By Chris Godfrey
Amir Ashour is not someone who’s happy to hide in the shadows. As Iraq’s only openly LGBT activist, he was always going to court attention. Since embarking on his mission to visibly champion LGBT rights, he’s been arrested and detained twice, lost friends and extended family, can no longer return to Iraq, and been forced to relocate permanently to Sweden.
But in the face of such resistance, and at great risk to his personal safety, he’s managed to set up the country’s first LGBT rights organisation, IraQueer, which is forced to operate underground. One year on, its 40 members have never met face-to-face, instead communicating exclusively through social media and apps such as Grindr.
Considering the severe human rights violations LGBT people in Iraq face, as well as the country’s absolute lack of legislative protection, their anonymity is their only protection. From the killing campaigns that are practised by armed militias in Baghdad, to the rise of Islamic State and its brutal executions of gay men, anonymity is literally a matter of life and death.
“We will be meeting in person soon, somewhere outside Iraq,” says Ashour. “We use safe ways to communicate with each other to exchange information. I make sure that all the publications that we post on the website or social media are being done from Sweden, so if someone does track it, they are led only to Sweden.”
“The security concerns are our biggest,” he continues. “The people who look more as if they might be LGBT+ people face a lot of difficulty in the streets: they could be attacked by people, by religious militias, or they could be violated by police forces.”
IraQueer’s work ranges from supporting those who offer safe houses for vulnerable LGBT people who’ve been kicked out of the family home, to raising the visibility of queer issues and sparking discussions online. Even the last of these isn’t without risk; even something as flippant as a simple “like” on one the group’s posts can carry severe consequences.
“One of our members was outed by his family because they saw that he was visiting the page and communicating with us, and now he is facing difficulties,” says Ashour. “In Baghdad, and the surrounding cities and in the south of Iraq, the government monitor a lot of things. And if it wasn't the government then it could a friend that you have on Facebook that is affiliated with someone.”
The consequences of “being outed” as LGBT, or simply associated with the IraQueer group in anyway, are often extreme. “In the beginning they are kicked out of the house,” says Ashour. “It could lead to losing the opportunity to continue your education if you are in school. It will definitely lead to losing your job if you are working and in some cases being murdered -- either by extended family members or by religious militias.”
Even seeking medical help in hospitals and surgeries is fraught with risk. According to a United Nations report which investigated LGBT human rights violations in Iraq, it is common practice for hospitals to deny treatment to queer people or even those perceived to be LGBT. In other instances, militias have entered hospitals and beaten LGBT patients -- sometimes to death.
Part of Ashour’s work involves finding doctors willing to treat LGBT people. Although he now has a small network of willing medical professionals, it comes at a cost. “There are a few doctors who are more friendly,” he says. “But all those we have managed to reach have to be paid three times what they usually charge.”
As the LGBT community continues to mourn the tragedy in Orlando last weekend, Ashour hopes it will lead to a surge in support for the LGBT communities in countries such as Iraq, where people face severe institutional persecution every day.
“Although what happened there is a terrible tragedy and we all need to react as global citizens to make sure that such violence and racist actions don’t occur again, it is also important to reflect on the fact that we are being selective in showing solidarity,” says Ashour. “Similar and worse attacks have been taking place against the LGBT+ community in Iraq and barely anyone has said or done anything. Life values are equal regardless of the passport you carry, and the necessary actions need to be taken everywhere, not only in places such as Orlando.”
Ashour’s visit to the UK will culminate in his appearance at World Refugee Day: LGBT Rights in Iraq, an event hosted by UKLGIG, the UK's only charity dedicated to supporting LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees. He’ll discuss the situation for LGBT+ people in Iraq. With a room full of activists to address, he views it as an opportunity to draw the right kind of support from the international community. He hopes also to continue his role in speaking up for the voiceless by challenging what he sees as Europe’s lack of action on the plight of LGBT refugees.
“Sweden is one of the strongest economies in the world and they say giving asylum to people takes money. It's a rich government and an economy that's among the top 20 in the world and it can’t afford $200 a month for a person who can, after the process, contribute to the economy and actually help the society. That is just something that I cannot, I don't, understand.” Things are much the same in the UK, he adds.
“I think some LGBT+ people in the West forget that good Muslim people exist too. It goes beyond sexuality for me.”
As executive director of UKLGIG, Paul Dillane is familiar with the Ashour’s frustrations. “UKLGIG sees first-hand the abuse and violence LGBT people around the world suffer on a daily basis as a result of criminalisation and persecution,” says Dillane. “For many years, we have supported LGBT refugees who have been forced to flee Iraq, so the unique work of IraQueer is directly relevant to the experiences of our clients.
“During this visit we want to use our profile, resources and contacts to allow Amir to talk to a wide range of parliamentarians, officials, human rights partners and journalists about his important work. Organisations in the Global North can do much by working with and strengthening the hand of activists from countries that continue to discriminate against and persecute their LGBT citizens.”
Ashour’s immediate goal in London is to raise the issues of the vulnerable LGBT asylum seekers fleeing Iraq. His long-term ambition is to return to his homeland and run for office as an openly gay man. “I want to be able to run for prime minister,” he says, with an equal measure of defiance and confidence. “I have a political ambition and I don't want to have that in other countries, I want to go back to Iraq and be involved there. It's just a question of when.”
A more detailed account of Amir Ashour’s story and his work with IraQueer will appear in the August Issue of Attitude magazine.
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