Being LGBTQ in the world today is unavoidably political. For Amir Ashour, a 26-year-old LGBTQ activist from Iraq and the founder of the human rights group IraQueer, sexual identity is bound up with the fight for liberation and becoming emancipated from extreme religious and societal conservatism.
While same-sex relationships have been legal in Iraq since 2003, there are no laws to protect LGBTQ individuals. For years queer people have been systematically killed by militias, and now ISIS too. Born in Baghdad and raised in Sulaymaniyah, a city in Iraq’s Kurdish region, Ashour spent much of his early adult life working with global women’s rights organization MADRE. He also offered face-to-face educational training sessions with his community and local professionals about gender and sexual identity. In 2014, his LGBTQ visibility resulted in him being arrested twice. Forced to leave his home, Ashour sought safety in Malmö, Sweden. The following year, he set up IraQueer, an online portal which is the first human rights organization advocating for the LGBTQ community in Iraq and the Kurdistan region.
When reached by phone in early February, Ashour proudly described how, through word-of-mouth, social media, gay hook-up apps, and his own tenacity, IraQueer’s website now boasts tens of thousands of visitors (most of whom are accessing the site from Iraq). It has also grown from one person to over 40 individuals, many who act anonymously to prevent persecution. He talked about what it was like growing up LGBTQ in Iraq, toxic masculinity, and why being realistic is better than hope.
AMIR ASHOUR: I don't remember not being gay. Maybe it’s a stereotype, but I was always playing with dolls and my family never censored that in me. I started having the bodily reaction part of it when I was 11. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't think that it was wrong because I wasn't taught that there is something “right.” Sexuality wasn't something we really talked about — I just knew that I was different.
It's socially acceptable to be touchy between men [in Iraq] — but not because men are in touch with their feminine side. In fact, it’s the opposite. It comes from the idea that you're so comfortable with your masculinity that no one will doubt it. It's hyper-masculinity. There's even a misconception that the person who penetrates isn’t really gay, but the one who gets penetrated is gay. It's all about power dynamics. It's not shameful for women to act more like men in Iraqi culture, but it's shameful for a man to act “like a woman,” even if they're not queer. It's not a hatred [of femininity], but I think it's people rejecting it. I think it stems from boys growing up and being told that they're the man and that they should take care of the family. From a really young age boys are asked not to cry, taught to be strong, and a boy's voice is expected to have a certain depth. Even in schools, boys are segregated from girls.
As a teenager [in Iraq], you wouldn’t have expressed yourself through your sexuality. Even dating among straight people wasn’t that common. This has definitely changed. I was 13 when Saddam [Hussein] was caught, and it was just a natural progression. People started traveling and talking about things; foreign universities and schools started opening. I also think there’s a desire from the current generation of young people to not be sexually oppressed.
The first time [I got arrested] was in 2014 when I was 23. Someone accused me of running a brothel [when I was actually organizing training sessions about LGBTQ issues]. So I went to the police to file a complaint. Then the investigation turned from me being the accuser to becoming the accused. I was detained for a couple of hours and then let go with a warning. The second time was at the end of 2014, after I gave a speech in Dublin about the situation of LGBTQ individuals in Iraq. A number of people that were representing the Kurdish Regional Government were there and they didn't like what I was saying. After returning to Iraq, I was taken from the airport and held for questioning by some high profile people in the government. I threatened to sue internationally and they let me go, but basically said that they were going to revisit [the questioning]. I left the country a few hours later.
I had worked hard for a lot of things in Iraq — I bought my own car, I co-paid for an apartment. I had a lot of privacy and independence and then suddenly I was pushed out. It wasn't the plan to not go back, I just didn't want to get arrested again. I spent about two months traveling around the U.S. and Europe waiting for things to be resolved but they weren't. I wasn’t in Sweden originally to seek asylum. I already had work, so I didn't have the same process that most people have, but I spent the first few months [living here] staying in a hotel where the room door didn't close. Every minute I was thinking: What's next? I'm not a spontaneous person and, to be honest, even now I'm still not fully stable.
“I wanted [IraQueer to be] led by the local LGBTQ community — and not another Western organization coming in and telling us what it means to be LGBTQ.”
In Iraq we’ve had killing campaigns [targeting LGBTQ people] once every year since 2006, at least. That's eight years before ISIS. Saddam had a lot of groups that would target specific people, but he didn't really care as long as what was happening wasn’t happening against him. That's what many of the older LGBTQ people have told me; of course, they weren't able to go and kiss on the street, but they had an underground scene, and there were organized parties with hundreds of people. There were even cruising areas in the cities. They would feel safe. Now all this is impossible.
Being forced out [of Iraq] was the catalyst that pushed me to think about how I could enforce change there. I was angry about not being able live freely and safely in my own country. I started IraQueer because I wanted us to create something that was led by the community, specifically the local LGBTQ community, and not another Western organization coming in and telling us what it means to be LGBTQ.
My visibility has made it easier for people to reach out [to IraQueer], but the internet, social media, and hook-up apps are a big part of this. Even Grindr — which is by far the most sexual app that I know, and can sometimes be disconnecting between people — is what you make of it. It’s safer than the physical spaces we have.
[My work] definitely is difficult, but at the same time it's really exciting. We're creating a footprint and laying a foundation [for LGBTQ education in Iraq] by releasing guides on sexual health, security, legal issues, and gender and sexual identity. Most of the words we're using for these guides don't even exist in Kurdish; we're inventing words because [the language] we have now is offensive. We can't say, "Let's advocate for faggots' rights," as it defeats the purpose of what we're doing. So now when people read about sexuality and gender the literature is not full of hateful and offensive messages. It’s a huge opportunity.
It’s not about being hopeful; it's about remaining realistic. I was physically sick at the news that Trump had won, and then when he made these "executive orders" I was so angry. I go to the U.S. to meet with different UN agencies to talk about what's going on in Iraq for the LGBTQ community, and the travel ban means we don't have international advocacy. [After the travel ban was announced] I was asking myself, Why are we doing what we're doing? Of course, every person will have those moments. But you have to ask yourself the question: Do you want to fight, succeed, and exist? Or do you want to give up and disappear?