Founded in 2015, IraQueer is the first and only Iraqi organization dedicated to advancing LGBTQ+ rights. Their work includes knowledge sharing, advocacy and digital services within Iraq. IraQueer’s founder Amir Ashour is one of the activists in our Create Space campaign, launched last year. Since then, he has moved from Sweden to the US to study law at Columbia University. After completing his degree, he aims to bring a legal case to the Iraqi government to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. IraQueer recently released reports with Human Rights Watch documenting the violence faced by LGBTQ+ people in Iraq and with OutRight Action International, focusing on queer women’s rights in the country. We spoke to Amir about what led him to founding the organization, where the movement is going and what people can do to support IraQueer.
What made you start IraQueer?
Growing up, I was very inspired by my mother who taught me to stand up for myself. My parents are a mixed Arab/Kurdish couple, which was not allowed. My mother is the type of person that when she sees something isn’t working for her, she will go and change it. I hated studying at college so I started working with human rights organizations, where I quickly realized that queer communities were always being excluded, which made me consider [when founding IraQueer] ‘If not me, then who?’ People tell me that [founding IraQueer] was a brave thing to do, but I don’t think it was brave. It was out of desperation. I had seen queer people in Iraq ignoring their identities, experiencing self-hatred, and creating a false life to conorm to society’s expectations. I didn’t feel brave, I was just scared of living a lie.
What was it like for you growing up queer in Iraq?
Everything around me was queerphobic. You would regularly hear jokes about queer people, and it made me afraid of saying anything about my identity. I knew at 9 years old that I was gay and that I wasn’t like others, at least in the way I expressed myself. Having a family that is more open minded really helped me. My mother and sisters had their own version of being different. My mother smoked, wore miniskirts; she was true to herself, even if it meant she wasn’t accepted by many people. When I came out to my mother, what upset her most was not that I was gay, but that I had been through these difficult experiences and she had not been there for me. Having a supportive family helped me deal with the direct and indirect violence I had faced, and it gave me the confidence to use my voice.
What is it like in Iraq now for queer people, compared to when you started IraQueer?
At the beginning there was no community. We tried using apps like Grindr to find people. But when you’re on these apps the profiles might be bots, or someone pretending to lure you in to hurt you and cause violence towards queer people. The movement has changed over the last few years. Young people are using their queer identities to empower others by joining human rights organizations and utilizing different platforms to express themselves. Socially, things are changing quite dramatically; people are feeling more comfortable expressing themselves, and are able to find each other through social networks. Meetings and parties are still private, but queer people are finding each other now. At the same time the government is trying to push back harder, and I think part of it is because of recognition of the fact that we now have some power there. But we still don’t have enough power to stand up against the government, especially because we don’t have a lot of people who would help protect us inside Iraq.
In the Create Space campaign, you use the phrase ‘Silence Is Violence’, can you elaborate on that?
Imagine if after George Floyd’s murder people said nothing, we would be in a different world. Lots of queer people are being killed in Iraq and nothing is being said, and not saying anything is not neutral. You may be able to say ’I have not caused this violence, I have not killed or bullied someone’, but it reaches a point where that is not enough. The queer community cannot speak up for themselves in Iraq, because doing so can be a death sentence. It’s giving a green light to those who are killing LGBTQ+ people. If you see violence like this and choose not to say anything, you are not culpable, but I do think you are in some way responsible. It means those with privilege are obliged to speak.
What support can people give to IraQueer to help you continue?
Firstly, for people who live in more progressive countries, I urge you to pressure your government, not just in your country but beyond. Lots of queer Iraqis leave the country to try and find asylum, but asylum policies globally can be extremely problematic and discriminatory. The second way is by providing funding. We cannot fundraise or ask for money from the government as they are the ones enacting violence. LGBTQ+ human rights get only a small fraction of budgets worldwide. Because our movement is beginning to gain momentum, the Iraq government is doubling down on putting pressure on us, like issuing arrest warrants to activists, and we have no resources to face them. We see activists who join us, but then eventually leave because funding runs out and they need income. For IraQueer, having funding is the difference between existing or not existing.