How one man is trying to make it safer to be LGBTQ in Iraq

While Amir Ashour was growing up in Iraq in the early 2000s, he knew homosexuality existed but he didn’t know much else about it. “Aside from my personal feelings wondering ‘why am I attracted to this person?’ when I was 10 or 11, I had my first experience when I was 16 or 17,” he said recently.In his teens, most of what Ashour heard about homosexuality was that LGBTQ people did not exist in Iraq before the U.S.invasion. Born in Baghdad, Ashour predominantly grew up in Sulaymaniyah, in the country’s Kurdish region. Although most people around him never talked about their sexuality, he let it known among his closest friends at school and university, as well as in activist circles, about his interests for men.He discovered more openness by going online— mostly to local gay dating websites — not to meet men but to “get answers for my questions” on homosexuality, he says. “Being LGBTQ+ was — and still is — a taboo, so this was where Iraqis who weren’t out could find each other for personal support, friendship, or more.”When he signed up for the popular gay dating app Grindr in 2010, he remembers finding only five users in the whole country. The app would scan for users from countries as far as Iran, Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait. He remembers chatting with one man in Iran and proclaiming: “I need a visa to date you!’”But with the rise of the Islamic State in recent years, it’s become even harder and more dangerous to be LGBTQ in the country. “There are no spaces for our community in Iraq,” he says. Until 2006, a few gay-friendly cafes or the occasional party was organized by underground groups for the LGBTQ community, he says, “but armed militias and government-affiliated groups have been actively targeting those places especially in the last few years.” Over the weekend, for example, an independent Syrian news agency reported that Islamic State fighters threw an Iraqi man off a building in Kirkuk, after he was accused of being gay.It’s hard to tell when exactly the gay community is being targeted, but it’s certainly been ensnared in recent violence. A report from the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission (ILGHRC) and MADRE found that Shiite militias were acting under the Iraqi government in persecuting the LGBTQ community. Ashour says the militias “have more space to cover up their activities” under the guise of fighting the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi government, “which is why we haven’t heard much about killing campaigns against LGBTQ+ people.”Ashour has left Iraq — he lives in Sweden now — but from a distance he’s trying to make it easier to be gay, lesbian or gender nonconforming in Iraq. In March 2015, he launched IraQueer, a support network and digital resource on queer…


LGBT rights Iraq

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