Global Gaze: Telling Stories, Building Communities
Even in a city like Washington DC, which attracts people from all over the world and where important foreign policy decisions are made on a daily basis, the plight of individuals halfway around the globe, even those we shares commonalities with, can remain abstract and not all together real.
By now, most queer Americans have heard, at least in passing, of the hardships faced by the LGBT community in Iraq – struggles which have actually been greatly compounded by the US’s intervention in the country beginning in 2003. With fundamentalist religious leaders rushing in to fill the power vacuum caused by the toppling of the previous regime, a rise in sectarian violence has left LGBT Iraqis even more vulnerable to violence and discrimination. For those lucky few who manage to escape the country, a lack of funds and the complicated and costly asylum processes adopted by most Western countries mean that their struggle has often just begun.
While these types of stories are slowly trickling into the mainstream international press, the objective, brief and dispassionate news reports of such conditions can make connecting with these narratives on a personal level a difficult task for even the most informed and empathetic American. Often, the only way to truly get any sort of sense of what a person has gone through is to look into his eyes, and perhaps deeper, and hear his stories in his own voice.
This is the belief, at least, held by Eric Wingerter, a local DC resident who has helped to organize a pair of fundraisers this weekend in the District meant to support Helem, a non-profit organization and LGBT center in Lebanon that has actively worked to aid gay and lesbian Iraqi refugees. An important facet of these events is that they will feature two gay Iraqi men who are visiting DC to share their stories with the District’s own queer community.
“I got to know some of these guys and hear their stories, and those relationships helped make the aftermath of the Iraq war very personal to me,” Wingerter, who works as a communications consultant for non-profit organizations, says of the several Iraqis he’s met.
He didn’t actively seek out these individuals at first, but once he met them, and learned of the work being done by them and on their behalf, he felt compelled to volunteer his time to help them. “I came across this group of LGBT Iraqis in recent months in my work with the National LGBT Bar Association. The Association was helping to connect the Iraqis with attorneys who could help them with their refugee processes.”
This, in turn, is how he became involved with Helem, which operates out of the Middle East: “A number of LGBT Iraqi refugees ended up fleeing to Lebanon, and Helem has done a tremendous job helping them find housing and other crucial resources there. When you flee your country, you leave your family, your career and your social network behind. You can imagine how scary it must be to be to start over in a new place. Helem has been terrific in helping many of these LGBT refugees meet their most basic needs as they go through their process with the United Nations.”
One of the brave men that Helem has helped, and has been helped by in return, goes by the name of Hussam – a pseudonym he uses to protect his family back in Iraq. After hearing his stories, Wingerter said he felt compelled to volunteer to help organize these fundraisers in DC so other District residents could learn of the struggles of LGBT Iraqis firsthand as well.
Hussam was born and raised in Baghdad and remembers what life was like for the LGBT community in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
“I was somewhat active in the LGBT community in Iraq,” he recalls. “Before 2003, just generally in Iraq, although there were threats under Saddam, there was also the conditions of law and order. Saddam had always been a secular leader, for him it was basically that whatever you did was fine, just as long as you did not defy him politically.”
“So there was some kind of gay life before the US invasion,” he continues, “it was not public, but it was there and people had adapted themselves, which included a couple of night spots on the weekend which switched to having ‘men’s parties’ and you wouldn’t have any sexual activity but there was dancing and holding hands, and drinking and music. There was no real phobia of the word ‘gay’ because that word didn’t mean anything and no one used it. We figured out how to live – there were rules and we played by them.”
Immediately following the US’s invasion, in the summer of 2003, there occurred what Hussam refers to as a “Summer of Love”: “We would go out and there would be pretty open gatherings, we would arrange roadtrips for the LGBT community and there was a complete openness that came with that.”
But by the fall, things had already begun to change for the worse. Tribal, religious, and finally militia leaders rushed in to try and seize power for themselves, and sectarianism and radicalism took over. “Iraq was the new ground – it was like a pie that had not been cut yet, and each group wanted to be stronger and get a bigger piece,” Hussam explains. Unfortunately, one way to assert their dominance was through brutality towards the LGBT community, since it was the one group that no one in society would rush to defend. In this chaotic time, finding new and particularly gruesome ways of killing sexual minorities was a way of flexing one’s muscles and showing strength.
In 2004, the violence began to truly hit home for Hussam. While walking through a fashionable market district in Baghdad, he notice a crowd gathering in the street. “I heard gunshot and then we saw smoke – there were a pyramids of bodies in the middle of the road that were on fire,” he remembers. “I thought it was violence between Sunni and Shia, but there were police officers there and they said that they were three gay men and they were targeted for their sexual orientation, and their bodies had been set on fire because that was the only way to rid their bodies of their disease. I knew all three of the men generally from the community, but one was actually a good friend of mine. We used to hang out and shop together and all that. I think that was the first time I really witnessed the direct, organized movement targeting the LGBT community simply because of our sexual orientation.”
Hussam left Iraq about a year and a half ago and moved to New York – attaining one of only a handful of visas given out to Iraqi citizens, far less than when Saddam Hussein was in power – to do his post-graduate work at Columbia University. He had mixed feelings about his new home. “The fact is the United States does carry responsibility for the war’s effect on that community,” he says of the LGBT community in his country, “because their lives really became much worse after the invasion, and the US never put any political pressure on the Iraqi government when they were in a position to do so.”
While in New York, Hussam stayed deeply involved with the LGBT community in Iraq, however. “After I came to the United States I was exposed to the activities of Helem – one of the first and only LGBT organizations in the Middle East. After the recent waves of killings in April and May, I had a lot of friends in Iraq who were either targeted, tortured and kidnapped. They were living dead, basically. I reached out to Helem, to see if there was anything we could do. Helem was very ready and willing to take anyone in and provide them with food and clothing, all the basics. We were able to get them out and get them to Beirut, and Helem’s acting as their sponsors and providing them with everything they need. Meanwhile, they already have their own problems, their own issues, so they were not in a privileged position to begin with, but still they were willing to help, and they offered what other, more established LGBT communities would not offer, and for that I am grateful.”
Now he hopes to extend that spirit of togetherness and support within the US as well. When asked what Americans can do to help sexual minorities in Iraq, he emphasizes that there are many, many ways to offer assistance, including simply being there in the first place: “People can send letters, or start websites – there has been no LGBT community in the world that has thought to start a website just to let Iraqis know that they’re there, to offer hope and let them know they’re thinking of them.” Americans can also pressure their elected officials to in turn pressure the Iraqi government, a major recipient of US foreign aid dollars, to intervene on the LGBT community’s behalf. Financially, people can sponsor gay Iraqis, help to get Iraqis living with HIV/AIDS the medicines they are so often refused, and volunteer their time if they are lawyers or academics to help with asylum cases and scholarships, among other things.
This mix of moral and material support is what Wingerter hopes to accomplish with the two events this weekend – to raise not only funds, but also awareness.
“When I asked some of the Iraqis what people in DC could do to help, they all said the same thing: Helem has been a lifesaver, but they need support. I have been surprised at the great response we’ve gotten so far,” he says. “Friends have donated money and time for the event–it’s been really terrific.”
“When people come to the events this weekend,” he continues, “I think they are going to be moved by these guys, by their stories and their personal courage.”
DC is the city in which the Iraq war was first devised, and now, years later, its residents are being presented with an opportunity to be at the forefront of the effort to combat one of its worst byproducts. Eric Wingerter and brave Iraqis like Hussam have overcome physical and cultural distance to do their part, and now we have our chance to do the same. Sometimes all it takes to build a community is an open heart, a sympathetic ear and the willingness to make a difference.
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