Amir Ashour speaks about IraQueer, an online support network for Iraqis, at the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, in London. (Photo by Mari Shibata)

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 issues available in Arabic, Kurdish and English. Through its publication of first-person essays by its members and reports on human rights violations, the organization aims to raise awareness on issues of gender identity, expression and sexuality that would otherwise be suppressed. “Sexuality in Iraq is traditionally defined as straight or gay — bisexuality doesn’t exist in our dictionary — and so most people don’t really understand the language of gender,” Ashour says. “It’s important for LGBTQ+ Iraqis to speak about their experiences from their perspective and to access information that’s relevant to them.”

Ashour himself has been arrested and detained twice, lost friends and extended family, after rumors were spread about his sexuality as a result of his former work in women’s rights activism. Although the Iraqi culture of holding hands, hugging and kissing by heterosexual men can help protect gay men like him to an extent, Ashour says, queer men live in constant fear of being outed based on the way their dress, due to Iraqi definitions of homosexuality. “Gay in Iraq means a feminine guy — the one who is the on the receiving end of sex, as it’s seen as an act of pretending to be a woman. So if you’re the person doing the penetrating, then you’re not gay,” Ashour explains. As a result, if men are wearing tight jeans, have long hair or high-pitched laughs, he says, they’re “at the biggest risk of being profiled as feminine, and therefore gay.”

Women face a different kind of discrimination. “Underground it’s accepted that you can get married and then have relationships with women, as it’s kind of a sexual fantasy for straight men for women to have relationships with other women,” Ashour says. “Every person has a different experience, but from what I have heard there are not a lot of expectations for married women. As long as she satisfies her husband — by having kids, taking care of the family and the house — she’s allowed to do what she wants. But many are also killed as ‘prostitutes’ instead of acknowledging their sexuality as the reason for death.”

Due to the negative association LGBTQ+ rights can bring in Iraq, few are willing to be publicly affiliated with Ashour’s group. IraQueer members have never met face-to-face, instead communicating exclusively through social media and gay apps. With the added risk of being targeted for murder, anonymity is their only cover — unless they leave the country.

LGBTQ organizations cannot legally register in Iraq, so Ashour is forced to navigate an underground team of approximately 40 members from abroad. “I rely heavily on our team and their connections to check up on rumors about gay-friendly spaces,” he explains. Based on information gathered so far, some LGBTQ individuals have been seen in the cafes of northern Iraq, but there’s still no hub for the community to congregate safely. Overall, Ashour estimates “there are a couple of hundred of us left in the entire country,” with a particular decline in Kurdish regions.

The overall increase of deaths — from suicide bombings, violence from the Islamic State and other attacks — has made it harder for IraQueer to monitor how many of the casualties identify as LGBTQ because there is little visibility for them in the first place. “What makes me really worried is how everyone is reacting to the Yazidi women, so almost no one is watching what is happening to us,” Ashour says, referring to the Kurdish minority group targeted by the Islamic State. “The situation for Yazidis is critical, but it is also a new phenomenon. … What we’re talking about is a history of decades. Where is the international attention toward our community?”

But Ashour remains optimistic. One day, he’d like to return to Iraq and become its first gay prime minister. “The whole ISIS thing happened in 2 days, and now it’s lasted 2 years. The world can change in 2 seconds. I can’t accept thinking that it won’t change for the better,” he concludes.

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