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Lebanon displays an increasing tolerance of gays

Nightlife tourism booms in Beirut

BEIRUT -- The Lebanese soldiers at the checkpoint peered through the barbed wire.

Across the street from these men in their fatigues and combat gear, another group of men had arrived -- revelers in hip-hugging pants and tight shirts on their way to Acid, an openly gay nightclub in east Beirut.

The soldiers barely flinched.

In Lebanon, homosexuality is becoming less of a taboo. It is discussed with much greater candor on TV and radio talk shows.

The Arabic word widely used in reference to gays means pervert. Now many leading newspapers have begun using a more neutral term.

New gay bars have sprouted , joining mainstays such as Acid, creating a flourishing nightlife that is attracting locals and foreign tourists alike.

"It's not that the political class is more open today," said George Azzi, a prominent gay rights activist. "But authorities, by portraying themselves as the new guardians of democracy and civil rights, find themselves rather bound not to attack gays."

The 2005 bombing that killed former prime m inister Rafik Hariri unleashed a political firestorm that led to the ouster of Syrian troops from Lebanon. But with its heady rhetoric about freedom and rights, the so-called Cedar Revolution also set in motion an unspoken cultural transformation.

Moreover, the political instability that followed Hariri's assassination has left many politicians and clerics too preoccupied with factional feuds to pay attention.

"Politicians are simply too busy today to persecute gays," said Salah Srour, a lawyer who works for gay rights. "They have too many problems to deal with."

Famous for its riotous nightlife, Lebanon has long been known as the most permissive among the Arab countries. On any given night, Monnot Street in central Beirut is gridlocked with Porsche-driving playboys headed to the area's many bars and nightclubs, where a bottle of champagne costs $1,000 but buys precious attention. Many tourists from Persian Gulf countries come to Beirut for kicks they can't get at home.

At Acid, the waiting line snakes around the block on weekends. Others prefer the city's traditional saunas, known as hamams.

Berto Kanso, a 27-year-old archeology graduate, has made a business of charting these waters. He runs a gay tourism website that offers advice on hotels, restaurants, and gay bars in Lebanon. He e-mails travel updates to his contact list of 7,000 subscribers from around the world.

Despite a drop in tourism caused by the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and the continuing unstable political situation in Lebanon, Kanso said business is booming.

"There is a lot of negative propaganda portraying Lebanon as a dangerous place . . . but in reality Lebanon is beautiful and free," he said. "As long as I am not dealing with anything illegal like drugs or prostitution, why would I be stopped? After all, I am bringing tourists to the country."

A billboard campaign last year for a high-end fashion store showed a man holding hands with both a man and a woman. Related TV spots showed two men holding hands, with sunrays creating a rainbow above them as a voice-over intoned, "Vote for tolerance."

Dating websites and chat groups provide social networks for Lebanese gays who once would have been far more isolated.

"Today, we can talk about a fairly thriving gay community in Beirut," said Rita Ghanem, 33, who left her ancestral home 18 months ago after her father discovered she was dating a woman.

The parents of her companion, Luna, first banned contact between the two but ended up tacitly accepting their relationship.

Homosexuality still is considered shameful in many places outside the cosmopolitan capital, and many gay men and women in Lebanon prefer to lead a double life rather than risk being ostracized.

"I am only gay when I am in bed with another man," said Kareem, a 40-year-old engineer who did not want to give his last name for fear of being persecuted. Kareem says he avoids going to gay clubs or being seen publicly with other gay men. Instead, he meets other men anonymously online.

"Many gay men suffer from homophobia in their surrounding," said Maha Rabbat, a psychotherapist who counsels at Helem, one of the few Arab associations advocating rights for gays, lesbians, and transgendered people. "Most of [them] feel anxious and have a low self-esteem."

The law, which does not address homosexuality explicitly, remains on the books but is now rarely enforced .

Despite the inroads made by the gay community, initiatives to decriminalize homosexuality have mostly been ignored. When Azzi filed papers with the Ministry of Interior in 2004 to establish Helem as a legitimate group, an official shelved the request, writing "shameful" on the folder and throwing it into a drawer, a ministry official said.