but several high-profile incidents belie such optimism. There have been recent cases of vigilante citizens identifying their LGBTQ brethren in order to turn them over to the police. And government discrimination remains a serious threat.

Activists are fighting back. On May 15, as part of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, a Lebanese LGBTQ organization called Helem staged a 50-person protest against Penal Code 534 at a police station in Beirut. Other groups like Legal Agenda seek redress for victims by filing complaints against violent officers and representing victims in court.

But the onus for change cannot be on the victims of oppression. Bad laws must change. A couple of judges have paved the way by tossing out court cases against LGBTQ defendants, arguing that Penal Code 534 inadequately defines “unnatural” behavior. But while the law remains on the books, serious human rights abuses are perpetrated by Lebanese officials who target gay and transgender citizens and by police officers who compound these egregious violations with violence against LGBTQ detainees.

The French left Lebanon in 1946. Seventy years later, it’s time—beyond time—for this law to leave, too.