BEIRUT, Lebanon—Two forbidden passions, not a love triangle but a pentagon, murderous militias, acid poisoning, an indecent proposal—the stories of five gay and lesbian Iraqis’ escape from their home country sound like the stuff of tawdry melodrama. And yet it all happened.
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First the other three roommates stopped praying in the dorm room they all shared. “They considered it a dirty place,” says Ali. Then, one by one, they took their things and moved out, until Ali and Alex were left alone together. They had been a couple for a few weeks by then, and people were starting to talk at the medical institute where they studied in Karbala, one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam where Imam Hussein, descendant of the prophet Muhammad, was martyred, deepening the schism between Sunni and Shia Islam.
Ali has muscular dystrophy and felt he was the more reviled of the two. “For some reason I was more hated there,” he says, “They told Alex, if you want us to forgive you, leave Ali, don’t stay with him.” They moved to another floor, hoping to avoid further scrutiny. Ali’s health was deteriorating rapidly. Soon he couldn’t stand or sit without Alex’s help. He was 27 years old.
Neither was a stranger to the terror of being gay in Iraq.
Alex’s first relationship was with a boy from another tribe named Muhanned. When Muhanned’s family found out, Alex’s father sent him to another town for protection. But he didn’t send him far enough. One day a group of masked men, members of the powerful Shia militia, Jeish al-Mahdi, shoved him into a car as he was walking down the street. For three days they held him bound and blindfolded while they beat and electrocuted him. On the third day a man entered the room—the only one of his torturers who didn’t wear a balaclava—and forced him to drink acid. It was Muhanned’s uncle; he had planned the whole thing. They let him go, but to this day Alex suffers from stomach problems.
As a teenager, Ali too was once beaten so badly by a local thug who threatened to expose his relationship with another boy that he needed eight stitches. He never told his family.
Upon graduation, Alex sought work in Ali’s city and lived with him as his caregiver in the house he shared with his brothers and sisters. It had belonged to their mother whom their father had divorced before her death. Every day at lunchtime, Ali and Alex would go home where they would steal a few tender moments before heading back to work. Until one day Ali’s brother found them.
“I have daughters! What will they learn from this?” he spat, “It’s disgusting! For me, it is a crime.” Afterward Alex went back to his hometown and Ali went to live with his father, with whom he had had almost no relationship since he had divorced his mother years before. His father forced him to quit his job. One brother was in a Shia militia and, knowing he was gay, threatened him with death. Only the wife of one of his brothers was kind to him. Day by day his medical condition worsened and he had to rely on his younger brother to help him move around.
“My life is such a drama,” Ali says, smiling. Despite his illness he seems more resigned to the situation than Alex.
Ali’s family monitored his laptop and phone. The Internet had been his one escape and under a pseudonym he was a member of LGBT and atheist groups on Facebook. On the day his brother found them, he beat Ali so badly he had to be hospitalized. No one would drive him but his brother’s wife, who took pictures to document his injuries.
When he returned home, “they didn’t welcome me,” he says. “They treated me as though I was the one who had done wrong.” For Ali’s family, the discovery that he was an atheist was worse than finding out he was gay. Communicating with Alex in secret, he told him that this time he was afraid for his life.
A hundred miles away, another couple, two women, was also looking for a way out. For women in Iraq, that almost always means a man. They were conducting an Internet search for someone to marry one of them so that they could escape their families and be together.
“In Iraqi culture there is no such thing as a woman living alone, or escaping from her family. Even if she were 70 or 80 years old, they would send her back to her family,” says Lillian.
Lillian and Diana had fallen in love at the Basra municipality office where they worked. Lillian was married at the time.
When she met Diana, she says, “my husband sensed the change in me. He saw me start to pay attention to my appearance.” He grew suspicious. Lillian felt guilty about cheating on her husband, in spite of the way he treated her, subjecting her to almost daily sexual assaults—“Always the words ‘you are cold,’ were on his tongue.” Four months after falling for Diana, she asked for a divorce.
“He went crazy. He hit me and insulted me.” But afterwards, she was happy, for a short while. One afternoon Lillian’s sister found her with Diana. Lillian’s brother beat her and her family locked her in the house. Desperate to see Diana, Lillian, an atheist, began to read the Qur’an, to pray, in an attempt to show her family she had seen the error of her ways. After two weeks of familial house arrest, they grudgingly let her go back to work.
Every day at the office Lillian and Diana would meet to plan their escape from Iraq. Their first thought was to go to Turkey, but the flights were at night, and Lillian was only allowed out between the hours of eight and three when she was supposed to be at work. So they started looking for other options.
On a website for Iraqi refugees they found Ahmed, an Iraqi already living in Turkey. They told him their story and they agreed that, in exchange for three thousand dollars, he would pose as the fiancé in front of both of their families, since they were not acquainted. Ahmed called each family and asked for the women’s hands in marriage.
Then he made another call: “‘I need the money now,’” he told Lillian, “If you don’t give it to me I’ll tell your families, I’ll make a scandal.’” Ahmed never had any intention of helping them: “I don’t want any part of this. I don’t want to help two dykes.” He had their families’ numbers.
Lillian and Diana were panic-stricken and promised to pay him the following morning. But in the night they stole the SIM cards out of Lillian’s mother’s and Diana’s uncle’s phones and replaced them with old ones that didn't work. When their family members noticed in the morning, the women closed the original lines and bought their relatives new SIM cards.
When they ignored Ahmed’s calls, a friend of his in Iraq called Lillian and said if they didn’t pay he would come to their work and out them to their coworkers. But they thought once they started paying him, they would never hear the end of the matter. They changed their phone numbers. “I was always afraid he would carry out his threat,” says Lillian.
But in March 2013, Ahmed’s threat lost its potency. They were outed at work, by another coworker, another gay coworker, who himself was often subjected to beatings and threats by colleagues because he appeared un-masculine, at times wearing make up to the office.
“He sensed that there was a romantic relationship between us. We are gays, we know each other,” said Lillian. At first he said nothing. But one day he and Lillian got into an office spat and he revealed their secret.
“The next day when we came into work we said, ‘Good Morning.’ No one responded,” Lillian remembers. “We’ve got to tell Jeish al-Mahdi about them,” people whispered. Many in the office belonged to or were affiliated with Jeish al-Mahdi, a powerful Shia militia that controls much of Basra, complete with death squads and the ability to influence the police and local politics.
“We were dying of terror,” says Lillian.
“Daesh is new here but the Shia militias have been doing these things for years,” says Rawan, a friend of Lillian’s, referring to the persecution of LGBT Iraqis, as well as violence against women. While the Islamic State has garnered much notoriety for its persecution of LGBT people, death threats and violence against gays in Iraq is not new.
Before long Diana’s family found out because her uncle’s wife worked for the municipality too. Her relatives beat her, locked her in the house and confiscated her phone. Already on probation, Lillian lived in fear that her own family would find out. “I felt so guilty and worried about Diana.”
Before long news of the women’s relationship reached Lillian’s supervisor, an active member of Jeish al-Mahdi. “He carried a gun and had a long beard,” Lillian recalls.
“He would call me over at work, ‘I want to advise you,’ he would say, ‘to turn back to your religion.’” Eventually he got to the point: at first, he asked her out. Lillian declined, but politely, fearing that he would tell her family. She kept taking days off to avoid him until she had no more days left. Then one morning he asked her for temporary marriage, which is legal in Shia Islam.
“He said it was a sexual lack that caused me to be a lesbian and that I needed a man to make me feel.” When she refused, he started to threaten her: How could he tolerate the corruption of all of his workers talking about the lesbian in their midst? As a member of Jeish al-Mahdi, how could he stay quiet? He said he had to teach her a lesson, or at least tell her family. Lillian was desperate.
Finally in September, Diana’s family allowed her to come back to work where all day they were watched by her aunt. If Diana stepped out for five minutes her aunt would call her family. They turned again to the Internet to find a way out of Iraq, but this time they enlisted the help of people as vulnerable as they were. A friend introduced them to Ali and Alex.
The foursome decided that Alex would marry Diana, because she was under the most scrutiny at work. Their plan suited Alex because a marriage would help convince his family to loosen their grip on him – they had confiscated his passport. At the wedding the two families rejoiced that their children were becoming ‘normal.’
Soon after the marriage Alex announced he had job training in Lebanon and that he and his new bride would spend a month there as a belated honeymoon. They planned to leave on July 3rd 2014. Lillian would run away from work and meet them there.
The only difficulty was Ali. On the day of the escape, Ali’s brother’s wife returned Ali’s passport, which his brothers had confiscated, and unlocked the door, but she couldn’t help him get out of the house. He called an old school friend who snuck in and lifted him off his bedroom floor and helped him walk to a car, which would take him to meet Alex who waited a few kilometers away. From there they drove as fast as they could to the Basra airport where Lillian and Diana were waiting.
Ali doesn’t know what happened to his brother’s wife after she helped him. “She helped me in secret. I don’t know if they suspected her or not because I’ve cut off all communication with my family.”
“All four of us flew to Lebanon,” says Lillian, “I was so afraid that my family would come and my life would end.”
Even arriving at the airport, Ali’s optimism was tempered, “there were mixed feelings, fear and worry, but also happiness.” Alex says, ‘we felt we had opened the door to freedom, opened the door to life.’ But in their euphoria as the plane took off, not one of them could have anticipated the new perils that awaited them beyond those doors.
Note: the names of the people in this article have been changed for their protection.