Abroad, Homophobia Often Turns Deadly

As election day approaches, American activists are preoccupied with the ballot fights over gay marriage in Maine and Washington State. Serious as this issue is, we need to remember how privileged we are in the US. In many countries in the Middle East and Africa, anyone suspected of being gay is vulnerable to kidnapping, torture, blackmail and murder. Church, state, and mosque not only fail to intervene but often encourage these abuses in order to show their control over the morals of society. I’d like to see the well-funded US-based GLBT groups doing more to show solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters abroad.

Other Sheep is a Christian ministry that reaches out to GLBT people and straight allies in countries where such persecution is widespread. This is dangerous work, as the following story from their e-newsletter demonstrates:

After learning through an email from Rev. John Makokha that a mutual gay friend of ours in Kenya had been attacked on Saturday evening, October 3, 2009, Jose was able, through a phone conversation, to have an interview with the victim on Sunday, October 4. Jose recorded the conversation and then made a transcript. Steve wrote up the following report from the transcript.

Rev. Steve Parelli and Jose Ortiz
Other Sheep
Bronx, New York
October 6, 2009

…The victim, an active member of Other Sheep Kenya, is a gay Christian Kenyan adult male living in Kenya. The victim is a long standing member of a large and prominent mainline church in Kenya. He takes an active role in the weekly services of his church. The victim grew up in the parsonage. His father, now deceased, was a clergyman.

(According to one Kenyan minister who commented, it is very unlikely that the victim’s present church will take notice of this attack if the members learn that he is gay.)

The Attack – as reported by the victim in a phone conversation

A new “friend” who is not to be trusted

Not too long ago, a certain neighbor of mine – a fellow Kenyan – came to my home and introduced himself. He was very friendly and so we had talks together about life in general. With time, he told me he had a job working for an organization (which he named) that has health programs for the gay community. He said he wanted to understand “what is this thing about gays, and how does it work, and if there are any gays in Kenya.” He told me that he was just beginning to hear about gay people and so he needed to understand more about it. I decided to open up to him and tell him I was gay. When I did, we had a long conversation. He asked me questions in a very nice manner.


Then things changed. He said he was trying to gather information to confirm that I was gay because there should not be any gays in society. He said he was going to take action. Then he started asking me if I had any money. He said he would tell someone in the neighborhood that I am gay – someone who would not take the information very kindly. If I wanted him to keep quiet about my orientation then I was to give him money. I thought, at first, he was joking. He said he studied criminology and could do what he said he would do.

Manipulated, threatened and forced to the home of a good friend who said he wanted to kill him

On the night of the beating, this same neighbor who had blackmailed me, came to my home and grabbed me and told me to come with him. He said he was taking me to see a certain friend of mine which he also knew. He named the friend and he was, indeed, a very good friend of mine. He said if I would not go with him he would start screaming to everyone nearby that I am gay and that I had tried to molest him. I said, “OK, if you want my friend to know, let’s go.” I didn’t know if they had planned this out together, but I decided it would make things easier for me if I were to go. I felt that my good friend would take the time needed to understand me and accept me still as his friend. However, I was shocked by his reaction. He didn’t want to listen to anything I had to say. He just said, “I knew he was gay. He should be killed. He should be destroyed. Don’t let him say another word. Let’s just hit him and let’s make sure he is destroyed.”

The neighbor who had grabbed me and forced me to my good friend’s home said, “You accept that you are gay and that you should not be gay?” I tried to explain to them both that there is nothing wrong in being gay; that gay people are normal human beings; that gay people do no wrong to any one; that they need to be given the opportunity to explain what they go through, that is, the kind of stigmatization they experience in society.
But they would not listen to any of this.

There, at his home, my very good friend said, “I have a gun. We have to destroy him. I don’t care if he is my best friend. He isn’t anymore.”

The victim attempts to verbally defend himself

I think my very good friend was homophobic all along, but he had no evidence that I was gay until this night when I admittedly told him I was gay. I told them they needed to understand. I told them that I have accepted myself as a gay man and that if I have done anything criminal then, instead of hitting me, they needed to call the police and write up a report against me. But they said, “No, we just have to hit you.”

Other people join in to hit and beat the victim without mercy

It was my very good friend that started to excite to action the others who were there. They started hitting me and saying they should call the brother who plays rugby – that he would deal with me properly; that he would hit me at the end of each day until I become normal. And that I should no longer live in the neighborhood.

As they hit me they shouted, “You can change, you can change.” They were hitting me so I would change and would understand that I needed to be heterosexual. A crowd was being drawn in by the commotion and my good friend was telling them to hit me and beat me and not to listen to anyone [who said otherwise].

The beating resulted in swelling to the head and chest with bleeding. My mouth and lips are swollen because they stepped on me and jumped on me. They actually did call the rugby guy and a second guy in town. They lifted me up and threw me on the ground and then stepped on my head.

On lookers aid the victim; the perpetrators follow the victim to his home

Ladies near by started screaming, “They are going to kill this man.” Some people starting saying, “Let him live.” These people saved my life. Two men held back the guys who were attacking me, saying, “You have to stop this!” At that point I had a chance to get away and went to my home, locked the door, and went to my room. But they still came after me. They attempted to break the door in. Instead, they broke all the windows in the house. They told me they would return in the morning to destroy me.

A kind woman told me I should leave.

Meanwhile, this article from the German newspaper Der Spiegel reports that a “wave of homophobia” is sweeping through the Islamic world:

In most Islamic countries, gay men and women are ostracized, persecuted and in some cases even murdered. Repressive regimes are often fanning the flames of hatred in a bid to outdo Islamists when it comes to spreading “moral panic.”

Bearded men kidnapped him in the center of Baghdad, threw him into a dark hole, chained him down, urinated on him, and beat him with an iron pipe. But the worst moment for Hisham, 40, came on the fourth day of his ordeal when the kidnappers called his family. He was terrified they would tell his mother that he is gay and that this was the reason they had kidnapped him. If they did he would never be able to see his family again. The shame would be unbearable for them.

“Do what you want to me, but don’t tell them,” he screamed.

Instead of humiliating him in the eyes of his family, the kidnappers demanded a ransom of $50,000 (€33,000), a huge sum for the average Iraqi family. His parents had to go into debt and sell off all of their son’s possessions in order to raise the money required to secure his freedom. Shortly after they received the ransom the kidnappers threw Hisham out of their car somewhere in the northern part of Baghdad. They decided not to shoot him and let him go. But they sent him on his way with a warning: “This is your last chance. If we ever see you again, we’ll kill you.”

That was four months ago. Hisham has since moved to Lebanon. He told his family that he had decided to flee the violence and terror in Baghdad and that he had found work in Beirut. Needless to say he didn’t disclose the fact that he is unable to live in Iraq because of the death squads who are out hunting for “effeminate-looking” men.

In Baghdad a new series of murders began early this year, perpetrated against men suspected of being gay. Often they are raped, their genitals cut off, and their anuses sealed with glue. Their bodies are left at landfills or dumped in the streets. The non-profit organization Human Rights Watch, which has documented many of these crimes, has spoken of a systematic campaign of violence involving hundreds of murders.

Restoring ‘Religious Morals’

A video clip showing men dancing with each other at a party in Baghdad in the summer of 2008 is thought to have triggered this string of kidnappings, rapes, and murders. Thousands of people have seen it on the Internet and on their cell phones. Islamic religious leaders began ranting about the growing presence of a “third sex” which American soldiers were said to have brought in with them. The followers of radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, in particular, felt the need to take action aimed at restoring “religious morals.”

In their stronghold, the part of Baghdad known as Sadr City, black-clad militiamen patrol the streets, on the lookout for anyone whose “unmanly appearance” or behavior would make it possible to identify them as being homosexual. Often enough long hair, tight-fitting t-shirts and trousers, or a certain way of walking were a death sentence for the persons in question. But it’s not just the Mahdi army who has been hunting down and killing gay men. Other groups such as Sunni militias close to al-Qaida and the Iraqi security services are also known to be involved.

Homosexuals in Iraq may be faced with an exceptionally dangerous situation but they are ostracized almost everywhere in the Muslim world. Gay rights organizations estimate that more than 100,000 gay men and women are currently being discriminated against and threatened in Muslim countries. Thousands of them commit suicide, end up in prison, or go into hiding.

Egypt Starts to Clamp Down

More than 30 Islamic countries have laws on the books that prohibit homosexuality and make it a criminal offense. In most cases punishment ranges from floggings to life imprisonment. In Mauritania, Bangladesh, Yemen, parts of Nigeria and Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Iran convicted homosexuals can also be sentenced to death.

In those Muslim countries where homosexuality is not against the law gay men and women are nonetheless persecuted, arrested, and in some cases murdered. Although long known for its open gay scene, Egypt has recently started to clamp down hard. The lives of homosexuals are monitored by a kind of vice squad who tap telephones and recruit informants. As soon as the police have accumulated the kind of evidence they need they charge their victims with “debauchery.”…

Read the whole story here.
The New York Times Magazine also recently ran a feature story on NYC-based activists who are trying to save Iraq’s persecuted sexual minorities:

n a bright afternoon in late March, an 18-year-old named Fadi stood in a friend’s clothing store in Baghdad checking out the new merchandise. A worker in a neighboring store walked into the boutique with a newspaper in his hand and shared a story he had just read. It was about “sexual deviants,” he said. Gay men’s rectums had been glued shut, and they had been force-fed laxatives and water until their insides exploded. They had been found dead on the street.

That evening Fadi met up with his three closest friends—Ahmed, Mazen, and Namir—in a coffee shop called the Shisha café in the Karada district of Baghdad. Karada is a mixed Shia-Christian neighborhood that has a more relaxed, cosmopolitan feel than many parts of the Iraqi capital. Fadi and his friends had been meeting there nearly every evening for a year, Fadi coming from his job cleaning toilets for Americans in the Green Zone and the three others from college. The coffee shop was relatively new and attracted a young crowd. The walls were colored in solid blocks of orange, green, and blue, the glass-topped tables painted red and black. It was the closest thing to hip that Baghdad had to offer. For Fadi and his three friends, who secretly referred to themselves as the 4 Cats, after a Pussycat Dolls–like Lebanese group, the Shisha was a refuge from the hostile, often violent anti-gay climate that they had grown up with in Iraq.

Fadi has a warm, irrepressible laugh; his eyes narrow under thick black eyebrows whenever someone tells a joke. He told his friends about the newspaper story, but insisted it couldn’t be true.

“They’re doing this to frighten us,” he said.

In recent weeks, with rumors of gay death squads and torture on the rise, the four friends had lowered their profile. They no longer went to the Shisha every night. “We’ll see what tomorrow brings,” Fadi said, on the last night they met there.

On April 4, at about 8 p.m., Fadi’s cell phone rang. It was Mazen’s brother.

“Mazen and Namir have been killed,” he said.

The maimed bodies of the two friends had been discovered together in the vast Shia district of Baghdad named Sadr City, which is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shia militia. Mazen had had his pectoral muscles cut off. There were two drill holes in Namir’s left leg, below the knee. Both had been shot in the head, apparently from close range.

“Two young men were killed on Thursday,” an unnamed Sadr City official told the Reuters news agency in a story published that same day. “They were sexual deviants. Their tribes killed them to restore their family honor.” In the same story, Reuters cited a police source as saying that the bodies of four other gay men had been found in Sadr City on March 25 with signs on their chests reading PERVERT.

Fadi called Ahmed. They spoke for an hour. They were devastated by their friends’ deaths, of course. They were also terrified. Under torture, Mazen and Namir may have given up their names….

…As virulent as the violence against gay people (men mostly) was, it
operated at a kind of low hum for many years, overshadowed by the
country’s myriad other problems. But in February of this year,
something changed. There was no announcement, no fatwa, no openly
declared policy by a cleric or militia leader or politician, but a wave
of anti-gay hysteria hit the country. An Iraqi TV station, with
disapproving commentary, showed a video of a group of perhaps two dozen
young men at a private dance party, wiggling their hips like female
belly dancers. Terms like the third sex and puppies,
a newly coined slur, began to appear in hostile news reports. Shia and
Sunni clerics started to preach in their Friday sermons about the evils
of homosexuality and “the people of Lot.” Police officers stepped up
their harassment of openly gay men. Families and tribes cast out their
gay relatives. The bodies of gay men like Mazen and Namir, often
mutilated, began turning up on the street. There is no way to verify
the number of tortured or harassed, but the best available estimates
place that figure in the thousands. Hundreds of men are believed to
have been killed.

The eruption of violence in February appears to have been an
unintended consequence of the country’s broader peace. In the wake of
the surge in American troops and the increase in strength of the Iraqi
military and police forces, Iraq’s once-powerful Sunni and Shia
militias have wound down their attacks against American forces and one
another. Now they appear to be repositioning themselves as agents of
moral enforcement, exploiting anti-gay prejudice as a means of
engendering public support. Gay Iraqis seem to believe that the Mahdi
Army is the main, but not only, culprit in the purges. “They’ve started
a new game to make people follow them. No more whores, no more
lesbians, no more gays,” a friend of Fadi’s told me. “They’re sending a
message to people: ‘We are still here, and we can do anything we
want.’ ”

doesn’t help that gay people have virtually no allies in Iraqi society.
Women, ethnic minorities, detainees, people who work for the
Americans—just about everyone else in the country has some sort of
representation. But there are no votes to be gained or power to be
accrued in any Iraqi community—Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Christians,
Turkmen—by supporting gay people. Gays in Iraq today are essentially a
defenseless target….

Read more here.

There’s an incredible Christian missionary opportunity here if anyone has the guts to take it. As I understand it, a community modeled on Jesus should have a “preferential option” for society’s outcasts, and you don’t get much more outcast than a gay man in Iraq. We should be the refuge for those who have none. Instead, too often we’re part of the problem. The future of Christianity is in groups like Other Sheep, who dare to challenge a universal prejudice by spreading God’s love.