Millions of Afghans Want to Flee. LGBTQ Afghans Have To.

Since the Taliban takeover last August, members of the Afghan LGBTQ community have faced electrocution, torture, killings, and fear.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
A Taliban member stands guard outside of the Pul-e-Charkhi prison, located on the outskirts of Kabul, on Oct. 17, 2021.
A Taliban member stands guard outside of the Pul-e-Charkhi prison, located on the outskirts of Kabul, on Oct. 17, 2021.
A Taliban member stands guard outside of the Pul-e-Charkhi prison, located on the outskirts of Kabul, on Oct. 17, 2021. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Sixty Afghan LGBT people who had been living in fear for their lives due to their sexual orientation and gender arrived in Canada in time to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr this week, safe at last from persecution and death threats from the extremist Taliban now in control of their country.

They are among what Nemat Sadat, an Afghan activist who has lived in the United States for more than a decade, calls “the most vulnerable people in the most dangerous country in the world.” Since the Taliban reinstated extremist rule last August, Sadat said, Afghanistan’s untold thousands of LGBT people have lived in fear of violence for not conforming to the Islamists’ notion of sexual normalcy.

He has helped more than 80 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and nonbinary people reach safety outside Afghanistan since the Western-supported government collapsed last summer. That leaves around 1,000 more he has identified as needing urgent evacuation. “Even that number in a country of 35 million is small,” Sadat said.

Sixty Afghan LGBT people who had been living in fear for their lives due to their sexual orientation and gender arrived in Canada in time to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr this week, safe at last from persecution and death threats from the extremist Taliban now in control of their country.

They are among what Nemat Sadat, an Afghan activist who has lived in the United States for more than a decade, calls “the most vulnerable people in the most dangerous country in the world.” Since the Taliban reinstated extremist rule last August, Sadat said, Afghanistan’s untold thousands of LGBT people have lived in fear of violence for not conforming to the Islamists’ notion of sexual normalcy.

He has helped more than 80 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and nonbinary people reach safety outside Afghanistan since the Western-supported government collapsed last summer. That leaves around 1,000 more he has identified as needing urgent evacuation. “Even that number in a country of 35 million is small,” Sadat said.

Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian charity, says it has been contacted by more than 3,300 LGBTQI+ Afghans since the Taliban takeover, but so far only 80 have been relocated to Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Asylum applications from people wishing to leave Taliban-ruled Afghanistan are believed now to number in the millions.

If the return of extremist Taliban rule is bad enough for the Afghan people as a whole, LGBT people in particular face arrest, detention, torture, and gang rape. Activists have documented dozens of cases of harassment, beatings, burnings, and killings of young people. In one case, a young man’s abused body was dumped in a street days after he went missing. In another, a lesbian who refused an arranged marriage was killed by her family.

But with millions of Afghans seeking to flee Taliban rule, and with privacy concerns limiting Western officials’ ability to sort potential applicants, there is no particular effort underway to offer an expedited way out to those most vulnerable to the return of extremism. Rainbow Railroad said that “so far, governments’ responses to the crisis have been reactionary and, as it stands right now, inadequate.”

“While they are touted as a major interest of most Western nations, no nation has come to the assistance of these markedly, visibly different people who have been protected across the world by different Pride marches. As always, the silence around this issue is deafening,” said Neelam Raina, a British academic who has helped hundreds of people find refuge outside Afghanistan since August.

Intolerance of LGBT people is built into the Taliban’s repressive social and sexual strictures. Women cannot leave their homes without a male chaperone and must cover up when they do; girls are widely excluded from secondary and higher education; music, dancing, art, journalism are restricted. Violence against perceived enemies, deviants, and apostates is out of control. Even before the collapse of the republic, in areas under Taliban control, execution by gunfire and stoning were not unknown for what were deemed sexual crimes, such as extramarital affairs.

Afghan society has traditionally had little tolerance for homosexuality, and many LGBT people grow up without understanding their own nonconformity. Pressure to marry and have children can lead to domestic violence, depression, and suicide. Yet same-sex activity in a strictly segregated society where most marriages are arranged is, while not acknowledged, not entirely unusual, even aside from the practice of bacha bazi, in which preteen boys are bought or sponsored by wealthy, powerful men for sex and entertainment.

For Afghanistan’s LGBT people, institutionalized discrimination is nothing new; homosexual relations were criminalized by the Taliban the first time they took over and again by the Afghan republic that was formed after the 2001 U.S. invasion. The 2017 penal code mandated jail terms for sodomy and lesbian intimacy. Vague legal language forced LGBT people to live underground.

Western governments and nongovernment organizations failed to pressure the republic to introduce laws to decriminalize homosexuality, Sadat said, concentrating instead on women’s rights. Yet there was some progress, as LGBT people trod the path of their Western counterparts “at the vanguard of bringing change and social transformation in Afghanistan,” working in film, music, fashion, and entertainment, he said.

All that came to a halt last August. Now, LGBT people say they live in terror of being outed. Many are abused by their families, cannot trust their neighbors, and fear being picked up by the Taliban whenever they go outside. Some say their neighbors report them to the Taliban to find favor with their new rulers and that bigots feel free to discriminate against LGBT people with impunity. The stress of knowing they could be hunted down or outed at any time is leading to severe mental health problems, with some people contemplating suicide, activists say. Many have left their homes and are living on the streets, with no money and no refuge. As Afghanistan’s economic hardship has forced millions into hunger, already marginalized LGBT people have been forced to the very periphery of society.

Though many are known to activists in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, they are now just a fraction of the vast number of people clamoring to get out of Afghanistan, including women’s and human rights activists, journalists, former government employees, and members of security forces. Western governments do not prioritize LGBT applicants for asylum, often citing privacy issues.

Nancy Caron, a spokesperson for Canada’s Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship department, said: “The department does not systematically track information on refugees’ sexual orientation or gender identity in order to respect the privacy of refugees. Tracking this information would require that refugees voluntarily disclose their sexual orientation to immigration officers. Additionally, there are often multiple reasons cited by applicants for persecution.”

But the lack of any priority asylum track means there is little hope for many of Afghanistan’s LBGT people to find refuge outside the Taliban’s control.

“Afghanistan has become like a birdcage for me, I feel like a bird in a cage that has taken away my freedom,” said a 24-year-old gay man living with his family in northern Afghanistan, who asked that he be identified only as Subhan.

“My family treats me very coldly, especially my two older brothers who say they will kill me if I go out too often. One of them beats me often,” he said. “When I go out, the neighbors look at me very strangely and sometimes the local shopkeeper makes fun of me and says why did you leave the house without a [male chaperone]. Some even ask for my mobile number and make immoral demands of me.”

As frightened as he is of being betrayed by relatives or neighbors, Subhan would, so far, seem to be one of the lucky ones. Sadat, the U.S.-based activist, has collected evidence of Taliban abuse of LGBT people. Photographs shared on Instagram show Sara, a nonbinary Afghan who, he said, “was stabbed by the Taliban” multiple times, and Bilal, a gay man “who was tortured by the Taliban for 20 days” and “left to die.”

“The kind of torture and abuse they are experiencing is unimaginable,” Sadat said, adding that he has used his own money and funds raised through social media campaigns to cover their medical costs. Both Sadat and Rainbow Railroad said the international community has failed to respond adequately to the need for LGBT Afghans to relocate to safety.

Many Afghans have fled overland to Pakistan and Iran, which also discriminate against LGBT people, they said. The 60 people who flew to Canada earlier this week had been hiding in Pakistan, Sadat said.

“LGBTQI+ Afghans who make it across the border to neighboring countries are not safe either, as many surrounding countries also criminalize same-sex intimacy and gender diversity,” Rainbow Railroad said.

“Both culturally and economically, this is the most vulnerable of the vulnerable groups,” said Raina, the British academic.

For Subhan, the 24-year-old, despite being on Sadat’s list, refuge remains a dream. “I wish I could take refuge in a European country. Where no one hurts us. Where I can wear any clothes I like. Where I can have a sexual partner and be happy with him. Where I can study and work. Where I can laugh freely, dance with joy that I am human, and by studying and working I can enjoy life,” he said.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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