In the late 1990s, I got a call from a guy I had met online as part of the GayLebanon Yahoo group. He told me they were starting something, and we were to meet at the house of M.
When I showed up at M’s place, it was FULL. We were easily 50 or 60 people. We sat down, we discussed, and we created ClubFREE.
In doing so, we created the contemporary Lebanese LGBT movement in Lebanon. A few years later, the name of ClubFREE was changed to Helem to sound less western.
The creation of ClubFREE and then Helem was groundbreaking in every way. At the time, we took pride in being the first LGBT organization in Lebanon, and in the Middle East. It was exciting, it was promising, it was a big fucking deal!
I was active in Helem in different ways for many years. I am one of the 5 names responsible for Helem legally, the 5 names given when we registered the company (I have asked repeatedly to have it removed, and George Azzi has sworn to me that it has been removed. As of earlier this year, it hasn’t). I served as secretary for a couple of years. I even traveled to New York at some point to see if we could start off a branch there (because that was what we did back then: Open up branches abroad, for some weird reason).
As Helem grew and became more public, a few issues started appearing. Most notably, Helem was never a safe space for women. We had huge problems getting women involved, and we never stopped to think about why this was the case. We had a few token women as part of the group (this is not meant to undermine their work at all. On the contrary, they brought experiences, knowledge, and diversity to the group.) And we used these women to prove to the world that we were a space that welcomed women.
We did the same thing for bisexuals and for trans people. To some extent, we did the same thing with people who were not aligned politically with the core members.
The truth is the space has never been a safe space for women, bisexuals, or trans people. Helem is quick to point to individuals who fit under those categories, ignoring the ridiculous minority that they make up.
I was a member of Helem until end of 2007. At that point, I had a major fallout with the group, and, to be honest, I have not recovered by the way things were handled whatsoever.
It’s a long story that I don’t care to share at this point because it brings up old wounds which would really not be relevant here. Suffice it to say, it has left a very sour taste in my mouth (enter gay joke here).
After this fallout, Helem then launched a war against me. It’s been pretty bad.
I have been accused of trying to steal funds from Helem.
I have been accused of being behind anonymous articles criticizing Helem.
I have been accused of being behind the recent Helem Leaks.
I have been blocked on Facebook by people that I have never met.
I have been accused of being an enemy to the cause.
Members of Helem told my ex-boyfriend that I was a slut.
I have been called a liar, an evil person, an opportunist, a troublemaker, a traitor, and a Zionist, all by people in Helem.
These are things related to me personally.
Some of my closest friends have gone through much more. Much much more. Much much worse. Some have spoken out about it. Others have kept it to themselves.
A few months ago, I contacted an old Helem member to ask her about an old exchange we had regarding women in Helem. I wanted to use something she wrote to highlight the issues that the movement has faced over the years, especially within Helem. In her (positive) response to my email, she wrote:
“I also remember that you were very much a part of the Helem establishment that I was struggling against at the time (arguments over what constituted a “gay issue”, arguments over sexual rights vs lgbt rights, over how much space bisexuals could be given within helem, etc.)”
She’s absolutely right. I was. And then I stepped away and, aside from minor comments here and there, I have never spoken out against what I was a part of. I have tried to avoid confrontation, tried not to name names, tried not to comment on things to avoid bringing up old wounds. Most importantly though, I have never apologized.
But what I didn’t realize is how many new wounds were being formed. In me, but more importantly, in others.
The last few months have shown the extent of structural violence that is imbedded within Helem.
For years, for the sake of solidarity with the movement, I, and many others, have avoided publicly discussing Helem and the actions of the key members of Helem. By doing so, we have allowed the organization to continue in its ways.
For that, I am genuinely sorry for having been a part of it for a long time. I want to apologize to every single person who has been hurt by Helem, today or in the past.
My actions, then my silence, have been a key part in the structural violence, and I’m truly sorry for that.
This needs to stop.
There’s too much pain. Too much mockery. Too much destruction.
Today, it has become urgent to speak out against Helem, to put an end to their ways.
I refuse to believe that we should shut up and speak as one community. We are not one community. Helem has proven that over and over again, by alienating (and I’m being nice here) anybody that did not agree with the way they do things.
It is not the people who have spoken out that are destroying the community. It is Helem that has, systematically, destroyed any diversity, criticism, collaboration within the community. It has actively worked to rewrite contemporary Lebanese LGBT history in their favor. It has repeatedly worked actively to bully people into silence, into shame, into isolation.
I know. They’ve done it to me. They’ve done it to lots of people.
I’m sick of Helem. Fuck Helem.
We need to speak out against them to discredit them, but we also need to move on. They have shown, over and over again, that they are not interested in changing, in looking back, in self-criticism.
We need to create something new. Something that can replace the void that Helem has left. Something that will give people another option. Someplace that will provide the safety, support, hope, and dream that Helem could not.
But this time, we need to do it right. We need to work on every single issue, and when we make mistakes, we need to admit it, apologize for it, and make sure they never happen again.
I have no idea how to do this. But together we can do it.
It may be something as simple as supporting individual activists, or it might be creating a new organization.
I’m leaning more towards individual activists, supported by each other, sharing their experiences, their ideas, their hopes. That can change things, create conversation, change minds, and eventually, create a place that is better for everyone.