Michelle Marzullo

Kamikaze Gay Liberation in Iraq

Filed By Michelle Marzullo | June 04, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics

In the recent New York Times story entitled "Iraq's Newly Open Gays Face Scorn and Murder,", Timothy Williams and Tareq Maher detail the murders of many gay men as well as the generalized tyranny these Iraqis toil under on a daily basis.

On the face of it, I was satisfied to see that gay issues in Iraq are being taken seriously enough to warrant a front page article in the Times. But as I wondered about the piece more I began to question whether these really are "newly open" gays in Iraq as the title suggests?

Other parts of the article brought me to ask what laws govern the persecution of LGBT people in Iraq? How and when do US-trained Iraqi police intervene in these cases? And most strikingly I thought why anyone would want to come out in war-torn Iraq?

Territory and history matter deeply in the shaping of sexuality and gender. The "coming out" and "living out" model that was imposed on the stories of persecuted Iraqis in the Williams and Maher article is glaringly apparent. In the Iraq case, the men documented in the article seem to be "coming out" using a northern Atlantic-inspired (mostly white), Western liberation model, or the ACT UP! "we're here, we're queer, get used to it" idea.

This way of being gay or lesbian usually displays sexual orientation through gender non-conformity, a mockery of gender through drag performances, through affectional ties to those of the same gender and/or public displays of affection. In the US, being gay is not the same as being transgender. Trans experience here is usually more about the felt gender of a person outside of biological sex and the way it is expressed.

For example, in maleness or femaleness - or some varied mix of these - some young people call this "gender fuck" as a shorthand for people who play with or intentionally destabilize their gender presentations from traditional expressions - transgender people do also have sexual orientation. They may identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. just as gays may have various gender identities, such as gay men who are butch, lesbians who are androgynous or gender-fuck, etc.

The "out" narrative is popular in the US and these reporters no doubt know it well. It has been criticized by many inside the US and elsewhere because same-gender sexual behavior and alternate gender roles (beyond man and woman) usually exist in different cultures (though these are not usually called "gay," "lesbian," "trans" etc. - those are specific Western identities).

This characterization of LGBT Iraqis seeking liberation in the streets reads like these people have a death wish. Why would anyone come out in a war zone and in an area infamous for murdering homosexuals? The article does not even approach this question.

In fact, the reason I thought to examine what Williams and Maher presented here was that I was struck by the closing quote about a "gay man" who had also recently begun hormone treatments and was developing breasts: "I don't care about the militias anymore, because they're going to kill me anyway - today, tomorrow or the day after." At the end of the article, I was merely left feeling sorry for and afraid for gay Iraqis. The quote shows just how bad it is for gays in Iraq, but it does little to convey the complex legal and societal situation gay Iraqis find themselves in. Williams and Maher also make no mention of lesbians. Are there no lesbians in Iraq?

Ali Hili, the head of Iraqi LGBT in London, reports that lesbians are not even considered when Iraqi's think of homosexuals. He said, "the lesbian sector is still much hidden from the mainstream scene and I do not believe there is any recognition much less understanding and a lack of knowledge among the Iraqi society. It always falls into the mainstream basket of taboos that is forbidden to speak about even within the circle of friends."

Indeed, Williams and Maher make no mention of lesbians, but they could have given us this information. They also fail to clarify that in Iraq those whom Americans might consider to be transgender are usually considered gay men. As Mr. Hili reports, there is usually no distinction between gay men and trans people in Iraq. Scott Long, Director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch said that, "most of the men we spoke to called themselves 'gay' rather than e.g. the politically correct, Arabic 'mithli.' That probably reflects the degree to which the Internet and other Western models have penetrated at least middle-class circles in Iraq."

Instead of explaining this, Williams and Maher use the shortened, American slang usage of "gay," which in typical androcentric fashion has come to mean all gay men, lesbians, queers and trans folks. The authors use this term to refer to all homosexuals in Iraq without mention of gay men, trans persons, bisexuals, or lesbians.

Not clarifying who they are speaking about, the authors colloquially collapse these distinct experiences into one with a flattening, sensationalizing effect.

But are these really "new" situations, as reported by Williams and Maher? Mr. Hili says no, not at all, "Under Saddam Hussein, gay life in Iraq existed relatively peacefully in a 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' situation, which for gay men were not as bad as we can see now. In fact we had a little bit of acceptance. People are really accepting of gays, especially in theater, in entertainment and media. We had several actors, singers, which was very popular before. There was not much homophobia or attacks as we see since 2004. Most of them are welcomed in the community and the society."

He went on to say that "In the late '80s and early '90s there were a couple of gay clubs in Baghdad and Basra. We had a weekly gay nightclub in the Palestine Hotel that became the gathering place for gay people, especially for actors, singers and others in the entertainment world."

If this is not being "open," I would not venture a guess as to what is.

History, of course, can teach us a few lessons about "new" sexualities occurring during wartime. The irony of the Iraq war (as with any war) is that these do disrupt and challenge local sex and gender systems. Many jingoistic, war mongers who simultaneously argue for continued military incursions and the continuation of "traditional" gender and sexuality roles would do well to understand this history lesson. You cannot disrupt whole societies with war and expect them and the soldiers involved to go on as before those atrocities occurred.

This phenomenon has been well documented in the US. Historians John D'Emilio and Allan Bérubé have written separate accounts of the circumstances that allowed the flourishing of initially clandestine gay male cultures in many of the US cities that soldiers settled into after World War II (see the books: John D'Emilio's "Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970," Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998; and, Alan Bérubé's "Coming Out Under Fire," New York: The Free Press, 1990).

Was it that gay men did not exist in the US prior to WWII? No, but the anonymity provided by the cities allowed them to quietly find each other and organize.

That the presence of homosexuality in Iraq is not new should not come as a surprise. Instead, what is new is the lack of adequate protection for the basic human rights of lesbians and gay men in Iraq, which has intensified since the US invasion and occupation. That should have been the focus of the New York Times article.

The persecution of gay men in Iraq has been happening since at least the early 1990s. "According to estimates from the Ministry of Human Rights, more than 3,000 men were tortured by Hussein's officials for expressing their sexuality between 1991 and 2003," a 2006 IRIN article tells us (IRIN is the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).

This IRIN article also discusses the religious pressure, social discrimination and legal structure in Iraq that allowed the murders and persecutions to occur before the US invasion. In fact, Saddam Hussein amended by decree the 1990 Penal Code in 2001 making homosexual behavior between consenting adults a crime to be punished by the harshest of methods available, including torture and death. At the time, the Iraqi Penal Code exempted from prosecution family members who killed adulterous women or gay men with "honorable motives" (see: http://www.classicalvalues.com/archives/2006/08/section_111_art.html and www.globaljusticecenter.net/publications/Principle-Gender-Crimes-5.pdf).

But, as Mr. Long reports, the federal laws in Iraq are unclear or irrelevant since the US invasion destroyed the Hussein government. The vacuum left from the government's fall is being filled by the death squads, questionable federal laws, and Shari'a law. Shari'a law exists in several nations and is the body of Islamic law regulating all manner of daily activity, including sexuality and gender rules. Shari'a law in Iraq states that the penalty for men engaging in sodomy is death.

Abu Muhaned al-Diraji, a Sadrist official in Sadr City, was quoted in the article saying, "the clerics were in no way encouraging people to kill gay men. 'All we are doing is giving advice to people to take care of their sons,' Mr. Diraji said. He acknowledged, however, that some of the killing had been committed by members of 'special groups,' or death squads. 'In general, it is the families that are killing the gay son, but I know that there are gunmen involved in this, too,' he said. 'But we disavow anybody committing this kind of crime and we encourage the people to follow the law,'" report Williams and Maher.

Some of the Iraqi murders documented in this piece are "honor killings" done to preserve the honor of the family. Honor killings are often prevalent in rural and/or traditional Islamic areas. Many are linked to sexual acts that are not condoned by the family. For example, the rape of a Muslim woman can be considered adultery and may result in her being murdered by her father or brother to restore her and her family's honor (the rapist usually goes free). Violence and discrimination against women, against non-heterosexuals, and those who do not conform to gender stereotypes are usually seen occurring together under patriarchal regimes.

In this light, we must question which laws Mr. Diraji, the Sadrist official interviewed by Williams and Maher, is referencing. If families are to "take care of their sons" how do we know that they are not implying that the families should kill their gay sons under Shari'a law or some tribal interpretation of this? Also, if they are encouraging "the people to follow the law" and what little law there is says that homosexuals are to be sought out and killed in the most violent ways available then what are we to think of the information here?

One of the most troubling aspects uncovered in the New York Times article is that the mostly US-trained Iraqi police are engaged in a purification campaign against gay men in Iraq. But this fact is also not followed-up on in the article. "'Homosexuality is against the law,' said Lt. Muthana Shaad, at a police station in the Karada district, a neighborhood that has become popular with gay men. 'And it's disgusting.' For the past four months, he said, officers have been engaged in a 'campaign to clean up the streets and get the beggars and homosexuals off them.' Gay men, he said, can be arrested only if they are seen engaging in sex, but the police try to drive them away. 'These people, we make sure they can't get together in a coffee shop or walk together in the street - we make them break up,'" report Williams and Maher.

This quote brings back grim memories of McCarty-era witch hunts in post-WWII America. Gay men, lesbians, and trans people (then usually called transsexuals or transvestites) were taunted and hunted by police who would blackmail, rape and murder them as they pleased.

This treatment caused the two-day Stonewall riots in New York City launching the Gay Liberation Movement in the US. Will the situation with LGBT persons in Iraq mirror this history of widespread police persecution? An important question for the US military in charge of training the Iraqi police force is: what steps are being taken to protect the human rights of lesbians and gay men in Iraq?

The difficulty of asking these questions and taking these steps is apparent. The US military and the civilian contractors who are training the Iraqi police force have to confidently guide police recruits on international human rights laws regarding sexuality and gender.

They must also confront a deep seated sexual prejudice that considers homosexuality "disgusting." If they manage to move forward on such steps, these military personnel would simultaneously need to sidestep the inherent homophobic prejudice encoded in the US military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Harass" policy.

The US is the only NATO nation which restricts gay and lesbian service members from serving openly, while simultaneously advising that gay men and lesbians not be persecuted (though the policy is questionably enforced; see Under Secretary of Defense 2001 memorandum, "Approval and Implementation of the Action Plan Submitted in Response to the DoD Inspector General's Report on the Military Environment With Respect to the Homosexual Conduct Policy."

Given these complexities, we might wish to forgive Williams and Maher for flattening the chaos of the gay and lesbian experience within Iraq, collapsing these thorny issues into kamakazi gays seemingly in search of liberation in the streets of Bagdad.

But I would say that they could have done better. They could have used the formidable power of the New York Times to give full humanity, voice and context to one of the most persecuted groups struggling for their lives in the fallout of Bush's War.

As Mr. Long reports, liberation and seeking a new openness in Iraq is the last thing on anyone's mind, "their lives are pretty much about staying alive right now. I don't think anybody is promoting a model of 'gay liberation' within Iraq. It's a matter of fending off the murderers and the profound weight of patriarchal social oppression."

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Isa Kocher | June 4, 2009 9:15 PM

whatever the alphabet is, lgtbq, etc. are all NOT what is happening in Iraq or any Arab country. they are all Anglo-American.

i have been living in the Middle East since 1986. Nothing in my academic or professional anthropological training prepared me for the experience of navigating sexual identity, sexual orientation, sexual preference in the Middle East.

as far as i know, there aren't any studies of gender in english of sexuality in arab cultures that reflect ARAB experience. Every gender or anthropogical study I have read brings in categories such as homosexual which simply make no sense in Arab experience. I have read most if not all the research on "homo"sexuality, and it is informative, but distinction between hetero and homo just doesn't begin to make sense of what people are doing.

before anything genuinely comprehensible can ever be said, a geometry of sexuality based on Arab underlying conceptualizations without the confusion of lgtbtq has to be undertaken