When I met Amir Ashour on a chilly evening in London in November, it had been just over a month since he had returned from a trip to the warmer climes of Lebanon.
The trip was no ordinary holiday, though—it was a reunion with his family for the first time in almost two years.
“It was amazing,” he said, his face lighting up. “It was my mum’s birthday and we decided that we were going to meet in Lebanon and spend a few days together.
“It was very emotional and exhausting mentally and emotionally – but really beautiful to reconnect with them on a personal level.
“Even though we spoke every day before and after the trip, it’s not the same as being physically around each other.”
A native of Iraq, Ashour has been in exile because of his work in the human rights sector – especially women’s rights and LGBT+ rights. He also never really hid the fact he himself was gay.
He has endured it all – police arrests, government monitoring and homophobia-fuelled bashings – but it wasn’t until he started receiving threats concerning his loved ones that he made the difficult decision to not return home in late 2014. He was in Sweden on a work trip and by early 2015 the country granted him protection as a political refugee.
Ashour then founded IraQueer in March that year. Within months, he was grabbing worldwide media attention with The Huffington Post, The Independent and Washington Post among those publishing stories about “Iraq’s only gay activist”.
Speaking to Australian media for the first time, Ashour admitted he has never been comfortable with that label. This was because IraQueer has grown to 40 active members who, due to safety reasons, carry out their work in secrecy on the ground in Iraq.
“We’re a small organisation but a diverse organisation,” Ashour said.
“We accept the fact that we’re not going to be the ones making all the changes, and we don’t want to be the ones making all the changes.
“For now, the ultimate goal for us is to have a community.”
IraQueer’s website now has 13,000 visitors per month, with numerous blog posts and up-to-date resources in Arabic, Kurdish and English. It’s on the cusp of publishing physical and digital guides using non-stigmatising terminology around sexuality that currently do not exist in the Arabic and Kurdish languages.
While homosexuality was decriminalised in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, there are no laws protecting LGBT+ citizens. In addition, many judges order executions for same-sex sexual behaviour based on Sharia law, even though Iraq’s legal system does not defer to it.
This has resulted in the country’s LGBT+ community being driven further underground and fractured, and the IraQueer executive director hopes to unify them.
“It’s currently a segregated community in small groups of five or 10 people,” Ashour explained.
“We want to increase the trust levels between them and hopefully introduce these circles to each other and have a bigger community that people can refer to, can rely on.”
He stressed that the risks of being gay in Iraq existed long before the rise of ISIS, and he was concerned at how many media outlets zeroed in on the way they threw gay men from rooftops.
“I don’t understand why the media are choosing to focus on this, rather than giving the real picture that has been happening for decades,” he said.
“ISIS is a result of the things that has been happening in the region that the media are not covering.”
Born in Baghdad to an Arab father and Kurdish mother, and growing up in Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, Ashour said he never had a definitive “coming out” moment.
“I was never inside anything to come out in the first place,” he recalled.
“I don’t remember struggling with who I am but I remember questioning myself. I remember not understanding who I am, but I don’t remember rejecting myself.
“I always had the conversations with my family, here and there, but not a formal sit-down… The first few times. they reacted with ‘okay, he’s going through a phase that he’s not interested in girls’. But they didn’t think ‘okay, maybe he’s actually interested in boys’.
“I was working with a couple of international human rights organisations and I did a number of talks and training programs, I was running a newspaper and we published a lot of articles about sexuality in general – and then I was finishing college and I still didn’t have a girlfriend.
“That made them ask questions sometimes [but] once things were clear... my mum needed time to process. Now my family are my biggest supporters. Even though they don’t understand everything, they definitely respect that I’m aware of who I am.”
Ashour said his close friends and colleagues always knew, and combined with his family, they empower him in his work with IraQueer.
“So many people reach out to you,” he said.
“It definitely makes you exposed to more hatred as you’re easy to read, but that also means people who need to read you will be reading you easily, as well.
“It’s as simple as saying ‘I finally feel that I can relate to someone. I felt that I’m not the only gay person or only lesbian in Iraq’, and that goes a long way.”
Aside from the homophobia, running IraQueer comes with its challenges.
“The fact I cannot go back to Iraq makes my job more limited,” Ashour said.
“There are still a lot of things I can do from outside that I wouldn’t be able to do from inside, but I would love to be able to go back and instead of giving talks outside, I would love to give them inside. More people would then have access to those opportunities.”
Nonetheless, he remained hopeful he would one day return home.
“Iraq is where I want to change things, it’s where I worked the most, where I grew up, where I have the most ties,” he said.
“I want to be back. I want to be involved in politics, I want to be able to lead the country somehow instead of waiting for more failed governments that are just the extension of the current and the previous governments we had.”
For now, Ashour was happy to be in Sweden, where he can grow IraQueer in relative safety.
“People keep asking if they can help, from the LGBT+ community and the outside community,” Ashour said.
“It’s coming from my age group, too… We don’t think the current generation in power is going to make changes for us. We are trying to plant a seed, and hopefully it’s going to grow by the time we are in charge.
“We are making history in a small way but I hope people who come after us and will continue this fight will be able to rely on something that we have created.”
Check out IraQueer here.
Elias Jahshan is a London-based journalist. He is the former editor of Star Observer and a former Arab Council Australia board member. Follow him on Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan