BEIRUT: A video that recently went viral on social media opens with a woman running past the camera, a look of fear on her face. The camera then approaches a Lebanese man, who forces another woman to the floor, beating her around the head. She cries out in pain.
The exact motive for the attack is unconfirmed, but Lebanese activists with knowledge of the incident have said there is one definite factor in the woman’s beating: She is transgender.
“This is not just an incident that happened once,” Ghenwa Samhat, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy organization Helem told The Daily Star. “Trans individuals have to deal with [attacks of this nature] each and every day.”
Social media users suggested the man, who had employed the victim as a sex worker, attacked her upon finding out she was transgender.
While Samhat said Helem had no knowledge of the woman’s profession, she said that whatever the case, the attack “reflects how society deals with individuals of a nonnormative gender identity.”
While groups like Helem offer a measure of shelter to the transgender community, they are scarce and their reach is limited. “There are very few safe spaces for trans and gender-diverse people,” said Diala Haidar, a Lebanon campaigner at Amnesty International. “They face violence, aggression and deliberate exclusion on a daily basis.”
Such violence affects a significant majority of the community. According to a 2016 study on HIV among trans feminine individuals in Beirut, 68 percent of respondents said they had experienced physical violence, while almost half reported sexual abuse or assault.
Further compounding the issue, trans people face difficulties in reporting violence against them to the authorities. “If they do report [violence], the person will be ... exposing their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Samhat said. “You’re not allowed to be a trans individual in Lebanon, you’re going to be singled out for an investigation.”
Naya Rajab, a transgender woman who works as an activist at Helem, told The Daily Star, “We can’t use the law in these cases because it criminalizes us. So if we’re the victims we become the criminals under the law.”
According to the 2016 study, almost a third of its sample had experienced arrest simply because of their identity. In a video with London’s Channel 4 News, Lebanese model Sasha Elijah reported being arrested twice for being transgender.
While trans people still face discrimination and harassment in society, legal developments are incrementally improving their status in the eyes of the law.
A 2016 ruling in the Appeals Court granted a transgender man the right to change his official papers, enabling him to access necessary treatment. Similarly, another Appeals Court ruling in July upheld a decision preventing the prosecution of nine people charged with violating Penal Code Article 534, which prohibits “sexual intercourse against the order of nature.”
Rajab said the lack of clarity in the article has previously been used to target members of the LGBTQ community. “It’s not explained by the law, so they used it against homosexuals and transgender people to explain imprisoning them,” she said.
Samhat praised the ruling, which she believes will “provide a sense of protection for the LGBTQ community ... not only for the trans but for all individuals with nonnormative gender identity and sexual orientation who are threatened by Article 534 and perhaps other articles.”
Haidar said the latest step could help lead to the complete abolishment of the discriminatory law in the penal code.
“[The ruling] helps move the debate from the ‘unnatural’ and ‘criminalized’ into a human rights-based framework, which takes us a step further towards repealing Article 534,” Haidar said.
Despite the positive developments, Rajab remains cautious in her optimism. The video, she said, “is just a simple part of the violations against the trans community. ... Trans people cannot find a job, cannot rent a house, and cannot go to the police” if something happens to them. – Additional reporting by Sahar Houri