Beirut hosts the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association’s (IGLTA) 2010 symposium
Beirut, Lebanon – (Raynbow Media) – The International Gay and Lesbian Tourism Association (IGLTA) symposium was held at the Bella Riva Hotel in Beirut on October 14th, 2010 to discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) tourism as well as the LGBT situation in Lebanon. Raynbow, a Lebanese nonprofit group that raises funds to support the LGBT movement in Lebanon, was present through its Lebanese LGBT Media Monitor to report.
Four speakers were invited to the symposium. The first speaker was LebTour president and IGLTA ambassador in Lebanon, Bertho Makso, who spoke about LGBT tourism in Lebanon. He started by describing how he first got into the business when he used to show tourists around and, eventually, how this small service turned into LebTour. He held the first Lebanese and regional LGBT tour in 2006 up until it was interrupted by the July War. Mr. Makso insisted on the importance of showing the strong will of the Lebanese people, and how the Lebanese continue to live on in opposition to war when it strikes.
Mr. Makso also announced the launching of the “Hero of the Year” award. The first winner of this award was LGBT activist and one of the founders of the Lebanese NGO, Helem, Georges Azzi. Mr. Azzi thanked all other activists who helped him along the way and spoke about LGBT activism in Lebanon. He insisted on the importance of empowering LGBT individuals in order to improve their situation in their countries. He also considered the LGBT community a hard community to be integrated in and hoped for non-discrimination within the community itself. Finally, Mr. Azzi thanked heterosexual allies who helped the community through its struggles.
Representing IGLTA was its European Ambassador, Clark Massad, who congratulated the volunteers of LebTour who organized this trip without needing help from the international committee. Mr. Massad spoke about IGLTA’s goal in connecting businesses within the LGBT community, underlining its importance in increasing LGBT visibility since 1983. According to Massad, IGLTA has 2278 members (including businesses and establishments associated with it), which is leading to the unity of LGBT businesses as an entire market segment. Media-wise, IGLTA has an important role in encouraging LGBT consumers to know which companies are LGBT-friendly as it is associated with 200 Global Media outlets worldwide. Mr. Massad later showed some research that highlighted the importance of the power of LGBT tourism globally.
Helem Board Member, Anthony Rizk, was the third speaker and started by describing Helem’s work on all levels. Helem lobbies to remove Lebanese laws that incriminate homosexuals and transsexuals and also provides legal services and advising for those who need it. Mr. Rizk also described the Helem Community Center, which is considered a safe space for all LGBTQ’s (Q for Queer) and then talked about the Helem’s health services with outreach campaigns as well as a newly formed collaboration with Al Marsa, Lebanon’s first and only sexual health clinic.
Mr. Rizk then illustrated how fighting for LGBTQ rights cannot be “depoliticized,” especially in this region, where these rights are being used by a Zionist regime to justify certain war crimes. He moved on to show how Helem fights against this “pinkwashing of Israeli crimes” by being part of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement along with boycotting IGLTA’s symposium in 2009 that promoted tourism in Tel Aviv (Click here for Helem’s statement). Mr. Rizk criticized the description of Lebanon as a “very liberal” country, since Lebanese LGBT suffer on daily basis from homophobia, blackmail, as well as harassment by the police. He then criticized the, supposedly, LGBT friendly establishments “that market themselves to the queer community, but practice transphobia, sissyphobia, and homophobia on several levels, and economic discrimination through classism.”
Eyebrows were raised when Rizk asked how this tour benefits LGBT rights. Symposium participants, including IGLTA board members, responded by stating that such tours are beneficial since they raise worldwide visibility of LGBT communities. Click here to read the complete version of Mr. Rizk’s speech.
The final speaker was director of Soins Infirmier de Development Communautaire (SIDC), Nadia Badran. Mrs. Badran spoke about the health situation of men who have sex with men (MSM) in Lebanon. She presented the outreach program that SIDC works on along with United Nations (UN) agencies, the National AIDS Program (NAP), the Internal Sercurity Forces (ISF) and its partners, Helem and “Oui Pour la Vie”. The program consists of empowering vulnerable groups through peer education and increasing the accessibility to health care settings by conducting more voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) as well as providing more information about sexually transmitted diseases (STD) through a mobile unit. Mrs. Badran insisted on the importance of peer education in easing the communication of such information to these groups.
In an exclusive interview with Raynbow’s Lebanese LGBT Media Monitor, Mr. Clark Massad said that trips like IGLTA’s one to Lebanon helps increase the visibility of the Lebanese LGBT community. Mr. Massad did concede, however, that there are risks in participating such as potentially “outing” participants, but these risks exist in all countries, not just Lebanon. When asked about the difference between the way LGBT tourists and LGBT Lebanese are treated by the government, Massad recognized that tourists all around the world will be treated differently than the local community regardless of the nature of the members of the local community.
Event organizer, Mr. Bertho Makso, spoke exclusively to the Lebanese LGBT Media Monitor about how some venues did not previously label themselves as LGBT friendly, but have now started doing so due to the IGLTA trip and its symposium being held in Lebanon. Mr. Makso said that Beirut will never be a gay capital, but it is now welcoming to all kinds of tourists.
IGLTA’s 2010 symposium was not without controversy as members of activist groups and business working with tourists conflicted in their views of the utility of LGBT tourism in Lebanon. This only further shows the diversity within the Lebanese LGBT community as well as everyone’s willingness to discuss issues in an open and friendly manner.
By Omar Harfouch
Oct. 19th, 2010