By Michael Luongo
A contact of mine told me he came across this comment in an e-mail. The only thing more extraordinary than the message was the location. He was sitting in the U.S. embassy in Baghdad when he read it.
My contact said he was reaching out to me because things were “heating up” for gay men in Iraq. Over the years, he said he'd received several e-mails from gay Iraqis that came through the U.S. embassy’s website -- they are a “single source of frustration, because I feel completely helpless and heartbroken reading stories about an Iraqi that is sending an e-mail probably just a few miles from where I am sitting in the embassy, and telling me that there is a militia coming just down the block and they have a list.”
I traveled to Baghdad in the summer of 2007, during the height of the U.S. surge, to get a better handle on the situation for gays in Iraq. During my visit I met with a few gay Americans who worked at the embassy, all of whom spoke off-the-record when giving me quotes and providing information.
In recent months, things have certainly been "heating up" -- articles from The New York Times, the BBC, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as many other mainstream and gay publications, point to the horrors of what is happening in Iraq. Each article seems more harrowing than the last, attempting to make sense of something that's hard to fathom for the readers who digest these articles from the comfort and safety of an America where "dont ask, don't tell" and same-sex marriage make up the bulk of news coverage.
Some outlets -- particularly in the gay press -- point to reports by Iraqi LGBT, a London-based activist group reporting that gay men in Iraq are on death row and that they've received a letter from a gay Iraqi pleading for help, all of which has been next to impossible to verify. Others point to the reassertion of power by militias, particularly in Sadr City, a Shia slum within Baghdad where the Mahdi Army has for years engaged in a reign of terror against locals and the U.S. military.
In addition to the direct killings of gay men by the militia was the report of a fire-bombing of a neighborhood café popular among gay men. Still more articles look to the influence of militias in combination with family honor killings -- gay men who have been thrown out into the streets to fend for their safety, or Iraqis who have killed gay family members.
The most disturbing report comes from the Arab-language news source Alarabiya, describing the torture and killing of at least seven gay men who have had their anuses closed using a special glue, with Iraqi officers having forced them to take a medicine inducing diarrhea and death. While the English-language media has conflicting reports on what is happening in Iraq, this report, created by those who speak the language and have the best resources to interview local political and religious officials, gives perhaps the best indication of how terrible the situation has become for LGBT Iraqis.
In the course of my work, I often come across horrific stories like these. I am a journalist, not an activist, so the priority is to cover them -- still, people often ask what they can do. The answer is to put the pressure on Washington -- to show our leaders this is a serious topic -- one that needs their attention now.
As a child, I grew up in a neighborhood where many of my friends were the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Because of the direct connection to this historical event, it always baffled me when we would learn in school of American indifference to the 1930s buildup to that era. Certainly, reading about overseas suffering can seem an abstraction, whether 70 years ago or today. Yet, whether today or then, how many people could have been saved by writing letters, contacting politicians, or by directly sending money to organizations which aid refugees?
Though what is going on in Iraq with gay persecution is not at the same level of the Holocaust, the major difference is that the reign of terror is the direct result of the U.S. invasion, which completely changed the balance of power, unleashing the situation that exists today. In addition to the impact on the LGBT community, the refugee situation in Iraq impacts literally millions of people who have had to flee their homes since 2003.
My visit in 2007 lasted a month, with interviews in both the safer Kurdish region as well as Baghdad. Even with a direct visit trying to look at facts on the ground, it was hard to parse what exactly was going on. Iraq is a place wracked by violence, where even gathering information can be deadly. Killings of gay men are often random -- seen as a side effect of living in Baghdad. Signs someone is gay -- long hair and stylish clothes -- are often the signs one is Westernized, an excuse for murder by those bent on overthrowing the occupation. It is also apparent that men who are stereotypically gay are targets for abduction and murder, even at military checkpoints our own government has established throughout the city.
Scott Long, who heads the LGBT division of Human Rights Watch, is currently in Iraq aiding gay men seeking refuge. He told me via e-mail that “I spoke today to a gay man who escaped Baghdad after multiple attempts by armed men to abduct him off the street. He was almost speechless with terror.”
Long added, “There’s obviously an enormous moral burden upon the U.S. for creating a climate in which violence against all kinds of vulnerable groups could metastasize with impunity. That doesn't detract from the responsibility of the government of an independent Iraq to institute rule of law and protect all its own population.”
As Americans looking into this issue from the relative safety of our own lives, we must ask what responsibility the United States bears and what can be done to put pressure on the Iraqi government. Baghdad under Saddam was a cosmopolitan city with a relative tolerance toward gays as part of the fabric of society. Saddam even kept a network of gay spies to sleep with gay foreign diplomats and extract secrets, perhaps the strongest acknowledgement of gay culture before the occupation.
But the invasion changed all of that, wiping out the cosmopolitan society, with gay culture, music, art, women in the workforce, and other factors under attack as militias and religious leaders asserted power in the chaos.
Openly gay U.S. congressman Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, visited Iraq in early April and found in his discussions by phone with gay Iraqi men that “many fondly reminisced about life under Saddam.”
He said most gay people are closeted, as they are in places like Jordan and Syria, where many gay Iraqis, among other refugees, have fled to escape violence and, in many cases, await asylum. These countries do not have perfect LGBT rights records, Polis commented, but “at the very least, [gay citizens] don’t live in constant fear for their lives.”
Polis’s findings mirror the comments made by the gay men I met in Iraq. It is not hard to argue that the locus of responsibility for the deaths of gay men in Iraq lies squarely with the U.S. decision to invade the country. The occupation changed the political structure of the country, creating a power vacuum that led to the rise of a militant insurgency, using Islamic fundamentalism as a cover for its horrific deeds.
No matter one’s opinion of the war, the question is what to do now. According to Polis, there are “some friendly elements in the Iraqi government,” but the “problem is the breakdown of the chain of command and the failure of duty to protect their lesbian, gay, and transgendered citizens.” His visit was a way “to make sure our government is aware of the issue and raise the issue with our counterparts in Iraq.”
The recent killings reflect a dilemma in U.S. policy. The situation in Iraq is overall significantly safer than it was during my 2007 visit. By suppressing the militant and religious elements, the surge created a more vibrant Baghdad, more akin to the cosmopolitan society that once existed. Shops have reopened, artists are displaying in galleries again, women are returning to work, and young couples have begun to hold hands again in parks that dot the city. But the safety induced by the surge has also allowed for a more visible presence of Baghdad’s gay community, and with this has come the resurgence of the once-discredited militant groups, particularly the Mahdi Army based out of Sadr City.
According to my contact at the embassy, “our local staff, some of whom live in Sadr City, have told us that word on the streets is that this is the work of JAM,” referring to the Mahdi Army. He emphasized these are “not tribal and not familial disputes.” My contact explained that since the surge, the security situation has improved and militant groups have been suppressed, leading to the Mahdi Army saying they are not “there protecting the virtues of the community; this is why guys are coming out now -- they’re starting to act more Western, they’re acting more effeminate.”
"The impression is that these incidents are a way for these JAM elements to reassert their presence in a way that is culturally acceptable.” As the surge has discredited them, “they have to take issues overall that make them look legitimate, and the culture being what it is in this part of the world, Iraq in this case, in their minds, this is a legitimate cause, rooting out homosexuality.”
Under the Obama administration, a similar surge will be conducted in Afghanistan, diverting resources from one occupied country to another. Ultimately, the United States will leave Iraq. While a new government exists within the country, how long it will hold up without the U.S. presence remains to be seen. Perhaps we can look at gays in Iraq as canaries in a coal mine, an indication of what is to come in a future Iraq. The absence of American and other international forces may lead again to the deadly chaos that existed just after the invasion.
The question now for gay Americans is, What can we do? Myriad organizations are focused on the issue, from Iraqi LGBT to Human Rights Watch to the San Francisco–based Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration, whose executive director Neil Grungras said, “Even if the West is helpless to stop the antigay terror in Iraq, the U.S. and other enlightened nations can save the lives of thousands of gays who will otherwise be returned to certain death. In 2008 the U.S. accepted over 12,000 Iraqi refugees. In 2009 it intends to take in 17,000. We are urging the U.S. and other traditional resettlement countries to set aside sufficient slots to save these vulnerable refugees' lives.”
My contact in Baghdad told me that “arguments have been made for expanding the refugee program, to allow for processing of minority groups such as LGBT Iraqis at the American embassy in Baghdad. But there are other minority groups -- Christians, women, Sunnis who live in and are surrounded by Shiite communities, Shiites surrounded by Sunnis -- that face just as great a threat and danger.”
He added, “Requests for help that come our way do not go unnoticed or unheard. But making public any effort to assist gay Iraqis is precarious because we are operating in what remains -- relative to the rest of the world -- a very conservative society. It is suspected that the Sadr City murders carried out earlier this month were by militias and conservative elements within Iraqi society, which tend to be anti-American to begin with. If the U.S. government is publicly seen by these groups as putting pressure on the government of Iraq, that will, quite possibly, make things worse for gay Iraqis.”
It is clear though that in another occupied country, Afghanistan, outside international pressure can change things. Afghanistan recently approved what has come to be called the "marriage rape law," interpreted to mean that men can force their wives to have sex with them and deny them the right to leave the home without permission. It seemed something that the Taliban would pass, not an elected U.S.–backed government. An international uproar ensued, along with the implicit threat that billions of dollars in aid would be denied Afghanistan if the law were not reexamined.
Polis suggests using those “friendly elements in the Iraqi government” to work on gay issues. The importance of this ultimately will be similar to what was experienced in Afghanistan on women’s issues, and he said, “The eyes of the international human rights community will judge Iraq by how they treat those who face discrimination in their society.”
My contact at the embassy told me to let readers of The Advocate know that “if there is any piece of advice I can give our community and those who care about the plight of gay Iraqis, it is this: Put pressure on Washington to do more, put pressure on your government. The only way our leaders ever know something is serious is when we stand up and show just how serious we are about it.” He added, “If these killings in what remains a war zone don't show the world that people do not choose at their leisure to be persecuted, I don't know what will.”