Homophobia remains prevalent in parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Most countries in these regions do not recognize the rights of the LGBT community and homosexual acts are criminalized. LGBT people in Syria, in particular, face discrimination and violations on a daily basis under policies and legal provisions that incite hatred and violence against anyone who is different and does not meet prevailing social norms and expectations. 520 of the Syrian Penal Code criminalizes homosexuality and is used to punish LGBT people with a prison term of up to three years.
In this context, Hazem (a pseudonym), a gay man who was displaced from Rif Dimashq to northwest Syria, told Al-Monitor: “Someone reported me to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham ( HTS), and I was arrested and faced with the most severe forms of torture and humiliation for eight months. When I was released by a general amnesty, I moved to areas under the control of the [opposition-affiliated] Syrian National Army for fear of being arrested again.
He added, “But because of my sexual orientation and society’s intolerance towards me, I still can’t find a job. I find myself forced to live in the greatest secrecy for fear of facing any physical or psychological harm.
Majd (a pseudonym) is also a gay man from Aleppo who resides in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. He told Al-Monitor: “I moved to Turkey more than six years ago because I was persecuted in Syria where I could not reveal my sexual identity.
“But the situation here [in Gaziantep] isn’t much better. I lost my job at a humanitarian organization in 2018 after they found out I was gay, and I still can’t find a new job for the same reason. Recently, I tried to apply for asylum in a European country, but to no avail,” he said.
“My fear and feeling of rejection by others never stops. It peaked when Turkey withdrew of the Istanbul Convention [on combating violence against women, under the pretext of encouraging homosexuality] Last year. It is when I have to go to a government office that I am most afraid. Although homosexuality is not prohibited in Turkey, this does not mean that it is not rejected by society. The homicide rate against LGBT people in Turkey is very high and the government has banned all LGBT-related events. I hope to leave this country and live a normal and safe life before it’s too late,” Majd added.
Meanwhile, Syrian LGBT activists are organizing campaigns to try to change stereotypes in society and claim rights. In most cases, these initiatives end up running out of steam due to a lack of organization to ensure their sustainability and achieve the expected results.
On March 24, Syrian activists and part of the LGBT community formed a Syrian organization, the Guardians of Equality Movement (GEM), concerned with defending the rights of LGBT people. This organization was the first step towards protecting and preventing the recurrence of violations against members of the LGBT community in Syria.
The emerging organization defines itself as one of the first non-governmental organizations dedicated to all members of Syrian LGBTQIA+ people and across the global Syrian diaspora. “GEM works to protect and defend human rights at social and diplomatic levels for all vulnerable Syrian LGBTQIA+ people, regardless of their political affiliations, religion or ethnicity,” says GEM’s website. “Our programs meet the basic needs of Syrian LGBTQIA+ people, provide holistic protective services, including in dangerous environments, document violations of LGBTQIA+ rights, and conduct research and advocacy to promote Syrian LGBTQIA+ rights.”
The chairman of the board of GEM, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Al-Monitor: “I have already been arrested and raped for being gay, in the absence of any organization defending the rights of the LGBT community. in Syria. This prompted me, along with a number of activists, to found the GEM. We reach our target audience through [traditional] media, social media and partner organizations, or through our own members.
He explained: “We treat recipients of our services with caution and care and adhere to numerous data protection and privacy policies, to ensure the safety and security of recipients. After confirming and documenting the violation victims have been exposed to, we offer them financial assistance to help them improve their situation and move to a safe area.
One of the GEM financial grant recipients told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Last year, I was arbitrarily arrested by HTS. I was prevented from contacting my family and I was not allowed to hire a lawyer. When my mental state and health seriously deteriorated due to the beatings I was facing, I was transferred to a hospital on the fourth day of my arrest, after which I was released. However, HTS security members continued to raid my house almost daily for a month. When I got the $7,000 GEM grant, I was able to move to the countryside north of Aleppo and am now trying to enter Turkey to reach Europe.
Syria has been plagued by a bloody conflict for more than 10 years, during which cases of violations against members of the LGBT community have increased, including enforced disappearances, arrests and sexual assaults in various parts of Syria. International organizations are unable to find solutions to help those at risk in light of the international media’s silence on the ongoing violations faced by LGBT people in Syria. There are no precise or approximate statistics on the number of Syrian LGBT people, as many of them are reluctant to reveal their orientation.
Fadel Abdul Ghanydirector of the Syrian Human Rights Network, argued that the LGBT community in Syria is unable to obtain their rights given the strong rejection of all religions and societal culture against this community. “That’s why no entity is able to defend them,” he told Al-Monitor.
“Add to this the large number of violations in Syria against LGBT people, such as killings, torture, arrests and forced displacement. This is happening as human rights organizations fail to shed light on these violations which are assaults on individual freedoms,” Abdul Ghany said.