“I don’t like being known as the ‘only gay Iraqi activist’”, Amir Ashour says, brow furrowing slightly.
But the label is hard to escape: Ashour, originally from Sulaimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, has been beaten up and arrested because of his sexuality. In 2015, he was forced to flee his home and seek asylum in Sweden, fearing for his life.
Now 26, he’s already been through more than many people could ever imagine - but, Ashour says, he wouldn’t have changed a thing.
“It is not exactly a choice”, he says. “It is not easy… it’s draining. But there is nothing else I would or could do. Everything I’ve been through, everyone I’ve met who has inspired me, it’s all relevant.”
Ashour is the founder and leading voice of IraQueer, the only LGBT+ rights awareness organisation operating in Iraq, which is forced to carry out most of its work anonymously. The growing network of activists, most using synonyms rather than their real names, is a precious resource for Iraq’s gay community, which remains almost completely underground for fear of dying at the hands of armed vigilante gangs, rogue police officers, or family members unable to accept them.
As recently as 1995, Saddam Hussein created a paramilitary group with the sole purpose of identifying, torturing and executing LGBT+ individuals, as well as women accused of adultery, and the memory - as well as the taboo - is still fresh for many. Post-Saddam, the gay community began tentatively organising parties and meet-ups in gay-friendly spaces, but militia attacks have increased again in recent years, driving the community further underground.
While same-sex relationships were decriminalised after the US invasion, Iraqi law offers no constitutional protection for LGBT+ citizens, and the state often turns a blind eye to the horrors non-conforming Iraqis face if outed. Shiite militias who claim to be fighting Isis under the banner of the Iraqi army have been accused of multiple murders by the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission.
IraQueer’s role is vital in providing advice and safe houses for LGBT+ people - often teenagers - who have been disowned by their families, or fled for their own safety. Doctors and officials will often refuse to deal with people they think are gay, so IraQueer tries to connect vulnerable people to allies, too.
The group has about 40 regular contributors and has been growing steadily for two years, now reaching up to 11,000 readers a month via essays and safety warnings tirelessly translated from Kurdish or Arabic into English or vice versa. Yet its members have only just met face to face for the first time, at a workshop organised by Ashour in Lebanon last month. It was a fantastic experience, he says.
“Technology, and especially social media, have changed the face of activism, they’ve had so much impact for us”, Ashour says. “That me and my fellow activists can talk long-distance and hide our identities… that would never have been possible before the last few years.”
Ashour has lived in Malmo in Sweden since last year. He loves life in Europe, where he is free to be himself. “I have never hidden who I am. It was never a question of ‘coming out of the closet’, there was nothing to escape from,” he says. Ashour's family, and group of friends and activists at university, were all very accepting, he says. But even in a relatively liberal area such as Iraqi Kurdistan, witch-hunts are still mounted for people suspected of being gay, or partaking in ‘sinful’ behaviour.
This is what happened to Ashour. He was forced to leave the country to escape rumours which bought him to the attention of local vigilantes, started while he was working for a women's rights group in Baghdad. But he also has the strength to use his experiences to speak out, in the hope that others will not have to suffer the same discrimination.
I met Ashour while he was in London this summer to meet with UKLGIG, a UK charity which works to support LGBT aslyum seekers and refugees, and One Young World (OYW) representatives. OYW was founded in 2009 with the aim of bringing together young leaders to effect lasting, positive change. Meeting others from across the world who face the same LGBT struggle as he does, or stand up for other worthy causes, has “shaped the way I look at the world... The core, the root of everything I try to do, is giving the voiceless a voice,” Ashour says.
The renewed scrutiny of Muslim attitudes towards homosexuality following the Orlando LGBT nightclub shooting by an closeted Muslim man has, for Ashour, driven home how important this is. “There is no room for the gay Muslim narrative, even now”, he says. “I never had to come out of the closet. But I still could never have functioned without my support network. And that’s what IraQueer is to many people now.”
But, as Ashour concedes, the opportunities opened up to IraQueer by the internet and secure smartphone messaging is both a blessing and a threat. While the net helps LGBT+ people in Iraq find each other, an uncleared browser cache or public comments or likes on a gay-friendly Facebook page can help vigilantes identify and track down people they suspect of homosexual behaviour.
One of the crucial aims of IraQueer’s first in-person workshop, which took place in secret in Lebanon last month, was to help teach members how to keep themselves safe online, whether by using fake names and accounts or switching to services much harder to hack such as encrypted messaging and Tor browsers.
It’s sad, Ashour notes, that the international community only focused on the lack of gay rights in the Middle East after Isis’s hatred placed the issue on the world stage. Horrific reports from Idlib and Kirkuk of public executions by al-Nusra and Isis, as well as images of gay men forced to jump from buildings, reverberated in the world’s media.
And while Isis’ atrocities continue to grab international attention, gay people continue to suffer across the Arab world, Ashour says. “The problem is so much wider, and deeper rooted, than this recent flare of extremism”, he adds.
Ashour is also sceptical of Kurdish efforts to portray the now autonomous regions across Iraq and Syria as gay-friendly. “It’s an attractive idea politically, gay rights, it is an encouraging sign to the West,” he says. “Talking is easier than action, though. And Rojava [Kurdish region] is still yet to be tested like that.”
I ask Ashour whether he thinks his battle is hopeless. He says he still has hope, and if it’s ever possible to be openly gay in Iraq, he’ll be the first to go back. One day he wants to run for office in his native country. But for now, he’s strengthening IraQueer, and enjoying being able to date in Sweden.
“I want to be the one who makes it possible to be gay in Iraq. Maybe I’ll be attacked for it, it’s possible. But winning is a mindset. And as long as IraQueer exists and grows, we are prepared, we are winning. All we need is time.”
*The only speaking (out) gay Iraqi