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British ambassador to Lebanon speaks out on LGBT rights in the Middle East

Editor’s note: Dan Littauer, Executive Editor of Gay Middle East, interviews Frances Guy, British ambassador to Lebanon, about LGBT rights in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. This interview follows her seminal statements in the UK FCO blogs and her meeting with head of Helem in Beirut in honor of the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO).

Frances Guy was appointed the British ambassador to the Lebanese Republic in October 2006. She was also previously Head of Engaging with the Islamic World Group, in the FCO and Ambassador to Yemen. She is the first women to serve as a British ambassador in any Arab country.

She was born on Feb. 1, 1959, in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she went to school. Frances Guy studied international relations at Aberdeen University, Johns Hopkins University (Bologna Centre) and Carleton University, Ottawa.

She is married to Hugo Raybaudo and has three children; two daughters (1991, 1996) and one son (1993). She enjoys running and swimming and reading poetry.

How did the meeting go with Charbel Maydaa, the executive director of Helem?

Very encouraging to know that there are active groups of people here who are helping practically and awareness raising, as well as trying to change article 534 that is used arbitrarily. It is not an issue that we focused very much on and arguably we should. It is very good to know that there are people here very active in doing so. (For more information on the meeting, click HERE.)

How do you see yourself and the British Embassy helping the situation for LGBT people in Lebanon?

I think we can help by raising some awareness. Lebanon is relatively tolerant compared to many places in the Middle East. Nevertheless there is a tendency not to confront issues if they don’t have to be, that means that discrimination and human rights abuses, not only for LGBT people, they carry on because people tolerate that as part of the price that they pay for a little bit of space. What we can hopefully do, by talking about it a little bit more, that it is more of mainstream issue, it would be nice to think we could help break these taboos, maybe I am naively optimistic. If more of us could make it a mainstream than at least it can be less of a “non-subject” as it were. We might be able to find a little bit of things we could do practically, but I wouldn’t want any organization that is working courageously in their own rights to be hampered in anyway to be associated with Britain, I appreciate that can be sensitive. So there are some practical ways we can give support but the biggest issue we can do is raising awareness and breaking down taboos.

What about the larger context of the Middle East, is the FCO aware of the implications of the Arab Spring to LGBT people?

I suspect we are not aware enough of these implications. I was struck in the meeting by what Charbel said: that many LGBT people participated in the revolutions and then were concerned about a backlash. I think we can maybe help, in so much as our posts in countries with transitional governments can continue to highlight worries about all minorities, including LGBT, and make clear that such issues are noted. I will certainly make my counterpart in Tunis, for example, aware of the situation. Sometimes these things happen because they are allowed to happen as no one is making any noise about it. This is where Gay Middle East and other groups can help, perhaps, by making us aware of what is going on and we could then help LGBT people across the Middle East.

What kind of message would you like to convey to people about LGBT issues in the Middle East?

I think in the West, I suspect that it would be good not to be scared to talk about LGBT rights issues in the Middle East, like maybe when shy away from talking about human rights in the Middle East. We should be clear that when we talk about human rights in the Middle East we are talking about rights for everyone. That is what is the strength of all societies is, in fact – their diversity. I hope that people in the Middle East can keep pushing the boundaries. The courage of people like of Gay Middle East, Charbel and others that I have met, who help slowly change attitudes in society. As I mentioned in my blog, I am conscious of how far the UK has come, although at the same time we have many, many incidents of homophobia, so we can’t pretend we have overcome all issues either. We must continue on all levels and play our part to help.