Founded more than two decades ago, Helem, based in Beirut, works to make the dream of equality for LGBTQ+ people in the Middle East a reality. 

“The organization is really a landmark in the region,” says Helem Executive Director Tarek Zeidan MPA 2018, “and in fact in the global south in general.” It was the first to raise a rainbow flag on Arab soil; the first to protest for LGBTQ+ rights on Arab soil; it forced the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people into Lebanon’s national AIDS program; it won the first-ever legal victory in the Arab world against the criminalization of same-sex relations and successfully challenged the Lebanese Interior Ministry’s ban on all LGBTQ+ public gatherings. Crucially, it was also the first to push for LGBTQ+ conversations in the media in Lebanon and in the region, and all other LGBTQ+ NGOs were either incubated or started by Helem alumni, particularly inside Lebanon.

Helem’s most important work, though, takes place in its community space, Zeidan says. “It’s a place where we build our own power in order to oppose power. Our role isn’t necessarily to lead the charge, but to support and to mobilize different actors and institutions to become catalysts for change.” One way the center does this is to give voice to its members through an open-mic night. Says Zeidan, “People show up and get up on the mic and tell their life stories, whether they’re refugees from Syria or they just escaped the carnage in Sudan or in Yemen, or they’re from rural areas in Lebanon. And these stories are a testimony of what it’s actually like in a still largely hidden world.”

Zeidan’s journey to the LGBTQ+ movement wasn’t direct. As a college student in 2005, he helped organize peaceful protests after Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated—protests that led to the collapse of his nation’s pro-Syrian government and the withdrawal of 14,000 Syrian troops. Deciding to dedicate his life to helping his country and region, he went to Tufts University for a master’s in international relations and then worked for the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment.

“It took me eight years of working with think tanks to realize that that’s not how change happens,” he says. “It’s very cosmetic. And even if change does happen, it’s not immediate or tangible enough for me to derive any sense of accomplishment or satisfaction or vindication.”

That is when he began working with Helem, which at the time was on the verge of closing down. It took him four years of hard work to rebuild the organization, but he knew he needed to fill gaps in his knowledge. “What I was really missing was a knowledge of human rights advocacy.” The Kennedy School not only accepted him as a student, but offered him full support through the Emirates Leadership Initiative Fellowship at the Center for Public Leadership.

At HKS, Zeidan loved his time studying with Kathryn Sikkink, the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy. “She reinforced my faith in truth and data, and showed that even if the entire world is against you, that you know what you’re doing is right because you’ve done your homework and you have the evidence to counter the emotional backlash.” He also notes his studies helped him see how his work fits into the global fight for justice, which made him feel much less alone.

“You feel so much isolation as a member of a minority, as a member of a vulnerable group who’s working on a fundamentally unpopular cause in one of the most difficult places in the world to do so,” he says.

Despite the many challenges of advocating for a highly discriminated-against population, Zeidan remains optimistic he has the tools to advance justice. “We’re still afloat and we’re still fighting. There’s a reason for that. It’s not luck—you learn how to diagnose and negotiate with your reality and live to fight another day.”