QUEERTY REPORTS — Two weeks ago, we urged the gay community to get involved in supporting the struggle of queer Iraqis, a group targeted for slayings by both the Iraqi government and religious zealots protecting some sense of family honor. Since that call the arms, the mainstream press has picked up on the situation: The New York Times and CNN covered the issue. But before it was popular, openly gay Colorado rep. Jared Polis went to Iraq on a self-financed fact-finding mission. And before he left, he turned to Ali Hili, the leader of the UK-based organization Iraqi LGBT, for a briefing. Following his eye opening visit, where he learned about the accepted discrimination and torment of gay Iraqis, Polis donated $10,000 of his software millions to the group. Meanwhile, our own U.S. government remains indifferent to the plight of gay and lesbian Iraqis; President Barack Obama and Sec. of State Hillary Clinton have made no indication these atrocities are even on their radar. But our radar is blip-bloop-BLEEPING with this shit. So Queerty spoke with Iraqi LGBT’s Hili about the situation for queers in Iraq, what individuals and gay rights organizations can do, and whether there is any hope for a more tolerant Iraq.
QUEERTY: How did Iraqi LGBT get its start?
Ali Hili: Well, we started the group in 2005 after receiving information and reports from inside Iraq about attacks on individual friends I knew personally inside Iraq when I lived there and I was very torn and upset by these reports. Then, me and a couple friends started to do more research inside Iraq, contacting our old friends and looking at the situation for what it feels like to be a gay, lesbian, or trans person in Iraq, or even bisexual, and we started to get repeated stories of attacks, arrests, killings, and gruesome information about people who have been tortured severely for being homosexual.
We decided to do an action here in London about it and do a campaign to raise awareness at the beginning about it. We found a couple of friends here who are working with human rights and gay rights organizations and they helped us to set up our web blog and helped us to launch a campaign, and it was quite a good beginning for the long term of the campaign.
Then we started to do more research and we found out that a fatwa had been issued by Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, the Iranian cleric who lives in Iraq, stating that all homosexuals should be killed in the most severe way of death possible and we thought we should also launch a campaign and attack and challenge this fatwa and urge him to remove it from his website. After a few months of battling with Sistani people in Iran they decided to remove the fatwa from his website and it was very successful and they did, they removed it.
Can you describe what the situation is for LGBT people living inside Iraq right now?
The situation is very difficult. It’s the most dangerous time in the history of the Iraqi queer rights movement as far as I know. Since 2004, we’ve had reports and information of over 600 people who’ve been reported to our organization as being killed until this day. As far as I know, this is the highest number ever attacking a group of homosexuals in the history of the world in such a short time. In that short time, it’s been an organized and systematic cleansing of sexual minorities in Iraq. It’s led by the Iraqi government, militia, members of the family and tribal [groups] and it’s specifically targeting all LGBT people.
Why do you think there’s this specific focus on going after LGBT people in Iraq right now?
Well, Iraq has moved from a secular state under the Saddam regime into a very religious fanatical government led by an Islamic leading party: The Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq and ?izb al Da?wa [or Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq]. I believe they are trying to adopt a similar regime imported from Iran into Iraq.
What is Iraqi LGBT doing to help people in Iraq? Who’s in danger?
We are trying to do as much as possible to help them in these hard times. The problem is we have very limited resources to support [the community in Iraq]. We used to have safe houses to provide food, shelter, safety. Unfortunately, three of them are closed. We have only one left. We have to let the people to their own destiny and fate, because we can not provide and give help anymore for these people.
Have you tried reaching out to other gay rights organizations for resources?
Yes, we have. We’ve been trying for the last few years and I tell you, the battle to get any kind of help and support, even logistic support, is very difficult. The gay communities are so divided and we’re not as united as we might think we are.
Do you think Americans, and American gay rights groups, have a special responsibility to get involved because it was the United States which started the war?
There’s a moral responsibility for the American government, in particular, and the American people. We get lots of support from American sympathizing people inside the United States and they’re wonderful supporters, especially [considering] the role that the United States government has caused in Iraq from disturbing lifestyle in general for all Iraqis. But I think it’s a worldwide and international issue.
We need support from all the world to stand up for this. This is a human rights issue. This is not just a gay rights or homosexual rights issue. Killing people for their well-being is against any law in the world.
People are being killed, hunted, slaughtered because of who they are. Not for any other reason. That, I believe in my very humble opinion, is against every moral belief in the world. Homosexuality is not a crime and I believe the world needs to help this small group to fight their battle for existence.
The gay community, also, in the United States and anywhere who listens to this, needs to understand: It could be you. It could be any one of you. What are you going to do if you are in these poor people’s shoes? We need your help. These people need your help. We need to stand up together to save lives.
What specific things is your group doing right now?
Mainly, our campaign to highlight the issue and raise awareness is only a small part of what we’re trying to do to help stop the killing in Iraq, but there are so many activities we’re doing inside Iraq to help. We have the safe houses project. We’re trying to launch an HIV [program] inside Iraq, but this campaign has stopped because of a lack of funds for our organization. We have [been doing] research and collecting information from all over Iraq regarding the situation.
We could do more in Iraq and help more in Iraq if we had the capacity to do more. It’s a very youthful movement. To start having a queer rights movement in the Middle East and in our country and in Muslim countries, we need the back-up and support from all over the world.
Is there any political force inside of Iraq right now advocating for gay rights or even speaking out against this?
I don’t believe there is anyone who is sympathizing with LGBT people or even condemning this kind of war against homosexuality. Everyone is afraid. We have been trying over the last four years to get sympathy and support even from secular, nonreligious groups and they tend to distance themselves from what they call “a shame”.
We need to reach out to the society in Iraq and get to the Iraqi people to explain to them that homosexuality is a well-being. It’s a human, natural thing. We have to accept the others. They have to start to accept the others, for their well-being. People are born this way. They didn’t choose to be this way. It’s the role of the Iraqi government, the whole society to be educated and that’s the Iraqi government’s role, to explain to Iraqi society what is homosexuality, why people are born this way, and why people do not choose to be this way.
Do you think there’s any chance of Iraq becoming a more secular, more tolerant nation?
This is the hope we live for. This is the hope we all live to see one day soon, because we have lived in an Iraq [where] all sexual freedom has been celebrated and flourished, even under a brutal dictator’s regime. So, it could happen if we could remove these religious fanatic parties like ?izb al Da?wa and these religious fanatics like Sistani and his people. They are suppressing people.
I even hear it from so many of his ex-supporters that they have been fooled by these people. They have been misled that this is what religion is supposed to be. They even explain to us that this is not religion, it’s people who have taken religion and tried to impose their personal ideology on it to suppress sexual and all minorities. This is against any rights for humanity in the world.
What are the immediate, most pressing concerns for your group right now?
We need two things. We need the killing to stop. We need to highlight the issue through governments, like the United States government and the United Kingdom government and pressure the Iraqi government to stop the killing and to stop it now. We need support from human rights organizations and urgent support from anyone who can help. This is a very dangerous situation. People are losing their lives by the hour, by the day. We are unfortunately unable to do much to help them in some cases. It’s time to rise up. The gay community needs to rise up again, just like the time of the Castro area in San Francisco.
We continue to urge American LGBT gay rights organizations to step up to the plate on this issue. If you would like to do your part in helping end the killing of LGBT Iraqi’s, donation information is available at the Iraqi LGBT website.
— Japhy Grant