Out and Down in Syria’s Civil War
Caught between the regime and Islamists, Syria’s gay community just struggles to stay alive.
BEIRUT — When Syrian rebels first captured Raqqa in March, seizing the northern city from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime seemed enough for them. They didn’t interfere with citizens’ private lives, said Amir, a Syrian from the city.
The grace period, however, did not last. As al Qaeda-linked groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra gained strength, they began to impose their own particular brand of Islamic justice on the population. "Slowly, they started to purify the city of its un-Islamic elements," Amir says. "In other places, there is a court, a trial … with them, within a day or two, they just chop off people’s heads."
Life in Raqqa soon became impossible for Amir, who is gay, and he made his escape to Beirut. He is almost certain that the jihadists have marked him as a wanted man. "You can’t bribe people the way you did with the Syrian government before," he says. "Some people are so religious that they are immune to bribes."
As the violence in Syria continues unabated, many have retreated into their ethnic and religious communities for protection. Unlike other minority groups — such as Christians, Kurds, and Alawites — sexual minorities, notably gay men, do not enjoy the protection of any political, ethnic, or religious institutions. For gay Syrians, nowhere is safe: Across the country, they have been the target of attack by pro-regime militants and armed Islamist militias alike — at times because of their sexual preference; at other times simply because they are perceived as weak and easy to extort in the midst of a chaotic war.
Through my work as a program manager at the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), I was able to conduct interviews with dozens of gay Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon to escape persecution. IRAP provides legal assistance to refugees of all nationalities to help them navigate the resettlement process. Many gay Syrians agreed to give testimonies for this article, which was separate from IRAP’s assistance to them in the resettlement process. In our conversations, these men described a shocking culture of violence that stands out even amid Syria’s myriad egregious human rights violations.
Gay Syrians still in the country must not only evade discovery themselves — the capture of one of their acquaintances can also present a mortal threat. Amir recounts how one of his gay friends, Badr, was kidnapped this summer by Jabhat al-Nusra, which extracted information from him about other gays before executing him. "Several days later, Jabhat al-Nusra gathered people in the square and denounced another guy as a faggot," says Amir. "They chopped his head off with a sword."
Not all of this violence appears to be driven by radical Islamist beliefs — some seems to be spurred by a simple desire to exert power and authority. Even gay men themselves, forever cognizant of the danger they face if ever outed, have participated in acts of violence against other gay men.
Imad, a gay Syrian who fled the country in September, tells a story of a gay acquaintance who is currently fighting with an Islamist group. "He used to sleep with one of my gay friends for money," Imad says. "Then he disappeared for a few months and it turned out that he was doing military training abroad. He came back with a long beard. He probably just wants money and protection from them."
While many of those fleeing Syria’s violence hail from areas controlled by opposition fighters, the violence against gays is not geographically confined. One Damascus resident, Najib, fled his home after his brother discovered he was gay. His work took him to a rebel-controlled suburb of the capital, where he began a relationship with an Islamist fighter. The head of the brigade, a very conservative Muslim, soon came to suspect a relationship between the two, forcing Najib to flee once again to a suburb closer to the city.
One morning, pro-regime militiamen stopped him at a checkpoint. Najib recognized one of the men, Kheder, from an unofficial gay park they used to frequent prior to the revolution. The men blindfolded him and brought him inside a building, demanding $15,000 or else they would hand him over to the state security apparatus. "After that they told me to take off my clothes. They took my phone and started to take pictures of me," Najib says. "Another other guy kicked me in my face and called me a prostitute and cursed at me. Then they sexually molested me."
Najib brought the men some money the next day, and promised to bring more in the days ahead. Instead, he fled to Lebanon. "A gay person in Syria is between two fires — the regime and the opposition," explains Najib. "The issue is that most people do not see targeting homosexuals as being problematic."
Though violence has gotten much worse in the past several years, the persecution of gay men in Syria existed well before the uprising. The Syrian penal code criminalizes unnatural sexual acts, punishable by up to 3 years in prison. Syrian society’s general lack of acceptance of homosexuality has long forced gay individuals underground, meeting in secret to evade potential arrest or "honor crime" retaliation.
In 2009, police arrested a group of gay men in Raqqa after obtaining a tape of two men having sex. Security forces extracted names of other gay men under torture, and arrested them as well. "A lot of people were put in tires, beaten, and then interrogated. Most admitted to being gay to stop being tortured," says Selim, a gay man who fled Raqqa last spring, about life in the city prior to the revolution. "However, if one had connections to someone high up in the government, they got off. Not everyone was arrested — some people were just extorted for money or others paid bribes to security."
For some gay Syrians, their own family members pose the greatest threat to their discovery. Joseph, a Christian from the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, fled from Syria several months ago after he mistakenly left his computer screen open while at a café with his cousins. He had forgotten that he was in the midst of a conversation with his boyfriend.
"The next day they approached me and said ‘get out of Syria, you are going to scandalize our family. If you don’t leave we kill you,’" Joseph recounted. Within 24 hours, he fled to Lebanon.
While Beirut is often heralded as the most open and liberal city in the Middle East, many gay refugees find that their lot does not dramatically improve when they arrive there. In the Lebanese capital, some have found that they are exploited in the same ways as they were back home.
Hussein fled from northern Syria last spring, after a relative tried to kill him after discovering that he was gay. Having nowhere to stay in Beirut, he began sleeping on a beach, where he was forced into sex work to survive. "One time, I was picked up by a guy for sex," he says. "Instead, I was gang raped by several Lebanese men. After the attack, I went back to the beach because I had no other place to go."
Throughout my interviews, when asked if they could relocate to a safer place, many gay Syrian refugees echoed the refrain that they had nowhere else to go. This has to change: While it is undeniably difficult to advocate for greater LGBTI rights in a conservative society engulfed by civil war, refugee aid organizations can do more to address the plight of this forgotten minority. Staff should be specifically trained to address the needs of this population, services for male victims of sexual violence should be expanded, vulnerable individuals should be given access to safe shelter, and refugees who are most at-risk should be resettled in a third country.
For these beleaguered Syrians, the struggle to find a safe place is a daily challenge — and som
e are finding that they would rather be on their own than risk trying to find protection in a community.
Yaman, a gay Syrian who fled the northern city of Qamishli, describes how he could find no place to live in Beirut, and was subsequently taken in by a wealthy man in exchange for sex. But the man would lock him in the house when he departed from work, leaving Yaman trapped. "After a while, I couldn’t stand it anymore so I left," he says. "I would rather be hungry and homeless."