In August 2019, and for the first time since 1997, the Lebanese lira started depreciating, marking the start of Lebanon’s crippling social and economic collapse. Instead of developing a concrete plan to protect people’s livelihoods, the country’s political and religious officials spent days and weeks lobbying for the cancellation of queer-friendly band Mashrou’ Leila’s concert at the time. For so long, this band crafted and upheld a safe space in Arab-speaking societies within which many LGBTQIA+ groups connected and organized.
But this was not an isolated incident. Queer people, part and parcel of Lebanese society, have long been victims of stigma and ostracization. They are portrayed as a source of social disruption and are shunned for merely refusing to leave and be erased. Up until today, same-sex relationships are punishable by law under Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code. These realities have exposed queer people to grave economic marginalization and discrimination, which has exacerbated in the wake of Lebanon’s mega-crises.
Today, the Lebanese queer community is paying the price of continued social aggression and exclusionary socioeconomic policy. In 2021, Helem, the first LGBTQIA+ organization in the Arab world, documented more than 4,000 cases of abuse—such as arrests and blackmail— against the community, up by 85 percent compared to 2020 figures. The organization had reported that those were primarily linked to housing evictions, employment, and health services.
Faced with one of the most severe economic collapses globally since the 1850s, queer people are today victims of unfettered government-led violence.
Amid loud neglect of sexuality, gender, race, and class in unpacking the ongoing crisis, this article aims to highlight the socioeconomic violence brought by Lebanon’s government and monetary authorities on queer people. For the purpose of this analysis, and to compensate for lacking socioeconomic data, interviews were additionally conducted with 11 young LGBTQIA+ individuals of different gender and gender identity, sexuality, nationality, and geographic location.
Queering the crisis
The current financial, economic, and health crises have ripped through and transformed Lebanon’s social fabric, pushing more than 80 percent of the population into poverty. Compared to 2019, the average resident today would need nine times more money to maintain the same level of consumption, amid soaring inflation. Recent data also reveals that the unemployment rate surged from around 11 percent between 2018 and 2019 to 30 percent by January 2022, implying that around one third of the labor force has become jobless. Admittedly, though, these figures may be underreporting the exact effect of the crisis on Lebanon’s queer community.
This begs the question: How deep have the country’s mega-crises cut through LGBTQIA+ lives? Socioeconomic studies in Lebanon have thus far been restricted to investigating the effect of the crisis on families, as the primary economic unit of interest. This means that many LGBTQIA+ individuals that do not belong to such social structures are often left behind and completely excluded from relevant policy interventions. This can be best seen, for example, through unpacking the politics of foreign and state aid administration, whereby beneficiaries are usually families. Aid programs by the United Nations and the World Bank follow a similar model. This is greatly exclusionary of other social structures and relationships, that are unacknowledged and de-legitimized by the state, and therefore halting their accessibility to much-needed social protection schemes.
More so, the reign of Lebanon’s exclusionary financial and political elites and their workings may be traced back to historically poor economic policies. For decades, the country’s oligarchy, comprising the central bank, commercial banks, and the Lebanese government sought to accumulate wealth at the expense of the most vulnerable in society. Together, they architected a financial Ponzi scheme and left those who live from one paycheck to the next to foot the bill. Instead of funding proper social services, reliable infrastructure, and an inclusive social protection system, the Lebanese government dedicated more than 50 percent of its total expenditure to debt servicing, personnel costs, public sector employment, and a corrupt electricity sector, between 1993 and 2017 alone. Even today, as the Lebanese lira continues its free fall, the political establishment made little effort to remedy for the huge losses borne by such destructive policies.
The effect of such policy design on LGBTIA+ people has been particularly acute as many continue to face multiple layers of social and legal obstacles.
Of note, the queer community in Lebanon is not a monolithic entity. This is to say that the impact of the crisis on it is highly contingent on characteristics such as sexuality and gender identity, nationality, ability, and socioeconomic background. So, any attempt at investigating the ongoing crisis using a queer lens—including through this article—must take stock of all such factors.
According to a recent study by OXFAM Lebanon, trans individuals and queer refugees are amongst the groups most affected by the current crisis. Within the labor law, refugees are excluded from all syndicated professions and their access to formal employment is heavily restricted. Their access to decent work is made particularly difficult by their inability to secure residency permits. For years, the lack of enforcement of labor laws has caused a surge in the employment of unregistered refugees, especially in the informal sector, exposing them to exploitation, underpayment, and discrimination. Given the social stigma associated with being queer, employment prospects and working conditions within this subpopulation tend to be even worse.
Pre-crisis, trans and gender non-conforming individuals faced additional legal obstacles when accessing formal employment and higher education. Transgender women, for example, found it challenging to secure a job due to lacking identification documents that matched their gender expression.
In Lebanon, gender markers can only be amended through a formal court ruling—a highly costly procedure which most trans and gender non-conforming cannot afford today. It has for long severely limited their ability to sustain a steady level of income, secure affordable and safe housing, and benefit from health services. This is why it is common that they seek employment in the informal sector, even more so today, meaning their work is not subject to Lebanon’s labor law, income tax, or benefits such as paid leave.
Queer people, more broadly, struggle to access jobs due to a growing social stigma that seeks to alienate them. They are even classified by some as outsiders or “imported vices,” as put by Human Rights Watch. In the event that queer people do secure some form of employment, they are often met with prejudice, workplace bullying, and ill treatment. Some individuals interviewed for this article reported facing a high level of discriminatory behavior during work hours, through unfair salary payments for example. This pressure at the work place might lead LGBTQIA+ workers to be less productive and drop their average economic output, which could place them at a higher risk of layoff or penalty. Also, none of the interviewed queer individuals found their salary to be fair or at least in sync with their qualifications. More than half of those interviewed claimed to have been paid less than their heterosexual counterparts.
Out of the 101 queer individuals surveyed by Oxfam Lebanon in 2021, 66 percent indicated they did not take on any income-generating work. Of those, 70 percent lost their job during the preceding year. And those who managed to maintain their employment status suffered greatly from currency depreciation, salary cuts, and compulsory unpaid leave.
The impact of these labor dynamics is two-fold. First, amid a persistent lag in job creation post-crisis, many queer people struggled to access formal employment, which has likely constrained their income. Second, it may be expected that their vulnerable labor positioning will create a downward pressure on reservation wages, namely the minimum salary a certain worker would be willing to accept. This comes at a high cost: queer people, alongside vulnerable workers, will be moved into lower income brackets, forcing them into precarious working conditions.
Instances of a “recession-push” became more visible amongst the country’s queer community in times of crisis. As well-paying jobs became scarce locally, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, especially trans people and queer refugees, were attracted by informal jobs across a wide range of economic sectors such as retail and services, the food industry, and even education. However, following the Beirut blast and COVID-19-induced lockdowns, many of them lost their jobs as businesses had to lay off workers to cut costs.
Housing crisis in real-time
The country’s crisis is also one of homelessness and displacement. Lebanon’s housing policy has long catered for a specific social segment, namely middle-class families, in the traditional understanding of the term. According to the Legal Agenda, a legal research and advocacy organization in Beirut, the government’s housing policy was designed to serve the politico-economic interests of the wealthy, at the expense of lower social classes and minority groups. The policy itself was focused on loans, specifically subsidized loans, with the aim of promoting property ownership which benefited individuals coming from well-off social classes. The housing market was thus more supply-driven than community-focused, leaving many minorities and low-income groups in precarious conditions.
Following the country’s protracted crises, queer people were left in a perilous condition. Beirut’s LGBTQIA+ community was amongst the groups most affected by the city’s displacement crisis following the deadly August 4 explosion. This is especially the case because Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze—neighborhoods known to house many queer individuals—were heavily damaged by the explosion. These neighborhoods saw increased presence of armed forces under the pretext of increased security measures following the blast, which in turn pushed many LGBTQIA+ persons to relocate so as to avoid violent aggression. Of note, trans and gender non-conforming individuals have increasingly become a target of homelessness since the onset of the crisis, as they continue to face legal obstacles when accessing formal housing and rental services.
A crisis of political scapegoating
Today, the Lebanese lira has lost more than 90 percent of its value amid skyrocketing inflation, increased job insecurity, and a looming food crisis.
Instead of kickstarting a rescue plan to revamp the economy and restore the country’s lost social fabric, Lebanese authorities have yet again missed the mark. Last Friday, caretaker minister of interior issued a directive to security forces to urgently disband “all gatherings that promote homosexuality.” This came as a response to events planned for this year’s Pride Month, and which according to the ministry, transgress traditions and norms. This decision has come at a time when the country’s social institutions and economic organizations have completely shattered, while the authorities have, for three years now, failed to properly respond to the collapse. So, why is it that the only clear government stance on public affairs comes to surface on Pride Month?
While the country struggles to remain afloat and amidst great disillusionment with state capacity, the Lebanese government attempts to gain lost legitimacy by further scapegoating the queer community. The gravity of the situation goes beyond canceled events but is rather further denial of the existence of queer people. In addition to economic ostracization, LGBTQIA+ individuals’ safety is endangered today as violence against them is perpetuated.
Hussein Cheaito is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on governance and economic development in Lebanon.