Syria’s Queer Refugees
Until the gunmen came, Michel was having the party of his life.
Until the gunmen came, Michel was having the party of his life.
Michel, 32, was once a gay celebrity. A DJ and underground party promoter from Damascus, for eight years, Michel spun for drag queens and diplomats, Gulf millionaires, military men, tour groups and even a cross-dressing relative of Assad. Homosexuality is illegal in Syria, but Michel paid off the police. While security services sometimes interrogated him about about his foreign guests, he was never beaten. His parties were legend.
On December 4th of last year, Michel threw a costume ball in a villa outside Damascus. Michel described the pools and gardens, the dancing. “It was the best party ever. Everyone was peaceful… happy.”
At 4AM, the gunmen came.
The men began taking guests’ cellphones at gunpoint, searching for photos tying them to the revolution. Michel offered a bribe. Instead, they pulled him into their car, beating him until he passed out. He never regained hearing in one ear. After Michel tried to file a police report, the phone calls started, threatening to kill him.
The men who kidnapped Michel had the identity cards of military men, but they were criminals released by Assad at the start of the revolution to serve as mercenaries. They saw wealthy gay men like Michel as lucrative sidelines, vulnerable to blackmail — or worse.
Michel never threw a party again.
In January, when his car dented that of an undercover policeman, he was beaten on the street by dozens of officers who recognized him from the parties that made him famous.
He fled Damascus soon after.
* * *
Over the door of Beirut’s LGBT center, there hangs a sign that reads “You are safe here” in thirteen languages. For the Syrian refugees gathered here, this is a rare gift.
Bertho Makso is the founder of Proud Lebanon, an organization that currently helps fifty queer Syrians. A gay tour operator who knows many of the refugees from the party scene, Bertho organizes English classes, Red Cross trainings, art therapy, psychological aid. He helps refugees navigate a UN bureaucracy that thinks that because they are men they should damn well get a job. “I wake up at night thinking about people sleeping on the road because they have no place to stay.” Bertho told me.
Syria occupied Lebanon until 2005. In the eyes of many Lebanese, the Syrians who once hassled them at checkpoints had returned as refugees; they now make up a third of the country’s population. As a result, queer Syrians are discriminated against for both of their identities. Beirut landlords price-gouge Syrians. Some refugees spend days without food. The UN offers vouchers of $30 a month, for those lucky enough to get them at all. Many queer Syrians cope with poverty by turning to sex work or better-off lovers — their financial precarity making them vulnerable to abuse. One young man, who marched in the revolution’s first protests, lived for a while with a bigshot from a Lebanese paramilitary group. He fled after his boyfriend broke his leg and busted his eardrum. He showed me his scars.
Bertho arranged these interviews. While Proud Lebanon works with several lesbians, they were not interested in speaking to the press. Bertho and I sat in a small, interrogation-bright room in the back of the center, me sketching, him translating, and listened to the refugees’ stories.
Homosexuality is illegal in Syria, but a well-off young Damascene could still have a life, as long as he was discreet.
The war changed that.
Rami is gorgeous, with cut glass cheekbones and dark hair falling into his eyes. A pharmaceutical rep from Damascus, he was arrested by the regime twice since the start of the revolution.
The first time, he and two friends were stopped at a regime checkpoint. The soldiers searched their cellphones.
Gnostics once dreamed that humans could become pure light. Light is what we now are. We live on the network, encoded in wireless vibrations, in pulses over fiber optic cables. Our flesh is placeless, stored in the glowing smartphones we hold in our hands. When gay men are caught in Syria, it is often because of smartphones.
Rami’s friend had photos of sex with his boyfriend on his cellphone. He had photos of the Syrian revolutionary flag.
The police beat the three friends, then locked them into a cell so crowded that prisoners stood for days at a time, fed them nothing but a few moldy olives and a communal slop bucket of tea. Guards forced Rami to watch other prisoners being tortured. “They were using electricity, knives, whatever they found,” Rami told me. After three days, guards released Rami, telling him to be careful next time.
When Rami was arrested next, it was again at a checkpoint. Again a friend’s cellphone betrayed him. “They put me and my friend in the trunk of their car. It was too small for us. They were kicking us to make us fit, beating us with cables. They were laughing .” Rami recognized one of the officers as a guy who worked out at his gym. When he called him by his name, the officer let them go. Soon after, Rami took a taxi to Beirut.
After he left, his family’s home was raided. Police took his computers, electronics, and bizarrely, his cologne.
“I’m with the peaceful revolution,” Rami told me, “… with no weapons. When the revolution started to be armed, I started to be against it. I prefer the regime to the Islamists. They too kill for no reason.”
Rami’s view is common amongst gay Syrians, who are caught between a murderous regime, and even more murderously homophobic Islamist rebels. VICE reported last month on how jihadists are torturing, blackmailing, and killing queer folk. Bertho told me about a gay men forced to memorize the Koran before being beheaded by the fundamentalist fighters of ISIS. He added another story of a trans woman, executed in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, her boyfriend’s severed head placed next to her corpse.
* * *
Like Rami, Steve was once well to do. A former marketing executive, he drove a flash car, and frequented the gay dance parties like those thrown by Michel. He didn’t care much about politics — “I don’t even know the names of the prime ministers of Syria,” he told me.
Steve’s troubles began when a party he was attending was raided by the police. He escaped, but the organizer turned over the names of attendees under interrogation. Steve was called to the police station where he was forced to undergo an anal exam termed a “virginity test.” Like those given to female protesters in Tahrir Square, it was a sexual assault carried out under the guise of medical procedure. A sympathetic doctor faked a negative result.
It did no good. After Steve was released, the phone calls started, demanding money in return for keeping his sexual orientation a secret. “They look for your weakness and try to get money out of it.” Steve told me. “It would be a big problem to be out in Syria. My parents are very religious and I’m their only son. I would lose my job; I would lose respect.” Soon callers outed him to his father. His family banned him from wearing the clothes he loved, working out, leaving the house after 10pm — even watching sports. Thinking of his career, Steve stayed.
As the revolution progressed, the calls became more violent. Now, they threatened to kidnap him, to kill him. One night, he and a friend were kidnapped in Damascus. Their kidnappers beat them, stripped them naked, and took photos. After that, he fled to Beirut.
* * *
Men like Michel, Rami and Steve are the lucky ones. While a fragile zone of tolerance existed for wealthy, urban gay men, there was never such respite for the poor or the trans.
Sara, 40, a trans woman from Aleppo, is forced to dress as a man. Even in supposedly tolerant Beirut, genderqueer folks can be attacked by the police. Sara was arrested for her gender identity long before the war sent the Syrian security state into sadistic overdrive. Her family forced her to marry. She is mother to three kids.
While married, Sara continued to date men. When her wife’s family found out, her brother-in-law attacked her, breaking her nose and leaving scars on her hand.
Sara left Syria long before the war, but returns to visit her children, who now live in rebel-held Aleppo. She told me that women are not allowed to wear jeans, drive, or leave the house uncovered. When I asked her for her opinions on the revolution, she laughed. “I care only for my beauty,” she said, and requested that I draw her sad, but with long, “Max Factor” lashes.
“I’ll talk nonstop,” said Hamid. “It’s been forty-two years packed with pain.”
During the 90's, Hamid was caught with another man during his mandatory military service. He was sentenced to five years hard labor. Hamid is tall, powerfully built, his eyes lined with kohl or maybe just exhaustion. Deadpan, he tells me how, in prison, was he strapped to a wheel and whipped hundreds of times with electrical cables. When he emerged from jail, he saw himself in the mirror, with shaved head, and recognized neither himself or the world around him.
On his cellphone, he showed me what had once been his apartment in Aleppo. After shelling, the neighborhood looked like piles of burnt Styrofoam. Hamid was kidnapped and raped by rebels. Since they were masked, he did not know what group they belonged to, but he was sure they were not Islamists. The rebels released him, thinking that he would return as a sex slave. After that, he moved from house to house, friend to family member, always eventually thrown out because he was gay. Another regime arrest finally convinced him to flee Syria.
“All my life I couldn’t make a decision.” Hamid told me. “I was 19 when I was arrested, and I left prison at 24. Those were the best years of my life. After I left prison, I was defeated.”
Hamid hopes to get asylum in Europe- Sweden or Holland. Anywhere, he told me, but Lebanon or Syria.
* * *
Journalists often call Beirut “the Paris of the Middle East”. The phrase reveals only the laziness of the journalists themselves, who cannot conceive of an Arab city that drinks and dances and loves. Beirut is the Beirut of the Middle East — electric in your eyes as you careen down Gemmayeze on the back of a motorbike, as you pour arak down your throat in hipster bars and the bomb that just hit the Iranian embassy feels terribly far away.
After I finished interviewing them, the guys insisted on escorting me back to my hotel. We walked through downtown, rebuilt by the former prime minister Hariri, past Saint Georges Hotel, scarred by the car bomb that would send Hariri into sainthood. We walked past Hariri’s tomb.
One of the guys asked me, “In America, do people really think we’re all, what’s the word, terrorists?”
I paused, wondering whether to be honest.
All names of refugees have been changed for their safety.