By Alex Davidson
His uncertain predicament, however, is an improvement over life in Iraq, where he couldn’t be out at all. “My parents think I’m a metrosexual,” he says with a laugh, though they would disown him if they learned the truth.
Still, passing as straight didn’t keep him out of harm’s way. Leo was leaving the Baghdad airport, after flying in from the northern city of Irbil, when three masked men with guns forced him into their car, then sequestered him in a dark, empty room for three days. His parents ultimately paid $20,000 for his release, using all of Leo’s savings. “The kidnappers were contacting my family via my cell phone all the time that I was restrained with them,” he says. “My family told me that the kidnappers asked for $50,000 at the beginning, and my uncle negotiated to decrease the ransom amount.” He was lucky to survive: Three of his friends were killed in separate kidnappings, he says.
Even so, he’s pessimistic about progress in his country. The land modern Iraq occupies has been a conflict zone since ancient times, and Leo, like many Iraqis, thinks the region’s cursed. Still, he says the living was better under Saddam Hussein: “At least we knew he was a bad person and you would know whom to stay away from. Now I don’t know who I can trust.” When Hussein was in charge -- he wasn’t a fundamentalist -- men could sleep with other men without worry, as long as they were clandestine about it. That’s not the case anymore.
Americans will never understand Iraq and its people, he says, or the “craziness” that goes on there. Noticing a few trees through the grocery store’s windows, he laughs as another image of home bubbles up: In Baghdad people steal trees from street planters, ripping them out of the ground in broad daylight. It’s not something Americans do, but that’s Leo’s point: It’s impossible to understand the Iraqi experience.
Given all that he’s been through, one would think that Leo might stay in New York for a while -- but he’s already thinking of going home. He’s too proud to couch-surf and live off handouts for long. Leaving “means I have to forget my gayness,” he says. “But if I have to go back, then I will do so.” He points to a gold bracelet on his wrist, a present from his mom. “If nothing happens here, this is my ticket back to Iraq.”
Leo’s phone buzzes. “Oh, this is from this guy I met online last night!” he says. In the city for less than a month, he’s already met up with seven guys via the website Gaydar. In Iraq he’d received only a single message on the site; here in the States, he says, he got 1,560 e-mails in four days. One man was in New Jersey but was interested just in sex. Another lived in Yonkers. On the way to the grocery store, he met a guy walking his dog on the street. Having never experienced life as a gay man before, he’s taking full advantage of it in New York City.
“I want a boyfriend,” Leo says, “someone I can trust.” In the meantime he’s enjoying the flirtatious attention.