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What is it like to be a gay man living in Iraq?

Statue in Sulaymaniyah. Eric Lafforgue.

“I was threatened with death by my family, after they found out I was gay”

The northern Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah found itself under the LGBT+ media spotlight earlier this year, after activists working in the region started to raise money for a local diversity project.

Ayaz Shalal Hassan and other members of the Iraqi LGBT+ right group, Rasan, joined forced with All Out to paint a mural celebrating diversity in a city where LGBT+ people live under the fear of discrimination, violence and death on a daily basis.

These fearless LGBT+ people inspired many across the world, and perhaps gave the impression that a turning point for LGBT+ rights was about to be reached in the country.

A group of activists from Rasan LGBT+ group.

Following on from our report in March, OutNews Global spoke exclusively with two gay men from Sulaymaniyah about what life is really like for LGBT+ people in Iraq.

Forced to flee Kamaran* describes life for a gay man in Iraq as a relentless struggle: “It’s like being between four walls and hiding who you are from the community, and even yourself.

“I couldn’t tell anyone around me that I’m a gay man.”

Despite attempting to conceal his sexuality from his entourage, Kamaran’s family found out, with devastating consequences for his future in Iraq.

“I was threatened with death by my family, after they found out I am gay.” he says. “I had to leave the country because of it.

“The main problem was not being able to go to the police to ask for protection. They would have put me in jail just because of the closed minded people who judge me, based on cultural and traditional beliefs.”

An example of a residential building in the city. Levi Clancy.

Currently LGBT+ people living in Iraq have no legal protection from discrimination. In fact, the law of the country discriminates against them, forcing many LGBT+ people underground or to flee the country.

Although technically legal in some parts of the country, same-sex sexual activity is still seen as a threat to the traditional values within Iraqi society. LGBT+ people living in the country believe that the police would jail them, irrespective of the current laws.

Having left Iraq for Germany, Kamaran is attempting to build the next chapter of his life. He may have left behind the death threats of his family, but he still faces discrimination from fellow refugees: “I live in Germany now, but unfortunately it is still not the safe haven I was looking for.

“There are still homophobic people that are also refugees from other countries, and once they know you are gay they make fun of you and verbally abuse you.”

Lost love Omar* is another gay man from Sulaymaniyah and is still living in Iraq. He describes life in his country as “hard and lonely” and says that he’s often experiences verbal and physical abuse from local people.

Although society in Iraq puts obstacles in his path on a daily basis, Omar opted to stay in the country where he was born.

His decision to stay, however, came at a high cost: “I was in a relationship, but my partner had to leave the country to seek a better life and we ended what we had.”

“You can never be public about your relationship because it is impossible to live together as homosexual couples here.” explains Omar.

“That is the main reason why me and my partner split up.”

A view of Sulaymaniyah. Source: kurdistantv.net.

In a country with such strong religious and culture beliefs that continue to fuel a fire of homophobia in society, it must be challenging to meet other LGBT+ in the first place? “I have met LGBT+ people through mobile applications like Facebook and Grindr, but I personally don’t dare to talk to anyone outside of these apps until I try to get to know them.”

A glimpse of community Both Omar and Kamaran say that the internet has helped them to connect with fellow LGBT+ people living in Iraq, as well as helping them to understand what life could be like for them outside of the country.

Whilst there are some public spaces where LGBT+ people meet, such as public parks, Kamaran says that these encounters are often entrenched with fear and danger of being attacked or imprisoned.

When still living in Iraq, Kamaran was inspired by things he read online, which allowed him to consider the possibility of leaving:

“I used online sources to get information about how LGBT+ people live in other countries to know the difference between our lives.”

Given that Kamaran has left Iraq, has Omar ever thought about leaving the country for good? “Yes. I have always felt like I would never be able to be myself and live how I want if I stay in Iraq.”

It is clear from listening to the stories of Omar and Kamaran, that being openly LGBT+ in Iraq is almost an impossibility.

The country on the whole remains a hostile place for many, not only members of the LGBT+ community, and societal attitudes towards LGBT+ people remains in line with embedded cultural and religious beliefs.

LGBT+ people still face relentless abuse, violence and persecution – many feeling unable to tell those close to them about their sexuality or gender identity, through fear of being beaten or killed.

Activists working in the country remain beacons of hope for many LGBT+ people, but they remain few and far between. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that many are dreaming of a safer and happier life abroad, at least until greater strides within Iraqi society are made.

*Names changed due to safety concerns. With thanks to human rights group Rasan for their support with this article.

To find our more about the work that Rasan do, click here.

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