TV exposé from Iran targets LGBTQ safe houses in Iraq

The Iranian state-run news channel Al-Alam released a 22-minute television program labeling the Iraqi organization IraQueer and its network of LGBTQ safe houses as agents of a United States “cultural crusade.”

Map of Iran and Iraq
The issue of LGBTQ rights is part of the tension between the neighboring countries of Iran and Iraq. (Photo courtesy of The United States Institute of Peace)

By Bridget Stauss

An Arabic-language “documentary” aired on Iran’s state-run news channel Al-Alam last week, targeting LGBTQ Iraqis and the LGBTQ advocacy group IraQueer. The 22-minute program, titled “The Dark Room: Queer COVID,” condemns LGBTQ activism as an American effort to subvert the Arab and Islamic identity of Iraq.

The program shows images of the novel coronavirus and people coughing alongside images of LGBTQ Pride celebrations.
The program shows graphic representations of the novel coronavirus and people coughing alongside blurred images of LGBTQ Pride celebrations. (Photo courtesy of Al-Alam News Network)

Opening with dramatic music and flashing images of military operations in Iraq circa 2003, when the United States invaded and overthrew Saddam Hussein, the program discusses IraQueer and its financial backers, HIVOS and USAID.

HIVOS, based in the Netherlands, is an international non-profit that works directly with activists in Middle Eastern, African, and Asian countries to support marginalized communities. The United States Agency for International Development, better known as USAID, is an independent agency of the United States government that allocates financial assistance to assist developing nations. Though HIVOS is headquartered in Europe, the Al-Alam program claims the nonprofit’s Western roots make it an instrument of an American cultural incursion in Iraq.

The proposition of the Iranian conspiracy-based exposé, which links the policy of former President George W. Bush during the Iraq War to that of President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and current President Donald Trump, is that the United States is conducting a “cultural crusade” in Iraq: though the formal combat in Iraq has ended, Al-Alam claims the United States is continuing to corrupt and subvert the morality of Arab nations by funding LGBTQ organizations like IraQueer. The program ends with an ominous clip of President Bush declaring that the American “crusade [in Iraq] will take a while.”

The program also analyzes IraQueer’s safe houses, where LGBTQ Iraqis in unsafe environments can find shelter, food, and support. The television program suggests that IraQueer’s network of safe houses is responsible for the spread of COVID-19 in Iraq. Fear-mongering to civilians worried about the pandemic, Al-Alam presents graphic videos of doctors and sick people alongside generic stock images of Western LGBTQ+ Pride events. It also links the LGBTQ movement in Iraq to the spread of the fatal respiratory disease. There is no evidence to corroborate Al-Alam’s claims.

Treatment of LGBTQ+ has improved in Iraq since the fall of ISIS in 2017, but same-sex relationships remain criminalized de-facto. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
Treatment of LGBTQ+ people has improved in Iraq since the fall of ISIS in 2017, but same-sex relationships remain taboo. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)

The program comes at a time of increasing cultural tension among Iran, Iraq, and the United States. This past month, the United Kingdom, European Union, Canadian, and World Health Organization embassies in Baghdad came in for sharp condemnation when they raised the rainbow LGBTQ pride flag on the International Day Against Homophobia. Politicians across the political spectrum in Iraq rebuked the decision and called for the expulsion of diplomats involved in the raising of the flag.

IraQueer has not yet responded to requests for comment about the Iranian television program and its impact on IraQueer’s operations.

Treatment of LGBTQ Iraqis has improved since the fall of ISIS in 2017, but homosexuality is not explicitly legalized or protected and many gay and transgender Iraqis continue to face persecution, discrimination, and violence.

Iran is one of 13 countries where same-sex activity is punishable by death.

Bridget Stauss, the author of this article, studies history and international relations at Amherst College in the United States. 

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