Iraqi Gay Refugees
A Temporary Haven in Lebanon

A campaign of murder, intimidation and torture is driving many of Iraq's gay men to join the millions of their compatriots who have fled to other countries in the region. Those of them that make it to Lebanon, while still facing an uncertain future, have the benefit of a relatively tolerant society. Austin Mackell reports from Beirut

Melem activists during a rally in Beirut, Lebanon (photo: AP)
A refuge from torture and discrimination: in Lebanon, gay refugees from Iraq have access to services and support that their counterparts in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere can only dream of

​​Adam (not his real name) has a faint scar that runs from below his right ear across his cheek before turning downwards, reaching his chin just below the corner of his mouth. He got it in 2005 after travelling to what he thought was the home of another gay man he had met on the Internet.

When he arrived, however, he found four black clad members of the Mahdi Army, the Shia militia commanded by Muqtada Al Sadr, which controls large tracts of Baghdad. After they administered a beating, one of them produced a knife, with which the mark was made.

A history of homophobic violence

Since then Adam has met four other Iraqi men bearing the same mark, three in Baghdad and one on a trip to Syria. This and other stories like it point to a history of homophobic violence, including murder, by the various militias set loose across Iraq in the chaos following the 2003 invasion by America and her allies.

Logo Human Rights Watch (source:
"Panic that some people have turned decadent or 'soft' amid social change and foreign occupation seems to motivate much of the violence", the Human Rights Watch report finds

​​This year, however, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch entitled They Want Us Exterminated, the frequency and ferocity of the attacks has reached unprecedented levels with the Mahdi Army, Al Qaeda in Iraq and other, smaller groups such as Ahl Al Haq (The People of Truth) competing in their efforts to "cleanse" Iraqi society of homosexual men.

Their methods include intimidation, torture and murder, often by gruesome methods including the injection of glue up the anus followed by the forced administration of laxatives. Accompanying these brutalities is a campaign of rhetorical attacks, which the authors of the Human Rights Watch report feel give some insight into the motives for this crusade.

They write: "Both the media and sermons in mosques warn of a wave of effeminacy among Iraqi men, and execrate the 'third sex'. Panic that some people have turned decadent or 'soft' amid social change and foreign occupation seems to motivate much of the violence."

Tortured by the Iraqi security forces

The Human Rights Watch report also gives a less than glowing view of the Iraqi security forces. Apart from criticizing their inaction on the issue of the murders – saying that at the time of publication there had not been a single arrest or investigation announced – the report also contains accounts of the authorities themselves targeting members of the gay community for abduction and extortion.

In one account included in the report, a man dubbed "Nuri" tells of officers from the Ministry of the Interior kidnapping and torturing him and demanding thousands of dollars, which he paid. He claims, however, that before leaving, he was shown the bodies of five men killed because they could not produce the ransom.

A temporary haven for gay refugees

Given such circumstances, it is not surprising that many of Iraq's gay men have chosen to flee their country for the relative safety of nearby countries. The lucky ones make it to Lebanon.

Logo Helem (source:
Helem offers financial support, medical and psychological care, referrals to other services, and help registering with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees

​​While homosexuality, or more precisely "unnatural sexual intercourse", is officially illegal in Lebanon, enforcement has generally been lax and society is tolerant enough that gay bars and nightclubs operate publicly.

More important for the gays from Iraq (who rarely have the financial means to enjoy Beirut's vibrant gay party scene) is Helem, a publicly operating gay rights organisation. Helem and its counterpart Meem (an organisation which focuses on Lesbians' rights) are unique in the Arab world.

Helem offers financial support, medical and psychological care, referrals to other services, and, most importantly given that their clients – like the vast majority of the approximately 25,000 displaced Iraqis in Lebanon – are in Lebanon illegally, help registering with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and finding a country willing to grant them a permanent visa.

Staff from Helem say that with their help the Iraqis can hopefully complete the process in around a year, rather than the three to four years it would normally take.

For Adam, who has been in Lebanon since April of this year and has had no word yet about a possible host country, it cannot happen fast enough. A former translator and journalist with a degree in business management, he complains that the cost of living in Lebanon is high, especially as his illegal status bars him from formal employment.

In a month his financial support from Helem will cease, leaving him to survive as best he can on what illegal work he can find.

A threat and not a warning

Adam left Iraq after his brother's wife discovered a DVD he had been given by a friend containing footage of them both at a party hosted by members of the Baghdad gay community. He was at work at the time, but received a call from his teenage niece warning him that it had been discovered.

His brother, a committed Islamist with ties to the Mahdi Army (which Human Rights Watch credits with chief responsibility for the murders), had told Adam previously, after finding a gay porn DVD of his, that homosexuality was punishable by death under Islamic law.

Adam says this was definitely a threat and not a warning and that he was certain, given the overt campaign against gay men currently underway, that it would be followed through on. After spending five days living in hotels around Baghdad, Adam heard of Helem from a friend in America. He left for Beirut the same day.

Austin Mackell

© 2009


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  • Human Rights Watch report
  • Website Helem
  • Website Meem
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