Iraqi LGBT website/blog
New book 2007: Gay Travels in the Muslim World, Edited by Michael Luongo
(chapter 10 written by GlobalGayz owner Richard Ammon)
See book review: Gay City News
14 May 22, 2010 – Iraqi LGBT
From Baghdad to Blantyre: Gays in Iraq express solidarity with gays in Malawi
by Paul Canning
In a message from Baghdad, lesbians and gays living in hiding from death squads in that city have expressed their solidarity with the Malawian gay couple Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza sentenced to 14 years imprisonment in Blantyre this week.
Their message reads:
"The Lgbt community inside Iraq would like to shows its solidarity and support for Tiwonge and Steven in Malawi."
"As the Lgbt community inside Iraq is suffering the most in the modern history of Iraq, we feel that our pain is similar, our enemy is one."
"Homophobia is the enemy all the Lgbt are facing. We call for action and solidarity and we call upon the Malawi government to immediately release the couple and issue an apology to the Lgbt community in Malawai."
Lesbians and gays in Iraq are supported by two safe houses run by Iraqi LGBT, a human rights organisation based in London. The five year old organisation has previously run more safe houses but is unable to offer more support through safe houses or in most parts of the country due to lack of funding. Nevertheless, Iraqi LGBT has members throughout Iraq who try to support each other. Iraqi LGBT also supports some refugees who it has helped flee to escape direct threats on their life. Threats have followed some of them outside Iraq. Leader Ali Hili moved house in London due to them and continues to receive regular threats.
The group has documented the violent deaths of over 700 lesbians, gays and transgender people in Iraq at the hands of militias and some government forces over the past five years. No one has been prosecuted for these crimes and no action has been taken by the Iraqi government to offer any sort of protection for lesbians, gays and transgender people. Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were handed a 14 year jail sentence for homosexuality on Thursday in Blantyre, Malawi.
The sentence has been condemned by many governments. Human rights activist Peter Tatchell said: “Fourteen years with hard labour could kill Steven and Tiwonge. Malawi’s prison conditions are appallingly unhealthy.”
“Detainees die in custody. Infectious diseases like TB are rife. Medical treatment is sub-standard. Food rations are very poor nutritional value; mostly maize porridge, beans and water, causing malnutrition. After only five months behind bars, Steven has been seriously ill and has not received proper medical treatment.”
19 June 2010 – LGBT Asylum News
Iraqi police raid Karbala LGBT safe house; fears of ‘witch hunt’
Source: Iraqi LGBT
There is growing concern that the Iraqi government is stepping up a witch-hunt against gays and lesbians in the country after a police raid on a Karbala safe house. On Tuesday 16th June, twelve police officers burst into the house, then violently beat up, and blindfolded the six occupants sheltering there, before bundling them off in three vans. According to a source who witnessed the raid, the police also confiscated computer equipment before burning down the house. According to reports, one of the arrested people has turned up in hospital. Nothing is known about the whereabouts of the other five individuals, which include two gay men, one lesbian and two transgender people. It is feared they may have been taken to the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, where, it is reported, many gay people have been tortured and executed in the last two years.
The one victim found so far – in hospital with slashed throat
Government forces have previously sized people particularly at roadblocks and handed them to militias who have then tortured them and their bodies have later been found. None of the previous occupying powers have taken any action or delivered any criticism for these atrocities. Iraqi LGBT feel that the reason the British and United States government in particular didn’t criticises the Iraqi government is because of the legacy of the occupation. They have criticised the Malawian government and the Ugandan government. In both those countries there is a strong religious opposition to homosexuality — as there is in Iraq.
Since the fall of Saddam, militias loyal to Shi’a clerics Grand Ayatollah al Sistani and Muqtada al Sadr, both of whom have called for homosexuals to be put to death, have been only too keen to carry out their leaders’ wishes. Over 720 LGBT people have disappeared or been murdered, many of whom have been tortured to death. There is strong evidence that the government is colluding with these militia groups, by rounding up known homosexual and transgender people. A small number of safe houses, set up for LGBT people to live in relative safety, have been funded by Iraqi LGBT, a London based human rights group. In the current climate, these homes have been life-savers for those taking refuge in them. The house which was raided on Tuesday had been established in January this year. With the arrest and the seizure of computers, it is feared the government will step up efforts to round up more of the country’s LGBT population.
Ali Hili, who is the leader of Iraqi LGBT, comments: “The UK media and politicians have been too quiet for too long about the violence LGBT people in Iraq. The militia and the powers that be know they can get away with it while that silence continues. It really is time for the Iraqi government to act on this and stop playing the role of guilty bystanders, while our brothers and sisters are murdered in silence” Currently the UK Border Agency is deporting many Iraqis, some who left the country in fear of their lives after death threats from gangsters and religious militia. “The government is grossly underestimating the danger faced by Iraqi refugees." says Ali. "The raid on Tuesday proves for LGBT people especially, Iraq is a no-go zone”.
September 15, 2010 – Gay City News
A Return to Baghdad – What Changed and What Didn’t Since 2007
by Michael T. Luongo
First in a Four-Part Series
What had only been lines on a map, forbidden and dangerous, were places that had come alive, places that I could now see with my own eyes.
I was in Baghdad in mid-2009 for my second time. The post-surge trip introduced me to places I had only heard of in stories — what then seemed like fables — told to me by Ali Hili, the director of Iraqi LGBT, a London-based human rights group working with gay men in Iraq, and by other gay men I had met in Baghdad two years earlier.
Ali told of walking the reedy banks of the Tigris in Baghdad, a place he said, where gay men laughed, cruised, and picnicked together in the days before the US invasion changed everything. The recent horrors reported out of this city, for gays and ordinary citizens alike, made it hard to believe such a time ever existed. That is until I was able to see it with my own eyes, in a Baghdad inching, hoping to be post-war. It was a completely different city from the one I discovered in my first visit in 2007, when the insurgent uprising meant that simply being on the street was an invitation to instant death.
This visit would be full of stark contrasts. It was as if there were two different Baghdads — at least. I would interview men from Sadr City, one of the poorest, most dangerous districts, who talked about friends killed by sprays of bullets in drive-by shootings, their gathering places firebombed, their names posted on lists, others raped and disappeared by militia-infested police squadrons at checkpoints.
I would see a hospital where the bodies of gay men had been dumped, their anuses closed shut from a heavy glue used to torture them. I would visit a safe house, chatting with gay men and transgender Iraqis who hid for safety, yet at the same time were welcoming and life-affirming, teaching me gay Arabic slang and joking about sex with gay Saddam-look-alikes.
And I would meet other men from different parts of Baghdad, young, fashionable, masculine, with far less to fear, who did in fact cruise along the colorful banks of the Tigris on Abu Nuwaz Street and spend their evenings at fashionable cafés popular among gays in West Baghdad, flirting with men they met through the website Manjam as they sat back in comfortable seats visible from the street.
I would grow to fall in love with a newly vibrant Baghdad. Not that I didn’t still have much to fear as a visiting gay journalist — from conversations that could be tapped to entrapment, spies, and the bullets of panicked Iraqi soldiers. In the end, there was much that didn’t fully makes sense — for me, for the local gay men, and for anyone living in this ancient cradle of civilization, a place somewhere between war and peace.
September 15, 2010 – Gay City Times
Gay Death and Gay Life – Even if the killings stop, what lies beyond remains in doubt
by Michael T. Luongo
Second in a Four-Part Series
There were bullet holes across his chest when I found him in the room. They were merely a decoration on his black T-shirt, tight against his broad shoulders and puffy biceps. He reminded me of a “Sopranos” character, with the fake bullet holes surrounding the word Mafia. He was only 25, but his gelled hair was thinning, a soul patch adorning a scruffy face. He seemed afraid to look directly at me, tight-gripped hands wringing, his nervousness compounded by the time he was left alone to think as he awaited my tardy arrival. An improvised explosive device, or IED, was found near my hotel, and I was nearly an hour late.
We met in the Baghdad office of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, a coalition run by Yanar Mohammed, who has been active in helping persecuted gays. She was overseas during my visit, but her staff helped me interview men, some of whom lived in Sadr City, a poor, largely Shia Muslim area of Baghdad at the heart of the insurgency, and named for militia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr’s father. Many on her staff lived there and had gay friends.
Mohammed (anyone identified by first name only in this series has been given a pseudonym, to protect their privacy and safety), the young man I was meeting, had just secured a visa that would get him out of the country within a week of our interview.
An organization that mostly serves women, many widowed, who have suffered horrifically since the US invasion, OWFI has an open door policy to anyone needing assistance. With my limited knowledge of Arabic, I noticed that the staff used the polite term “mithlee” for homosexual, rather than more offensive labels common among Iraqis.
I met with men on the Sadr City death lists, the postings placed throughout this part of Baghdad by Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Mohammed was on the list for many reasons, not just his sexuality; the calculus that determines death sentences in Baghdad is jumbled and terrifyingly far-reaching.
September 29, 2010 – Gay City News
Double Lives Gays Lead in Baghdad – Even when public spaces not lethal, freedom, privacy are relative terms
by Michael T. Luongo
Third in a Four-Part Series
Hassan mistakenly thought I had a sexual fetish about Saddam Hussein. I made an offhand comment about Iraqi policemen’s 1970s San Francisco clone moustaches — the kind sported by the dictator. Hassan held one hand up high, clenched in a tight fist, suggesting the dead ruler’s iron will, and shouted, “I find you man with a moustache, and big and hairy like Saddam, but gay, so you could have sex with him.”
I didn’t expect humor to be mixed into a mission that could be the death of us. Hassan is a point man in Baghdad for Iraqi LGBT, a London-based human rights group working with gay men in Iraq, and he, several other men, and I were heading to a safe house run by the group. They told me that as of late summer 2009, I was the only foreign journalist allowed to visit; they trusted me because I’m gay, and my dark, Mediterranean looks would allow me to travel to the house without arousing too much curiosity in the neighborhood.
Ground rules were set for my visit. Wissam, my driver, wasn’t allowed to bring me to the house; instead, I had to meet Hassan and his friends alone, in an area of Baghdad unfamiliar to me. It took some time to convince Wissam — who was very protective of me but not fully aware of my plans — to leave me on my own on a Baghdad street. Getting out of the car, I had to look as though I were Iraqi, so I carried my notebook and camera in a plastic bag — backpacks immediately singling someone out as a foreigner.
Wissam didn’t drive away until I assured him I had spotted Hassan. He was a block away, but as I walked toward him, I froze. He was surrounded by police, but after some initial panic on my part, I got the impression he knew them. Still, the contrast between Hassan and the policemen was frighteningly apparent. The masculine, uniformed men had sun-roughened skin, bushy eyebrows, and moustaches, while Hassan was effeminate, with smooth, whitened skin, neatly plucked eyebrows, and long, oddly dark dyed hair — something no Iraqi man his age would sport — still visible even under a baseball cap. I immediately saw how intimidating a police checkpoint could be for him.
Hassan didn’t say a word, but motioned toward a small car. I hopped in and he followed, waving goodbye to the policemen on the corner. Though we were close to the safe house, he said there was no need to worry about these policemen. He had earlier told me he has bribed officers to prevent them from raiding the safe houses, and I wondered if these were among them.
At the safe house, we stepped from the car in silence, and I followed the group to a staircase leading to the top floor of a two-family home. I could see a man staring up at us, the neighbor from below. As we entered, Hassan whispered that someone had called about me, but didn’t go into any more detail. I later found out he received several calls about his meetings with me, communications he felt suggested his life could be in danger.
The living room had a couch against a wall and a glass coffee table covered with lace and pink plastic flowers. More floral knick-knacks were scattered on a glass étagère. Though the curtains were drawn, the house was surprisingly bright. An empty area, where a dining table could go, was in front of a large patio window covered by blinds, a small kitchen to the side. A doorway one step up led to a brown-tiled bathroom near the apartment’s two bedrooms. One of those rooms, stuffed with furniture, had a queen-size bed covered by a peach satin quilt, with stuffed animals scattered over the pillows. The walls were adorned with photos of one of the men I’d met in the car. I later noticed another picture of him on the living room wall and assumed it was his or his parents’ house, though the rent was paid by Hassan from Iraqi LGBT funds.
I saw nothing out of the ordinary until I entered the other bedroom, a windowless space with a pungent stale odor. The room had no furniture except for piles of foam mattresses covered with cheap acrylic velvet cloth in red floral patterns — the kind that are common in Arabic countries. Hassan told me that eight to ten men might crowd into this space at any given time. “If there is safety, we don’t care,” he said of the less than pleasant surroundings. One of several safe houses run by Iraqi LGBT, this one had opened in January of 2009, just over seven months before. If the neighbors become “nervous,” Hassan explained, they’d be forced to move.
October 13, 2010 – Gay City News
Gay Baghdad: Final Thoughts and a Call to Action
by Michael T. Luongo
Final In a Four-Part Series / A Perspective:
“I push for this because of who I am. This hits me harder,” my friend from the US Embassy in Baghdad said about why the gay killings have so moved him, why he reached out to me when they peaked last year. We were surrounded by men in shorts and Capris, tight tank tops on toned bodies, rainbow flags adorning every doorway. Clearly, we were not in Baghdad. It was Chelsea in the midst of New York’s 2009 Gay Pride Week. He was home on vacation, helping me strategize for my upcoming six-week trip. Gay Americans obsess about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — and rightly so — but legions of gay civilians are in the war zones: in the State Department, the United Nations, non-profits from many nations, and even among the gun-toting contractors. Many of them work with gay and lesbian soldiers who are not officially out.
Gays and lesbians — especially thoes who are single and have no children — are the perfect war-zone demographic. The change we can enact behind closed doors on international LGBT issues has long been overlooked, but it’s part of the premise behind former State Department employee Mark Bromley’s group, the Council for Global Equality. Looking at the issue of the gay killings in Iraq from San Francisco, London, or New York, it might seem that our embassy has done little or nothing. Though I firmly believe there was much more that the US could have done officially — after all, we have occupied the country for more than seven years — I also know that behind the scenes, unofficially, there have been people pushing for more.
I look at America’s occupation of Iraq like a Rudyard Kipling novel — many good people working in a bad colonial setting over which they have no control, reporting to people in capital cities thousands of miles away who have no clue about the reality on the ground. I asked my friend what he thought could be done about the situation for gays in Iraq. Frustrated, he said, “Even if I could heli-vac all the gays out of Iraq, what about the Christians, what about the women, what about all the other persecuted people?” The two of us were both well aware that gays are just one small part of the country’s refugee crisis. To put it in perspective, the 9,000 gay Iraqis in Damascus would nearly overload the official US quota system for the number of Iraqis our nation will accept in one year. There are many other persecuted groups and millions of displaced Iraqis.
I grew up in a neighborhood in New Jersey full of children whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors, most of whom were painfully aware of how the US immigration system at that time blocked the opportunity to save tens of thousands of persecuted Jews and other Europeans. Clearly the killings in Iraq are on a different scale from the Holocaust, but we cannot blame a mad dictator for those deaths. It is happening because the United States invaded Iraq, and still we refuse to change our quota system.
My Embassy friend would get angry at times, sensing what I was thinking. “Journalists come in with an attitude that we should not have invaded,” he said. “We can’t go back in time. The argument that none of this would have happened if we hadn’t invaded means nothing anymore.” He told me this simplistic media attitude shuts down Embassy personnel, creating a defensive wall around them when dealing with reporters. It’s true that the violence was unleashed by the power vacuum we created when we took out Saddam. A new power vacuum and a spike in violence — with a new government still waiting to be formed seven months after the latest election — are happening once again. But the question is no longer what should have been done — but what can be done.
October 21, 2010 – WNYC.org
Underreported: Gays & Lesbians in Iraq
There are no exact figures on the number of gays and lesbians who have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, though a 2009 Human Rights Watch report puts the number “in the hundreds.” On today’s Underreported segment, freelance journalist Michael Luongo discusses what life is like for gays and lesbians there, from underground clubs in Baghdad and hiding in safe houses, to the constant threat of violent attacks from militia members. His four-part series on gay life in Iraq appears in the Gay City News.
20 December 2010 – Rudaw
Homosexuality Fears Over Gender Equality in Iraqi Kurdistan
by Saman Basharati
Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan – The passing of a new law in Iraqi Kurdistan guaranteeing “gender equality” has deeply outraged the local religious community, including the minister of endowments and religious affairs and prominent imams, who interpret the phrase as legitimizing homosexuality in Kurdistan. The law, which was recently passed by the Parliament of the semiautonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan to facilitate the work of the Ministry of Culture and Youth, says that the ministry “is promoting gender equality.”
Kamil Haji Ali, the minister of endowments and religious affairs, said the new law would “spread immorality” and “distort” Kurdish society. “The phrase ‘gender equality’ has so many meanings,” said Ali, a Political Bureau member of the Kurdistan Islamic Movement. “According to the information we have gathered about it, the term means that women can marry women, and men can marry men as well. This does not suit our Muslim society. That’s why we can never agree with this phrase.”
But Sozan Shihab, leader of the majority Kurdistani Alliance in parliament, said this was a misinterpretation of the law, as the law merely aimed at decreasing social injustice against women Iraqi Kurdistan. “The phrase ‘gender equality’ means social equality between men and women in terms of rights and duties,” she said. “Women and men are equal and have no differences.”
The Islamic Union of Scholars in Kurdistan (IUSK) has also published a statement demanding the removal of the phrase “gender equality” from the law. “As men are allowed to marry four women, this term also allows women to marry four men,” argued Mullah Nyaz Raghib, head of the Erbil office of the IUSK. “It also means that homosexuals can marry each other. This must change.”
A number of other prominent imams have been outraged and have spoken out against the law in recent Friday prayer services, with some accusing the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of pursuing the “corrupt path” of the West. Some religious men have gone even further, viewing gender equality as being a cause of the breakdown of the family and as condoning abortion. “This phrase is against all religions,” said Mullah Immad Guani, preacher at Kherkhwazan Mosque in Erbil’s Malla Omer district. “The phrase ‘gender equality’ destroys families by equating [normal marriage] with homosexual marriage. It also allows abortion.”
But Abdul-Salam Berwari, a Kurdistan lawmaker, believes there is a misconception of the law among the clerics resulting from their dependence on Arabic knowledge to understand concepts created in the West, such as gender equality, rather than on Western learning. “Those who believe gender equality means allowing homosexuality don’t really understand what the word ‘gender’ means,” said Berwari. “Instead of introducing the beautiful values of Islam to society, they bring the backward traditions of the Arab culture into Kurdish society. They want to destabilize the Kurdistan region.”
On Sunday the KRG held a press conference, where the public were ensured that gender equality did not include giving marriage rights to homosexuals, whose existence is effectively invisible in Iraq due to restrictive traditional rules. The government said no marriages, other than those permitted by official religions in Kurdistan, were allowed by law.
30 August 2011 – Gay Middle East
Iraq’s Unwanted People – Live Event
Live event on Iraqi refugees – Photo exhibition and a short film about the lives of gay Iraqi men seeking refuge in Damascus, Syria due to their sexuality. Includes talk with Bradley Secker, Dan Littauer and Peter Tatchell. We also will have a chance to speak live via skype to one of the refugees featured in the exhibition. Homophobic violence against Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Iraqis have claimed over 750 lives since 2003 and caused a massive exodus, with the most favoured destination being Syria. This despite that homosexuality is illegal under Syrian law and conviction resulting in a three year prison sentence.
This has become an acute issue as since October 2010 the Syrian Secret Police has started systematic raids against LGBT gatherings and meetings all over Syria. Things have now escalated even further with the on-going turmoil of the Syrian revolution. While previously people managed to “function” somehow under discrimination, the situation is now intolerable. Iraqi gays suffer even more; they are unwanted people in Iraq, in Syria, and are hated both by their own diaspora and the Syrian regime.