Iraq has become a death trap for gay men

Iraqi checkpoint, a place where gay men say they are in danger. (Photo courtesy of BBC)
Iraqi checkpoint, a place where gay men say they are in danger. (Photo courtesy of BBC)

The BBC has directed a renewed spotlight on the extreme peril that gay and transgender people face in Iraq.

Its report by Natalia Antelava, titled “Witch-hunt in Iraq,” builds on previous accounts of death squads, unopposed by the Iraqi government, that repeatedly attack Iraqis who either are gay or have adopted a goth-like “emo” style.  Human rights groups earlier this year protested the deaths of dozens of gay and “emo” Iraqis.

The BBC report now says the police and army are involved in raping and killing gay men.  Iraqi LGBT sources working inside Iraq have found that militias that operate death squads are getting intelligence about the identities of sexual minorities from the Ministry of the Interior, the BBC said.

In a safe house at an undisclosed location in Iraq, run by an undisclosed human rights organization, Antelava interviewed three gay men who described why they sought protection. All three reported receiving death threats.

Three LGBT interviewees in Iraqi safe house, with their identifies concealed for safety. (Photo courtesy of BBC)
Three LGBT interviewees in Iraqi safe house, with their identifies concealed for safety. (Photo courtesy of BBC)

“They came to me face-to-face and told me I have to stop being gay or we will kill you,” one of them said.

  • Ahmed has not left the room for over two months. He was threatened by his immediate family and people from his neighborhood. With the post-war return of relative stability to Iraq, Ahmed said, “Now they have nothing to do but to look for gays to kill them.”
  • “Nancy,” a transgender male-to-female woman, said she was raped by nine men at a security checkpoint.
  • Allou said he too was raped.  “The threat is much bigger now than before. It’s the militias, the police, the government who are going after us,” he said.

Without support of international organizations, they can’t see a way to get out of the country, Antelava said.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of gay people have been killed in recent years, activists say.

The BBC reported:

Once targeted, most gay people in Iraq have nowhere to hide. There is only one safe house in Baghdad which can house three people. Because other shelters have been raided and shut down by the government, we have not revealed the name of the group behind the safe house.

Qais, a former policeman who is gay, says he was ordered to go after gays, and so he quit his job. He said:

In 2007, 2007, 2008 we were busy fighting terrorism. We didn’t pay attention to gays. On top of it, the Iraqi government had to respect the rule of law more when the Americans and the British were here. But now they have a lot of free time and the police are going after gays.

Antelava reported, “Seventeen gays interviewed said they believed they were being singled out and hunted by the state. All see the police as a major threat. All have had friends or boyfriends killed.”

Homosexual activity is not a crime under Iraqi law. But Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry says it cannot help gay people because they are not considered a minority in Iraq, the BBC reported.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Al Dabbagh (Photo courtesy of BBC)
Iraqi government spokesman Ali Al Dabbagh (Photo courtesy of BBC)

Government spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh denied that any organized persecution of gays is under way and says gay Iraqis should “live their lives a normal way as long as they don’t practice their homosexuality in public.”  He said that in Iraq:

The homosexual is not a phenomenon like it is in the West … The gays should respect the behavior and the moral values of the others in order to be respected.

The BBC quoted analysts saying that other Islamic countries are less repressive of gays than Iraq:

In Lebanon, the radical Shia Islamic group Hezbollah shows a degree of tolerance towards homosexuals. In Iran, where homosexuality is illegal and often punished, the underground gay scene is tolerated. Even in Saudi Arabia gay people have not experienced persecution on Iraq’s scale.

During Saddam Hussein’s time, gay people enjoyed some liberty and security, and after the US-led invasion, some liberal-minded Iraqis expected more freedom. But the conservative Islamic forces that won power were unwilling to tolerate Western values, including open homosexuality.

Logo of the advocacy group Iraqi LGBT
Logo of the advocacy group Iraqi LGBT

Two advocacy groups work on behalf of gays and lesbians in Iraq — IRAP (Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project) in New York and Iraqi LGBT in London.  Many of their members in Iraq have been killed, and the remaining ones must remain undercover.

Safe houses have been raided and funding for new ones has dried up, they say.

Iraqi LGBT founder Ali Hilli says other countries should push Iraq to protect its citizens:

There are actions that the international community could be taking to improve the situation. … Iraq has relationships with a lot of countries that it values. If part of the missions of those countries in Iraq were to better enforce the rights of minorities or of ‘transgressive’ individuals, it might really make an impact.

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, and editor/publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at


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