In Lebanon, homosexuality is criminalised. This nonprofit is working to change that.
by Portia Ladrido
The month of June is Pride Month, a time for recognising the impact and influence that LGBT people have had around the world and an opportunity to peacefully protest and raise awareness of the issues that the community is facing today.
In this year alone, many glorious strides have been made — from the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Taiwan to the World Health Organisation no longer classifying transgender under ‘disorder’. However, this is still not the case for some countries. Lebanon, for instance, still criminalises homosexuality — a law that has put many LGBTIQ people in danger.
Proud Lebanon is a nonprofit organisation that works with vulnerable groups in the country. Bertho Makso, the founder of the organisation, used to work for an LGBT tour group; it was only when the war in Syria started that he saw the need to dedicate all his efforts towards the protection of LGBTs.
Makso started helping LGBTIQ refugees from Syria, albeit hesitantly, at first. “I was afraid at the beginning to be involved in anything related to Syria because I was planning to go back to Syria once the war got over,” he says. “Until a very close friend of mine had to escape to Lebanon. So I was like, ok, let’s do something. At that time, I proposed to a local LGBT organisation to host us.”
This was in 2013, and as more refugees found refuge in Lebanon, the need for support also increased. “We decided to become Proud Lebanon, an independent and fully registered entity,” he shares.
INKLINE talked to Bertho Makso to learn more about the organisation and the important work they do to protect the LGBT+ in Lebanon.
INKLINE: How did you work on becoming ‘Proud Lebanon’?
Bertho Makso: When we decided to get registered, we didn’t have the financial capability to pay the registration fees or to even hire a lawyer. I remember approaching my LGBT friends and tourists for help, and that is how we raised the money, through crowdfunding. Most of those who donated were previous tourists who travelled with me in the region.
We received one of our first fundings through the Canadian embassy in Beirut.
I: What has been the main mission of the organisation?
B: At the time, it was to provide support to LGBT refugees coming in from Syria. Later on, we realised that the need is increasing within the LGBT refugee committee. And at the same time, not all Lebanese were able to receive services from the other LGBT organisations. So we began helping all that were victims of discrimination.
I: Who specifically are these victims of discrimination?
B: LGBT rights are part of human rights. We at Proud, work 85 per cent toward the LGBT community, and the other 15 per cent to target the wider society of specific communities. So we work with refugees, we work with people living with HIV, and we work with prisoners.
In Lebanon, human rights violation is a wide [problem], and in order to bring change, we have to create a large number of allies within the different societies and communities, because change is holistic.
I: What has been the biggest challenge?
B: Funding is a problem, to sustain the services. We can’t get funds from the government because as you know to be LGBT in Lebanon is criminalised. To be able to get this protection in the country, we have to connect with the foreign delegation.
I: But do you work with the government?
B: We work with the government for the National AIDS program, for example. We are a member.
I: What are you current programs?
B: First, we have psychosocial support. We empower the LGBTs to reengage in society and to be a power of change. So we also do capacity-building of LGBTI.
Two, we have medical support. We have a general practitioner and an infectious disease specialist. The infectious disease specialist provides support for people living with HIV. We are the only organisation having an HIV-support group within the LGBT community. We bring the medication to our organisation on their behalf, from the National AIDS program, because many of them are afraid of stigma and discrimination and they don’t want to be flagged as HIV positive.
We also provide legal support for LGBTs, prisoners, and refugees. We do group psychological sessions, we talk about discrimination, what they face in the prison, and so on. At the same time, we provide support for those who need a lawyer, legal counselling etc.
I: Can you share a case of discrimination that you have encountered?
B: A gay guy was blackmailed by two people who he used to sleep with, they wanted money from him. So he went to the police to report them. But, in Lebanon, we have a law that criminalises homosexuality. Even if he was a victim of blackmailing, when they came to know the story, they arrested him as well. So the law does not provide any protection.
There was another case where a gay couple was arrested at a checkpoint for the possession of nude pictures. They went to court and the judges found them guilty.
I: How do you operate when the law is against you?
B: We are registered as a nonprofit civil society who are working to provide support to vulnerable groups. That is why on our official Facebook page, we don’t mention LGBT. We talk about vulnerable groups. However, we are known to be working with the LGBT community and as I mentioned, the protection comes from knowing how things happen in Lebanon. The protection is also granted through connections with embassies.
Freedom of expression is protected by the constitution. However, it is true that from time to time, there is a breach. But we tend to always remind people that this needs to be respected. In addition, I have to mention that the very integral part of Proud is our work on advocacy. We work on abolishing the law that criminalizes homosexuality.
I: What would you say is the ultimate goal of Proud Lebanon?
B: The ultimate goal is to abolish all human rights violations in the country. In Lebanon — in different fields, in different communities — everywhere there is still discrimination.
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.