Lebanese LGBTI organization wins international award

Beirut-based LGBTI support group Helem has been awarded the 2009 Felipa de Souza Award by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) for its work to improve the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexed (LGBTI). Helem, established in 2004, marks the first organization of its kind in the Arab world.
Last month Helem organized the Arab world's first sit-in demonstration in Beirut denouncing violence against homosexuals and other minority groups. © Alexandra Sandels

BEIRUT, April 1, 2009 (MENASSAT) - “We are so pleased to be able to present our 2009 Felipa Award to Helem. Helem works in very challenging circumstances to make a very real difference to the lives of countless LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexed) people in the Middle East and beyond. We applaud their courage and commitment to human rights for all,” said Paula Ettelbrick, Executive Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, IGLHRC.

The prize was handed to Helem Director Georges Azzi on March 30 in New York and will be presented once more to the organization on April 2 in San Francisco.

Azzi told MENASSAT that winning the award was “symbolic” for Helem and that five years ago he thought it was an “impossible dream” to set up an LGBT organization in his country.

But Azzi’s and other activists’ dream did come true and Helem- whose Arabic acronym means "Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders," taken from Arabic word for “Dream”- has been an active voice in Lebanon since its creation in 2004, advocating the legal and social rights of LGBTI persons and providing free HIV testing.

The Felipa Award is named after Felipa de Souza, a woman who “endured persecution and brutality” after declaring her romantic relationship with a woman during a 16th century inquisition trial in Brazil. Nominations for the award are solicited each year from LGBT activist groups around the world.

This year, the IGLHRC received 23 nominations for the prize and Helem was ultimately selected from a group of five.

Last month, Helem, along with a number of other Lebanese NGOs, organized the Arab world’s first sit-in demonstration in Beirut denouncing violence against homosexuals and other minority groups.

Hundreds of people gathered at Beirut’s Sodeco square holding rainbow flags and signs condemning violence and discrimination against minority groups, in what was considered a landmark event.

The sit-in was a direct response to an alleged gay bashing that took place in Beirut’s Sassine square, in which two men purportedly engaging in sexual conduct on the ground floor of an apartment building were dragged out onto the street and severely beaten.

According to Helem, the two men were detained at a military barracks, handed over to the authorities and are still being held in custody.  

When asked about the current situation of LGBTI people in Lebanon, Azzi specifically called on the abolishment of article 534 in the Lebanese penal code, which criminalizes “unnatural” sexual conduct. He said overturning such legislation was crucial in order to offer better protection for Lebanese homosexuals.

Rights activists say article 534 is used to intimidate the LGBTI community, and those convicted under the legislation can be penalized for up to one year in prison.

"It is high time that the country's lawmakers looked at an obsolete, ridiculous law that condemns and punishes homosexuality in Lebanon. At a time when gay marriage is permitted in many countries, the [Lebanese] authorities hypocritically deny the simplest expression of reality that they will have to face one day or another,” said Helem of article 534.