Exposing Persecution of LGBT Individuals in Iraq

Cover images of two briefings released by OutRight and its partners

LGBT people in Iraq have long been persecuted. But the rising tide of turmoil today puts many at imminent risk of death. The Islamic State prescribes death for the “practice” of homosexuality. Furthermore, evidence gathered for two briefings by OutRight Action International and its partners, MADRE and the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, demonstrate the direct effect of the collapse of the rule of law on LGBT persons, through unfettered violence by sectarian militias.

While the conflict in Iraq has placed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis at risk of serious human rights violations, LGBT Iraqis face unique threats to their safety. In addition, escape to previously safer areas, such as Iraqi Kurdistan, has been curtailed by the conflict. Unlike other groups, such as women or ethnic and religious minorities, LGBT people have little communal safety or protection from family, tribal or community members. Once exposed, family and community members, along with the authorities, are often complicit in abuses against LGBT individuals.

When Coming Out is a Death Sentence puts the violence against LGBT Iraqis in context—as human rights abuses that must be confronted by the international community. A set of recommendations targets foreign embassies, aid groups and others with the goal of raising attention and trying to improve the situation for the community.

“We’re Here: Iraqi LGBT People’s Accounts of Violence and Rights Abuses,” relates the suffering and harrowing experiences of five LGBT individuals – three gay men, a lesbian woman and a transgender woman -- before the current crisis in Iraq set in. “We’re Here” highlights the long-standing exclusion, discrimination and violence against LGBT individuals in Iraq and describes the individuals’ daily struggles to survive and overcome violence and abuse.

When Coming Out is a Death Sentence: Persecution of LGBT Iraqis

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Executive Summary

The rapid advance of the Islamic State and its takeover of large swathes of Iraq has spelled the beginning of a new chapter of deadly risk for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Iraqis, a persecuted minority against whom human rights abuses have been documented for over a decade. And in areas of Iraq outside of the Islamic State’s control, LGBT Iraqis are caught up in a rising tide of violence and abuse, due to the unchecked power of Islamic State fighters as well as their pro-government militia opponents.

Despite the difficulty of securing interviews with LGBT individuals in areas under the Islamic State’s control, and despite the collapse of state justice and security institutions, the Islamic State’s imposition and enforcement of its interpretation of Islamic law compels the conclusion that LGBT individuals are highly likely to be at imminent risk of death, according to research and analysis by the OutRight Action International and MADRE.

Elsewhere in Iraq, the situation for LGBT individuals is also highly precarious, due to the rise of militias. In June and July, at least two militia attacks took place in Baghdad against individuals because of their real or perceived sexual conduct or sexuality. On June 15, 2014, two adolescent boys who were thought to be gay were killed and beheaded by the League of the Righteous, their heads thrown in the garbage. Another two men were injured in the same attack and hospitalized as a result. In July 2014, the same militia attacked a brothel in Baghdad’s Zayuna district, killing 34 individuals, at least two of whom were believed to be gay men, and injuring an additional four. Witnesses believe the attack was motivated by hatred of what militia considered sexual “deviance,” whether in the form of buying or selling sexual services, or being thought to be gay.

In May, a Shi’a militia published the names and neighborhoods of men “wanted” for
allegedly engaging in the “crime” of sodomy or for having excessively long hair.

Certainly, LGBT Iraqis are not the only group at risk in the country’s current crisis and conflict. The Islamic State has engaged in mass killings, ethnic cleansing, systematic violence against women, and other war crimes against both women and religious minorities. Over 400,000 Iraqis have fled their homes in Anbar province since the Islamic State took control of that province in April. With perhaps twice as many fleeing the Mosul advance, today there are altogether 1.8 million Iraqis considered internally displaced, half of them in Iraqi Kurdistan.

But compared to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis facing persecution and threats to their lives and livelihoods today, LGBT Iraqis may be the least protected in terms of threats to their safety because their persecutors range across society at large; they have little to no family, community support or government protection and their physical appearance may put them at risk in public. In addition they face risk and hostility in refugee circumstances.

Individuals interviewed by OutRight Action International and MADRE identified in particular two Shi’a militias as responsible for sexual and gender-based violence against LGBT people: the League of the Righteous (‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq) and the Mahdi Army (Jaish al-Mahdi). There is also the prospect that Sunni militias—called the National Guard and equally hostile to LGBT persons—may retake Sunni areas of Iraq from the Islamic State fighters.

Despite the mid-August resignation of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, his legacy—the rise of sectarian militias to unaccountable and unchecked power— continues. Some militias, backed by al-Maliki’s government, such as the League of the Righteous and the Mahdi Army, have been directly implicated in past killing sprees against the LGBT community.

The Islamic State, which now styles itself as the government of a newly established Caliphate, controls vast swathes of territory in northwestern Iraq, where it has established a regime of subjugation, exploitation and wanton murder. Its abuses are most often directed at those who do not actively agree with the group’s ideology, who adhere to a different religion, or who do not conform to gender and religious norms as defined by the group. This includes LGBT and gender non-conforming individuals.

Past and present killing sprees against LGBT Iraqis have taken place with total impunity. No one has been held accountable for the murders, and the previous government rejected calls to even investigate violence based on actual or perceived sexual and gender non-conformity.

The government is sometimes complicit in abuses and almost invariably offers no protection at all. The government’s only official agency to deal with LGBT issues, the LGBT Committee, ceased to function after the Islamic State’s June and July territorial gains. Even before the committee shut down, it had done little to deal with the clear protection gap facing LGBT and gender non- conforming Iraqis. The Islamic State’s territorial control also closed escape routes for individual LGBT Iraqis to travel to safer parts of the country, such as parts of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The advice of well-meaning leading government officials working on LGBT issues is indicative. They suggest gender non-conforming individuals stay hidden, “remain discreet,” and “undercover.” The message the government sends is clear: If you reveal yourself or we suspect you, you will be killed.

To save lives, the Iraqi government, international relief organizations, and foreign embassies should immediately establish protected spaces within Iraq for LGBT Iraqis and those who do not gender-conform and, at the same time, expedite appeals by those individuals to safely leave the country.

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We’re Here: Iraqi LGBT People’s Accounts of Violence and Rights Abuses

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In the decade following the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraq witnessed its worst episodes of systematic violence against its lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) population. The sectarian political system institutionalized during this period greatly empowered certain religious leaders and politicians who subjected human rights to biased interpretations of religious law. Their rise to power, coupled with mass poverty and instability induced by years of economic sanctions, war, and the overthrow of a brutal, but largely secular, regime, continues to fuel recruitment for the armed groups that are largely responsible for the deadly waves of attacks against members of minority groups, including LGBT community members.

Pervasive negative stereotypes about homosexuality and a general lack of awareness regarding transgender issues in Iraq also contribute to the high levels of violence against LGBT people. Media outlets, religious leaders, and other figures and organizations that influence public opinion frequently accuse LGBT individuals of causing “the moral decay of society.” These entities and leaders equate homosexuality with crimes such as rape or robbery. The targeting of LGBT people as “perverts” and “criminals” legitimizes acts of violence against those believed to be LGBT.

During the rule of the Baath Party (1968-2003), there was little information or public debate within Iraqi society on LGBT issues. Iraqi lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender individuals were marginalized and invisible with no legal protection or social status. After the U.S. invasion, many Iraqis gained access to the Internet and Western media for the first time, which allowed them to learn about how LGBT individuals are perceived and portrayed in other countries. However, because this heightened visibility of LGBT issues coincided with the U.S. invasion, many Iraqis began to equate homosexuality with increased exposure to the West, even claiming that LGBT people had never existed in Iraq prior to 2003.

Throughout Iraq over the past decade, many LGBT people have been the targets of violent, and sometimes deadly attacks by Islamist militias and vigilantes, as well as by members of their own families or tribes. Attackers target not only those whom they perceive to be LGBT, but also anyone they view as transgressors of traditional gender norms. The recent upsurge of turmoil and violence in Iraq at the time of this writing poses increased risks for the LGBT community.

Some perpetrators commit hateful and violent acts against LGBT people in the name of protecting their tribal or family honor. Others are vigilantes who claim to be implementing Islamic laws. The popular perception of LGBT individuals as social outcasts, coupled with the extensive power of tribal leaders, clerics, and religious militias who endorse or commit anti-LGBT violence, prevents LGBT individuals from seeking justice. Iraqi authorities generally do not investigate incidents of violence against LGBT people, and many attacks are never reported to the authorities at all. In some cases, police take advantage of vulnerable LGBT individuals to further exploit and intimidate them.

We’re Here, Iraqi LGBT People’s Accounts of Violence and Rights Abuse tells the stories of five individuals who have bravely come forward to share their experiences and to demonstrate that, despite popular belief, there are LGBT persons in Iraq. The authors of this publication seek to unveil the violence and discrimination that so many LGBT individuals face from their families, acquaintances, community members, and their government.

Contributors to this collection include three gay men, a lesbian woman and a transgender woman. The threats and circumstances that each of them struggle with vary according to a host of factors, including their socio- economic background, their gender, and the level of security in their local surroundings. Each personal story was written or told by the individuals themselves, and we have recounted the stories as they were told to us. Visual representations were selected or created by the authors to complement their accounts. After conducting follow-up interviews with each author, the editors added dates and information necessary for clarification.

This project strives to shed light on the daily struggles of Iraqi LGBT people, who are fighting to survive and overcome extreme violence. It also highlights the authors’ rights-based vision for their lives and their country. As one contributor has commented, “We are not a threat to our country. We don’t want to undermine the fabric of Iraqi society or violate religious laws. We are simply human beings that deserve to be treated with the respect and dignity owed to all people.”

These stories reveal how survivors of grave human rights violations find ways to adapt, resist, and begin to come together to knit the social fabric that is the precursor to community, political mobilization, and ultimately, social change.

OutRight Action International, the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, and MADRE are indebted to those who have courageously shared their stories, and grateful to our partners and allies who made this project possible. Given the ongoing security concerns in Iraq, we are not able to name all individuals and groups who generously supported this project. However, our gratitude runs deep for their dedication and commitment to the human rights of LGBT individuals in Iraq. We hope this publication will empower Iraq’s LGBT community in its struggle for equality, dignity, and justice.

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