Gay Lebanese Dare to Tell Their Stories
When they grabbed the microphone in Beirut this week, Lea boldly declared she preferred women to men, but Joseph recounted his terrifying ordeal being detained by security forces.
Gay Lebanese opened up about their lives at an open mic night in the capital on Monday night, a rare such public event in the country and the wider Arab region.
"I don't like men, I like women, boobs," Lea said, sparking laughter from a crowd of around 250 people.
The night came as part of Lebanon and the Arab world's first week-long festival to denounce discrimination against the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.
Organized by Beirut Pride, it provided a unique occasion for the community to speak freely in public about their lives to mark the May 17 International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT).
Lebanon is considered more tolerant of sexual diversity than other countries in the region, where homosexuality can incur a death penalty.
But the Lebanese police regularly raid gay bars and other LGBT-friendly spaces.
Activists are pushing to change a penal code that allows courts to punish "unnatural" sexual relations with up to one year in prison.
And reports of Lebanese policemen carrying out so-called "anal probes" to determine whether or not a man is gay have provoked outrage in the press and on social media.
At the Monday event, participants discussed the humiliating tests, which the Lebanese Order of Physicians in 2012 prohibited doctors from performing.
Joseph, a homosexual man in his 20s, recounted how members of the intelligence services threatened to carry out the test on him.
The LGBT activist said they detained him three years ago along with several others, blindfolding them and interrogating them for six hours.
"I stood among a bunch of men, threatened of anal probe and of prison," Joseph told a silent audience.
"It felt like they were trying to break me."
- 'Leave the house' -
Coming out to parents is also difficult in the multi-confessional country, where families remain overwhelmingly conservative.
When Mahmoud tried to tell his father he was gay, he was told that in their family, men were men.
His family advised him to go to the mosque more often, and his father forced him to go and see a doctor.
"I... tried for almost a year to cope with what they wanted me to do and it was hell," he said.
In the end, Mahmoud's father told him, "If you want to stay like this, you have to leave the house."
He decided to leave, he told members of the audience, who erupted in supportive applause.
As soon as he finished, dozens of hands shot up, their owners eager to also share their stories.
Ghida, a young lesbian, said she remembered how her devout mother cried when she broke the news, saying she didn't want her daughter to go to hell.
"It breaks my heart because she genuinely believes that," Ghida said.
Lebanon's religious authorities, Muslim and Christian, also have huge sway in private matters.
A weekend seminar in Beirut to promote LGBT rights was canceled after a "last warning" from religious figures.
But organizers of Monday's open mic night were positive.
"The authorities weren't opposed to our initiative. That's huge," said Beirut Pride founder Hadi Damien.
Sinine, a participant who spoke of how she shocked a professor by kissing her girlfriend on campus, said the event was "amazing."
"This is the first time in Beirut that we have a platform to do this," she said.
"The more we speak up... the more all Beirut will listen and eventually Lebanon."