The victim of an anti-LGBTQ+ bar attack in Beirut, Lebanon has spoken of their fear and uncertainty they would make it out of the situation alive, after a right-wing religious group laid siege to the venue.
On the evening of Wednesday (23 August), men who identified themselves as members of militant group Jnoud El-Rab – also known as the Soldiers of God – attacked LGBTQ+ friendly venue Madame Om in the bustling Mar Mikhael area of the Lebanese capital.
The Soldiers of God are a right-wing Christian group who hold anti-LGBTQ+ views and seek to purge anything remotely queer from their neighbourhoods. They see themselves as the moral protectors of Lebanon.
The group justified that attack by stating the venue was “promoting homosexuality”.
Speaking with PinkNews, a member of the LGBTQ+ community who was at the bar on the evening of the attack said the situation was a “mixture of terror, anxiety and an uncertainty that we’ll make it out alive”.
“Some were crying, some were hysterical, some were shocked, and some said their last goodbyes,” the victim, who wishes to remain anonymous, said.
“The air was so tense, we were all crammed up against the wall in the backroom, anticipating like sitting ducks waiting to be exterminated, watching our friends getting physically beaten up by monsters.
“It felt like forever, waiting for the situation to calm down in order for us to escape, one after the other, quietly.”
He added that he did not believe any victims got any sleep that night and he “felt an urgent need to disconnect in order to fathom what had just happened”.
There is now heightened fear from community, as such attacks make them feel unsafe everywhere.
“We’re threatened in clubs, on the streets, in our own homes,” the victim said.
A number of people were assaulted during the attack, with video footage on social media showing members of the militant group screaming homophobic chants and aiming vile abuse at patrons inside the venue.
Footage also shows tables and chairs outside the bar left in a state of destruction following the group’s actions.
The violence was estimated to have lasted an hour, with Amnesty International reporting that when Internal Security Forces (ISF) arrived at the scene, they prevented the aggressors from entering the bar and helped some patrons escape. However, the ISF allegedly did not stop the attack nor arrest any of the assailants.
PinkNews has contacted Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces for comment, but they are yet to respond.
“This is the place of Satan. It is promoting homosexuality,” one militant said, according to a translation by Lebanese news outlet Naharnet.
“This is forbidden in the land of the Lord […] We are still using words with you and this is only the beginning […] We had warned you a hundred times,” the militant said.
The words “this is just the beginning” and “promoting homosexuality is forbidden” were also heard during the footage.
The victim said Madame Om is an LGBTQ+ friendly establishment “where all outcasts gather with their chosen families to feel like a part of something special”.
The Soldiers of God attacked the venue during a drag show event where drag queens Emma Gration and Latiza Bombé were performing.
The event was described by the anonymous victim as featuring “some comedy, some music performances, some local cultural references” and “as usual, some education and fun”.
“We are here, we exist, and no one will silence us. However, sometimes to keep doing what we’re doing we have to do it smartly. Unfortunately we have to cut the show short,” Emma Gration said from the stage, as reported by news agency Reuters, as the crowd of men approached.
The drag queens were forced to remove their outfits during the attack in order to safely leave the venue amongst the patrons.
They shared on Instagram that they are both safe, and vowed to “fight” and “keep pushing forward”.
Following the attack, the country – which has ramped up its anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in recent months – has been left divided over the actions of the Soldiers of God.
On the drag queens’ social media, members of the community and allies offered words of support and opposed the violent witnessed on Wednesday evening.
“So sorry for the trauma this country put you through. We need to set up self-defence classes collectively to not let them fully put us down,” one person commented.
“My blood is boiling right now. This is terrifying, stay strong you queens,” another wrote.
However, anti-gay bigots used the attack as an opportunity to praise the work of the military group and bash the LGBTQ+ community.
As quoted by Naharnet, Sheikh Hassan Merheb – a Sunni Muslim cleric who is a senior member of the Dar al-Fatwa religious authority – said on social media: “A salutation from the heart to the men of Soldiers of God over what they did a while ago by prohibiting a sexual deviation party on one of Beirut’s streets.
He added: “I said it before and I repeat it now: I stand by anyone who confronts this deviation and unnatural backwardness and I put my hand in their hands to defend our families and society against this degenerate and destructive thinking.”
The bar attack victim explained to PinkNews that the incident has “brought the community together” and “got people thinking of the long-term safety measures that need to be enforced”.
“But of course, trauma took its toll. Who’s gonna help us? Who has influence? Who has sway? We need some guidance,” he said.
The anonymous victim added that anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in the Middle Eastern nation has been “drastically increasing” in recent months.
Whilst Lebanon’s laws criminalise homosexuality and offer little protection from discrimination, the country was long seen as a safer place for LGBTQ+ people than the rest of the Arab world. For example, a Pride event was held in Beirut in 2017, a first for the conservative Middle East.
The crackdown on the LGBTQ+ community was also apparent in a recent move by the country’s education minister, who banned the playing of Snakes and Ladders at summer schools because the board game colours were apparently similar to the colours of the Pride flag.
Prior to this, in July, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of the Shia Islamist political party and militant group Hezbollah shocked human rights activists when he said the “Western scheme [is working to] destroy Arab societies by promoting certain things such as homosexuality”.
Nasrallah also said: “Early marriage falls under God’s plan, and whoever opposes it is the devil’s server. Everyone must stand up to those who work to destroy our communities, in order to preserve human purity.”
The victim pointed out the silence of “so-called allies” in the face of such a brutal attack and continued political division has “got us questioning who’s really on our side”.
“Bigotry should not be tolerated nor normalized, terrorism and violence have got to end,” he added.
Human rights organisations condemn bar attack
The violence inflicted on the vulnerable Lebanese LGBTQ+ population was widely condemned by human rights and LGBTQ+ groups.
Amnesty International issued a statement, decrying the “alarming escalation” of attacks on the community.
Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “Last night’s attack on Madame Om, a bar considered to be a safe space for the LGBTI community, marked an alarming escalation in the attacks against LGBTI people that have followed troubling remarks by high-level politicians and religious figures.
“The authorities must ensure that the attackers are held accountable and demonstrate that such acts have no place in a country invested in upholding human rights.”
“Lebanon’s constitution guarantees equality, free expression, and free assembly for everyone – and these rights must be respected,” Majzoub continued. “What happened at Madame Om last night offered an ominous sign of how the situation of the LGBTI people is deteriorating in the country.
“The Lebanese authorities must immediately stop creating an environment conducive for discrimination and violence against the LGBTI community to be perpetuated. Crucially, the government should ensure that everyone is protected from violence, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.”
In a statement shared on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, Lebanese LGBTQIA+ rights organisation Helem said it would be taking legal action against the Soldiers of God: “We’re encouraging people who got physically attacked yesterday to get medical reports, take a lot of pictures of their bruises and contact Helem.
“We are planning to take legal action against yesterday’s attackers. If you know anyone who got attacked yesterday please help in spreading the word.”
It is currently unclear how many people were injured during the incident.
If you have any information about the attack, you can contact Helem on +961 71 91 61 46.
Anyone who has witnessed or experienced a hate crime is urged to call the police on 101, Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or visit the True Vision website. In an emergency, always dial 999.