by BURKELY HERMANN
For now, it seems the road to outside military intervention in Syria has come to a halt as the governments of the US and Russia have formulated an agreement to limit Syria’s chemical weapons. However, as Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and many others continue the meddling in Syria which is intensifying the civil war, there is one group that is ignored in the discussion about the country: Gender, Sexual and Radical Minorities (GSRM).* As Ris asked on twitter: “What do [GSRM] issues have to do with gassing people in Syria?”
Under Assad’s brutal dictatorship, GSRM people are being deeply repressed, meaning that one is morally obligated to oppose military intervention or assistance of the violent rebels in Syria. The Wikipedia page on the subject writes not only is sexual intercourse of gays and lesbians illegal, but those found guilty homesexual relationships can serve three years in jail and Syrian authorities can arrest anyone who threatens order, national security or morals. A report written by the Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation in 2009 about this subject gives some more specific details of such repression. The report unequivocally notes that homesexuality in Syria carries a social stigma and is illegal which may result in torture, and lesbians and gays suffer persecution. An article in IRIN News adds to the discussion, noting that “the Syrian Family Planning Association…is [trying] to prevent and control the spread of HIV/AIDS through sex by changing sexual behaviour…The government programme in place since 1987, has developed a strategy to prevent the spread of the disease by providing information, preventing mother-to-child transmission and expanding care and treatment such as provision of antiretroviral…drugs for children and parents living with HIV/AIDS.” That may sound great, but the repression is still very pronounced in the country. In 2010, Dan Littauer wrote in The Guardian that persecution of gay people had to end and explained what this entails:
“In general, sexual minorities have been more or less left alone – marginally tolerated – as long as they didn’t stray into the political arena and start making demands…Gay life in Syria is still underground. Private parties and meeting places are essential for LGBT people across Syria. There are no openly gay bars or organisations. People hold private parties in remote places where they hope to go unnoticed and be inoffensive. The authorities know of these gatherings and have tended to overlook them. The [recent] crackdown has hit the heart of Syria’s discreet but significant LGBT communities…these raids and arrests seem to have been specifically designed to trap and arrest men suspected of homosexuality; they are unlikely to be anything to do with public safety in Syria…it has repercussions across the region. Thousands of LGBT Iraqis have relocated to Syria fleeing the horrific violence in their country.”
If you thought this was deeply troubling, the terror didn’t stop there. A blogger for Gay Middle East wrote in 2011 in the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News that “Until recently, most LGBT people tried to avoid declaring their political opinions until the protests started to become closer to their areas. They became more aware of the facts, and started to express their opinions…One of [President] Assad’s relatives is a known gay in Damascus….Recently, his newfound friends have been threatening anti-regime gay people to expose them to authorities and deliver their names to the secret police. They have been using online gay dating sites to contact people and threaten them. Some are only trying to blackmail others into having sex with them…It is hard enough for gay Syrians to have to hide and fear the authorities because of their sexuality in a country where homosexuality is forbidden by law. The danger becomes more threatening with Assad fanatics threatening to expose those who dare to have a different political opinion…It is worrying to think that some anti-regime gay men might be used as the regime’s next scapegoats. It is also horrifying to witness a Syrian version of the Iraqi infamous gay hunt.”
As the years went by, things didn’t get any better. In 2011, a Syrian writer, Ahmed Danny Ramadan, penned an article in Foreign Policy about why the purported lesbian blogger (who was a graduate student in Iceland) was not the real issue, but rather the problems of the gay community in the country as a whole. Ramadan wrote about how it hard for people in Syria to come out with their real sexual orientation as “Syria is still stuck in the 1980s, shielding itself from any foreign influence [which has] wounded the gay community,” the possible backlash against GSRM people due to the fake gay blogger including a threat of violence, and celebrating “those trying to create a real movement in Syria’s LGBT community.” An article on NBC News (before the blogger revealed their true self) added to this, noting that “since the uprising against Assad began in mid-March, a government crackdown has left about 1,300 people dead and more than 10,000 detained, according to human rights groups. Several activists who were briefly detained during the revolt said they were tortured, humiliated and forced to sign pledges to avoid anti-regime activities….Homosexuality is illegal in Syria and gays are frowned upon by the country’s conservative society. It is rare for gay Arabs to speak openly about their sexuality, and even rarer for parents to defend them.” LGBT Asylum News added to this, calling for GSRM people to join the Syrian Revolution while reminding them of their history: “I have witnessed over the years how this regime was everything but tolerant when it comes to LGBT people…[in the] 1980’s and 1990’s…real campaigns targeting gay people [occurred] in…2005, 2006, 2008, and 2010…In 2010, when gay life in Syria started to take some kind of a shape and form, police started their most vicious campaign…Lesbians are highly persecuted by family members if they tried to express their sexuality in any form…[The] gay people of Syria should follow the lead of Syrian lesbians who have been fighting for freedom.” Despite this, the repression against gays continued, with Alex Hopkins noting that GSRM refugees from Iraq wants a safe place in Syria but were still as unwanted.
Recently, the repression was put out more into the open and pushed into the public sphere. Freelance reporter Reese Erlich penned an article in The Daily Beast about the issues gays face in Syria. Erlich wrote, after interviewing a person named Hassino that “dozens of gay men and lesbians have been killed during the uprising, but most Syrians are unaware of their sexual orientation…Homosexuality remains a criminal offense in Syria, despite promises of reform by President Assad when he took office in 2000. In March and April 2010, the government arrested groups of gay men who were having parties at private houses in Damascus…while gay men undergo harassment, lesbians face even more difficulties…While homosexuality remains illegal and gays must lead double lives in Syria, a 2009 UNHCR report notes that other Middle East countries are far worse violators of gay rights. Seven Middle East nations proscribe the death penalty for homosexual acts. As a result…some gay men and lesbians still support Assad. They fear that if conservative Islamists come to power, they will face even more repression…the right to organize and speak freely will benefit all Syrians, and eventually help gays as well.” Then there is the admitted TERF & liar, Victoria A. Brownworth, who pens an interesting commentary on the liberal gay magazine, The Advocate. Even though she advocates for a humanitarian imperialist intervention in Syria, she notes that “Syria has an undeniably terrible history on gay and women’s rights…It is illegal to be gay or lesbian in Syria, so many gay men and lesbians are imprisoned for being queer…Since the current conflict began, such detentions have become a commonplace, and with them, rapes…Honor killings are already common in Syria and have been implemented against LGBT people as well as women…LGBT Syrians are at grave risk, as are Syrian women. What we must realize is that LGBT people have significant concerns with regard to Syria and, for LGBT Syrians’ sake and ours, we cannot afford to be silent.” Despite all of this, GSRM people already had a pride day at the end of June in the face of increased repression.
In essence, a war in Syria is more than just a queer issue. War itself is an issue that affects gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*, intersex, asexual and many other radical minorities as I wrote about back in August. While accepting this construct and deeply challenging all of the interlocking hierarchies which encompass those directly or indirectly affected by this conflict is an important to step toward liberation. As Cornel West wrote in Democracy Matters, “In the face of callous indifference to the suffering wrought by our imperialism, we must draw on the prophetic…prophetic witness consists of human acts of justice and kindness that attend to the unjust sources of human hurt and misery…this prophetic tradition should…help to illuminate the effects of our imperialism on the poor and oppressed peoples of the world.”
*These people are commonly called LGBTQ+ people as well, but GSRM is a more inclusive term.
Burkely Hermann is a writer who has focused on social justice issues since 2007, when he wrote an essay opposing the Iraq war. Burkely is also a student at St. Mary’s College of Maryland where he studies political science and history while participating in social justice clubs on campus.