'We are being pushed more into the shadows'

LGBTQ+ Iraqis fear dark days ahead after anti-gay law passed by parliament

When Saif Ali fled Iraq last year to escape threats and abuse over his sexual orientation, he always dreamed of someday returning.

But a homecoming has become impossible after Iraq’s parliament passed an anti-LGBTQ bill on Saturday that criminalises same-sex relations, carrying sentences of 10 to 15 years in prison.

“After the law, it has become impossible for me to even visit [Iraq]. This is what breaks my heart,” said 26-year-old Ali, who founded the Gala for LGBTQ+ Community platform.

The new law, based on amendments to a 1988 anti-prostitution statute, also makes “biological sex change based on personal desire and inclination” a crime, and punishes transgender people who undergo and doctors who perform gender-affirming surgery with up to three years in prison.

The legislation has been condemned by rights groups as an “attack on human rights” which reinforces an environment where queer and gender-diverse people have long faced attacks and discrimination.

It also drew condemnation from Western countries including the United States, while the United Nations said it was “alarmed” by the law, which “runs contrary to several human rights treaties and conventions ratified by Iraq.”

In response to the outcry, several Iraqi politicians and armed factions have denounced “interference” in the country’s internal affairs.

Before he left Iraq, Ali’s family forbade him from going out of the house for two years because of his “appearance” and for not being a “standard man.”

Amid increasing threats over his sexual orientation, he fled the country.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community are already “exposed to various types of violence, such as murder, rape, kidnapping, and extortion,” Ali said. “I believe the next period will be very dark.”

Prior to the adoption of the law, the LGBTQ+ community was prosecuted under vague morality clauses in Iraq’s penal code. There were no specific laws against homosexuality.

The “law on combating prostitution and homosexuality” sets a minimum seven-year prison term for “promoting” same-sex relations and a sentence ranging from one to three years for men who “intentionally” act like women.

Activists warned that the new amendments allow for broad interpretations.

A previous draft had proposed capital punishment for same-sex relations but lawmaker Mustafa Sanad spoke of “pressure” from European countries and the United States.

“Life in Iraq is not safe,” said one LGBTQ+ activist who requested anonymity out of concern for her safety.

She had for many years told stories of the LGBTQ+ community on her blog, but, after repeated threats, it was hacked and removed from the internet in late 2018. Later, she launched a podcast project to continue her storytelling.

Then came the new bill, and now her friends have been telling her to remove her online posts and podcasts.

“I can’t get myself to do it,” she said.

The 29-year-old said she doesn’t want to leave Iraq “just because I am a queer,” but “I fear that I might be forced to.”

“Now we are being pushed more into the shadows.”

In an Instagram post, Gala for LGBTQ+ listed steps “to reduce the risk” of persecution, including unfollowing queer accounts, avoiding dating apps, and “reducing the expression of your queer identity.”

IraQueer, an NGO, shared an image on Instagram of a rainbow flag riddled with barbed wire.

Global response to the anti-LGBTQ+ bill

On April 27, the U.S. State Department said the law “can be used to further hamper free speech and personal expression and inhibit the operations of NGOs across Iraq.”

In response, at least 60 Iraqi lawmakers called for the replacement of the U.S. ambassador, and some accused civil society groups of working for the U.S. and promoting homosexuality. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowski commented on the law’s implications following its passage in parliament. “This action threatens those most at risk in Iraqi society,” she said, adding that the legislation “can be used to further hamper free-speech and personal expression and inhibit the operations of NGOs across Iraq.”

The United Nations also expressed alarm over the bill, demanding it be scrapped: “The law runs contrary to several human rights treaties and conventions ratified by Iraq, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and should be shelved.”

However, the bill has strong backing from Iraq’s political elite. When Lord Cameron, the British foreign secretary, tweeted concerns, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Kingdom replied (in Arabic) with the suggestion that Cameron concern himself more with the plight of Gazans over issues that “contradict human nature.” This earned the ambassador plaudits across the political spectrum, including a letter of support from former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who wrote: “I read with great pride your brave and fair message to the British foreign minister in response to his blatant interference in Iraqi affairs and his defense of vice, family disintegration, and moral and behavioral controls.”

Lawmaker Raed Al-Maliki, who advanced the law, told AFP, “The law serves as a preventive measure to protect society.”

Last year, followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who wields broad political influence, burned rainbow flags in their demonstrations against a Quran burning in Sweden.

“The law adds insult to injury for Iraqi LGBT people already facing cyclical violence and threats to their lives by armed groups,” said Rasha Younes, LGBTQ rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Yazan Al-Obeidi, an Iraqi-Norwegian queer activist, said he now fears visiting his home country, which he last saw in 2018. He expects a surge in “queer migration” as a result of what he said was the authorities providing a legal justification for attacks on the community.

“It is not just the family or society. By living your true self, you are now challenging the state,” Obeidi said.

AFP with additional reporting by 964media