Successful Organizing In The Face of Attack: A Personal Account From The NEDWA Conference

On Saturday, I walked into a sunny courtyard ringed by a yellow awning, the site of NEDWA, the annual conference organized by the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE), and wondered if I’d stumbled into heaven. There were eighty LGBTIQ+ activists at this hotel just outside of Beirut, gesticulating emphatically, draped in political slogans, and wearing their queer best. For some, that meant a simple t-shirt and sneakers, for others, high heels and dangling earrings, a defiant act in a region where oppressive laws incessantly police dress and gender. They came from Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Libya and across the region to plan how to be safer as LGBTIQ+ activists back home.

Suddenly, two plain-clothed officers from the General Security Directorate (al-Amn al-'Aam) showed up. I was having lunch with Georges Azzi, AFE’s director, when his colleagues alerted him. General Security is one of the arms of the Lebanese security apparatus that, among other things, controls borders and hotels. They came to investigate a complaint from the Hay’at Al-Oulamaa el Mouslimin (Association of Muslim Scholars). The group had issued a statement accusing the conference of promoting homosexuality and drug use, and they called for the arrest of the organizers and for the conference to be cancelled on grounds of “incitement to immorality.” General Security asked Georges for the conference program, if the conference was about LGBTIQ rights, and about transgender participation. Georges cooperated. He explained that we were talking about many issues including LGBTIQ+ rights, public health, and feminism. They took his number and left.

Maybe we should have known there would be problems given who lodged the complaint. The Hay’at Al-Oulamaa el Mouslimin is a conservative fringe group. They recently assumed some national prominence after they used their relationship with ISIS fighters to negotiate for the release of members of the Lebanese army after ISIS kidnapped them. They had chits with the government, and this was how they intended to spend them.

We spotted General Security officials lurking at the other conference hotel that afternoon, but it was only when we were finishing dinner that General Security returned with a mandate. This time there were seven officials including muscular men wearing uniformed vests. They informed the hotel management that they were shutting down the conference, no rationale given other than “orders”. They asked Georges to sign a pledge (تعهد) saying he would cancel all activities related to this conference. Georges paced through the lobby, handed his phone to a colleague for safety, and went with General Security to a table just beyond view. AFE’s Myra Abdallah, Mahdy Charafeddin, and Nour Nasr worked with Helem, a local organization, to contact their lawyers. Georges wasn’t going to sign, so we all assumed he was going to jail.

We divided up. Some people went to their hotel rooms out of fear, others sat in the lobby to be witnesses. It’s unsettling to have to wait, feeling powerless in a group of activists. How many people would be arrested, and would AFE be banned from operating? I took a seat on the couches. A colleague got everyone cups of tea. I sent cryptic WhatsApp messages to people around the world, collecting numbers of LGBTIQ-friendly diplomats based in Beirut, and drafted an urgent appeal in case of arrests. We debated whether to contact the press and diplomatic community. A woman came over to another foreigner and me and said, “Please stay here. Your presence reminds them they have an audience, and you make us safer.” I took her words seriously, and I also wondered if we were a liability. LGBTIQ+ rights are often associated with the West and colonial imposition.

The lawyers from Helem and AFE came up with an idea. Limit the terms of the General Security pledge, and give them something to placate Hay’at Al-Oulamaa el Mouslimin. The solution was proposed and accepted. Georges agreed not to organize an LGBTIQ+ meeting at the hotel the next day, but he said nothing about other days or venues. It was a quiet triumph.

The next events were a blur. People were crying and hugging, happy and sad. AFE held an emergency meeting. We packed into the room, so many that most of us sat on the floor. Most important, AFE and later Helem’s executive director, Tarek Zeidan, explained, was the fact that that AFE is a legally registered NGO. The meeting was legal because they are legal, so General Security had no right to close NEDWA down. As OutRight described in our new report, “The State of LGBTIQ Organizing Globally,” legal registration for LGBTIQ organizations can be crucial to their safety and ability to operate.

Some were inspired by the coordinated defense and determined to fight back. Islèm Mejri, a 23-year old from Tunisia, said the incident symbolized why we do this work. At the same time, it’s hard to overstate the fear that General Security created. Some felt afraid of attending workshops the next day, being arrested at the airport, or being arrested once they returned home. I heard one gay man ask rhetorically, “Do you see why I want to leave the region?” There was debate about where else the conference could be held and despair that there were no easy options among neighboring countries. For many, Lebanon and NEDWA had been a safe space in a sea of hostility. This incident was reminder of past trauma and how hard it is to be safe as an LGBTIQ+ person and activist.

I tried to make sense of what happened. Lebanon is a safe haven for LGBTIQ people in the Middle East and North Africa. It’s home to multiple LGBTIQ+ organizations, like Helem and MOSAIC - MENA Organization for Services, Advocacy, Integration & Capacity building. It has had five positive court decisions over a decade, including a July ruling that consensual sex between people of the same sex is not illegal. However, General Security also closed events in honor of IDAHOBIT (the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia) in May 2017 and Beirut Pride in 2018. In fact, General Security used identical tactics against Helem after Hay’at Al-Oulamaa el Mouslimin and the Catholic Church attacked them online. These incidents together in a short time indicate a new pattern of attack on LGBTIQ+ rights in Lebanon. We know why. The exact skills in negotiation, legal strategy, safety, and movement coordination that protected us at NEDWA are the same skills that have propelled the Lebanese LGBTIQ+ movement forward.

OutRight Action International’s data has shown that LGBTIQ+ activists are increasingly under attack globally. Just last month, China’s Guangzhou Pride was banned. The attacks take a specific shape. Cultural events may be tolerated, but when we assert our rights, we’re seen as a threat to the status quo and violent crackdowns ensue. This means that LGBTIQ+ activists globally need to be on heightened alert.

What can we learn from NEDWA?

  • First, it was absolutely wrong and likely illegal that Georges had to sign the pledge, however narrowing the scope of restriction avoided arrests, enabled the conference to continue the next day, and most importantly, ensured the safety of the participants.
  • Second, have lawyers ready, even on a Saturday.
  • Third, know your rights. AFE insisted their actions were not illegal, and the government was forced to concede that they were right.
  • Fourth, LGBTIQ+ organizations should legally register wherever they safely can, even if they can’t declare their LGBTIQ+ mission, because legal registration protects their work.
  • Fifth, organizations should prepare safety and security strategies. If General Security had access to Georges’ phone, there could have been a dangerous breach of AFE’s confidential records.
  • Sixth, consider escalating after everyone reaches safety, as AFE intends.
  • Finally, use the media and international community for additional pressure.

AFE held a press conference today and asked that the international community address the growing crackdown on LGBTIQ+ organizations in Lebanon, hence my writing this article. Their message is clear. The priorities of religious fundamentalists should not trump the rights of a legally registered LGBTIQ+ civil society organization.

The next morning, AFE staff found flyers from Messiah Evangelical Lebanese Church (MELC), a group of Christian fundamentalists, under the windshield wipers on their cars. Funded by American evangelicals, MELC condemned our gathering. Undaunted, we convened at another venue, even starting on time. The sessions were packed and useful.

That night, AFE held a closing party, and people again dressed in their queer glory. Glittered cheekbones, shirts seductively unbuttoned, and bowties were on display. DJ Aida played songs from every country represented. It was like most queer dance parties, except no couple was kissing in the corner and trans attendees were circumspect in their dress. When you live with surveillance, you learn plausible deniability and how to self-censor. This is exactly why spaces where people can be themselves are life-saving.

While we were dancing, the hotel staff – emboldened by the menace of General Security and religious fundamentalists – tried to shut us down, falsely claiming we were having sex in the hallways. While AFE capably managed yet another threat, we experienced one of Lebanon’s customary power outages, plunging us into darkness. It didn’t matter. We were a room of survivors. A few people turned on their phone flashlights, while the room sang the remaining words to the song and kept dancing.

Written by Jessica Stern, the executive director of OutRight Action International. She thanks Georges Azzi, Suraj Girijashanker, Paul Jansen, Charbel Maydaa, Islèm Mejri, and Tarek Zeidan for their feedback on this article.