In a multipart series, Matthew French will report on his visit to Lebanon, which is slated to conclude in January.
French is currently employed at the Arab Foundation for Equality and Freedoms in Beirut.
In talking with a wide range of friends, acquaintances, classmates and colleagues over the past year, I've come to realize that there is a surprising number of Americans ( from gay to straight ) who don't realize that, while most of us are focusing on the fight to secure equal marriage rights, there are LGBT people in over 80 countries fighting for their right to simply exist. According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association's most recent survey of laws concerning homosexuality, there are 72 countries and three entities that still criminalize same-sex acts with imprisonment, and seven countries that legally punish homosexuality with the death penalty.*
In January 2008, Chicago-based non-governmental organization Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights ( www.heartlandalliance.org ) launched the Global Equality Network ( GEN ) . Through GEN, Heartland Alliance partners with high-potential LGBT grassroots organizations based in regions that are particularly dangerous for LGBT individuals. Through the network, Heartland Alliance works to strengthen the organizational and technical skill sets of the partners. Over time, the partners will then be able to more effectively plan, fund and manage programs that support the movement for securing rights and protections for LGBT individuals in the countries they serve.
Currently, there is a problem with the flow of development training and financial resources to grassroots LGBT movements in the already resource-limited Global South and East. The problem is that Western-based funding institutions don't have the time or the resources to conduct adequate due-diligence on the countless number of organizations in the South and East that want to support LGBT initiatives while, at the same time, nascent organizations and activists cannot adequately absorb large grants that Western funders are accustomed to making. To mitigate this problem in the funding stream, GEN partner organizations will eventually take on the role of "funding intermediaries," using their improved skill sets to apply for and manage large grants from Western-based donors. The partners will then divide these large amounts of funding into smaller seed grants, regranting them to smaller activists and organizations that have been identified as having the potential to create change at the grassroots around their region.
Beirut-based Helem ( www.helem.net ) , the oldest official LGBT organization in the Middle East, has been a member of GEN for the past two years. During these two years, the organization has worked with Heartland Alliance to significantly strengthen its capacity to act as a funding intermediary. As an intermediary, Helem has begun to identify activists and organizations around the Middle East and North Africa ( MENA ) that have voiced their desire to work towards LGBT rights and protections. Helem will work with these organizations and activists, building their skill sets and providing them seed funding to pay for basic operational costs. The result of these investments will be strong, locally-based organizations that can craft and manage programs with funding secured from large, Western-based institutions.
And now, to explain where I fit in in this global LGBT-rights picture. As Heartland Alliance's program officer for global LGBT & HIV initiatives, I've worked for the past year supporting the International Programs department's diverse portfolio of programs ( including GEN ) . After wanting to gain more on-the-ground experience with Global LGBT rights work, I was offered the option to move to Beirut, Lebanon, for four months to support Helem in its adoption of the funding intermediary role. At Helem, I'll be working to identify and meeting with activists around MENA, seeking operational funding that will be necessary for Helem to conduct capacity building trainings and make subgrant awards, and to conduct security assessments for activists, all of whom will be facing myriad security threats in their work.
Over these next four months, I'll be sharing my experiences and insights on living in a region with extremely diverse social and political attitudes toward homosexuality; in the past year alone, the New York Times has dubbed Beirut, a city that follows a secular law criminalizing same-sex acts, as the "Provincetown of the Middle East." Months earlier, the same paper published an exposé on extrajudicial killings of men in Iraq, all of whom were murdered for simply appearing to be gay ( regardless of if they were or not ) . So, if nothing else, I hope my writing over the next few months will open some eyes ( and maybe even spark some interest ) to the fact that, while marriage rights are important, there is still a majority of individuals in this world that are in desperate need of support, merely to assert their right to exist.
*A detailed map of LGBT laws around the globe is available at www.ILGA.org .