I have to say this, to write this down. I have to tell it, so you know what it means to be a gay man in Syria.
The war in Syria had ruined the hopes and dreams of millions of people, and forcibly displaced over half of the population. I have friends who have been killed for marching in peaceful demonstrations, others who have been displaced across the world.
But before the civil war, I endured another, more personal one: the battle of being gay in Syria.
It meant living a parallel life, one where I was acting as a straight man to society, and another secret life where I long to be who I am. I had to hide my identity so I could be safe, so I would not be constantly bullied. So I am not arrested. So I am ‘one of them’.
It was a struggle to live in a Syria as a gay man - I struggled to fit in in my own homeland. Being gay is still considered a crime. If gatherings of men were found as gay meet-ups, they could be arrested.
Gay people such as myself felt that we were hated by everyone from all religions - and from the non-religious. We felt muted and silenced and we were never represented, except when we would be described as criminals, or as the ones who are against the nature and the order.
There was no LGBT university group. No Soho. No Canal Street or gay village. No Alexander McQueen. No Stephen Fry. No Virginia Woolf. No Alan Turing. No Oscar Wilde. No Call Me By Your Name screenings. There was no sign that we were there.
Of course, there are many gays in Syria, but it has always been a challenge to know who they are. I only told one friend in Syria that I am homosexual. I knew of some gay men at my university but we were always afraid we might be found out.
I was verbally and physically abused, and then unable to report to the police as I was afraid that I would be arrested if the case turns on me and the police accused me of being gay.
Since I was not openly gay to many, and not even to my family, I was unable to grieve for the life I wanted to have. Unable to mourn, to cry, to say I live in an unjust society. I was unable to be who I want to be, I was only able to dream and work hard to leave Syria.
Home had never felt like home until now, where, in exile, I look at it being destroyed from afar. I even romanticise my past here in the UK and create another history for my former home.
The UK has offered a lot to me. Its diversity. Its energy. Its openness.
My first ever partner made me feel secure and safe, and it felt like I finally have found home. But my anxieties about Syria, the chaos I witnessed my country going through, and the struggle to go through a relationship as a gay man for the first time in my life, all combined to bring an end to this relationship. Now, even after years of separation, my mind is still there. With him.
I lived my life as an outsider in Syria, as a gay man. But in the UK, I am an outsider too. I left Syria but Syria never left me. Its pain, its grief, its sorrow all mar my mind.
When my friends here in the UK complain that their dog has cancer, and so take their dog to the vet, I can think only of Syrians with cancer struggling to have a proper treatment, losing their life for the lack of doctors. Dogs here have better medical treatment than many Syrians.
When my friends here complain that they only took their children abroad once this year, I remember all the children who have been displaced, who lost their parents, who have been tortured, raped, who have been forced to get married at a young age, who have lost their homes, toys, memories and dreams.
Though my life is shaking, I try to the most of it and live a normal life in the UK, and to contribute to the society. But no matter how hard my friends try to understand me here, no one knows how it feels to be forcibly displaced from home and family, or how it feels to see one’s own country being sabotaged. I felt the bombs on the Syrian cities as if they were on my body. I cry at all the videos of Syria, seeing the death of men women and children. The pain is just too heavy to carry, and too heavy to have a ‘normal’ life.
I also struggle to fit within the gay community here in the UK. In Syria, most people don’t have sex before marriage and most people get married once and have one partner in their life. There was, and still is, a sense of one love forever. These concepts are different in the UK, especially with the emergence of online dating apps that objectify men. Many of the gay men I meet have open relationships, or have had several partners. Others are single and enjoy the freedoms of several quick ‘fun’. I struggle with all this as I still believe of concepts of creating intellectually meaningful and deep relationship with a man that moves beyond the short-term that seems to be spreading across many of the gay men I meet in the UK. Of course, I say that with all the respect to whatever anyone decides to do in their own lives, it is just not what I am looking for.
It has not been easy - and I know that someday it will work out, that things will be fine. I hope this piece reminds us gay men in the UK how fortunate we are that we are here, represented, and free. We have moved so far that we might take it for granted and forget the struggle of many other men across the world.
Euphrates is a Syrian man living in the UK. He is not out to his family and community in Syria, and so is writing under a pseudonym