by Ellen Francis – The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Prime Minister Tammam Salam has yet to respond to a letter he received earlier this month from a sexual health organization urging him to put an end to unethical “anal tests” and other discriminatory measures used on those suspected of being homosexual, which is illegal under Lebanese law.
In a letter sent in October, the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health asked the premier to publicly support the ban of such tests, which have been described as torture by the Lebanese Order of Physicians and have been banned by the Interior Ministry since 2012.
The letter pointed out that despite the ban, anal tests involving the insertion of an egg-shaped metal object into the rectum were still being conducted by authorities against those arrested on charges of homosexuality, which is criminalized under Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code.
In May, for example, five men arrested for allegedly being homosexual were subjected to the tests.
Then, in August, 27 people were arrested in Al-Agha Turkish bath and forced to undergo not just the anal test but also non-anonymous HIV testing, conducted without their consent by a Moral Protection Bureau investigator instead of a physician, the letter said.
“These [anal tests] are considered a form of abuse and can have serious physical and psychological damages,” the association’s letter said, adding that the practice was a violation of medical ethics and had no scientific grounding. On top of causing physical pain and humiliation, the exam can also facilitate the transmission of HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) and Hepatitis.
But Lt. Col. Johnny Haddad, the head of the bureau, denied the tests had been taking place recently.
He said the bureau only tested the Al-Agha Turkish bath detainees for AIDS by taking a sample of blood from their fingers, nothing more, and added that the men were held for just three days before being referred to the judiciary. The department had not conducted a single anal test since he assumed office around five months ago, he said.
“The test is forbidden, and we don’t do it. I’ve been holding this post for five months, and this test has never been applied as far as my term goes,” Haddad told The Daily Star.
“I’ve had a hundred cases of homosexuals approximately throughout the five months, and the [anal] test was never applied to any.”
Haddad said that he was cooperating with Helem association, which is a Lebanese NGO that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people mainly in Lebanon and Canada, to avoid discriminatory practices.
For him, the real solution lies in amending Article 534.
But this would need to be endorsed by Parliament, highly unlikely given that the legislature is currently paralyzed due to a majority of MPs refusing to attend most legislative sessions while Lebanon doesn’t have a president.
In light of this, the organization has pointed to the fact that what they are asking would not require any new laws to be passed, but would rather be about ensuring the enforcement of the LOP’s existing medical guidelines.
“Civil society organizations can call for the application of such guidelines, but we need the government’s support and oversight to make sure the guidelines are disseminated and applied throughout Lebanon,” LebMASH co-founder Dr. Hossam Mahmoud explained. “Promoting better awareness of both the law and health care guidelines is the first step in creating change and enhancing the health of minorities in Lebanon.”
To this end, the letter also presses Salam more generally to help in the fight against random arrests based on sexual orientation.
“The persecution of gay men by the police … limits their access to health care services,” the letter said, “out of fear of having their sexual orientation ridiculed or worse, reported to their families or the police.”
Established in 2012 by a group of Lebanese physicians, LebMASH aims to improve the sexual health of the population, regardless of religion, socio-economic background, sexual orientation or gender identity.
It espouses the widely accepted medical view that homosexuality is a normal variation of human sexuality, and thus argues that Article 534, which stipulates that “any sexual intercourse against nature is punished with imprisonment for up to one year,” should not apply to it. Both the Lebanese Psychiatric Society and the Lebanese Psychological Association issued statements in 2013 affirming that homosexuality was not a disease and required no treatment.
LebMASH over the last two years has collaborated with various academic centers and professional associations, including the LPA, Université Saint-Joseph and the American University of Beirut, on workshops and seminars geared toward raising awareness among medical students, health care providers and the public regarding LGBT sexual health.
“The importance of such activities lies in paving the way for a more open discussion about sexual health,” said Dr. Hasan Abdessamad, co-founder of the association.
The group of physicians believes the public discourse on sexual rights in Lebanon is plagued with taboos and lacks a scientific approach. Based on their belief that sexual health is a basic human right, they advocate for much-needed change in terms of better health care training, research and more supportive policymaking.
“Without more relevant research and statistics, it is more difficult to develop services and policies that are pertinent to the health care needs of LGBT individuals,” Abdessamad said.
While they acknowledged that the Lebanese government was juggling countless challenges, their message to the prime minister emphasized the urgent need to take more action.
“We have the utmost respect for … Prime Minister Salam, and we believe in him as a man of reason and a supporter of human rights,” said Dr. Omar Fattal, LebMASH’s president and a professor at New York University. “Therefore, we hope that our letter will allow us … to convey our concerns as a medical association.” – Additional reporting by Edy Semaan
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 31, 2014, on page 3.