The recent wave of so-called "emo" killings in Iraq--killings reportedly motivated by the belief that men who sport long hair, tight black clothes, and other Western-style looks are homosexual--speaks to a level of fear and distrust of LGBT people that is practically unimaginable to a majority of people in the United States. Those Iraqis who choose to pursue their feelings risk the brutal wrath of religiously conservative militias and even their own family members who feel homosexuality to be a scourge on society.
But amidst all the fear and distrust inherent to being a gay Iraqi, there is hope in the form of concerned human rights organizations that seek to help LGBT-identified individuals living in places like Iraq find refuge elsewhere.
One such group, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), has recently produced a video that brings the issues facing LGBT Iraqis into startling focus simply by offering a platform for one persecuted gay man to tell his tale.
His name is Ahmed and his video, where he recounts the story of a vindictive betrayal by a former boyfriend and the horror that ensues, makes a broad issue most LGBT Americans are familiar with from the news into something frighteningly relatable.
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Parts of his story are common to American ears: Ahmed speaks of catty letters written in anger and the pain of seeing photographs of an old flame. This part of his testimonial would not be a tough sell as a reality show. An attractive, fit young man sits down to regale us with tales of gay love lost.
But this is not the Real Gay Housewives of Baghdad. Ahmed does not get signed to a record deal after his dirty laundry is aired. Instead, he's forced to flee for his life. After Ahmed's uncles learn he's gay through his former lover, they threaten to murder him, and he must escape Iraq to an adjoining country. But even there, he is not fully safe (a reality some may recall from the documentary film, A Jihad for Love).
While out shopping one day, Ahmed has an encounter with religious police, who take him to their high court. "And the judge said 'You are accused of being a homosexual. I want to tell you something. You don't deserve to live,'" Ahmed says in the video, before describing further violations, including rape, inflicted upon him while in jail. (Although he was in Morocco, it's eerily reminiscent of Abdellah Taia's story as well.)
Thankfully, Ahmed was able to buy himself out of jail while awaiting trial and, thanks to the help of IRAP, his case ended with him gaining safe passage to the United States as a refugee.
"He is the bravest person I've ever met," says Becca Heller, a founder of IRAP, who spoke with Out ahead of the release of Ahmed's video. Her organization currently handles about 300 resettlement cases. And though not all of them deal with LGBT issues, Heller says IRAP's focus is on "the most vulnerable" of cases and that often means cases of gay persecution.
Ahmed's story speaks to the viewer in the simplest of terms and that really lends it its power. It is a reminder of how far LGBT Americans have come in their struggle to gain acceptance and how lucky we are to be so close to an age of social and legal recognition in this country.
"When Ahmed first arrived," Heller said, "he was trying to use public transportation and was shocked nobody mocked him in public and that they helped him and were so nice to him."
It also shows us just how universal being gay really is when a man from a country so different from our own can seem as familiar as any pal from the local gay bar.
To figure out how you can help IRAP and their cause to aid at-risk Iraqi youth, follow the link.