By Joshua Inocéncio
After the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling last June, LGBT leaders clamored to wage the next major activist fight in the United States. From transgender protections to LGBT youth homelessness, there is a huge platform that requires immediate action.
I won’t place a single issue at the top of the list; we need to be less vertical and more horizontal in our approach. However, I will illuminate an additional struggle that we as a community urgently need to address: the plight of LGBT Syrians.
According to the BBC, there are 76 nations where homosexuality remains illegal, including most Middle Eastern nations. With the notable exception of Israel, the Middle East isn’t exactly a harbinger of gay rights. In Iran, a gay man or lesbian woman faces the death penalty unless they receive sexual reassignment surgery. In the portions of Syria and Iraq under ISIL control, terrorists regularly hunt down gay men and murder them by throwing them off buildings and (if they survive the fall) by stoning. And even in the few nations where homosexuality is legal, such as Lebanon, homophobia is rampant in the legal structure, and there are “honor killings” where citizens murder gays or lesbians without repercussion.
Prior to the current conflict in Syria, the situation for gays and lesbians was not much better in the relatively secular nation. When moderate protestors inspired by the Arab Spring challenged President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the terrorist organization Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, seized upon the disarray in Syria and instituted extremist practices, including the persecution of gays and lesbians. Subhi Nahas, a gay refugee who fled from Syria to Turkey and then the United States, recently shared his harrowing journey with the United Nations. In his op-ed for The Huffington Post, Nahas reveals that “it was never okay to be gay in Syria. Not before the civil war that tore apart my homeland in 2011 and definitely not after pro-Islamic militants took over. Homosexuality was illegal.” Of course, the situation worsened with the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Nahas emphasizes that “after al Nusra Front arrested a gender-nonconforming man and searched his phone, they announced at mosque that they would cleanse the town of people who were involved in sodomy. They started arresting people, torturing them to confess their sins. Some were killed.” And as ISIL has conquered swaths of Syria, the barbarity has only increased.
In a region plagued by homophobia, gay Syrians seldom find refuge with their families. If they are not murdered, they are likely to be disowned. Fleeing to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey doesn’t remove them from violence, because, in these nations, gay Syrians often share quarters with refugees who are violently homophobic or their previous persecutors pursue them. According to Human Rights Watch’s Graeme Reid, the father of a gay Syrian (who fled from Aleppo to Beirut) “called him in Beirut and threatened to find and kill him. His brother, who had joined the Islamic Front, threatened to kill him, too…. He lives in fear every day.” This homophobic treatment has inspired the Canadian government to prioritize the resettlement of single, adult males from Syria if they can prove that they are gay.
Every year the United States accepts 70,000 refugees from all over the world, including LGBT persons who fear government persecution in their home countries. With the increase in Syrian refugees (an estimated 3.8 million have fled the nation), the United States must allow more to enter and, like Canada, prioritize LGBT Syrians who will likely return to their deaths if they are turned away. It’s easy to view them simply as numbers on the nightly news, but this is a humanitarian crisis and the LGBT community has a moral obligation to help these gays and lesbians displaced by war, terror, and systemic homophobia.
Now, it’s no secret that Governor Greg Abbott has refused to accept Syrian refugees into Texas where Dallas and Houston are key resettlement cities. Even though his legal justification is tenuous, the governor might waylay the refugee resettlement process in the courts. But I’ll remind the Jade Helm conspiracy theorist Gov. Abbott that, as Politico reports, former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger, as well as former CIA director David Petraeus, “have joined other national security experts and military leaders in calling on Congress to stop proposals that could deter the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the U.S.” According to these officials, the current vetting, which could take up to three years, is “robust and thorough.” Logically, this should allay Mr. Abbott’s concerns.
For LGBT Houstonians who are still healing from HERO’s failure at the ballot last November, this is a fight we cannot afford to lose. We do not shy from diversity in this booming metropolis, and we certainly do not succumb to right-wing hysteria. We cannot remain silent while the Republican state leadership issues a death warrant for Syrians.
As Neil Grungras, director of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration, reminds the LGBT community, these are “our people” and they are “being thrown off buildings.” Now is not the time to get cozy after a victorious Supreme Court ruling; global LGBT survival remains murkier than ever.