The Beirut port is pictured next to the neighborhoods of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael
The Beirut port is pictured next to the neighborhoods of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, two of Lebanon’s most queer-friendly locales. (Tamara Saade for VICE News) 

Beirut’s LGBTQ Community is Trying to Leave Lebanon

A fatal explosion, a pandemic, and an economic collapse leaves Lebanon's queer community at risk of disappearing.
October 29, 2020, 4:10pm

Taking a slow drag from a cigarette stuck between her sparkly blue nails, Dana Keyrouz sat in her backyard and contemplated death. Keyrouz, a 32-year-old beauty esthetician, is one of the 300,000 Beirut residents left homeless after the blast in the city’s port on August 4. She is also a transgender woman, and one of the city’s many LGBTQ residents eager to leave Beirut.  

“My friend and I were in this room when everything exploded,” she told VICE News, pointing to the roof of her collapsed house. It’s been over a month, but Keyrouz still wonders how she survived. Sometimes, she wishes she hadn’t. “If we would have died it would have been better, because since then there has only been suffering,” said Keyrouz. 

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In many ways, the blast was a coup de grace for Lebanon. Since the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut, the country has descended even further into turmoil, and the queer community, already vulnerable, has been inordinately impacted. Now, many members of Lebanon’s LGBTQ community are actively trying to leave the country. 

“As a result of the economic crisis, COVID-19 [and] the blast, the LGBTQ community, who’s already a marginalized group, [is] in a tougher situation,” said Myriam Sfeir, the director of the Arab Institute for Women. “Some were back in abusive households, the activities they do to feel better, their jobs, or the social and psychological support they used to get, they couldn’t even afford anymore.”

Graffiti in front of Beirut's port reads "Good Bye."

Graffiti in front of Beirut's destroyed port reads "Good Bye." (Tamara Saade for VICE)

Others like Keyrouz found themselves in similar situations. SIDC, the Soins Infirmiers et Developpement Communautaire, an organization in Lebanon aimed at eliminating stigma and discrimaination based on gender and sexual orientation, recently conducted a survey of the state of Lebanon’s queer community. They found that 81 percent of the respondents felt mentally unstable, 52 percent said they needed psychological support, and 33 percent required food aid. Many queer-friendly establishments that were located in areas close to the port were badly hit by the blast as well, like Helem, an LGBTG support organization, and Madam Om, a venue where drag performers often hosted events and shows. 

A blue building that held Madam Om, a bar where drag shows took place, was partially destroyed in the Beirut blast.

Madam Om, a bar where drag shows took place, is on the second floor of this building. (Tamara Saade for VICE News)

After the government surrendered responsibility post-blast, Beirut found itself relying on private initiatives to pick up the glass debris, clean up the rubble, and find shelters for those left without homes. While foreign countries mobilized to provide aid to Lebanon before the blast when Lebanon’s main focus was its economic crisis, the lack of reform, and later on the dissolution of the government, has prevented citizens from benefiting. This has affected everyone, but especially marginalized communities. Keyrouz waited for organizations to come help her in the aftermath or provide her with assistance, but found very little in terms of institutionalized support. Instead, she relied on the help of a one volunteer who single handedly provided her with a roof above her head, food, and clothes. “Her name is Romy Matar and she cleaned my home with her own hands,” said Keyrouz. “No other organization sent help until a few weeks after the blast … if it wasn’t for her I don’t know where I would be.” Keyrouz explained. “A lot of people came from so-called organizations, talked to me, and filmed my house, pleading for donations but I never saw a penny from them.” 

In light of the past few months, Lebanon’s queer community has raised and distributed funds for those that were physically injured, or lost their homes and livelihoods. Sandra Melhem, a club owner and LGBTQ activist, created the Queer Relief fund, which raised more than fifty thousand dollars. She regularly posts updates on the fund’s GoFundMe page about how each donation is distributed. The “Disaster Relief for Lebanese Transgender Community,” a fund that assists transgender and non-binary individuals who have been affected by the blast, was formed by a group of friends based in Beirut and Berlin. 

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Anya Kneez, a 31-year-old Lebanese drag queen, felt a responsibility towards her community after seeing the impact of the blast. “The country was living through an actual hell,” she said. “From the corrupt government, the economic collapse, a global pandemic, and the explosion was the traumatic cherry on top. Now imagine being a queer person living in this hell.” 

A photograph of Anya Kneez holding roses

Anya Kneez left Lebanon in 2019. (Courtesy of Anya Kneez)

With her friends Mohamad Abdouni, Karim Abouzaki, and Dayna Ash, Kneez raised more than $45,000 for 80 members of the LGBTQ community. “Most of them are under the age of 25 and have been through so much trauma in their lives,” Kneez added. “They lost their jobs, some lost their homes, on top of being physically injured by the blast. If I could use my privilege to aid even just one person in Beirut I was going to do so.” Despite her love for the city, Kneez left Lebanon in 2019. “My heart was very heavy taking that decisiont to leave my parents and my queer family,” she said, “but it was necessary for my survival.” 

Until the blast, Emma Gration, a 25-year-old drag queen who hasn’t performed since March, still hoped she would be back on stage once the pandemic was under control. But a pandemic, an economic collapse, and a blast later, Gration isn’t sure the show will go on anymore. A few months ago, she teamed up with almost a dozen other drag queens and kings to post their own version of the “brush challenge,” a video that has since gotten 102,000 views. The interest in their work reflects Lebanon’s flourishing drag scene: With a number of different houses, a ball, and weekly shows before the pandemic hit, Lebanese drag queens and kings have performed throughout everything. Last year, Emma hosted a show along with other queens as Hezbollah and Israel fired rockets at Lebanon’s southern border. “We might be on the bridge of another war, but here is the show,” joked Gration at the time, perched on knee-high pink leather boots. 

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A few months later, the protests of October 2019 began in Lebanon. Millions of people took to the streets to protest corruption, and Gration was determined to stay, fighting for queer rights and performing. Many in Lebanon’s LGBTQ community were hopeful that the 2019 protests would lead to progress and further rights. Although Lebanon has often been called the most LGBTQ friendly Arab country, laws don’t protect or decriminalize homosexuality. While the country doesn’t explicitly forbid it, they implicitly do: article 534 of the Lebanese Penal code, a vestige of French colonialism, punishes same-sex relations and “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature.” 

Although very little changed after the demonstrations of October 2019, they did bring the issue of LGBTQ rights to the table. “A lot of taboos were out in the open after the protests,” Gration explained. “Part of the chants were ‘F*ggot is not an insult,’ and it caught on with some people.” Although the protests didn’t bring concrete changes to Lebanon, they did inspire a sense of solidarity. 

Much of the social movement in Lebanon has come about as as a result of queer activism, said Ayyad Al Masri, an LGBTQ activist in Beirut. “ Ironically, every single development that has happened in Lebanon … [came from] the mobilization efforts of queer people. It did not come from well-established institutions, it came from the people who fought on the periphery.”

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Now, despite everything she has been through, Gration is still considering a departure. “A year later, I don't want it to be too dramatic but I did kind of give up,” Gration said. “Or at least I’m not really holding my breath to see any of the change.” There are others interested in leaving too: “Every queer person I know is thinking about leaving or has already left the country,” Gration said. “My drag mother has already booked her ticket. I don’t know what will happen to the balls … not to say that the established queens or queer activists are the only ones, there are plenty of other young ones as well, but even they want to leave.”

Emma Gration wears black boots and a red dress while standing next to a window.

Emma Gration is considering a move from Beirut. (Courtesy of Emma Gration)

For Keyrouz, leaving the country feels like her only option. “I would go to Ethiopia, China, whatever country… I just want to leave, and live in a country where we’re respected as humans. Here no one respects you. Not the government, nor the people,” she said. 

Ssome want to stay and fight, but others want, and are trying to leave,” explained Sfeir about Lebanon’s LGBTQ community. “They are disheartened, after having lost a lot of queer-friendly spaces for example, they want to get out of the country.”

While Beirut is slowly being rebuilt brick by brick, citizens are tired of being celebrated for their efforts, especially as they pick up the pieces of their homes their own government destroyed. “We are known as resilient people,” Gration said. “That's kind of glamorizing our suffering, saying that Beirut has been rebuilt seven times. It doesn’t mean we have to burn and rebuild it again, because there’s only so much we can handle.”

Emigration has been a storied part of Lebanon’s history, as waves of emigration have been one of the country’s only constants. As of October 2020, 77 percent of Lebenase youth have thought of, or are actively looking to leave the country, according to the Arab Youth Survey. Gration’s own drag name is a wink to this mass exodus Lebanese citizens see almost as a rite of passage, and she played on the word “emigration” by transforming it into “Emma Gration” as her drag name.

“Beyond the economic benefit of leaving the country and finding employment opportunities aside from drag, it’s the sense of stability and luxury that we as Lebanese don’t have the luxury of living,” explained Gration. “There’s always something happening: an explosion, a revolution, a war … As queer people, to add the cherry on top of the cake, we want that sense of security, so maybe moving to a European country for example would give us some sense of it.”

“Although some people are completely out of the closet, fear can get to them,” said Sfeir. “The fact that they’re harassed left and right with all the stress here, you’re no longer comfortable. COVID, the blast, how to get money, our frozen bank accounts, over and above that the fact that your sexuality is always questioned and you’re criticized and harassed and up for arrest? It’s too much to handle.”

Kneez left Beirut almost a year ago, though she does her best to raise awareness about Lebanon’s situation. But seeing the country’s youth desert Lebanon does not leave her indifferent.  “It breaks my heart to see a booming scene that has not existed for long, to start diminishing,” she said. “However I also want them all to leave and start their lives in places where they can flourish and be treated as human beings with a right to live and exist. Until we can have our dream Beirut that we know can and will exist, they have to do what is necessary to survive, just like I did.”