Omar is a 28-year-old gay Iraqi who now lives in Lebanon. “My boyfriend was killed in February 2017,” he said. “We had been together for two years, and he was my only support system. Shortly after that, I had to escape to save my life.”
Omar and his dead partner are far from alone. Ninety-six percent of LGBT+ Iraqis have faced some form of verbal or physical violence, the first ever study of LGBT life and experience in Iraq has found.
In 2017, more than 220 LGBT+ people were killed in the country, the survey estimates. Since 2003, the study says there have been annual “killing campaigns” in Iraq aimed at LGBT+ people.
Omar’s experience is one of 257 LGBT+ Iraqi testimonies that form the basis of Fighting for the Right to Life: The State of LGBT+ Human Rights in Iraq.
The report was compiled by advocacy group IraQueer and a partner group that wishes to remain anonymous for safety reasons. The year-long research project also spoke to 11 government officials or employees, 16 religious leaders, and 201 members of Iraqi society, and sought to glean information about Iraqi LGBT+ experiences between 2015 and 2018.
IraQueer is the first and only LGBT+ organization focusing on Iraq and the Kurdish region. It was founded in 2015.
Amir Ashour, founder and executive director of IraQueer, told The Daily Beast: “This survey is the first of its kind in Iraq. Statistics about the LGBT+ community in Iraq have never been shared as far as we know. This number might sound small when compared to other studies in countries like the U.K. But for a country like Iraq, where any kind of public participation can lead to facing violence and potentially death, this number is positively surprising.”
Armed groups like ISIS and Asa’eb Ahl Al-Haq have been two of the main groups threatening the LGBT+ community, the report says, with ISIS’ persecution particularly notoriously recorded in images of gay men being thrown off buildings.
Armed groups have also used bricks, gas bottles, guns, and other weapons to kill queer people, IraQueer said.
These killings have taken place as recently as September 2017. Several gay men have also reported that they have been sexually assaulted by members of such groups.
LGBT people were also physically and verbally harassed by tribes and family members, who accuse them of despoiling the family’s “honor.” Thirty-one percent of violations against LGBT people were by armed militias, 27 percent by family, 22 percent by the government, 10 percent by ISIS, and 10 percent by “others.” ISIS has committed 30 killings of gay men, according to IraQueer and Outright International.
The survey found that nearly half, 42 percent, of the violence against LGBT+ people took place in central Iraq, 32 percent in Iraqi Kurdistan, and 26 percent in southern Iraq.
“LGBT+ individuals in Iraq are facing life-threatening danger,” Ashour told The Daily Beast. “The annual killing campaigns that have been happening for more than a decade are still unaddressed by the government, and not even one person has been held accountable for killing a gay person.
“The fact that 96 percent of LGBT+ people responded to this survey saying that they have faced violence is horrifying. Not only being visible is impossible, but also the mere perception or the rumor that one is gay can lead to that person’s death. The report includes details of all the different violations faced by the LGBT+ community, and all of them share the same lack of trust in the Iraqi government.”
The vast majority of LGBT+ respondents to IraQueer’s survey lived in Iraq, although some asylum seekers also related their experiences; 61.5 percent of those surveyed were gay, 26.1 percent lesbian, 2.6 percent bisexual, 8.3 percent transgender, and 1.5 percent defined themselves as “others.”
“Since the United States and United Kingdom led invasion in 2003, one might argue that all Iraqis have been facing life-threatening circumstances,” the report reads. “But the situation for LGBT+ individuals is worse and more dangerous because they lack any legal protection whatsoever and to date there is no political will on the part of the government to address human rights violations against LGBT+ individuals. The government refuses to acknowledge LGBT+ individuals as Iraqi citizens and is not willing to protect them.”
“The needs of Iraqi LGBT+ people are very basic,” Ashour told The Daily Beast. “We need our right to life. We need our right to health. We need to be able to not be afraid every time we might leave our houses. We need to be protected from illegal police raids of our homes, and the violence committed by all kinds of groups against us. For now, we just want to know that our lives mean something.”
The report features a number of LGBT+ voices from within Iraq.
Rana from Babylon said: “I will die without anyone knowing that I was a lesbian. All the feelings I have, and all the girls I had crushes on will remain secrets I will take with me to my grave. I don’t think I will ever live to see an Iraq that welcomes people like me.”
Mazin, a gay man living in Baghdad, told IraQueer in January 2018: “I escaped my family’s home six months ago. My dad is a police officer and he found out that I am gay. He’s been threatening to kill me since then. I’ve been staying at my friend’s house since, and rarely go out.”
Rawa, a 26-year-old gay man, said he was unable to keep his job because of sexual harassment and violence. “I was raped by my boss when I was working as a barista. He then threatened that he will report me to the police if I said anything. I had no choice but to escape.”
Hana, who is 31 years old and lives in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, said: “Every day I spend with my husband, another part of me dies. My father forced me to marry my cousin. I no longer recognize myself in the mirror.”
Members of the trans community face particular danger “simply by existing,” the report said. Hormone treatments are not legal and so make transitioning even more dangerous. Gender confirmation surgery is not permitted by the law, and if people manage to have the surgery outside the country, they face difficulties obtaining legal documents that reflect their gender identity.
Trans people also reported verbal, physical, and sexual abuse at various checkpoints across Baghdad and other cities, IraQueer said.
Other LGBT individuals, especially “masculine” women, “feminine” men, and trans people, have faced physical abuse in northern Iraq under the Kurdistan regional government. Sazgar, a 41-year-old lesbian, was detained by the police several times. “A police officer threatened to rape me and said that it might make me a real woman,” she told IraQueer.
“The LGBT+ community in Iraq does not only need LGBT+ activism,” Ashour told The Daily Beast. “We need human rights activism. We need women’s rights groups, children’s rights activists, and others who focus on education, health, and such to be inclusive when they work on human rights. We need the society to recognize that advocating for human rights does not come in categories. We either have equality or we don’t.”
Eighty-nine percent of those surveyed said the Iraqi media’s relentlessly anti-LGBT+ coverage had negatively influenced their self-perception.
LGBT asylum seekers from Iraq have to flee their homes in the moment of discovery so quickly that they do not have time to gather crucial documents. Ammar, an asylum seeker in Germany, told IraQueer: “I escaped a minute after my dad caught me with my boyfriend in my room. If I had stayed to gather my documents, I would’ve been dead by now.”
“To ensure human rights for the LGBT+ community, Iraq does not need to pass or amend legislation. The Iraqi Government simply needs to respect and implement its own commitments to the national constitution and laws, and honor its commitments under International Human Rights Law,” IraQueer’s survey concludes.
“Our most important ask is to protect the LGBT+ community from the killing campaigns organized against them, and to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes,” Ashour told The Daily Beast. “Without our right to life, there is no point to talk about any of our other rights. The Iraqi government must respect and apply Iraqi and international laws, both of which should be enough to protect LGBT+ individuals from killings and human rights abuse.
“Also, we want the public to know what difficulties we are facing as a community and as an organization, and hopefully motivate them to support us financially and politically. Sadly, we do not have a lot of space to do any of that inside Iraq, not publicly and safely at least. We need to rely on our supporters globally to help us build a stronger base that can enable us to strengthen our work inside Iraq.”
Many people IraQueer has spoken to are homeless or living in temporary situations as they are chased by different groups and do not have the means to support themselves, Ashour said.
“People’s donations can potentially save LGBT+ Iraqis’ lives,” said Ashour. “Help us provide safe housing, medical services, and other basic needs.”
To those who are politically connected, Ashour asks that they lobby their governments and the Iraqi government “to respect and implement human rights standards.”
The report does not include the stories of those people who were killed and were not able to share their story, Ashour said. “How much more would we be able to document if we were working in a safer country where we wouldn’t be afraid of conducting such research and people would not be scared of sharing their stories?”
PERSONAL LGBT+ STORIES FROM INSIDE IRAQ
A gay man in his twenties
Tell us about your childhood, and growing up. Your family, your experience of being LGBT.
I was born into a very regular middle-class Kurdish family. Both my parents held and still hold government employee positions. As a kid, I was curious, social, and always yearning to learn about things and people. I learned Arabic through watching cartoons long before I started school. I did very well in school and I made my parents proud.
Although I had always felt different from my friends, the feelings of being different and isolation began to intensify as I approached puberty. I had some friends who would show me pornographic images and videos, and I soon realized that I was interested in males. At first, I didn’t know what it was called or that it wasn’t accepted by society.
However, it didn’t take long for me to learn the word through the internet. What I was, was called “gay.” I learned that being gay wasn’t welcomed by society and I would spend hours every night Googling “how to stop being gay.”
The answers I got weren’t what I hoped to find. I sank into a period where I would desperately pray to God he would change me, but to no avail. I finally accepted that I couldn’t stop being gay, but I still didn’t accept my identity. I was determined to conceal my identity and to stay celibate forever.
When I started high school at an all-male school, one of my classmates and I fell for each other. We never spoke of being gay but we were in love. The experience didn’t end up well and I sank into a very deep, now diagnosed, clinical depression.
It took a few years for me to get better, and even now I still struggle with depression. I began to accept my identity through the process. I was very lucky to have open-minded friends. I slowly came out to my close friends, all of whom were supportive of me and my identity.
Fast forward to now, I have fully accepted my identity and I am surrounded by friends who are either LGBT themselves or who are very supportive. I consider them my family. Some of us live in different countries, and we visit each other as often as money and visa situations allow.
What happened to you?
I have only had one altercation with the police. I was dating a guy at the time and we would drive to the mountains to escape reality. It was very late at night and a police car drove by us. They stopped and told us that they had seen us kissing. They started beating us and insulting us. But they let us go in the end.
What happened next?
I never drove to the mountains again.
Where are you now?
I am a college student in Kurdistan/Iraq.
How are you doing now?
I am at a very dark place. I am struggling with my depression, which has affected all aspects of my life. Even though I have many friends who are supportive of me, I still feel like I don’t belong where I am at.
What would you like to see happen when it comes to the LGBT people and life in Iraq?
I would like the country to recover from the recent and the older events. I would like the security and the safety situations to improve. I would like the society to become more civil and educated. I would like the society to open its arms to everyone regardless of their differences. And most of us all, I would like the LGBT+ community to feel safe and at home, and to feel like they belong.