Saturday, 15 October 2011

Documenting the lives of Iraq's gay refugees

Photo credit Bradley Secker
By Paul Canning

Iraqi gay refugees may be almost forgotten but one man has photographic proof that they exist.

Back in June the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at NYU School of Law published the report 'A Decade Lost: Locating Gender in U.S. Counter-Terrorism', the first account of how U.S. counter terrorism efforts have undermined the rights of women and sexual minorities.

The report includes the 'collateral damage' from the Iraq war, the hundreds of LGBT people hunted down and killed in Iraq, including some by state actors, and the probably thousands (no one knows) who have fled. The group Iraqi LGBT has been almost solely responsible for documenting the murders.

Another report [PDF], released by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in September says that attacks on LGBT in Iraq continued in 2010.

Neither report got much play but a new show of photographs by Bradley Secker puts a name to the gay refugees.

'Iraq’s Unwanted People’ ran in First Out Café in London between August and September (It is now possible to see it on his website – or view Secker taking a journalist round the exhibition on its opening night).

Secker, a U.K based photojournalist, traveled to Damascus, where most of the Iraqis fled to and from which many are now fleeing again in autumn 2010.

Many have fled to Jordan. In May, blog An epilogue to a black orchid reported:

"Iraqi LGBT refugees, in particular, lead shattered lives in Jordan. I have visited many of them in prison cells that closely resemble dreary living rooms and one bedroom apartments."

"The agoraphobic lifestyles LGBT Iraqi refugees have been coerced into are a sign of an ingrained fear of the excessive homophobia we witness in Middle Eastern countries today."

"I have come to know one male-to-female transgender Iraqi refugee, who gathers the will every morning to live within her skin for one more day, swallowing the self-hate and fear of facing young homophobia lined on either side of the streets branching from her door step, armed with slurs, pebbles and whatever happens to be in their grasp; be it hot coffee, tomatoes or sandwiches. It takes unimaginable strength to endure the hit daily, and remind yourself that loving who you are is still worth it."

Gaining the trust of these individuals in Damascus meant Bradley could see inside the closed diaspora of Iraqi LGBT refugees first hand.

His primary aim was to create a photo essay with written, first hand testimonies. Accompanying the images, a short documentary film has been made to further highlight the issue in another medium.

Wrote Gay Middle East:

"Through photos and interviews, the individual accounts are posing questions as to how, and why, such acts of violence and brutality can be overlooked in a new 'free' Iraq."

Some graphic shots show how these people were persecuted.

One who was in the armed forces was blinded in one eye when it was discovered he was not straight. Another had his testicle destroyed in a hammer attack and several others were also beaten and tortured.

One of Secker's strongest images (published here), writes Xav Judd for QX Magazine, is:

"A man gazing over the whitish-beige historic city of Damascus may consider himself blessed by the gods, such is the idyllic nature of the view. And yet, underneath the azure blue skyline of the Syrian capital is a grim reality: life is anything but a fairytale if you are gay."
This man is Bissam, a 41 year-old who had worked as an actor in theatre and TV productions and as an interpreter and translator for the US army and international media operations.

He told Judd:

“One afternoon ... my [wife] searched my bags and found a diary and a gay porn DVD. She read through my agenda and discovered about my sexuality and the non-straight life I had led."

"Consequently, she tried to use this information to bribe me – I was threatened with disclosure of my true identity to my family – to get as much as possible out of any settlement. Eventually, my spouse did ‘out’ me and word spread to my whole community."

"This was particularly painful as I had always been one of its pillars and was the one that everybody else looked up to. Now exposed and thus in danger, I left Iraq legally and went to Damascus in an American GMC land cruiser."

“In Syria, I had hardly any money; I was registered and certified as a refugee by UNHCR .. existence meant living on bread and cheese, or even just one egg a day. One plus, though, was that my ‘gay’ life in Damascus was very much alive and well."

"Eventually, I had to leave the country because the recent political upheaval [the Arab revolutions] and sectarian violence made things increasingly dangerous."

“I moved to Turkey. It is very difficult: a foreign culture, different language and I have no friends. And, I have to keep a low profile because the vicinity where I live is very conservative."

In fact, says Judd, just last week, Bissam was hit over the head with a frying pan by a flatmate who had unearthed that he is gay. A September report said that there has been an improvement of the tratment of LGBT refugees in Turkey following much work by numerous agencies.

“I want to find myself," says Bissam. "I have been waiting for years as a nobody, stuck nowhere, for some kind of future. It is not fair; I am not really a refuge, but am in this position just because I am gay. I often thought about killing myself."

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