No pride in prejudice: Syrian LGBTQ+ community fight to have their voices heard
By breaking taboos and challenging religious and political conservatism, GEM (Guardians of Equality Movement) is a brave but rare Syrian NGO that's helping address Syrian LGBTQ+ issues by dedicating itself to improving the lives of people who experience discrimination and abuse due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Tortured, kidnapped, and nearly killed, the founder of GEM who goes by the name “Locked” told The New Arab about his experience as a queer person in Syria and the lack of safety and discrimination he faced prior to fleeing to Turkey.
“I suffered a lot in Syria. I was kidnapped twice and tortured heavily. I had to leave in 2020 after numerous death threats. All of this was because of my sexual orientation and my activism,” Locked explained.
"Despite constant pressure and threats, you can’t keep blocking and repressing us forever, we’re here to stay and fight for our rights"
Members of the organisation are acutely aware of the threats of being a particular gender identity or sexual orientation in Syria.
“We as an organisation are trying to increase the engagement of the Syrian LGBTQ+ community, whilst providing holistic solutions, mental support and in some cases financial support,” Locked added.
Across the global Syrian diaspora, there are other advocates who are fighting to protect the rights, lives, and freedoms of the Syrian LGBTQ+ people.
“Despite constant pressure and threats, you can’t keep blocking and repressing us forever, we’re here to stay and fight for our rights,” said Rami Hariry, a Syrian LGBTQ+ member and activist based in Jordan.
“We want to prove that homosexuality is not a disease or a psychological problem,” Rami added.
There is a lack of social acceptance for the LGBTQ Syrian community codified by Article 520 in the Syrian Penal code which criminalises homosexuality and punishes any unnatural sexual intercourse with a penalty of up to three years in prison.
Some of the biggest opponents to the rights of Syria’s LGBTQ+ community are its extreme religious organisations.
Rami told The New Arab: “For extremist religious groups, homosexuality is against nature, it crosses religious values and morals that they deem should not be tolerated and so advocate the death penalty for such behaviours."
Syria, when compared to neighbouring countries like Lebanon, is more dangerous for the LGBTQ+ community as punishment can go beyond a prison sentence, with torture and “honour killing” common.
This is in addition to the affliction and hardship already being endured by those in Syria due to the conflict, which began when the Baath regime, in power since 1963 and led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded with military force to peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms during the Arab Spring wave of uprisings, triggering an armed rebellion fuelled by mass defections from the Syrian army.
According to independent monitors, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in the war, mostly by the regime and its powerful allies, and millions have been displaced both inside and outside of Syria. The brutal tactics pursued mainly by the regime, which have included the use of chemical weapons, sieges, mass executions and torture against civilians have led to war crimes investigations.
So in Syria, nothing comes easy and everything scares, which is why the long-term ambitions of the LGBTQ+ community remain modest. For the time being, the priority is to provide protection and safety to the community.
For instance, the organisation had managed to help members of the LGBTQ+ community in Syria escape from one area to another by covering transport and accommodation costs.
The New Arab had reached out to a victim of homophobic discrimination based in Syria and is now a GEM member. Sami, a 26-year-old university student from Aleppo was kidnapped by an Islamic extremist group in Syria after being exposed as “being gay and acting gay”.
"As long as I’m in Syria, the danger is my shadow, so I always have to keep my identity a secret"
He told The New Arab about his traumatic experience of being kidnapped and arrested. “The so-called military group [that kidnapped me] would regularly and suddenly show up at my family’s home, aggressively question me whilst searching my room and my phone. They would even prohibit me from leaving my home without approval.” Such explicit harassment led to Sami's eventual escape.
For years he had been trying to hide his identity to avoid the backlash from his community and the trouble he was assured to face.
“As long as I’m in Syria, the danger is my shadow, so I always have to keep my identity a secret,” Sami said.
“I don’t know how I’m still alive, I think I just got lucky, they had doubts that I’m gay but they weren’t one hundred percent sure, but I assure you that if they were, I would have been killed right away,” Sami told The New Arab.
“I had denied all allegations against me and agreed with all their statements against the LGBTQ+ community with things like “these people will go to hell”, “these people are a disease”, only because I had no other option and I think my critical health condition helped as they were scared that I was going to die during the unjustified arrest,” Sami added.
In addition to providing its services to victims of hate and discrimination, the NGO aims to influence policymakers through its intensive research programmes that focus on the Syrian LGBTQ+ community whilst monitoring and documenting the situation of affected members.
“We've received extremely positive feedback from people who are supporting our cause, there are also some people who are secretly supporting us but avoiding doing so publicly, and there are of course people who are expressing their hate and discrimination against us through our social media platforms” Locked told The New Arab.
According to some LGBTQ+ members and activists, prior to the 2011 Syrian Revolution, it was easier to get away with being queer, but the situation has become more worrisome.
“I dreamed of a democratic Syria that could accommodate everyone, with all differences and gender orientations, but the course of events in Syria did not materialise as per my wishes, I now find myself threatened with death in the land which I sang for. Every day, I crave for Syria to be saved from tyranny and violence," Sami concluded.
Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.
Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462