He sat blindfolded in a military compound in Lebanon, listening to the sounds of metal gates slamming shut and detainees screaming in pain. The guards had called him in to answer “a few questions.” But when he arrived, they told him they knew he was gay, and he understood they would try to pin any crime they could on him. One officer asked, “Have you ever paid for sex?”
Joseph Aoun chuckled. “Of course not,” he said. “I’m a handsome man.”
Most people would not crack jokes while being held in an underground cell, but Aoun is not most people: He is a 33-year-old former lawyer and one of the most influential LGBT activists in the Middle East.
As the community center coordinator of the LGBT advocacy group Helem, Aoun is determined to develop a model of grassroots, pragmatic activism that does not merely emulate Western NGOs but fits the unique needs of his community in the Arab world.
It’s a herculean effort. Most countries in the region persecute homosexual and transsexual individuals through harassment, fines or imprisonment. In places like Iran, Syria or Yemen, the legal punishment is death.
Crackdowns are often unexpected. Just recently, a man flew a rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo, prompting the Egyptian government to arrest several LGBT activists, trolling gay dating apps like Grindr to entrap them.
Yet Aoun doesn’t feel like a martyr. “I refuse to be a victim,” he says, sitting on a sofa at Helem’s headquarters in Beirut. The young activist is a fast talker who chain-smokes, laughs loudly and routinely drops F bombs. “I know I’m fucking privileged. Because I don’t experience any discrimination in my daily life.”
Lebanon has long been an oasis for gay people in the Arab world because of its diverse and socially progressive culture. Helem’s office is located in Beirut’s artsy neighborhood of Mar Mikhael and down the street from several LGBT-friendly establishments. In fact, that’s where Aoun began his activism, as the manager of Bardo, one of the city’s most famous gay bars.
Still, Beirut’s progressive bubble floats on an ocean of social stigma and discriminatory policies. Read more via OZY