Leading LGBT Advocacy in the Arab World
Growing up gay in Beirut, Tarek Zeidan, F09, felt alone. But in his late teens he discovered Helem, the first LGBT rights organization in the Arab world. “It liberated me,” he said of the group of local activists. “Maybe not legally, but it gave me a sense of the possible.”
Zeidan is now president and executive director of the organization that played a critical role in his own life. “We provide services and a safe community space to build power, to create sustainable change from the ground up,” he said. Helem has six full-time staff and about 300 active members who help run its many programs, from movie nights to sexual health workshops and classes on knowing your rights in case of arrest.
In Lebanon, same-sex relations can be prosecuted under Article 534 of the penal code, a colonial-era law against “sexual intercourse contrary to nature” that allows for punishment of up to a year in jail. But recent court rulings have favored LGBT rights, putting the country in the vanguard for the Middle East. In July 2018, a Lebanese court of appeal ruled that same-sex relations are not punishable under Article 534 and in March, Lebanon’s top military prosecutor acquitted four members of the military who had been accused of sodomy, saying the law did not explain what relationships should be deemed unnatural.
Still, the region’s LGBT community needs protection, Zeidan said. Last summer, the second-ever Beirut Pride celebration was canceled after an organizer was detained overnight. It wasn’t clear whether another event would be planned for this year, Zeidan said, and other rights remain under attack.
Zeidan reconnected with Helem in 2012, after spending several years abroad, studying policy at Fletcher and working at the Brookings Institution. When he returned to Beirut to serve as communications director for the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center, he discovered that Helem—which was formally established in 2004 and takes its name from the Arabic word for “dream”—was close to shutting down due to declining membership, accusations of sexism, and what he characterized as mismanagement.
“I thought, we can’t just let it die,” he said. “My memories of Helem were foundational. It was a source of pride, a source of proof that this region isn’t doomed to be a playground for despotism, conservatism, and religious extremism.”
While keeping his day job, Zeidan devoted his free time to working as an unpaid chairperson of Helem. He focused on aiding those arrested under Article 534 or other laws prohibiting “offense against public decency” or “incitement to immorality.” Helem created a hotline and coordinated volunteers to bail people out, provide food and lodging, or connect them with legal aid. With funding from several foundations, the group hired an executive director and some part-time staff and rented a small apartment to serve as a community center, library, and office.
In 2016, Zeidan left Lebanon again, to earn a master’s degree at the Harvard Kennedy School. While continuing to serve as chairperson of Helem from a distance, he studied nonprofit management and international human rights law so he could lead the group more effectively. After he returned, he took the reins as the paid director.
Helem recently moved to a larger community center and launched a partnership with the UNHCR to assist LGBT refugees. Zeidan expects to expand the staff to about a dozen by the end of the year. One new program connects parents who are struggling to accept their child’s sexual or gender identity with other parents who support their LGBT children, with the goal of increasing acceptance. Another initiative helps participants practice responding to anti-LGBT discrimination and ignorance.
“Our role is advocacy-focused,” Zeidan said. “Our workshops are fun, but they’re specifically designed to create empowered young queer people who can be the agents of their own liberation.”
Heather Stephenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.