BEIRUT: A Lebanese gay rights organization will on Monday be presented with a prestigious international award in the United States in recognition of its work. Helem, an Arabic acronym of "Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders" but also meaning 'dream,' is a Beirut-based non-governmental organization that has worked since 2004 to promote the legal, social and cultural rights of the above individuals. Helem was the first organization of its kind in the Middle East, though it has since been joined by ASWAT (Voices), an organization for Palestinian lesbians, and the Iranian Queer Railroad.
The organization was selected by The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) as the 2009 recipient of the Felipa de Souza Award in recognition of Helem's work to improve the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) and others who face discrimination because of their sexuality or HIV positive status. Announcing the award, IGLHRC said: "The first organization in the Arab world to set up a gay and lesbian community center, Helem's work has consistently broken new ground in a country that criminalizes homosexuality and where violence and abuse are persistent problems. We applaud their courage and commitment to human rights for all."
"We are very proud to accept the Felipa Award from IGLHRC," Helem board member Shadi Ghrawi said in a statement. "It's a great honor to be selected. We hope it will help advance the struggle for human rights for LGBTI people in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East."
The Felipa Award will be presented to Helem's coordinator, George Azzi, on March 30 in New York and on April 2 in San Francisco, California.
Among Helem's primary activities is a campaign to have Article 534, which criminalizes homosexuality under "unnatural sexual intercourse," removed from the Lebanese penal code. Activists claim the article is used to intimidate the LGBTI community, and those convicted under it can spend up to one year in prison. According to Helem, abolishing Article 534 would "help reduce state and societal persecution and pave the way to achieving equality for the LGBT community in Lebanon."
Helem also offers free and anonymous 15-minute HIV tests to the general public while advocating the rights of HIV positive individuals.
News of Helem's award comes two months after the group's vocal criticism against the violent assault of two gay men by members of the Lebanese Armed Forces in Beirut's Sassine Square area. Soldiers found the two men embracing in the lobby of an abandoned building and dragged them into the street and beat them. "One, half naked, was even exhibited to bystanders ... just for fun," said a statement by Helem in late January.
According to the group, the men were detained at a military barracks and were handed over to the civil authorities, who continue to detain them. "It is high time that the country's lawmakers looked at an obsolete, ridiculous law that condemns and punishes homosexuality in Lebanon," Helem said of Article 534. "At a time when gay marriage is permitted in many countries, the [Lebanese] authorities hypocritically deny the simplest expression of reality that they will have to face one day or another."
To learn more about Helem, call 01 745 092.