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Inside Georges Azzi’s Brave Fight for LGBT Rights in the Middle East

The executive director of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality reveals how to campaign for LGBT equality in some of the most hostile countries in the world.

Courtesy of Georges Azzi

When Georges Azzi co-founded Helem, the first LGBT advocacy group in the Arab world, in 2004, he quickly got used to visits from Beirut’s police force.

“They would come to the office and drag me to the station,” said Azzi. “They would say, ‘We need to interrogate you,’ or call me and ask me to come down to see them. They would question me for one and a half hours. They would ask, ‘What kind of activities do you do?’ ‘Do you organize orgies?’ They would ask personal questions.”

Later, realizing Helem—which means “Dream” in Arabic—had support among the media, the police would “shift their strategies” and inform Azzi that they had heard other people wanted to kill him, he said. “It was psychological pressure,” Azzi said. “Another way to try to scare me.”

But Azzi, who is 38, handsome with close-cropped gray hair, wasn’t easily scared. Today, he is one of the Middle East’s foremost LGBT rights advocates and executive director of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE), an organization that has been campaigning since 2009 for LGBT people, their rights and safety, in all Arab states across the Middle East and North Africa.

On Monday night, Azzi received the prestigious Felipa De Souza Award at the annual gala for global campaigning organization OutRight International, held in New York City.

Having international support is important for our morale. We know that whatever happens somebody has our back—and symbolically what the award means is that we have the support of the international community.

The day before, at OutRight’s offices in lower Manhattan, Azzi said, “Having our work recognized nationally, regionally, and internationally is important. We work in a very delicate region where the work we are doing is completely illegal in some places. Having international support is important for our morale. We know that whatever happens somebody has our back—and symbolically what the award means is that we have the support of the international community.”

In 2004, when Helem began, Azzi would respond to the authorities’ accusations that Helem was “encouraging people to be homosexual” by responding that it was simply trying to offer protection for those who were LGBT already.

Over time, finding allies in the media made Azzi feel more protected, but even today he is unable to get a visa to enter several countries because of the campaigning he does.

Defending LGBT people in Egypt is illegal, he said. A straight ally who raised a rainbow flag in support of LGBT people there recently was arrested; fortunately, AFE managed to help him get out of the country.

While some countries in the region refuse to give Azzi a visa, others, like Tunisia, delay the process for as long as possible. The Gulf states and Libya are particularly difficult to enter to do any kind of LGBT advocacy. “If I ever went to Saudi Arabia, I would probably get arrested as soon as I arrive,” said Azzi. “While we want our voices to be heard, we also want to continue to be able to do our work and so take the least risk, the smartest risk. We are activists. It is right that we risk, but we must also do our work.”

In extremely hostile countries—like Egypt, where LGBT people have been the subject of high-profile, vicious crackdowns by the authorities, as detailed in a Daily Beast report from last October—AFE will sometimes try to help activists leave the country for periods of time when the authorities are operating at full intensity, and then the activists may move back in a quieter moment.

Sometimes the activists move within the country to evade capture.“In Saudi Arabia and Egypt, most of the people promoting LGBT rights are doing so in a discreet way,” said Azzi. “They are not visible. They are using fake names, and social media and new technology.”

Egyptian LGBTs are being scapegoated by the government for the country’s ills, and the media piles on with hysterical condemnation, Azzi added.

“It’s impossible to make a human rights argument in Egypt,” he said. “They just do not want to listen to someone saying LGBT people are humans whose human rights should be respected. There is no empathy.”  

Life for an LGBT person in Egypt is extremely frightening, said Azzi. “Even on Grindr a policeman may try and entrap you. Everything you are doing is dangerous. A sex partner may rob you and knows you won’t report it because you’re too scared to.”

Azzi and I meet just as the week of celebrations to mark the second year of Beirut Pride—the only event of its kind in the Middle East—gets underway. This is the second year of the event, which takes place coinciding with, on Thursday, the 14th International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia.

Last year, Azzi recalled, one event had had to be canceled because of threats from Islamic militants. The event was moved online and received 250,000 views—many more people, he said smiling, than could have crowded into a bar.

Straight-identified venues in Beirut’s main nightlife area flew the rainbow flag in support of LGBT Lebanese people.

“The fruit of years of our activism was seeing how empowered our straight allies felt about coming out,” said Azzi proudly. “If you had told me 10 years ago that we would get threats from Islamists, I would have been scared, but with every threat we get stronger. It’s gotten to the stage where we can face danger.”

There is, as yet, no march at Beirut Pride. Azzi said LGBT groups are visible in bigger social justice marches, but organizers had felt that the safety of marchers for a dedicated LGBT Pride march could not be guaranteed. Azzi added that in the past, LGBT activists had protested outside police stations, and typically around 25 participants had turned up. “It is better for us to march with other cases, to show we can all work together,” he said.

Azzi grew up during the civil war, when Beirut was divided between the East (the predominantly Christian side) and the West (the predominantly Muslim side). “We know what the cost is when we reject the other,” he said.

His was a very conservative Christian family. “My parents didn’t hate anything, they were just set in their values. They came from a village to live in Beirut. For them, understanding what homosexuality is would be too complicated. I wasn’t scared for them to reject me, more that they wouldn’t understand.”

Growing up, pre-internet, the young Azzi would watch TV and see images of homosexuality “that weren’t negative, but they weren’t who I was or how I felt.” They were insulting, mocking representations that conflated being gay with being transgender. “I got no clear information from the media. I was confused and scared. I wasn’t the ‘gay’ person I would see on TV, I wasn’t one of those people who wanted to be made fun of.”

We were told gay people were devil worshippers, very promiscuous. We were bombarded with negative messages. That gave me some reason to do the work I’m doing, recalling being a teenager unable to find the one ray of light to help explain who I was.

At Azzi’s Catholic school, speaking about sexuality in general was a taboo, homosexuality was only whispered about as “something scary, a sin. We were told gay people were devil worshippers, very promiscuous. We were bombarded with negative messages. That gave me some reason to do the work I’m doing, recalling being a teenager unable to find the one ray of light to help explain who I was.”

Then the internet arrived. In 1997 and 1998 Azzi discovered the GayLebanon group and started chatting online to other LGBT Lebanese people. In 1999, he met one online pal for lunch, and from that a sequence of social events began that would lead ultimately to the formation of Helem.

In 2000, Azzi left Beirut to study, on an engineering scholarship, in Paris. He laughed at the memory. “It was crazy. The doors of heaven opened. I was 19 and discovering my different sexuality. I didn’t think back then I would become an activist. I wanted to study and stay there forever.”

In his first year there, Azzi had unsafe sex (there had been no safer sex education growing up in Beirut, he said), and had an HIV test. “I said to myself that if I tested negative I would devote some of my time to HIV prevention,” which he did—and so his life in activism began.

He got his degree in engineering, multimedia, and communications. His friends in Lebanon said they wanted to set up an LGBT organization and asked him to be a signatory. Azzi loved Paris, but Beirut was home and he missed it. However, he knew if he went home “I would need a radical change in my life.”

He asked his three sisters to tell his parents he was gay. “I was a coward,” he conceded, smiling. His mother is still alive; his father died in 2008. “They never addressed or address the issue,” said Azzi. “But my partner [of five years, Carl] is invited to dinner. It’s OK for me. There’s a common agreement to not talk about it. I can feel my mother doesn’t really appreciate it when I’m on TV. For her, it’s one thing to accept who I am, but something else for me to go out there and tell everyone else. She’s worried about what people will think and do.”

Azzi paused. “After so many years, I can’t remember the last time I had to come out to someone. I realize if you just say it without seeking approval, it puts you in a much stronger position. The problem isn’t me, it is society and the laws.”

When his trainer at the gym asked about his girlfriend two weeks ago, Azzi told him instead that he had a boyfriend. He refuses to go on to confrontational TV shows featuring homophobes who would deny or insult his right to live and love.

There is no “both sides” in a discussion about domestic violence, Azzi said, and neither should there be when “debating” homosexuality. “We are being investigated, raped, and thrown in jail. Really, there is no opposing point of view.”

Of course I was scared. I never take them seriously. If somebody wants to kill you, they won’t inform you before.

Azzi recalled one occasion when a local official on TV demanded Helem be shut down for “promoting debauchery.” It was scary, he said, initially facing powerful people, with so much more influence. It did not feel like an equal fight, but the support of colleagues, the media, and the international community helped give him the strength to fight, he said. Now Helem representatives go to the police station to offer support and expertise in LGBT-related cases.

As for death threats, Azzi said, “Of course I was scared. I never take them seriously. If somebody wants to kill you, they won’t inform you before.”

To date, he has never been attacked. He lives with Carl in the relatively safe neighborhood he grew up in, “where people have seen you grow up and can’t suddenly change their attitude towards you.” The couple have a golden retriever named Arya Stark, for the Game of Thrones character, after the pet fought back to health following an illness. “She’s a survivor,” laughed Azzi.

Azzi was heartened by a study AFE conducted in 2015 that confirmed that while Lebanese people held “very negative views about homosexuality,” 90 percent were against physical violence against LGBT people, and 65 percent were against Article 534, the law that criminalizes same-sex activity.

After 10 years of activism, Azzi said that while people would not accept a gay person in their families, they do not want that person to be considered a criminal.

Readers may recall the graphic images of ISIS thugs throwing reportedly gay men off tall structures to their deaths. “Ninety-five percent of Lebanese people are absolutely against ISIS,” said Azzi. “They see the horrible things they to do to women and everybody. It concerns everybody, LGBT or not. ISIS is a common threat. Everyone is on the same side, wanting to stop them coming to our country.”

It is, he said, just a 90-minute drive from Beirut into an ISIS stronghold in Syria, “at least before ISIS started losing so many areas.”

Extremism is a threat that everyone, all over the world in East and West, must mobilize against, said Azzi. ISIS’ presence in Syria means LGBT people there have to be enormously discreet, he said.

There is also little to no visible activism by the LGBT community in Iran, though there are private groups, Azzi said. In countries like Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, the presence of NGOs makes the situation a little better for LGBT people, but what Azzi hopes is that AFE’s work in these countries creates “a domino effect” in more hostile countries, or at least an implicit message that LGBT people in those countries are not alone.

AFE has gone from having four LGBT organizations attached to it in the region, to 22.

In truly hostile Arabic countries for LGBT people, Azzi said there was often a disconnect between law and practice.

“Take Jordan. If you’re LGBT and Muslim, there is no law against homosexuality per se in Jordan," said Azzi. "There are public morality laws, and being open is dangerous because of the country’s tribes and their influence. You bring shame to a tribe and not even the king can protect you from your tribe. The tradition of being Muslim is much more important than the practice of law and state. In Morocco it is the same: The greatest threat is not the state but the people around you.”

There are no supportive Muslim imam voices in the region, no tolerant religious voices condemning anti-LGBT violence or persecution, Azzi noted.

AFE aims to help people in hostile and isolated countries by letting them know they are being heard and supported, and trying to find them support near where they are. AFE also gives security tips to LGBT people on how to protect their data. In extreme circumstances, AFE will try to help them leave their countries.

People often say homosexuality is an imported phenomenon from the West. I say, no, homophobia is.

In Saudi Arabia, Azzi hopes LGBT activists will find a way to align with the women’s rights movement there. Many Arabic countries still either have historically anti-gay colonial-era laws or variations of them. “People often say homosexuality is an imported phenomenon from the West,” said Azzi, smiling. “I say, no, homophobia is.”

In the recent Lebanese elections, Helem scored another small breakthrough: A number of mainstream candidates said they would support the decriminalization of homosexuality—echoing the 65 percent in the 2015 survey. “It comes down to language, “ said Azzi. “Ask someone if they are pro-LGBT, and they will probably say no. Ask them if they support decriminalization, and most say yes.”

Now, Azzi and his colleagues are strategizing how to effect change in the law. First they will lobby those pro-candidates, and then, he thinks, rather than focus on Article 534 in particular, introduce the proposal of its abolition within a package of reforms of archaic laws.

In Lebanon, at least, there is social progress. Azzi said the last time a gay club was raided was in 2005. There are now LGBT societies at universities. Judges have passed some rulings that recognize the dignity of gay people. These were scattered court judgments, but still significant, Azzi said.

However, while Azzi would report a crime against him to the police, other LGBT people would not, fearful of the consequences of doing so.

As women are generally less financially independent, the position of lesbians is also precarious, said Azzi. “Being a gay woman can be a stigma, with much more threat from family and society than the law. Married women who are lesbians can have their kids taken away from them.”

The police were targeting, Azzi added, refugees and transgender people, “the most vulnerable.” It is not illegal to be trans in Lebanon, Azzi said, but trans people have to present different papers from different psychiatrists “and have to go through the whole operation to be accepted as trans, and many trans people don’t want to go through the whole operation. Helem legally supports many trans people who are forced to do sex work.”

In other Arabic countries, many conflate being gay with being transgender, Azzi said. Jordan recently forbid sex reassignment surgery. “The social situation makes trans people much more vulnerable to other laws that can be used against them.”

Azzi has a wish list of countries where AFE has not been able to work yet: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. In some there is fledgling online activism, but even encouraging activists in those countries can be difficult, “because very few people in these countries want to change the system. If they decide to change things on their own, everyone would attack them.

“Libya is also a mystery to us, and somewhere, like Iraq, where non-state actors are the biggest threat the LGBT community faces.”

Amir Ashour, the founder and executive director of the human rights organization IraQueer, is one activist aiming to bring change to that country.

We enjoy the support of many Western governments. But that support ends when we ask: Please give this person a visa to get them out of this country. Even if you’ve received a death threat, getting a visa is not easy.

“The government of Iraq is not itself persecuting the LGBT community,” said Azzi. “But in militia-controlled areas, we are getting killed. The government is incapable of doing anything about it. If the state is too powerful it’s a problem, and if the state is too weak it’s a problem.”

The hardline immigration stance of the Trump administration is beginning to have an effect. “We enjoy the support of many Western governments,” said Azzi. “But that support ends when we ask: Please give this person a visa to get them out of this country. Even if you’ve received a death threat, getting a visa is not easy.”

Carl, Azzi’s partner, was prevented from joining him on this trip to New York to watch him collect his OutRight International honor because the U.S. Embassy deemed it necessary to “get an extra security check.” No matter that they have traveled together before and Azzi’s work is so well known. “If that happens to my partner, imagine what it might mean for someone who really needs it.”

Azzi will eventually hand the reins of his LGBT activism to younger colleagues, whose praises he sings loudly. His longtime fantasy is that he, Carl, and Arya Stark head off to live on a farm in the country. In the shorter term, he would like to build a career in politics, not as a politician but as someone who advises politicians on human rights issues.

If I wasn’t gay, I wouldn’t have questioned anything. My activism has made me meet people I wouldn’t have met otherwise and given me a different exposure and knowledge of the world. I’m really happy about that.

He is proud of his campaigning work to date, building an LGBT advocacy power center for Lebanon and the Middle East beyond, from nothing. He doesn’t see himself as brave but rather “lucky” to be surrounded by so much support, and grateful for having met so many inspiring campaigners from around the world who have helped shape his own working life.

“I can’t imagine what else I would have done. The other option was working in an office in Paris as an engineer. In spite of the challenges and scary moments, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. If I wasn’t gay, I wouldn’t have questioned anything. My activism has made me meet people I wouldn’t have met otherwise and given me a different exposure and knowledge of the world. I’m really happy about that.”

For all the progress made, Azzi notes that while Lebanese authorities are not actively persecuting LGBT people, “they also remain silent towards homophobia and there is a lack of protections for us in the law. It is not a safe space.”

Anti-LGBT activists use the marriage equality victories of the West as a stick to beat LGBT people with in Lebanon, claiming that is what campaigners are asking for, and aiming to whip up public opposition around it.

In fact, Azzi said he is not campaigning for equal marriage, but he would like the law to recognize the validity and meaning of his and Carl’s, and other same-sex relationships.

“We cannot purchase property together with a joint loan,” said Azzi (as the couple just discovered). “In a hospital he cannot make life or death decisions for me, and neither me for him. Our hospital rooms would be for family only. We could not go into each other’s rooms, as we are not family.”

First Azzi will campaign to decriminalize homosexuality in Lebanon, then focus his efforts on the private sector to gain same-sex relationships some measure of recognition.

To LGBT supporters living in the West, Azzi asks that they “keep an eye on our region, offer what support you feel able to. We’re there. When we need something, we’ll send a message, we will ask for support. Just don’t give up on us.”