Pride, Pride Baby

Through my blog, I always like to introduce new concepts, ideas, and information I find interesting, fresh and controversial; things that I enjoy reading, learning about, discovering; things that are true to my character and to the person I am. A while back, I stumbled upon an Instagram page with the name @beirutpride. I don't recall how exactly that happened, though all I know is that I saw something new, unusual, maybe a revelation. So, naturally, I fell in love effective immediately. I stalked the page - that's what this new generation would say stalked - and tried to have a better understanding of what this community was its aims and achievements.

It spoke to me. Pride. PRIDE! Celebrating who and what you are, loud and proud; and that, to me, is satisfying. When I think of which path, what future I want for my blog, I never think small. Or mediocre. I despise these two words. Yuck. I try to use my voice to advocate for things I find important, needy of attention. I try to use my voice, to raise my voice, for the people who are silenced and cannot do so. That is what I want for Shour. Boldness, fiercelessness, encouragement, open-mindedness, understanding - that is what I want people to find when reading what I write. If I could use my voice and my platform to advocate for every last cause I believe in, I will. So why not start ?

Among many humanitarian concerns, underrated complications and overlooked emergencies that are so near and dear to my heart, the mainly misunderstood, misinterpreted LGBTIQ+ community is one I have never really addressed yet. I reached out to Hadi Damien, the initiator of Beirut Pride, over Instagram asking him how could I possibly contribute to this wonderful movement and offer my voice and my encouragement. Many emails and weeks later, we decided that an interview is the best first step and so yesterday I received my much anticipated answers.

LGBTIQ+ Pride is usually associated with a sense of strong self-esteem regarding a person's public acknowledgment of his/her sexuality and identity. Beirut Pride is a community that is doing just that; bringing the sense of confidence, feeling of safety and encouragement regarding sexual identity and LGBTIQ+ in the Arab world.

How did it (Beirut Pride) start? Where did the idea come from?

"Like most people, I used to equate a Pride with its Parade. My first encounters with Prides in general were through articles I read and videos I watched, publications that were mostly criticising Prides, with no constructive notes. On a trip to Europe in 2016, I attended the Amsterdam Pride (that was also a EuroPride), and I was stunned with its joyful and empowering impact on the people making it, be them attendees or performers. It was a fantastic celebration, with people cheering alongside friends and family, hanging from their windows, sitting on trees — people of all ages and looks. Whether you contemplate a parade or you walk in it, you do feel enriched by its intensity. If chill places like Amsterdam or Prague are this big on Prides, then, in Beirut, we need a Pride every single day. In parallel to this, I had spent the months before discussing with friends and activists ways to implement for the LGBTIQ+ file to move forward in a more efficient way.

However, I was often met with limitation and unclear hesitation. Piecing things together, and based on my circles of influence, I conceived a five-year plan that would run yearlong initiatives pertaining to political lobbying, religions, the media, education, the business world, and families. As Beirut Pride was thought to take a stance against hate and discrimination based on gender and sexual diversity, May 17 (International day against homophobia and biphobia and transphobia) seemed the most appropriate time to schedule Pride Days around it. The formula was simple: bringing people together, mostly from the creative industries, in order to enhance the visibility of LGBTIQ+ people in the country through addressing "hate and discrimination they are subjected to" – not through victimization or a dramatic discourse."

How hard was it to introduce it to the Lebanese public? How many members participate/d in all Beirut Pride’s events and activities? Were you surprised by the amount of people that are/were willing to join you and your team?

"Beirut Pride is built on a momentum. We knew the city was ready to have an outspoken, loud and organized platform. The vibe was there. However, we did not expect people to be so big on Beirut Pride. The positive support was immense and came from locals and Lebanese expats. The excitement was overwhelming, and attendance highlighted it. In the first edition of 2017, for example, 4,000 people attended Beirut Pride from May 14 to 20. On the opening night of Beirut Pride 2018, about 800 people showed up, and Beirut Grand Ball welcomed a thousand persons. Several people have expressed their will to support and join the work team, and we are looking forward to a brilliant collaboration with them. People attend Beirut Pride for the empowerment it is, for the quality of the programme, the friendly ambiance, and to show their support.

The Pride days take place in various venues all over the capital. We are definitely in "friendly spaces", and the audience attending the happenings of Beirut Pride is large, from all social classes, and crosses many generations. The attendees are not all LGBTIQ+ and we engage in conversations with some people who are interested enough to see what lays behind the communication of the media. The reception of Beirut Pride has been tremendous and extremely positive, and never have we thought people will come out so massively."

How did you grow from being just an idea into a large movement taking over the region?

"Beirut Pride is currently the only Pride in the Arab world, and we are contacted by several people from the GCC countries and countries in North Africa. It is a fresh breeze, and people are willing to engage with it, and have their own contribution. With Beirut Pride we have moved into action, horizontal action instead of vertical action, and this is when change happens. Our discourse is always inclusive; we mostly speak in English and Arabic, often in French as well; our channels of communication are always open; we don’t lecture and pretend to know it all; we have humility; we are kind, yet firm; we are honest; we don’t lie; we are consistent; we make things happen; we deliver; we don’t make Beirut Pride a career path; we are generous; we respect the specificity of our environments, and we don’t force our opinion on anyone. All these elements make people attracted to the model of Beirut Pride, and we start to see it being emulated. Beirut Pride has set a new discourse, a new dynamic, and people are aware of it."

What do you estimate is the number of people who are openly part of the LGBTIQ+ society?

"We acknowledge that figures are paramount to draft policies, but for the sake of this interview, we would rather speak of gender and sexual diversity instead of labels. The only common thing between two gay men, for example, is that both of them are attracted to men. Their taste in music, political views, economical orientation and religious affiliation are irrelevant. We are not advocating a lifestyle here, whereby if you do not adhere to specific guidelines you will be exempted from this category. We build an effective strategy when we focus on our similarities. Differences are what make diversity. We cannot ask people to endorse diversity, while we seek to a standardised identity within each one of the LGBTIQ letters. Sexuality is dynamic, identity is dynamic, and the human being is constantly in mental, emotional and physical evolution."

What is some advice that you wish you could give to all the closeted LGBTIQ+ members in the Arab world? What about the straight supporters? What are some actions we can take to make a slight difference to help our fellow LGBTIQ+ friends?

"Coming out is often a life-changing experience. It is liberating and is often a roller-coaster of emotions.  If the parents are open, if they don’t manifest homophobic remarks and attitudes, if they are relaxed about signs and hints your throw at them, they coming out could not be so difficult. However, if your still live at home, and your family’s pressure is important to you and often gets to you, and if you cannot handle drama and be firm, and if you have no financial support, then coming out is to be reconsidered.

Our Lebanese society has been negatively conditioned when it came to homosexuality. Often would the Lebanese layman be mixing homosexuals with perverts, pedophiles, prostitutes, drug addicts, effeminate men, and criminals. Quite a stereotype that talk shows and TV series reinforced, depicting one profile to portray gay men.

This does not mean that a gay man cannot be feminine or a sex worker or a drug user or a pedophile or a criminal or a pervert (whatever this means), but communicating this stereotyped image as the only one about homosexuals cannot do good to anyone, especially to a young man who is opening up to life.

While mass media broadcasted a negative conditioning to the image of gay people in particular, religious authorities contributed to the background that cemented this perception. Even though Christian and Muslim sacred texts do not mention same-sex intercourse, the latter was deemed unnatural, as it does not yield progeny, and religious scriptures have been interpreted in a way to condemn same-sex sexual practices and individuals who indulge in them.

Reverberating on the perception of masculinity and of femininity, both masculine women and feminine men have been linked to homosexual conduct. Shamed and frowned upon, they have been subjected to unpleasant remarks, and, sometimes, to physical bullying.

Oppressions that touch LGBTIQ+ in Lebanon are manifold, and depend on the social class, the education level, the professional status, the health condition, and so on. In other words, the life of a Lebanese gay man (for example) in Beirut Lebanon is similar to that of any other Lebanese citizen based in Beirut, in addition to expressions of hate and discrimination based on our sexual orientation. LGBTIQ+ individuals are in all social classes, linguistic categories, professional circles, religious groups, political affiliations, cultural environment, etc. They are practicing and operating in all spheres, and this is the biggest asset to capitalise on to move forward. This is the reason Beirut Pride opened channels of communication with religious authorities, political parties, security officials and the business world.

The only way for people to come out is when they know they will be protected from discrimination. This is longterm work, and we are making progress. It is also a never-ending one as long as people reduce LGBTIQ+ individuals to sexed people only. In addition to sexual activity, sexuality comprises emotions, desires and relationships. Identifying as an LGBTIQ+ individual is one part of our identity.

This understanding, this comprehension, is paramount to move forward, to have a constructive discourse that LGBTIQ+ individuals and supporters could use to answer hate speeches. The biggest action we can take is to be speak up. People who don't discriminate are often quiet voices. They condemn online, on virtual platforms. They often don't engage in conversations with those who discriminate, chosing to ignore them, as they don't want to raise suspicion on being considered “LGBTIQ+ members because they support them”.

There is also a detrimental belief that discussion is not relevant, and that no matter what, those who discriminate won't listen. They chose to silent their voice. However, people who discriminate are loud, and express themselves on real platforms: they make phone calls, they speak to those who support in order to discredit them, they publish common statements that they massively broadcast on social media and WhatsApp, etc. The general perception of society would be that the opinions about LGBTIQ+ are all negative, that people who discriminate are a majority, and therefore that the society "is not ready” for this conversation. This is the first and most efficient thing that needs to be done. Communicate. Politely. Calmly. Intelligently.

We cannot move forward if we do not continuously educate ourselves. Do what you can. You can read, know history, draw parallelism with similar paths, be aware of the economical and geopolitical dynamics of where we live, so we be able to construct a vision, a strategic programme, and be the future. Embrace diversity, focus on what brings us together, and do not sweat small matters: people give what they have. Human beings are extremely rich, do not range them into labels. It never works. Be sensitive to your surroundings, always open channels of communication, and be generous. Be kind, yet firm, and trust that we are moving forward, no matter what. It is called evolution. We will get there, for we are genuine and authentic. Give people tools to feel empowered, and remember that the future is bright, no matter what, and that love always wins."

Do you think your movement will have an impact on the Lebanese Government?How do you respond to all the backlash you face be it by the more conservative Lebanese citizens or the government?

"People have empathy. They decide to ignore it sometimes though. Find their entry spot, and capitalise on it. We are all members of one society, and there is no other way bring to join forces, especially when we are the weakest element. People attack out of fear and misunderstanding. This is why education is paramount, and opening channels of communication is capital, no matter the number of rejections. Beirut Pride was at the forefront of the LGBT political lobbying during the months leading up to the General Parliament elections of May 6, 2018. We, with political advisors, met individuals at leadership level of traditional and new political parties to speak LGBT with them. Today, more than 4 candidates who mentioned LGBT in their programme are members of Parliament, and many others are sensitive to the topic, capable of endorsing the file. It is still very early to speak about the effects of the newly elected Parliament, but it is counter-productive to approach “new” periods with fear and anxiety. We look at the bright side of things, and we capitalise on it.

People are attacked when they are visible, when they are organized. Attacks show that you are taken seriously, for the work you are spearheading is creating confusion among people who decide to stay in misunderstanding. For example, when a fabricated Arabic version of the programme of Beirut Pride was sent to security officials over WhatsApp, containing words and expressions that insinuate acts of immorality and debauchery, the General Prosecutor of Beirut asked the Vice Squad to arrest me for interrogation. After a night spent in the holding cell, the interrogation proved that the programme was fabricated, and, upon the decision of the General Prosecutor of Beirut, the events scheduled until May 20 were suspended, to contain the buzz they had created. This does not mean Beirut Pride, in its manifold expressions and programmes, was canceled. All the events that were suspended are being reinstalled, and the announced initiatives continue as before. New programmes are also shaping up. Beirut Pride continues. We didn’t start it to stop at the first obstacle, and obstacles are part of the path. Things are not dramatic, and while they are not amusing in the short term, they do not negatively affect the medium and the long terms."

How do you plan on expanding Beirut Pride? 

"Beirut Pride is a transversal platform and extends beyond the national borders. Our channels of communication with religious and political authorities are open, and initiatives we are designing in collaboration with security offices are on the way. We are joining forces with other groups to tailor a massive platform that will be launched in September, and our Pride Days program gets more fabulous by the years. More people are coming and reaching out, and we are developing international partnerships that develop our work, whether it is with public or private institutions. Eventually, what does Pride mean? Platforms called “pride” are retrieving a space that was taken away. Pride is complementary to shame, and LGBTIQ+ individuals have most times been subjected to shame based on their emotions, feelings, and desires. Hindering individuals in their most natural and elementary state has led to discriminations and to hate speeches and calls for violence. Prides address all this. They tackle the shame that was enforced upon us and address it.

Therefore, Prides blossom along the path of emancipation from this negative conditioning that yields self-hate and auto-destruction. Prides empower. Prides make you affirmative and secure. They give you the choice of being visible, they give you the choice to come out of the closet, for the closet is a hiding place from scrutiny and demeaning remarks and expressions. The basic fact that Beirut Pride exists is a progressive thing. Beirut Pride is an open public initiative that states things the way they are. Destigmatisation is an organic evolution. Beirut Pride does not emulate previous models that proved their inefficiency, and we are constantly opening channels of communication that did not exist before, moving forward in a brilliant direction. Beirut Pride is built on a reflexion, on a thinking process, on a strategy. It is a counter-reaction to slacktivism; it changes the discourse and takes things to another level."

*Answers have not been altered, shortened or rephrased from the original responses.*

I am a firm believer in liberty, in freedom. I was never raised in a household that normalizes bigotry, prejudice, racism, or hate of any form. The older I grew, the less I cared about categorizing people, giving them titles or judging them based on their religion, ethnicity, personal beliefs, sexuality or anything that concerned them privately. How would that contribute to my love, affection or dislike of a human being? The way they treat others, the environment, how they responded to diversity, their actions and reactions in times of crisis, their personality in general, the vibe they exude, the comfort they provide me with and the morals we share or don't is what brings me closer to another soul or pushes me away. The older I grew, the more liberated and confident I became.

People would ask me how much liberation and freedom is too much liberation and freedom. Technically, at least for me, there is no such thing as too much liberty when it comes to oneself. Once your freedom is disrupting the health, growth, prosperity, life, and rights of others is when it stops and becomes too much. That is not deemed as freedom or classified as such, but it is a pure form of disrespect towards the boundaries of another.

So when someone takes a certain decision, a certain path regarding their personal life, it is no business of ours to overstep and shove our noses in what does not belong to us. Your sexuality is for you. Whether you are straight, gay, trans, or whatever you choose to be, is for you and only you. This is your sacred territory, no place for intruders. Gender fluidity has been a hot topic, an ongoing issue, an incessant debate for as long as we, humans, have existed.

Misunderstood, misinterpreted, misread, the LGBTIQ+ community has been striving to cement its place as a normal, human community that is just as deserving of respect and admiration as anything else.

The Earth is almost 4.6 billion years old. Humans are approximately 200,000 years old. So if you think that since then the Homosapiens did not and will not evolve, you my friend, are mistaken. Today, we encourage, we praise people for flaunting who they are and for being who they truly are. Don't be afraid of what you don't know, instead seek knowledge and understanding. You may not agree with every little change the world is undergoing, or every tiny aspect of life, morals or values that are different than yours, but you are only one out of soon-to-be eight billion human beings living and breathing on the surface of this magnificent Earth.

You are not obliged to adore and parade all the differences that surround you, but you are expected and now more obliged than ever to respect every organism that shares this land with you.

To all my LGBTIQ+ babes that are celebrating Pride Month, just know that you are loved and appreciated. You are humans. Fabulously resilient, intelligent and forceful humans.

HAPPY PRIDE EVERYONE!

I want to thank you, Hadi, for providing me with all the insight on you ever-flourishing journey with Beirut Pride and for trusting me to do this. I am forever inspired by your wonderful words, your unparalleled determination, and your humble yet unmissable success. I am sending you so much love, always.

Love, Kimberly