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Beirut Has Become A Relative Refuge For Members Of The LGBT Community

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Gay rights activists in Lebanon have made strides in recent years, even if the strides don't always sound that big by Western standards. NPR's Alison Meuse reports from Beirut on Pride week.

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: I'm sitting in Madame Oum, a bar in an old Beirut mansion overlooking the city port. It's a venue for Beirut's Pride week, which gay rights activists say is the first time they've seen the rainbow flag flown openly in the Lebanese capital, an act unthinkable in most of the Arab world.

I sit down with one of the speakers, Joseph Aoun, who heads the LGBT rights group Helem. Tonight's event is about understanding your rights in the law. He explains a Pride week slogan.

JOSEPH AOUN: We have a slogan that says al-rahab irab (ph), which is homophobia is terrorism.

MEUSE: The Homophobia is Terrorism video campaign was aired on a major national network and went viral on Facebook.

AOUN: Homophobia is terrorism. It's not a disease. It's not a phobia. It's a terrorism act. It's a hateful act.

MEUSE: Aoun says one of the Beirut Pride events was cancelled after an Islamist group issued a threat, but he says the organizers shouldn't have backed down.

AOUN: Many people are fed up.

MEUSE: He says many people are treated poorly by the police and their bosses. And the ones who suffer the most are those on the fringes, like LGBT refugees from Iraq and Syria who can come to Helem to use the washing machine and a shower if they need it.

The LGBT community has won a string of legal battles in recent years. Successive judges have made more progressive interpretations of a vague law against, quote, "unnatural sexual acts." This year, a judge ruled homosexuality is not unnatural.

AOUN: He considered homosexuality a natural right. And he said the role of the church is not to convict people based on the opinions of the majority. Even if the majority of the Lebanese society is with criminalizing, this is not my role to abide by that majority. My role is to protect basic natural rights of human beings.

MEUSE: One of the speakers at the event, Naji Raji, had been detained under the law by Lebanon's police. He was subjected to a humiliating physical exam, which human rights watch says is in violation of U.N. accords against torture. His family also paid a $2,000 bribe.

NAJI RAJI: (Foreign language spoken).

MEUSE: He says the Lebanese state basically outed him to his mom. He says he doesn't discuss it anymore with his family, but tonight, he was ready to share his story with Beirut.

RAJI: Thank you. That was my story.

(APPLAUSE)

MEUSE: Alison Meuse, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.