ERBIL, Iraq – These are desperate times for the LGBT community in Iraq. Even before Islamic State, which controls parts of the country, began stoning and hurling suspected homosexuals off buildings, anyone believed to be gay could expect to face anything from social stigma and bullying to sexual assault and death squads.
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But there is at least one place where members of the fledgling Iraqi gay community can feel safe and turn to for help.
IraQueer lays claim to being the country’s first and only LGBT organization, with a growing membership and team of volunteers who collect testimonies, share information, offer legal advice and training for activists.
“Our vision is to create a country where the LGBT community is recognized and enjoys its rights and responsibilities, a country where one’s sexual orientation and the person they fall in love with will not affect their lives,” said Amir Ashour, the Baghdad-born Iraqi-Kurdish expat who founded the group.
Ashour, 25, launched IraQueer six months ago from the Swedish city of Malmo. The group counts some 250 members and 19 volunteers, all but two of whom work in Iraq, Ashour said in a Skype interview with Haaretz.
The organization is mostly active online, and any real-life activities are conducted discreetly, with members and volunteers kept in the dark about the identities of those beyond their immediate circle.
“The volunteers play a counseling role within their smaller circles but not with each other, as most members don’t know each other yet,” Ashour explained.
While they’re in the process of organizing more face-to-face meetings, protecting the members’ anonymity is key, he said.
The dangers faced by anyone exposed as gay are apparent when reading some of the personal testimonies left on the IraQueer website – for many, the first time they have been able to tell their story.
One 25-year-old man writes how he felt different from an early age and secretly made dresses for a doll he had stolen from his female cousins. He also recounts how his elder brother started sexually abusing him from an early age.
“He never skipped a prayer and never did anything that might make God angry with him, except raping his younger brother,” he writes. “I never stopped praying and asking God to help me change the ugly truth about me liking men instead of women. But no answer nothing.”
In her testimony, a woman who realized she was gay in her teens said her family had forced her to marry a man who repeatedly raped and beat her, before divorcing her. She then agreed to marry a male friend so that, at least in secret, they could both be with whomever they wished to love.
“My family have stopped chasing me because, to them, I am married,” she writes. “Social norms, tribal traditions, militias, religious institutions are still haunting me though.”
While Iraq’s queer community has always been marginalized and violently targeted, the situation worsened after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Ashour said.
The chaos that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein, the destruction of the relatively secular state and the rise of Islamic extremism paved the way for homophobic terror campaigns.
“Most of the people we interviewed confirmed that they had a much safer and better underground queer community” before Saddam’s fall, Ashour related. “Now, even the underground gatherings are not possible and are systematically infiltrated and targeted.”
Honor killings are common, as families often murder suspected gay members, even children, to avoid the perceived shame of having a homosexual relative.
Danger also lurks in the streets. The powerful Shi’ite militias known as the “Mahdi Army” and “Asaib Ahl al-Haq” have organized death squads targeting gays since 2005, with the support of top Shia clerics. According to IraQueer’s website, exact figures are hard to ascertain, but some reports indicate that around 200 LGBT people were killed by the death squads in 2012 alone, and several hundreds more each year since.
The recent rise of Islamic State and its campaign of public executions of alleged homosexuals have drawn global condemnation. Last month, driven by events in Iraq, the UN Security Council met to discuss gay rights for the first time in its 70-year history.
But much less attention is given to the continuing plight of gay people outside ISIS-held territory. For example, the Shia militias have officially become key allies in the Iraqi government’s fight against Islamic State, meaning they can now act with even greater impunity, Ashour said.
“We hear stories about them walking around the streets and killing gay people in front of everyone,” he said.
The young activist himself has faced threats and criticism for creating IraQueer. One of the most frequent accusations leveled at activists is that homosexuality is a Western export that is polluting Iraqi society, he said.
“We are not a Western influence,” Ashour said. “We are everyone’s brothers and sisters and sons. We’re not strangers.”