HELEM means “dream” in Arabic and is the acronym for Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgenders (LGBTs), which includes protection for persons with nonnormative sexualities and gender identity expressions. The organization presented its official registration documents as an LGBT rights group to the Lebanese government in 2004. But its inception dates to 1998, as increased Internet access in Lebanon led to the establishment of queer social groups, such as the Gay Lebanon forum and mailing list and the underground group Club Free. While the Internet offered space for connecting and debating, several regional events were central to HELEM’s formation. Most notable was the 2001 Queen Boat raid by the Central Security Forces in Cairo. Outrage at state oppression of non-normative sexualities resonated regionally and locally (Makarem 2011). HELEM evolved into a registered group with the rise of protests in Lebanon and throughout the region against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The previously under-the-radar Club Free emerged as the most visibly active formation in HELEM.
HELEM is mostly known for its work on revoking article 534 of the penal code, which targets “sexual intercourse contrary to nature” (Abbani n.d.; see also Arab Penal Reform Organization n.d.). This term is loosely used to refer to male same-sex sexual activities but is also the basis for policing sexual activities and gender identities deemed nonnormative by the state. HELEM currently advocates for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Lebanon and offers legal and social support services to queer persons who request them. Membership is quite organic and open to anyone who has the time and motivation to invest in our work. Currently, HELEM has a team of fifteen activists with a core of five involved in executive and administrative tasks. The legal services aspects of HELEM include monitoring the cases of persons arrested for (homo)sexuality or nonnormative gender identity. This includes supporting transgender women who engage in commercial sex work and are regularly harassed by the police. HELEM provides them with the legal [End Page 368] support they need to be released. HELEM also operates a hotline that receives requests for multiple kinds of support. We provide as much assistance as possible in each case. The experience gained in these projects guides our community mobilizing meetings, where we discuss organizing activities, field interventions, and awareness campaigns and work on other matters that emerge.
In terms of challenges, HELEM has been criticized for its low number of women-oriented and women-led activities and the limited representation of women in its decision-making positions. The peak of this critique came after the inadequate response to a sexual harassment case that occurred in HELEM’s community center in 2011. One year later, in 2012, following a raid on a public cinema frequented by gay men in Beirut and the arrest of thirty-six men suspected of homosexuality, HELEM launched a campaign with the support of several feminist and LGBT organizations in Lebanon calling for a ban on state-sponsored anal examinations aiming to “prove” the homosexuality of detained men. Given that state-sponsored hymen/“virginity” tests had been used in 2011 to shame and punish women activists after demonstrations in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, HELEM expanded its demand for a ban on all coercive exams that aim to extract bodily “evidence” of sexual acts.1 Yet the Lebanese Syndicate of Physicians and the Ministry of Justice decided to ban only anal exams of the male body. HELEM and other groups in Beirut at the time nevertheless welcomed the decision as a victory for the movement.
The debate about the role of women and the politics of structural patriarchy in the organization reached a peak in late 2012 with a clash between members that resulted in many leaving the organization (Benoist 2014; HELEM 2014). HELEM initiated a reflection process and attempted to restructure itself to better learn from past mistakes. The resulting changes included a commitment to incorporating feminist politics in the organization’s political work and the appointment of cisgender women as executive directors in 2014 and 2015. The shift was hailed as a positive change by some and was met with caution by...