Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Lebanon, COVID-19 and LGBTQ: Struggle Magnified

LGBTQ lebanon
Supporters of the Lebanese LGBTQ community lift the rainbow flag during a march to mark International Women’s Day in the capital Beirut, on March 8, 2020. Photo: ANWAR AMRO / AFP

Written by: Bechara Samneh, Dr. Charbel Maydaa

In Lebanon, a country where patriarchy and normative conformity are deeply embedded, any other system perceived as a threat will be attacked and shut down. As such, LGBTIQ+ individuals are generally found at a higher risk of struggling with economic difficulties, given the lack of employment opportunities – due to stigma and discrimination, especially when gender expressions are not conforming.

The Covid-19 outbreak did not make things easier. It had a major impact on the LGBTIQ+ community in Lebanon. The community has been facing a lot of challenges to sustain the basic needs for daily life. With the pandemic’s arrival, the situation has only worsened.

Many LGBTIQ+ individuals are in constant need of a safe shelter. This issue has been exacerbated within the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the lock-down, a significant number of people have not been able to make ends meet, let alone to pay their rent. With the absence of safe-housing options due to Lebanon’s inadvertently anti-LGBTIQ+ bureaucratic mechanisms, many are left with no other option than moving into unsafe environments or becoming homeless.

Some opted to move in and quarantine with groups of friends or couch-surf from one place to another to remain in LGBTIQ+ friendly homes. However, such practices counter the social distancing efforts and put these individuals at a higher risk of contracting the virus, which is especially dangerous for those with preexisting conditions like HIV.

Others are confined with their parents, family members, or partners. Consequently, Lebanon has witnessed a significant increase in the number of reported cases of domestic violence victims.

These forms of microaggressions and violence – whether verbal or physical – come from parents who are homophobic, transphobic, or from abusive partners. As Pascale Kolokez, Mental Health Advisor at MOSAIC [MENA Organization for Services Advocacy Integration and Capacity building], told Fanack: “being stuck with the parents adds more stress since many are not out to them, in addition to living with the fear of Covid-19, they now have to hide who they are 24/7”. Other members who were confined with their partners, some of which were abusive, still could not leave the house since they had nowhere else to go. With NGO hotlines having to answer to increased calls “there was a rise in partner abuse in the LGBT communities…We also received many inquir-ies on abuse that was happening online such as blackmailing which was also on the increase during this phase” elaborates Ms Kolokez.

Besides the risk of homelessness, or the risk of domestic violence, many LGBTIQ+ individuals with a low socio-economic status were struggling to secure their basic needs. This stems from a job market that has been systematically excluding and exploiting this community, thus LGBTIQ+ people were among the first to be laid-off throughout this pandemic. Not only does this mean they are short of their basic utilities, basic food items, and essential hygiene products and materials for prevention and precaution, it also meant being stuck at home all day in an abusive environment with nothing to do or work online, which adds more to their distress.

Additionally, LGBITQ+ individuals residing in Lebanon (host, migrants and refugees) mostly count on the support of civil society organizations to sustain their day-to-day life and have access to basic services. Many individuals used to count on the group activities that organizations used to hold in their centers, from services, small cash assistance, psychosocial support, mental health service, food items, and transportation fees which were a form of lifeline to them.

In light of the current situation, all group activities have stopped since early March 2020 with the lockdown measures, which affected the livelihood of the LGBTIQ+ community and their access to basic needs. Many project funding was diverted into urgent support to replace the government’s missing efforts and provide the needed housing assis-tance, food parcels, medication, and sanitary kits. Safe and LGBTIQ+ inclusive spaces were also closed down taking away with them the solidarity networks and support sys-tems these individuals might have had. However, this is not all. Stopping these services also had a drastic impact on their mental health, and with that gone Ms.

Kolokez informs us that “they had no way to express who they are or how they are feeling from the inside, whether related to their sexual orientation or gender identity which made it harder for them to cope with what is happening throughout the Covid times”. Even online activities and services had to be brought to a stop because of the lack of privacy that many were experiencing at home and for fear for their safety.

With Lebanon being one of the highest per capita refugee populations in the world ( as per UNHCR data), many refugees have been complaining that their files have been put on hold at some INGOS and at the UNHCR and are unable to leave. In addition, delayed receipt of cash-based assistance and registration appointments have also been a rising issue throughout the pandemic. With this specific population being among the poorest and hardest to enter into the formal job sector, along with many local LGBTIQ+ individuals that have been ostracized, many find themselves within the informal job market. Due to physical distancing, most of sex males and females sex workers however have lost their source of income, while those resuming their work in order to meet ends are subjected to a high risk of contracting Covid-19.

Moreover, given that homosexuality is still criminalized in Lebanon under the Article 534 of the penal code, therefore the government does not provide any support specifically targeting the LGBTIQ+ community, especially LGBTIQ+ refugees. Security forces still act under that article, despite not explicitly mentioning homosexuality, to detain individuals, conduct crackdowns, and persecute LGBTIQ+ bodies under the pretext of morality clauses. This leaves the individuals with no protective system to turn to for protection from the harassment and abuse they experience in confinement and opens room for further transgressions and gender-based violence to occur.

With so many LGBTIQ+ individuals being excluded from the job market, jobless, or laid-off, they remain without healthcare or NSSF in a country whose healthcare institutions remain homophobic and transphobic; a serious problem in times of pandemic.

Adding salt to the wound comes the infamous Beirut explosion on August 4th 2020. The aftermath was not only detrimental to people’s homes and shelters but also affected their employment and work, thus their livelihoods. Based on MOSAIC database, as Mr Ribal Maatouk the Program Manager disclosed to Fanack, many LGBTIQ+ individuals reside in the neighborhoods of Achrafieh, Gemayzeh, Mar Mikhael, Bourj Hammoud, Geitaoui, Quarantina, which were severely hit by the explosion. With these LGBTIQ+ friendly districts destroyed, so were the community’s safe spaces.

“We conducted many phone calls at MOSAIC to check on everyone to assess their shelter status and overall situation, and this was very helpful in the sense that they could tell their story and reflect with a professional on what happened to them…Still this was not enough because their major requirements were of a financial nature”, Ms Kolokez told Fanack. The beneficiaries who were contacted expressed their need for cash to be able to find places to stay or restore their damaged homes. This includes glazing, kitchenware and equipment, doors, curtains, and furniture.

Many relief aid programs provided by different NGOs or the public sector were not tailored nor inclusive to the LGBT community, even more so to those who face threatening risks because of their inevitable visibility such as the trans individuals. Consequently, it becomes hard for a trans woman to go and ask for food or money due to the stigma and discrimination the society subjects her to.

The response to Covid-19 by the local LGBTIQ+ NGOs and independent actors was immediate and only intensified post-explosion. Many were conducting assessment needs, field visits, delivering food parcels and medications, providing shelter help, and launching crowd-funding initiatives to help in damage mitigation. Even the annual IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia Biphobia and Transphobia) was converted to a series of online events under the title of “Break The Silence” to maintain the support and awareness network that many members of the community rely on.

Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming magnitude of energy and recourses directed at relief efforts, a cloud of despair looms over the LGBTIQ+ rainbow in Lebanon. In a time of an economic crisis, a global pandemic, and an explosion, many wonders how to continue on moving forward when having shelter and food on the table have become more of a privilege rather than a basic need.

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