"Being gay isn't as sexy as ISIS. So no-one pays us any attention."
These are the words of Amir Ashour, a 25-year-old Iraqi and the founder of the country's only organisation for its queer community.
Amir left behind his home and family a year ago and is currently living in Sweden. There, he hopes to register and expand his charity IraQueer, as it is illegal to do so in Iraq.
He has received multiple threats from both officials and his friends because of who he is and the work he does.
"It's incredibly difficult being away from my family - I’ve been missing birthdays, everything - and the more work I do for IraQueer, and the more people know about it, the harder it's getting for me to be able to return to Iraq," Amir says.
Amir Ashour, the 25-year-old founder of IraQueer
Politicians and other influential personalities see us as a threat, and no longer see us just as a young group that is publishing information on a website," he explains.
"It’s hard to be so far from home and everything I know, but it would’ve been harder to be home and be forced to be away from myself and what I believe in."
Back in Iraq, Amir was attacked by his own friends, "both because of my work and who I am".
He was ridiculed for his clothes, his voice, his size, "everything".
"People would make everything relevant and try to connect it to my sexuality and of course use it as an insult. A lot of people stopped hanging out with me because they were afraid of the stigma that came with hanging out with me."
Although he says he could ignore most of it because he had a good circle of friends, being gay affected his everyday life.
"It’s just not possible to even talk about the queer community inside Iraq," Amir explains. And that was the reasoning behind launching IraQueer, which aims to provide support and information for the queer community in Iraq and Kurdistan.
“We’re sharing stories of people who lived their entire life in Iraq and are from Iraqi families. They went through the normal education system and work the normal kind of job, and they are no different from anyone else. The only difference is that their sexual orientation is different.
“So, we bring it closer to home. And we try to publish anything that is related to the queer community, even if it’s just a rumour, because sometimes rumours are the only thing that we have.”
One of the main threats to the queer community in Iraq, Amir explains, is the armed militias in Baghdad and other cities.
“The main one that has been practising all the killing campaigns in Iraq actually announced a partnership with our government a few months ago, under the name of ‘fighting ISIS’.
“The last campaign we documented was in January this year, while in July 2014, [the militia] killed 35 gay people and sex workers in one day. Not even one report was made about that.
“Not one single person has been imprisoned for killing a gay person.”
And, Amir adds, that’s just the numbers they’re aware of. “How many more people have just disappeared? Especially with what’s happening with ISIS and people being displaced.. We can’t keep track. And the government is making it impossible for civil society organisations to run safe houses. If an organisation wants to do that, then they are charged with running brothels and prostitution.”
Amir has been forced to expand IraQueer from outside Iraq
Earlier this year, Iraq submitted a periodic report to the UN, which Amir says glossed over its treatment of the queer community.
“The Iraqi government was presenting so many perfect things about what it is doing, and how it is trying its best,” Amir says. “But this is such a cliché.
“So since then IraQueer has been highlighting all the violations they are doing.”
With the help of OutRightsAction International, IraQueer wrote “a lot” of recommendations for the Iraqi and international communities on how they can force the government to commit to basic human rights standards for LGBT+ people.
“Even if homosexuality is against religion and Islam is the main force of law in Iraq, killing is illegal. That is not something people can debate and argue.”
I ask whether the rest of the world underestimates the battles faced by the LGBT community in Iraq and Kurdistan.
“I love that you asked this question,” Amir enthuses. “It is the first time anyone has asked me this question.”
That’s when he points out “sexier things” are happening in Iraq.
“ISIS is sexier,” he states simply. “When it comes to Iraq, people think ISIS is the main problem. It’s the same with Syria, for example. People are not paying attention to what Assad is doing, they’re watching what ISIS is doing.
“Unfortunately we [the queer community] is not as sexy as ISIS, and until that is solved, we cannot compete with that attention.”
Amir cites human rights not being a political interest as the reason “almost no-one” is doing anything about what the queer community is facing.
“Even though it is a human rights violation.”
“Iraq has ratified so many of the international treaties that should make sure there are equal rights for people, regardless of their sexuality and gender identity. So why isn’t the international community holding Iraq accountable for these things?”
In August, Iraq criminalised homosexuality, a huge step back in IraQueer’s fight for LGBT+ rights.
“In its report to the UN, the Iraq government clearly said homosexuality is a sinful act according to Islam and it’s illegal. That it’s something that could disturb the public and create problems.”
And, according to Amir, Iraq is excusing its human rights violation by using the fact it is fighting terrorism and it is “normal” for a country in its situation to have such violations.
Whether or not there is room for homosexuality in Islam is still up for debate. But Amir says the question is not whether Islam should create room for the queer community, as they are simply “two different things”.
“I know a lot of people who are Muslims and queer at the same time.
“Islam does criminalise sexuality - that is clear. But Islam also promotes love and peace and no killing and all these human values, so why not go with these instead of violence?”
Iraq needs to be a secular state, he adds. “Because Islam was sent to people more than 1,500 years ago, and that alone just tells you that it is really outdated when it comes to laws.
“Maybe it had great laws back then and maybe people still want these values in their life, but religion should be a private practice that you choose to follow or not, instead of a law that everyone needs to follow.
“You are born with your sexuality but you are not born with your religious beliefs.”
Although he comes from a family with a "long religious history", Amir converted “or whatever you want to call it” from Islam seven years ago.
“It’s not that I have anything against Muslims,” he explains. “It’s just that Islam doesn’t work for me.
“Not just because of my sexual preferences, but just the whole thing. I think I have values and principles that work as good as having a religion.
“I have a lot of people who are Muslims in my life, including my family, and I respect them. We both respect that we have different views.”
Unfortunately, not everyone shares Amir’s values of respect.
Working for IraQueer is dangerous job for Amir's colleagues, all of whom have to work underground for fear of being exposed.
"A lot of our members don't even know each other," Amir explains. "The main reason we want to do that is because some of our members agreed to join but didn’t want to know anyone else and we decided we would work this way for a while until everyone is comfortable with being connected to each other.
"We didn’t want to put unnecessary pressure on the others. Everyone connects with each other through me. I’m the only public face associated with the organisation."
There are few - if any - resources for the queer community in Iraq and Kurdistan. And very little is published on the subject by the outside world.
"Even if journalists are sent to Iraq, they could actually put their lies in danger if they ask about these questions, especially if they don't know who to ask.
"There were five to 10 pieces on the queer community in Iraq on the internet before we launched. Now, IraQueer has about 3,500 readers visiting the site every month. We have 4,000 followers on social media and our weekly posts on social media reach around 2,000 people. These numbers are of course small compared to other bigger outlets but compare that to almost non-existent.. it's something that we are really trying to work on."
Amir's colleagues have to work in secret for fear of reprisals
The people of Kurdistan, Amir says, have no information on homosexuality, bar what IraQueer provides.
Amir continues: "People are not only exposed to what's happening but they're also exposed to our side of the story. We are telling our own story.
"The most important thing that we're doing is reaching out to the LGBT community. We have a section dedicated to the stories of the community.
"The stories of the people who are telling their own experiences proves that people are wrong. A lot of people say that we did not have homosexuality and that the US brought it with their invasion in 2003."
Amir pauses, then adds: "Like they dropped a gay bomb or something."
Despite the severity of the situation, we can't help but share a giggle at the ridiculousness of the idea.
But it's no laughing matter for those who lead a double life in order to preserve a single one.
"A lot of people are married and have a secret life on the side," Amir explains. " know no-one who is publicly gay in Iraq. It is definitely going to get you killed if you are public. Best case scenario is that you’re going to lose your job, education, whatever you have in your life - even if it is a volunteer project.
"It is impossible to live an openly gay life."
Even though IraQueer’s staff work in secret, it is still a huge risk. “That’s why a lot of our meetings are very small, four or five people so that it’s not suspicious. And that’s why they don’t happen on a regular basis.”
Amir started working in human rights during his second year at Sulaymaniyah University, in Iraq, when he was 19. "In the beginning I was just volunteering for some local and international NGOs and working with kids and women."
But, he says, he started his "real career" in human rights after graduation - around three years ago - when he landed work with two organisations based in New York.
"I was their representative in Iraq and my main focus was working with sex workers and women who were fleeing from crimes and facing violations."
However, it wasn't long before Amir realised he was not fulfilling his calling.
"When I was working with the charities, the project was really important but it was more an emergency response. That was not leading us to start a real change, it was more reacting to events. I had the idea of starting something like IraQueer in the last year of my work with the charities - but of course I had to move out of the country.
“I was already very public about my sexuality and activism - through talks and attending conferences - so I thought why not just take it to the next level?
“I wanted to start something where we don’t only help the LGBTQI+ community but actually turn them into active agents and making a change.”
Amir continues: "When people started realising what I was doing and who I am was not a phase, I started facing a lot of problems with the projects I was leading.
"Funders stopped funding, members stopped working and volunteering with us. It affects every single aspect of your life. People are forced to live double lives."
But Amir says he never “came out” to his family and friends.
“I don’t believe in that term. Because I was never ‘inside’ anything.
“If people ask, it depends on how relevant it is that I answer. I never said that I wasn’t gay and now if some people are questioning my sexuality, I’ll make a ‘come out’ video that is one second long and it’ll just be ‘I’m gay’, and just be done with it. For me, it’s irrelevant, and no-one says ‘the first straight Prime Minister of this country’. No-one points out the sexuality of straight people.”
And, speaking of Prime Ministers, Amir is admirably positive about the future.
“If I ever go back I want to be able to run for the Prime Minister. I want that opportunity to be available. And, if it’s not available, then we will work until it is.”
First on Amir’s list, however, is stopping the killings.
“We need to make it impossible for people to be killed or attacked based on their sexual orientation. That’s our number one demand.
“But of course, like any other country in the world, we want to be an active agent in rebuilding Iraq. And Iraq is in desperate need of being rebuilt. It is facing problems on so many levels.
“The country needs all the capacities of the citizens that they have, regardless of who they sleep with. That is is irrelevant.
“We want equality in everything.”
Amir is an ambassador for One Young World, a global forum for young leaders aged 18-30 which gathers youths from every nation in the world to develop solutions to some of today's - and tomorrow's - most pressing issues.
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