Overheard: Antigay pogroms in Iraq

They Want Us Exterminated: Murder, Torture, Sexual Orientation and Gender in Iraq. Human Rights Watchs 2009 report on antigay pogroms in Iraq.

They Want Us Exterminated: Murder, Torture, Sexual Orientation and Gender in Iraq. Click through to read Human Rights Watch's 2009 report on antigay pogroms in Iraq.

Earlier today I heard a discussion on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about how gay men are systematically being hunted down and killed in Iraq [Ref #1] and the efforts of some New Yorkers — members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Division at Human Rights Watch [Ref #2] — to help them. The show’s guest was Matt McAllester, whose story about the antigay pogroms “The Hunted” was published yesterday in New York Magazine. [Ref #3]

It’s pretty harrowing:

As virulent as the violence against gay people (men mostly) was, it operated at a kind of low hum for many years, overshadowed by the country’s myriad other problems. But in February of this year, something changed. There was no announcement, no fatwa, no openly declared policy by a cleric or militia leader or politician, but a wave of anti-gay hysteria hit the country. An Iraqi TV station, with disapproving commentary, showed a video of a group of perhaps two dozen young men at a private dance party, wiggling their hips like female belly dancers. Terms like the third sex and puppies, a newly coined slur, began to appear in hostile news reports. Shia and Sunni clerics started to preach in their Friday sermons about the evils of homosexuality and “the people of Lot.” Police officers stepped up their harassment of openly gay men. Families and tribes cast out their gay relatives. The bodies of gay men like Mazen and Namir, often mutilated, began turning up on the street. There is no way to verify the number of tortured or harassed, but the best available estimates place that figure in the thousands. Hundreds of men are believed to have been killed. [Ref #3]

(Don’t those sermons sound an awfully similar to what gets preached from the pulpit of a certain Anchorage church?  There but for the grace of some other God than theirs go we.)

Scott Long, one of people at HRW’s LGBT Rights Program who’ve been trying to bring gay Iraqis to safety, posted a comment on the New York Magazine story as follows:

My name’s Scott Long, from the LGBT Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. It’s good to know people care about this. I’m happy to discuss with anybody what can be done. There are many things —

  • Raising awareness of the issue in the US and Europe, pushing for human rights to be part of the Iraqi security equation;
  • Pressuring governments, including the US , to do their duty and accept as refugees Iraqi LGBTs who have fled;
  • Providing support to groups that are assisting the refugees now.

Feel free to e-mail me at longs@hrw.org. [Ref #3, reader comments]

See also Scott Longs August 19, 2009 story on the Human Rights Watch website, “Anti-Gay Gangs Terrorize Iraq”:

The militias mask themselves in moral purpose, but politics underlies the violence. The US “surge”, which supposedly cemented Iraq’s democracy by ensuring security, succeeded mainly because the Mahdi army chose a strategic retreat. In the process, though, it lost considerable credibility on the street. Now, many believe, it is trying to recoup its reputation by recasting itself, through these murders, as a defender of Iraqi manhood and morality. [Ref #4]

One challenge for the men who’ve so far been saved by the “underground railroad” set up by Scott Long & his colleagues is in finding a safe country where they will have some sort of social support system:

All were hoping for countries like Australia, Canada, Sweden, or the United States to accept them as permanent refugees. But they worried about how they—gay Iraqi men who don’t, for the most part, speak English and are separated from nearly everyone they love and all they grew up with—would make it in Sydney, Toronto, Stockholm, or New York. Unlike most refugees, the gay Iraqis could not rely on being welcomed by their former countrymen on arrival in their host country. Even in a country where being gay is accepted, they believed, non-gay Iraqis would still be hostile to them. [Ref #3]

I found myself thinking of the Arabic interpreters kicked out of the U.S. Army under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell because they were gay. [Ref #5] Stupid policy then, stupid policy now.  Here are people that, were they in a position to do so, would’ve been ideally suited to provide at least some help and welcome to Iraqi gays.  But as much as our country’s leadership is dragging its feet in ending the injustice of DADT — & yes,  I’m talking about you, President Obama — it doesn’t seem they’re ready to offer asylum or any other kind of assistance to gay Iraqis who are living their lives under threat of imminent death.

It’s up to us.

What about Iraqi lesbians? — from what was said on Talk of the Nation, women in Iraq don’t have acess to the outside world through the Internet or by other means to the same extent men do.  So while certainly there are Iraqi lesbians, it’s unknown if they are being targeted by religious death squads & family members eager to “restore honor [!!!!] to their families” through torture and murder, to the same extent as gay men.


  1. 10/5/09. “Group Rescues Gay Men Targeted In Iraq” (Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio). Audio of program (17 mins. 13 sec.) with Matt McAllester.
  2. LGBT Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.
  3. 8/19/09. “Anti-Gay Gangs Terrorize Iraq” by Scott Long (LGBT Rights Division, Human Rights Watch).
  4. 10/4/09.  “The Hunted” by Matt McAllester (New York Magazine).
  5. 11/15/02. “US army sacks gay Arabic experts” (BBC News).

Additional information

  • 8/17/09. “They Want Us Exterminated”: Murder, Torture, Sexual Orientation and Gender in Iraq.. Human Rights Watch. “This 67-page report documents a wide-reaching campaign of extrajudicial executions, kidnappings, and torture of gay men that began in early 2009. The killings began in the vast Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, a stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, and spread to many cities across Iraq. Mahdi Army spokesmen have promoted fears about the ‘third sex’ and the ‘feminization’ of Iraq men, and suggested that militia action was the remedy. Some people told Human Rights Watch that Iraqi security forces have colluded and joined in the killing.”
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