REPORTER: Matthew Carney
Beirut is the undisputed party capital of the Arab world. In nightclubs like this, almost anything goes every night of the week.

WOMAN: Being a Mediterranean and cosmopolitan peoples with English, French, Italian and Arabic-oriented music. Spanish. And we have the best moves ever so we have everything to party - we have the spirit, we have the style.

WOMAN 2: I think this is what the city is all about, actually. People, everybody living by his own rules and ideas.

As if to prove that point, Mousbah, the Arab world's first male belly dancer, is about to give a performance.

ANNOUNCER: Please welcome, the one and only, Mousbah!

MOUSBAH: I used to think it's a taboo because, in our country, it's only committed by women. Women, all the old girls dance, but for a guy, it's forbidden. But later on, when I grow up, I thought it's a talent that I should express, so people have to see what I have.

Mousbah doesn't take off his clothes but his seductive dancing turns all the norms of Arab culture upside down. In the nightclub scene of Beirut, he's breaking down barriers and creating some tolerance for homosexuals.

WOMAN 3: Most of the time when he is dancing, I'm looking at the crowd, because it's always interesting, and you have these really macho, homophobic dudes who look like they've just fallen out of Mars or something. But it's good because it opens their eyes a little bit to reality.

MAN: He likes dancing and he's doing it. He's doing it so right that you have to accept him. That's it, that's really the issue. Like, when you're partying, do you care if he's gay? Who cares? Let him do whatever he wants to.

But Beirut is a paradox. The Lebanese can party all they want but, back at home, they're deeply conservative. Theirs is a culture based firmly on family values. Being gay is unacceptable.
20-year-old George Salhab is gay and knows about persecution and prejudice. He comes from a working class Christian family in Beirut. Since his family found out, George says he's been repeatedly beaten and locked in his room for weeks. They believe he's possessed by a demon.

GEORGE SALHAB (Translation): I once felt I was dying when my brother-in-law was suffocating me. He always suffocated, threatened and scared me. He'd hold me like this and I'd get scared and do as he wanted. I could see in his eyes hatred for gays. I could see it in his eyes as if he were looking at a rock that shouldn't be there and he wanted to smash it. I could feel he hated what was in me. He didn't hate me, but he hated gays. He felt it was wrong and wanted to destroy it like it was satanic.

George couldn't turn to anyone for help. If he went to the police, he would have been harassed and there were no social workers to offer support.

GEORGE SALHAB (Translation): I attempted suicide many times because of my family. I tried to tell them that I was suicidal but it made no difference. They thought I'd do nothing. I once crossed the freeway without looking. I was fleeing my brother-in-law. Cars were going fast, but there wasn't much traffic. God loves me. I crossed without getting run over. He saw me trying to get run over and die, but he beat me again when I returned to his office. He calmed me down for five minutes then beat me again.

His family will only accept him if he is straight. So he has to leave home and make his own way.

MAN READING: "Under existing structures, to deal with the issues facing LBTQ, is replaced by police brutality, group therapy, public humiliation, banishment, to name just a few."

But the gay community in Lebanon is fighting back. In this room, a small revolution is taking place - Helem, the first gay rights organisation in the Arab world, is having a meeting. Lebanon is more liberal than other Arab countries but being gay here can still lead to a year in jail under Section 534 of the penal code. In other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, it can mean a death sentence.

GHASSAN MAKAREM, FOUNDING MEMBER OF HELEM: I think the visibility issue is, what I think is the revolutionary part of it because there have been networks, unofficial networks, underground groups, and I think a lot of them exist in a lot of Arab countries because this is the first time a group says that, "We are public, we are not afraid of discussing the issues publicly."

Ghassan Makarem is one of the founding members of Helem, meaning 'dream' in Arabic. The aim of the group is to overturn Lebanon's anti-gay laws and to stop discrimination and prejudice.

GHASSAN MAKAREM: We need to reach a point where society starts accepting gay and lesbian people as members of society. We're not talking about a separate group that has its own laws, we're talking about allowing gays and lesbians to become active members of society and stopping their persecution because of a sexual orientation issue.

It's going to be a huge job. Religion still plays a dominant role in Lebanese society. Both Christian and Muslim leaders are united in condemning homosexuality. In fact, they demonise it.

IMMAN (Translation): There's no doubt that homosexuality is the idea of Satan, a satanic idea. Satan tried to change God's creation and human instinct by making one man desire another. Since this is a satanic idea in its origins there is a link between homosexuality and Satan because Satan likes humans to do such a thing.

Gay activist 21-year-old Sarah Abu Ghazal is out, but not to her family. Being openly gay in Lebanon is taboo. Faced with the possibility of losing family, friends and jobs, most remain firmly in the closet. Many, like Sarah, lead a double life.

SARAH ABU: Yeah, I have to pretend, like if I'm visiting my family, let's say, in the mountains, and they would be like, "Oh, when are you going to get married and have kids?" And I would elaborate on the subject, like, "Yeah, sometime, well, I met a guy and he's nice, we're thinking," whatever, whatever. But then, it's bullshitting, it's lying, it's pretending.

Sarah comes from a very conservative Islamic part of Beirut. If she came out here, she would be thrown out of her community and fears worse treatment from her father and mother.

SARAH ABU: If I told her, she would probably have, she would - something wrong would happen to her because she's really a believer, a conservative Muslim. My father is more liberal but he is very macho, he's very Arab, he's very macho. So probably he would, I don't know, he would hire somebody to kill me, he would kill me himself, he would tell his brothers, his family and his family's side. Yeah, so I can be in danger if I told my father, I think.

Sarah knows that by speaking out on this program, her family could find out about her gay life. But, as an activist, it's a risk she's willing to take.

SARAH ABU: Like, I can go, I can live in Europe, I can have my degree in Europe and do whatever I have always dreamt of doing, you know? But I would like to do it here. I would like to continue writing and to continue being an activist and studying in Lebanon because this is my place, you know? This is where I have to change. It's kind of a responsibility that I feel, you know?

As part of its campaign, Helem organises public meetings like this one. It wants to change people's attitudes to gays. It believes that decriminalising homosexuality is possible under the current review of the penal code.
To the surprise of many members, the government has let the organisation operate and no-one has been convicted under Section 534 in 10 years.

SARAH ABU: Every meeting, I'm meeting new people. And every time, these people are bringing more people and it's huge, it's wonderful. It's really good.

But many religious leaders want to make the punishment for homosexuality even more severe, taking the Bible and the Koran as their authority.

IMMAN (Translation): A homosexual in Islam if he was married and had a wife whom he could come and go to whenever he wanted and wasn't separated from her, he should be either killed and then burned or killed directly by burning. Or his hands and feet get tied and he is hurled down a mountain. But if he is not married, and so has no wife, some say he should be killed and some scholars say he should be whipped 100 times.

At the last International AIDS Day, the Lebanese health ministry and several NGOs were proactive in educating its youth about the disease. The campaign rivalled any in the West. Helem is hoping its struggle can succeed by tapping into the more liberal sectors in Lebanese society. But first, it has to battle the country's religious leadership. After that, Helem hopes to set up centres in other Arab countries.

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