First Middle Eastern Gay and Lesbian Organization Is Founded

Helem, the first lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organization in the Middle East, formed in Lebanon in defiance of religious, social, legal, and governmental norms, and in a region of the world where homosexuality remains illegal.

Summary of Event

Until the late 1990’s, there was no safe place in Lebanon, Lebanon or in the Middle East in general, for gays and lesbians to come together other than an “underground” dominated by risky sex, drugs, and alcohol. The lack of existing structures to address LGBT concerns was replaced by police brutality, conversion therapy, public humiliation, and banishment. Without support, the majority of LGBT individuals led double lives, or, for those who could afford it, fled the country for more accepting societies in Europe and in North America. [kw]First Middle Eastern Gay and Lesbian Organization Is Founded (Nov., 1999)
[kw]Middle Eastern Gay and Lesbian Organization Is Founded, First (Nov., 1999)
[kw]Gay and Lesbian Organization Is Founded, First Middle Eastern (Nov., 1999)
[kw]Lesbian Organization Is Founded, First Middle Eastern Gay and (Nov., 1999)
Middle East, and GLBT rights
[c]Organizations and institutions;Nov., 1999: First Middle Eastern Gay and Lesbian Organization Is Founded[2530]
[c]Civil rights;Nov., 1999: First Middle Eastern Gay and Lesbian Organization Is Founded[2530]
Khaled, Mazen
Shayne, Ralph

Helem’s Helem major goal is the annulment of an ancient clause in the Lebanese penal code, article 534, which criminalizes “unnatural sexual intercourse.”

With the rise and popularity of the World Wide Web came the formation of an e-mail group called GayLebanon GayLebanon (online group) . Through this virtual group, Lebanese LGBT individuals were able, for the first time, to hold online discussions and organize social gatherings. Serious social and political issues were rarely, if ever, brought up for discussion. Taking note of the need to address such issues, Mazen Khaled, a Lebanese human rights activist, formed a group called Club Free (which would later be called Helem) that would dedicate itself to LGBT concerns.

In the summer of 1999, with the help of a few friends, Khaled gathered every LGBT person he knew for a secret meeting in his apartment. Club Free, the first group dealing solely with LGBT issues in the Middle East, was formed at this meeting. While the first few years of Club Free were slowed by the internalized homophobia, fear, and self-acceptance issues of some of its members, the group still organized numerous events and received significant press coverage. Most notably, Club Free organized a successful art exhibition called EXIST, which tackled issues of personal freedom, the first such exhibition in the region.

Ralph Shayne, a Lebanese journalist, first heard of Club Free while attending the exhibition, and he became a key club member. He was instrumental in restructuring Club Free, renaming it “Helem” (from the Arabic acronym of “Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders”) and giving the group a major push toward the public sphere, allowing it to work more effectively.


Helem has given Middle Eastern LGBT persons an identity, a positive role model, and hope. Helem’s resource center, the first of its kind in the Middle East, was opened to anyone in the community (regardless of their sexuality). The center is an educational resource that counters the foreign statistics and negative images and viewpoints imposed by government, religious, and social leaders. As a result of the pioneering steps of Helem, other local non-LGBT organizations, most notably Hurriyyat Khassa, Hurriyyat Khassa which now lobbies the government to decriminalize homosexuality, took up queer issues as part of their agendas.

Also, Helem members have participated in a number of public events, most important, the antiwar demonstrations of March 15, 2003. The day marked the first time that a group of queers marched down the streets of Beirut, and they did so under one rainbow flag, alongside other groups. Having many members publicly affirm their sexualities and thereby attack preconceived notions about homosexuality, Helem has had a positive impact on society at large. Lebanese society is slowly realizing that there are LGBT individuals in Lebanon and that homosexuality is not a Western phenomenon, as is commonly assumed.

Also, Helem has had an impact on the media, which has slowly introduced nonpejorative Arabic words to refer to LGBT individuals, positive words that had never been used before. In addition, Helem has secured a significant amount of press coverage, raising awareness for a group that, for the most part, society still pretends does not exist. This press coverage has been positive on the whole, but smaller publications, such as Al Muhayed, have attempted to raise their sales figures by publishing photographs of LGBT individuals, accompanied by insults and derogatory words. Led by Helem, a group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), journalists, and individuals have counterattacked, setting the stage for positive press coverage. Helem also has become actively involved in the national HIV peer-awareness program, a program that ignored the gay community prior to Helem’s involvement.

Helem’s reach extends throughout the Middle East, bringing together those wanting to fight for LGBT rights in their country. Helem branches have been formed throughout the world, in countries with important Lebanese or Arab diasporas, namely Sydney, Paris, Montreal, and San Francisco. Middle East, and GLBT rights

Further Reading

  • “Armenian Lesbian Fights Invisibility.” Off Our Backs 21, no. 9 (October 31, 1991): 9.
  • Halwani, Raja. “Gay Lebanon.” Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide 8, no. 6 (January/February, 2002): 18.

  • I Exist: Voices from the Lesbian and Gay Middle Eastern Community in the United States. Peter Barbosa and Garrett Lenoir, producers. San Francisco, Calif.: EyeBite Productions, 2003. Video recording. Synopsis: _presskit/IExist.Info.pdf.
  • Likosky, Stephan, ed. Coming Out: An Anthology of International Gay and Lesbian Writings. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992. Includes the article “Iran, The Middle East, and North Africa: Homosexuality in the Arab and Moslem World.”
  • Massad, Joseph. “Re-orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World.” Public Culture 14, no. 2 (2002): 361-385.
  • Safi, Omid, ed. Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism. Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2003.

August 8, 1978: International Lesbian and Gay Association Is Founded

December 1, 1988: First World AIDS Day

1990: International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission Is Founded

September 16, 1994: U.N. Revokes Consultative Status of International Lesbian and Gay Association

June 17, 1995: International Bill of Gender Rights Is First Circulated

October 9-12, 1998: First International Retreat for Lesbian and Gay Muslims Is Held