Out in Beirut

It is Thursday night, early May. Ismail Noshy is getting ready for his monthly meeting with his gay Arab friends.

“The first Thursday of every month,” says Noshy, a 23-year-old Arab Christian, “we meet and talk about being gays and Arab.”

Most of his friends, who are Muslims, have a hard time with being Arabs and gays. Though Beirut is a very modern city and most of the residents, who are either Sunni or Shi’ite Muslims, are very progressive otherwise, they are still behind when it comes to dealing with homosexuality. Both sects, who are Islam’s main branches, consider homosexuality a wicked practice. Like the Bible, the Koran mentions of the people of Lot. Many Muslims, like many Christians, believe those people were homosexuals, says Noshy.

Noshy, a student of the ever-popular American University of Beirut, has been out for four years now. Last year, he single-handedly put together a group of of his friends and established a gay support group in Beirut. Ehteram, an Arabic word that means ‘to respect,’ is what they called it.

“I just felt like it was time we did something,” says Noshy, who finishes his studies next year. “I was fortunate enough to have many gay friends. Most of the young gays do not and I wanted to establish a place where they could feel welcome.”

According to him, most of the members are between the ages of fourteen and seventeen.

Though he never made the support group public, it is now somewhat famous among the LGBT peers. It has about two hundred members, says Noshy. Curious, I asked him what the gay Muslim friends thought of being members to a Christian-established group.

“Oh, they know I love them as my brothers. I trust them and they trust me.” Noshy says, who also once a week teaches the basics of Christianity to a local Muslim school. “Muslims are very progressive in this city,” he says. “Well, very progressive except in the case of homosexuality. And that is the same for Christians.”

In 1999, a then 19-year-old Noshy came out to his parents and siblings.

“My father was very displeased with the news,” says Noshy. “Everyone else was okay with it. Two of my brothers even came to me and asked me if I wanted to get out of the country.”

Noshy, who told them he would stay in Lebanon, later faced his father and gave him some literature to read.

“It took him a few years, but he finally came around.”

His mother told him she always knew about his being gay. Noshy said it felt nice to hear his mother say those words.

“Very loving words to a gay son who just came out to you,” he says, tears gushing out of his eyes. “That was a priceless moment for me.”

Being a Christian in a country that is predominantly Muslim is not a problem for Noshy. Every Christmas, his friends celebrate with him, he says.

“Sometimes they will ask me to celebrate even when I’m not in the mood,” says Noshy, who relates this was the case in 1999 as his father was not speaking to him. “It just felt lonely. My father and I always had so much fun in Christmas.”

Noshy’s mother, a Palestinian-Muslim who came to Beirut just after 1948, never pressured her kids to become Muslims, says Noshy. “If anything, she always made sure we were in church on time. She is truly the best mom.”

While living in Paris for her studies, ten years ago, his oldest sister converted to Islam on her own initiative. And not just Islam, but she converted to Wahabbism, an Ultra-Orthodox sect that became famous when the world found out Usama Bin Laden belonged to it.

“When she came back,” says Noshy, laughing. “She came back with a mission; to convert us all to Islam. Mother fought her and even kicked her out of the house.”

Noshy says his sister was very hostile to them all and that she even threatened to sell the house, which her grandmother left to her, unless they converted. Oddly enough, such an extremist sister did not make so much fuzz about her brother’s sexuality. Noshy believes “she was educated in that respect. Since then, we became close.”

Beirut is home to Noshy, though he visits the U.S. or Europe every summer. He lived through the terrorist attacks and Israeli bombings launched against this city.

“I always wish for peace in the Middle East,” he says. “I have seen so much hate sent back and forth. We really need peace, as humans, no matter who or where we are.”

Additionally, he was dealing with his sexuality and having to live with siblings who wanted to convert him to a different faith.

“I wasn’t always okay with my sexuality,” says Noshy. “There was a time when I even considered suicide. Knowledge is power and it was something I was missing.”

Years of studying queer history and endless debates with friends has put him on a self-loving path, says Noshy.

Having had to go through all that at a young age, Ismail Noshy has certainly developed a personality that was honestly compassionate towards all those he saw were oppressed or weak, say those who know him. Studying political science, he hopes to someday change at least parts of the world.

“He has a good heart,” says Ahmed Al-Nahyan, Noshy’s best friend. “I think he would make a great Lebanese president or a UN Secretary General.”

Ismail, like the patriarch he is named after, is certainly a survivor.