Afghanistan's LGBTQ+ community may prefer death to life under Taliban

Afghan LGBTQ+ may prefer death to life under Taliban
6 min read
07 February, 2023

The Taliban arrested Samir, a 21-year-old gay man from Faryab province, for the first time back last November after he had been repatriated to Afghanistan from Iran. They abused him with homophobic slurs and sent private photos from his phone — of him in women’s clothes and with his boyfriend — to his family.

“They told my family this was proof I was gay,” he said.

He was soon released, but weeks later the Taliban returned and detained him again. This time the abuse was physical — he was tortured so severely that he’s now deaf in one ear. “After this happened, my parents disowned me and threw me out,” he said. “I can’t afford medical treatment.”

"Now living in fear, some Afghan LGBTQ+ individuals have altered their appearance to blend into the crowd, while others have gone into hiding"

Samir’s story is all too common. Reports of violence and persecution against Afghanistan’s LGBT+ community have surged, with increased threats, rape and assault since the Taliban came to power in late 2021. Even Samir’s family has betrayed him: several of his uncles have joined the Taliban and hope to find and kill him.

He’s afraid to go outside and unable to contact his family. Sometimes it must feel like all of Afghanistan is watching. Taliban officials have created an “if you see something, say something” environment when it comes to LGBTQ people, urging everybody to tell authorities of any suspicious activity.

The result is a Big Brother-esque atmosphere of fear and distrust. The New Arab spoke to a gay man from Kabul who fled to Abu Dhabi and later Canada after his aunt and uncle told the Taliban of his location.

Under this brutally oppressive regime, more and more Afghans seem willing to betray their kin. “Some do it to protect themselves and earn social credits that could be useful in future interactions with the Taliban,” says Nemat Sadat, executive director of the advocacy and support group RoshaniyaLGBT. “Others are Taliban sympathisers and don’t need any incentive.”

Now living in fear, some Afghan LGBTQ+ individuals have altered their appearance to blend into the crowd, while others have gone into hiding. Most are looking for ways to flee the country, particularly as a crippling economic crisis has made survival even more difficult.

The collapse of government services, cuts in foreign aid and rising inflation have created a dire situation. Ahmad, an atheist and gay Afghan man has been living with his grandmother in Mazar-e-Sharif since the Taliban ransacked his parents’ home in Kabul several months ago, demanding to know his whereabouts. His father told the Taliban Ahmad had fled to the West, then they gave him a beating.

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“I can’t return home,” says Ahmad. “If I do, the Taliban will kill me. I’m in hiding; I can’t study or work. I live like a prisoner. We barely have enough money to eat. My only hope is that I can get a visa to go to Turkey.”

Life under US-backed governments

Even under US-backed Afghan governments life had not been easy for LGBTQ+ Afghans. Gay sex was illegal, though the law was rarely enforced. Instead, authorities resorted to extortion. Afghan police would conduct mass sweeps of transgender performers and detain them to extract money and sexual favours, while Taliban-minded security officials would lure gay men into honey traps to take bribes, or kill them as part of an alleged “kill and dump” policy.

The international community’s failure to include LGBTQ+ rights in its efforts for progress on minority issues didn’t help matters. “Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both refused to do an LGBTQ+ Afghan report in 2017,” Sadat points out. “They didn’t want to rock the boat with the Afghan government and put their work with other minority groups at risk.”

"That sliver of freedom LGBTQ+ Afghans enjoyed before the Taliban has now disappeared. For most, the best option is to flee"

That may be starting to change. Last year Human Rights Watch partnered with OutRight and released an LGBTQ+ Afghan report urging the UN to pressure the Taliban to grant LGBTQ+ protections.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ Afghans had under previous governments begun to build a community. Many told The New Arab that they had been able to carve out some breathing room, even while facing harassment and abuse.

“Before the Taliban, life was difficult but not impossible,” says Deniz, a 21-year-old lesbian from Kabul.  “I could work and go to school. I had freedoms that no longer exist.”

Before, many LGBT+ Afghans would meet surreptitiously in closed-off back rooms. “We would meet in small restaurants or cafes,” Deniz added. “We were careful about how we behaved, but there was a sense of community and support that took a long time to build up.”

Finding a way out

That sliver of freedom LGBTQ+ Afghans enjoyed before the Taliban has now disappeared. For most, the best option is to flee. Deniz is in contact with Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian charity that works to evacuate at-risk LGBTQ+ people around the world.

The organisation has provided financial support, shelter and mental and emotional care to thousands, including spearheading the evacuation of nearly 250 LGBT+ Afghans to safe countries.

But the work of Rainbow Railroad and other support groups is being stymied by Western lethargy. The war in Ukraine has diverted attention and resources, as have rising concerns about Taiwan and the lingering threat of Covid-19. 

With the US and EU largely looking the other way, humanitarian visas have been nearly impossible to acquire, while escape routes have largely closed. Obtaining a passport in Taliban-run Afghanistan tends to be a lengthy process that often involves bribes.

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Many LGBTQ+ Afghans remain undeterred, though several said they would prefer to die rather than continue to live under Taliban rule.

“I have no food and heat for winter,” says Samir. “I can’t go out. I would rather die than live like this.”

Full Taliban acceptance of LGBTQ+ Afghans is likely an impossibility, which means their best hope is a safe passage out of the country.

“While the Taliban remain in power, we must continue to help LGBT+ Afghans evacuate Afghanistan and obtain asylum in a safe country,” says Sadat. “In a post-Taliban world, we need to make sure LGBT+ rights, including same-sex marriage, are enshrined in the Constitution of Afghanistan.”

Hannah Wallace is a London-based writer and researcher on armed violence and foreign affairs