Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 30, 2019, at 11:12 a.m. ET
TACLOBAN, the Philippines — When the winds blow this strong, the rain stings like needles, scraps of wood cut through flesh like bullets, and corrugated metal sheets slice like knives.
On that morning in November 2013, the wind churned the ocean into a mountain of water and pushed it onto the city. Survivors remember the sea crashing ashore in three massive black waves, so tall even the coconut trees were drowned. The water lifted five cargo ships huddled by the city’s port into the air and sent them crashing on top of a slum on the opposite bank.
It was as if the sea was suddenly everywhere — even the rain tasted like salt.
Street artist and photographer AG Saño was asleep when the storm crashed into Tacloban, a small port city on the Philippines’ Pacific coast. The winds woke him at 4 a.m., shaking the walls of his hotel so loudly that it sounded “like a horse running on the roof.”
Saño raced to the ground floor, taking shelter with around 50 other guests. The storm surge soon shattered the hotel’s front doors. Water chased guests up to the first floor and kept rising.
When the storm finally passed and Saño could step outside, he saw two men pushing the corpses of a mother and daughter on a wooden cart through ankle-deep water. Then he met four fathers carrying the bodies of their children from the school where they’d drowned. He found a doctor who’d taken command of a dump truck. Saño volunteered to help him gather the dead, who were emerging from the receding waters by the hundreds.
Typhoon Haiyan was the most powerful storm to ever make landfall when it smashed into the Philippines on November 8, 2013, with wind speeds up to 235 miles per hour. The government said more than 6,000 people died, but the country’s top forensics expert later said she thought the real number was more like 18,000.
Saño spent four days helping to pile bodies into body bags to await identification or burial in mass graves. Then he decided he had to leave, because there was one body he could not face seeing.
He already knew his best friend in Tacloban — a tattoo artist called Agit Sustento — was dead, and Saño didn’t want to be the one to find him. Sustento’s corpse would be instantly recognizable from the tattoos that covered him from head to toe. Sustento, who originally studied to be an accountant, had just opened a new shop dedicated to reviving ancient traditions from the days when tattoos commemorated the victories of warriors in the remote northern mountains. Tattoos were not just fashion or art to Sustento, his friends and family said. They represented the connections between people, their identity, and the Earth.
Saño had come from Manila to document and photograph Sustento at work. Instead Sustento was washed away. So were his parents, his wife, and his 3-year-old son.
The only members of Sustento’s immediate family to survive were his younger siblings, Mal and Joanna. During the storm, Joanna struggled to hold their mother above the churning waters, but she drowned in her arms.
Saño and Joanna decided to dedicate the years after the storm to winning justice for their loved ones.
Typhoon Haiyan was not a natural disaster, Saño believed. Warming oceans cause storms to grow more powerful, and global warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions. The Philippines had played little part in this — it’s a poor country estimated to have contributed less than 1% of all greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.
Saño came to see Tacloban’s citizens as the victims of a crime, but no one was trying to hold to account the people he saw as responsible.
“When people would die in, let’s say, an apartment in New York City, investigators would find out who caused it, right? ... They find justice for that person,” Saño said. “But how come we have [thousands of] dead people in Tacloban and nobody was asking whose fault it was?”
This question would help revolutionize climate activism over the years that followed Typhoon Haiyan. World leaders had wasted decades failing to reach a collective agreement on climate action, and not everyone was equally to blame for global warming. Oil companies and other large polluters had grown rich while the world got hotter, pouring millions into lobbying efforts to keep people hooked on fossil fuels. Activists like Saño came to believe that this was a kind of mass destruction in slow motion. If they could start getting judges to agree, courts might be the lifeline needed to prevent the Earth from warming further.
To lay the groundwork for future lawsuits, Saño and a group of other citizens and NGOs are petitioning the Philippines’ top human rights tribunal to declare fossil fuel giants like ExxonMobil and Shell responsible for violating the fundamental rights of the Filipino people by contributing to climate change. This coalition, led by the local chapter of Greenpeace, includes not just survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, but also people hurt by climate change in other ways — fishers whose stocks are disappearing from the ocean, and farmers whose crops are failing in changing weather.
They filed their petition in 2015 and will get an answer next month when the Philippines Commission on Human Rights is due to release the results of an investigation conducted over three years and three continents. It has chosen to release its findings during the global climate summit in Madrid, a sign it wants to send a message to the world.
The legal team knows its argument is a long shot — only a few tribunals anywhere in the world have considered whether human rights law applies to climate change, and no one has successfully sued a fossil fuel company for climate impacts.
We won’t know exactly what’s in the report until December, but the commissioner leading the investigation, Roberto Cadiz, suggested the commission intends to give the petitioners one of their key demands: a declaration that the major carbon emitting firms have “negatively impacted the human rights of the Filipino people.” But, he said, the report would not weigh in on whether courts should hold corporations directly liable for climate damage. He said he had a number of concerns about people suing companies for the way they’d been hurt by climate change. First, he thought there were too many steps in between carbon being emitted and something like an extreme storm to hold a company directly liable for damage. Second, since everyone feels the effects of climate change, what gives any individual or group a greater claim on climate damages than anyone else? And, finally, he didn’t think it was fair to sue companies over specific climate damages when the whole world has relied on their products.
“It’s not a black-and-white issue from the point of view of climate justice … Right now they’re being sued, the carbon majors, but if they totally stop production, they’re going to be sued!” Cadiz said.
But even if the petitioners don’t get everything they want, they believe it’s an important step in changing the way jurists around the world think of climate change.
“Agit’s death was the responsibility of those corporations,” Saño said. “I know in my heart that it’s the case.”
Litigation is one tool climate activists haven’t fully tested, and they hope the Philippines investigation could inspire people around the world to fight global warming in court.
In recent years, lawyers and activists around the world have brought hundreds of cases in several countries in an unprecedented push to get courts to force action on climate change. The Philippines petition was among the earliest to be filed. The most successful strategy so far has been to sue governments for failing to protect their citizens from climate impacts, and top courts in a handful of countries have already ordered governments to implement climate plans on those grounds.
But it’s an uphill battle. For one thing, the science connecting the dots from carbon emissions to an individual storm like Typhoon Haiyan is complicated and incomplete, though it’s getting better. No court has yet concluded there’s a direct enough connection between a fossil fuel company’s emissions and the climate that would impose legal liability on the company for major catastrophes.
There’s also the problem of location. Courts will typically only try a crime if it happens within their own country, but carbon emissions are everywhere. If someone is hurt by climate change in the Philippines, and they want to sue an oil company like Shell — which is based in the Netherlands, but drills oil and sells it in many other countries — where do they go to court? If they find a court, how do they ask a judge to punish a fossil fuel company for selling a product that remains legal, one that governments even subsidize because it’s still considered essential?
Winning a case like that requires a legal revolution. There have been revolutions like this before, where arguments that were once unthinkable become obvious. The US Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation after upholding it for half a century; same-sex couples won the right to marry nearly 30 years after the Supreme Court ruled gay people could be arrested for having sex.
But these changes take years of work, in courts and in the culture. And for years, the most familiar story about climate change has been the one pushed by fossil fuel companies themselves once they were forced to acknowledge it was a reality: The burden for stopping climate change falls on individual consumers, who must drive less, fly less, and buy less. Everyone is to blame and so no one can be truly held accountable.
If judges are to take action on climate change, they must first believe it is a story of injustice.
That’s why Greenpeace’s lawyers decided to take this case to the Philippines Commission on Human Rights rather than directly to the courts. The commission is an independent agency under the constitution, with broader powers to investigate alleged abuses than courts have, but lacking a court’s power to enforce its findings.
This obviously has a major downside: The commission can’t force polluters to change their behavior or compensate climate victims. But these kinds of commissions can do a lot to change the thinking of judges when a related case comes before them.
The Philippines is a powerful place to challenge the climate change narrative. The country must cope with massive storms while more than half the population earns less than $5.50 per day. But, despite the efforts by a handful of local environmental activists, many people from Tacloban still don’t believe that climate change is a story of wealthy corporations inflicting harm on the vulnerable. If they’ve heard of climate change at all, residents will say they caused it themselves by burning too much trash or by throwing too much garbage into the ocean. Some priests in this deeply Catholic country even gave sermons saying Typhoon Haiyan was a form of divine punishment for human sins.
Challenging this idea is also hard because environmental advocacy is a deadly business in the Philippines. Shortly after he became president in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte gave a speech in which he said he wanted “to kick” an ambassador who asked about reducing carbon emissions. On Duterte’s first full day in office, a leading anti-coal activist was assassinated, and at least 30 other environmental activists were killed in 2018.
Both Duterte and the Typhoon Haiyan petitioners agree that the Philippines is a victim of richer nations. But for Duterte, that victimhood is not a chance to rally for climate accountability, but rather a reason to treat it as inevitable and continue business as usual.
The president sent the chief of his cabinet, Karlo Nograles, to a Typhoon Haiyan memorial ceremony in Tacloban earlier this month, where he boasted of a plan to build a sea wall to protect against storm surges — a “Great Wall of Leyte,” he called it, because Tacloban sits in Leyte province. This sea wall is planned to be about 13 feet high — even though Haiyan’s storm surge reached almost 20 feet in some places.
Nograles grew angry when asked in an interview with BuzzFeed News about plans in the Philippines to expand coal power, and whether the government could put more pressure on foreign fossil fuel companies.
“You’re always playing, looking at us — what’s the US doing?” he said as he stormed off. “You guys do it in the States. You show us the way. You show that you can win.”
Last updated on June 24, 2019, at 4:29 p.m. ET
ISTANBUL — The first time Majid and Ahlam saved a gay person’s life, they didn't even know what LGBT stood for.
Word had reached them that three men were being held at home by members of their extended family, who were preparing to execute them for “shaming” the family.
Majid, a bulky 54-year-old who spent much of his life as a housepainter, and Ahlam, the 50-year-old widow of an intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein’s military, arrived at the house an hour later to find it surrounded by 15 armed men.
As Ahlam remembers, she approached the house on foot and told the men standing outside that she had been harassed on the road. In keeping with local custom, the men invited her to take refuge in the house, and left to find the supposed wrongdoers.
Inside, Ahlam said she found the mother of one of the three men being held captive and worked with her to sneak them out of the house. They made it out the back door undetected and hopped the fence. Outside, they found Majid waiting in the car and were soon joined by Ahlam, who had walked out the front door after thanking everyone for sheltering her. Together they sped off to safety.
“What kind of political movement is this?” he asked. “These guys are kissing each other!”
Majid was shocked when two of the men kissed each other in celebration of their freedom. He called the colleague who had first alerted him about their plight for an explanation: Majid had been told that three “LGBT people” needed rescuing — but had thought LGBT was the name of a political party.
“What kind of political movement is this?” he asked. “These guys are kissing each other!”
So began Majid and Ahlam’s surprising journey to become champions for LGBT rights in a stronghold of Islamist groups in central Iraq. (BuzzFeed News is withholding their last names and other identifying information for security reasons.) This rescue took place in 2011, at a time when they worked for a feminist group focused on helping women escape violence. They came to realize LGBT people were fleeing the same religious fundamentalists who were spurring violence against women. Then, in 2014, ISIS arrived.
This is the story of how Majid and Ahlam secretly worked to help LGBT people escape ISIS at a time when the Islamist militants regularly bragged online — in grisly images and videos that made headlines around the world — about throwing gay men to their deaths. It’s also the story of how they are now trying to bring ISIS to justice.
Majid and Ahlam helped two gay men and two lesbian women escape execution orders during the three years ISIS controlled parts of northern Iraq.
They recorded the stories of 87 people who were tortured or executed for homosexuality, working with a network of their own friends and family members to document ISIS violence.
From the beginning of the conflict, the feminist group Majid and Ahlam worked for, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), was preparing for a time when it might be possible to bring ISIS to justice.
The 87 LGBT cases are part of a much larger dossier of ISIS abuses that OWFI compiled, covering 4,383 victims and 1,804 ISIS members. With help from contacts inside the Iraqi military, Majid and Ahlam also got their hands on many of ISIS’s own records related to these cases in this dossier.
OWFI’s legal team has been trying to find a court that will prosecute these crimes since ISIS’s hold on the region was broken in 2017. But the lawyers know it’s extremely unlikely that Iraqi courts will prosecute ISIS for killing gay people — Iraqi lawmakers, after all, had once made homosexuality a crime punishable by death. And no war crimes tribunal has ever prosecuted a case based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
OWFI wants ISIS leaders to be charged with crimes against humanity for persecuting LGBT people, which would be a revolutionary step in international law. OWFI knows it faces a long fight to make that happen, but it got a chance to start making its case last month. An investigative team that the United Nations Security Council sent to Iraq to help investigate human rights abuses formally asked OWFI for copies of the evidence it had collected.
OWFI’s legal team is led by Lisa Davis, a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law and senior legal adviser at Madre, a women’s rights NGO. Davis said there may be no hope for the kinds of trials the legal team would like to see in Iraq, but putting this evidence before the UN could be the start of building an international consensus to treat the persecution of LGBT people as a crime against humanity.
“I want this to be our moment to change the conversation about LGBT issues in conflict — this is our moment.”
“We know we can’t get prosecutions of LGBT war crimes in Iraq — we just don’t have the legal infrastructure or the political will,” Davis told BuzzFeed News. “What we want to do is to change the discourse of LGBT crimes in the world. What we want is to build the global political will.”
How Majid and Ahlam went from unknowingly assisting a few gay men to potentially transforming the way the world treats the persecution of LGBT people is being told here for the first time. It is based on more than eight hours of interviews with them conducted between 2015 and 2018. Their memories for exact details are sometimes fuzzy, reflecting the trauma of having witnessed so much violence themselves and hearing about much more from hundreds of others. Majid, who has panic attacks and fatigue, carries pictures of children killed during the conflict on his cellphone.
BuzzFeed News was given access to more than 700 pages of emails and documentation that Majid wrote during the conflict. His documents were vetted by a legal team at the CUNY School of Law and Madre to make sure they would stand up to legal scrutiny, and the organizations’ researchers directly confirmed many of his reports with victims and witnesses. BuzzFeed News also spoke repeatedly with the human rights lawyers, researchers, and translators supporting their work.
Davis said she believes the evidence Majid and Ahlam helped assemble against ISIS could transform law on the persecution of LGBT people in a similar way to how a prosecution of the Rwandan genocide helped spur the world to view rape in wartime should be treated as seriously as genocide. They have compiled an indictment of ISIS’s crimes that will be impossible for the international community to overlook.
“Now we have it, and we can’t ignore it,” Davis said. “I want this to be our moment to change the conversation about LGBT issues in conflict — this is our moment.”
Majid had been training for secret missions since he was a boy. His father ran a kebab shop and was an underground Communist Party activist. Majid remembers delivering messages for party members hidden in papers wrapped around kebabs.
Majid held on to his leftist ideals throughout the decades Saddam ruled Iraq, but he felt no joy when US forces toppled the dictator in 2003. Hundreds of civilians were killed by US forces in Majid’s part of Iraq, including his own mother. She died, Majid said, when US forces blew open the door to his brother’s house, mistakenly believing there were militants inside.
Majid, a committed secularist, also hated the Islamist forces that took hold of his region after the invasion. Shiite clerics became powerful leaders and held sway over large militias. At the same time, al-Qaeda, became a force in northern Iraq fighting the US occupation. Its campaign won support from many of the region’s Sunni residents, but it also stirred up hatred toward their Shiite neighbors.
“If you disrespect him with the smallest gesture, you better beware — he can be very hard.”
As fighting between Shiite and Sunni groups escalated around his town, Majid became especially troubled by an explosion of violence against women. This included so-called honor killings, child marriages, and other practices that fundamentalists claimed were endorsed by Islam. Majid made it his mission to help women fleeing violence.
“I know too many women that are very active and have great dreams,” he said. “That’s why I advocate women’s rights.”
He began this work without any organization behind him, but he soon learned about a new group based in Baghdad trying to set up women’s shelters — OWFI.
OWFI was cofounded by Yanar Mohammed, a feminist activist born in Baghdad now living in Toronto, just after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. She said she first learned about Majid through mutual contacts in communist circles. Mohammed had heard stories about “a very brave man who was able to stand against al-Qaeda” when the group’s fighters kidnapped local women, even confronting the group head-on to win the women’s release.
When she finally met Majid in 2004, Mohammed said, she became convinced that “he is someone who you can win over by respect, and he will be with you and hold your back till the end of time.”
But, she added, “If you disrespect him with the smallest gesture, you better beware — he can be very hard.”
Majid became part of the network OWFI was building across Iraq, and he opened a local office in his town.
Ahlam lived near Majid for years without ever meeting him.
For more than a decade, she was married to a man who would rarely let her leave the house. He was an officer in Saddam’s military who was so abusive and controlling that Ahlam said, “I felt like I was his slave.”
Then, one rainy morning in 2005, her husband was kidnapped. The family had just sat down to breakfast when a car pulled up to the house. It was filled with men who had once been her husband’s friends, but they were now members of al-Qaeda. They had come for Ahlam’s husband because he had worked briefly as a translator for US troops.
Ahlam remembered pleading for her husband’s life, but one of the men pointed a gun at her and said, “If you utter just one more word, I will kill you and all of your family.”
Ahlam, who was then pregnant with their sixth child, remembers chasing the car until she collapsed into the mud. No one responded to her cries for help, and the family never learned what happened to her husband.
Ahlam sunk into a deep depression in the months after his abduction, said her oldest daughter. Ahlam nearly stopped eating altogether and started losing her hair. Her daughter said she was at risk of having a miscarriage. So Ahlam moved her family to Baghdad to be closer to better doctors as her due date approached, working for a time as a security screener at a government building. But they were forced to flee the city when sectarian violence erupted — they went to Syria in 2007, which was then much safer than Iraq.
After working in a textile factory with her oldest daughters in Syria, Ahlam brought her family back to Iraq in 2009, returning to the town where she had lived when her husband disappeared so she could claim a government pension for widows. She had just visited a government building to file the necessary paperwork when she spotted the local OWFI office for the first time — it was just across the street. She’d never been involved in politics, but the group’s name — the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq — spoke to feelings she didn’t know she had inside.
“I decided to go in because women are the victims of society — and I am among those victims … a victim of violence, a victim of slavery, a victim of tribes, a victim of religious oppression,” Ahlam said.
“I had this dream inside me to defend women and to prove myself.”
She met Majid for the first time when she walked inside the small office, which was just two rooms with a few chairs. She recalled Majid describing the group as a “feminist organization that works on women’s rights.” She decided to join on the spot.
“I had this dream inside me to defend women and to prove myself,” Ahlam said. “I was in a very bad place. I needed mental support, [to learn] how to trust, how to have confidence ... [and] to be strong [for] my family.”
Her immediate concern was how to survive day to day, but in 2010 she took in a woman who was fleeing a death threat from her ex-husband. He wanted to kill his ex-wife, Ahlam said, because he held her responsible for their 16-year-old daughter’s suicide. They later learned the girl had killed herself after her father promised to marry her to a much older man.
She realized that she could address her own trauma by helping other women with theirs.
“They make me strong, and I help make them less vulnerable,” she said. “We help each other.”
Not long after that, Ahlam joined Majid on rescue missions.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Mohammed, the cofounder of OWFI, explained it took a while to convince Majid that the group should be helping LGBT people for the same reason the group was helping women.
“In his upbringing, it was all about being ‘faggots on the corner of the streets,’” Mohammed said. After OWFI first asked him to rescue the three gay men in 2011, she said, “I had to take him on a safe route to make him feel like it’s a political duty of a leftist to protect somebody who’s being threatened.”
She said she won him over by pointing out, “In this society, gay men are being threatened by honor killing, just like women are being threatened.” Helping LGBT people became a major priority for OWFI at the time, because the group unexpectedly had many people coming into its offices fleeing a wave of violence targeting men believed to be gay.
In 2011 and 2012, there was a spate of anti-LGBT attacks that became known as the “emo killings” — sparked by a campaign against skinny jeans and other Western styles seen as effeminate. Human rights activists estimate that dozens of people were killed in this period under suspicion of being gay.
Majid and Ahlam said they witnessed a man being burned to death by his family during this wave of violence, cementing their commitment to LGBT rights.
Majid was “totally traumatized” by the incident, recalled Davis of CUNY Law, who spoke to him shortly after. She recalled his outrage at the police officers and militia members who stood there and watched as the man’s family set him on fire.
Many OWFI members were unprepared to work with LGBT people, so Mohammed asked Madre and an LGBT rights NGO, OutRight Action International, to organize sensitivity trainings and workshops on documenting human rights abuses. This led to 2014 reports on LGBT abuse in Iraq, mostly focused on abuses in the country’s Shiite areas.
In this first training, OutRight director Jessica Stern said she had to dispel a number of stereotypes, fielding questions like, “Are gays oversexed?” or whether there were more gay men than lesbians. The trainings became an annual event, and Stern said she was moved by how Majid and Ahlam grew passionate about this work. It was “so obvious that they just take care of [LGBT people]. They did what you would wish someone would do for you.”
“If you want me, come get me. I’m at home.”
Majid and Ahlam’s work grew steadily more dangerous over time. Many local al-Qaeda members in Sunni areas had swung their allegiance to ISIS, and by late 2013 the group had control of major cities. In the months after ISIS laid claim to northern Iraq in June 2014, Majid and Ahlam managed to cross into ISIS territory to help rescue women. Sometimes, they said, they would send messages taunting ISIS members for letting them get past — many of the group’s members had been Majid’s and Ahlam’s neighbors for years.
“Many of our family members and friends used to say we were either crazy or brave,” Majid said. Once, Ahlam got a threatening text message from an ISIS member, demanding she come to the mosque to repent for her work or face execution. She replied, “If you want me, come get me. I’m at home.” Then she broke her SIM card and moved out of her house.
“My own fear became bravery,” Ahlam said.
At times the fighting between ISIS, Shiite militias, and the Iraqi military was so close that mortar shells fell near Majid’s and Ahlam’s houses. More and more reports of ISIS’s brutality began reaching them: women being forced into marriage, women doctors being stoned to death for practicing their profession, the widespread use of rape to terrorize communities.
Some of this seemed to fit the pattern of violence Majid and Ahlam had seen in the regions for years. But they grew increasingly shocked at ISIS’s cruelty, Majid told Mohammed in emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
In an email from late October 2014, he described how a woman had been stoned to death by a mob that included her own father.
“How can a father be so separated from his paternity and humanity and be involved in the stoning of his daughter?” Majid wrote. “The answer is the ideology … concealed within millions of males who were programmed that women are a shame and violate honor[.] … [T]his is the religious heritage.”
Majid responded to the growing violence by documenting everything he could, keeping detailed records whenever he and Ahlam worked with victims or spoke to contacts who secretly called them from inside ISIS territory.
Someday, he wrote to Mohammed that October, “we will publish [all this information] so that all can know of ISIS organization’s terrorism and what it commits of crimes.”
By the time ISIS had made the killing of gay men a key part of its propaganda in 2015, defending LGBT rights had become a special passion for Majid and Ahlam.
As Majid’s understanding of the threat to LGBT people grew, so did his understanding in the importance of the mission. At a conference for Syrian and Iraqi feminist groups in Istanbul in 2015, Majid shouted down an activist from another group who said they shouldn’t be talking about LGBT rights.
“LGBT rights are human rights,” he shot back. “They have rights just like anyone else.”
So when Majid and Ahlam starting getting calls that September from gays and lesbians trying to escape ISIS, they were ready.
“There are two guys, they are gays, and they need to escape from Mosul,” the man on the phone said. “Please help them!”
Majid didn’t recognize the voice on the other end of the line that day in September 2015. The man said he was a friend of Majid’s aunt, a kindergarten teacher who lived in the area around Mosul when ISIS took control. She had become one of Majid’s best informants, secretly calling him in the rare moments when she could get a signal to give him the details of people who had raped, tortured, or murdered.
After confirming with his aunt that the man could be trusted, Majid agreed to help the gay men escape. They were a couple, whose first initials are M. and F. (BuzzFeed News agreed to withhold the names of victims and sources to protect their privacy.) M. was a 23-year-old who worked in a bakery, and F. was a 26-year-old who worked in a restaurant, and both had been in hiding for three months. They were so frightened that they had a hard time speaking to strangers on the phone, so M.’s mother took the lead in making the arrangements.
Majid and Ahlam had a pretty clear picture of what the two men were running from. For weeks, Majid’s aunt and other informants had been giving him updates of new executions of people accused of homosexuality.
There were the nine boys and men aged between 15 and 21 who were executed on August 6, 2015, thrown from the National Insurance Company building and other landmarks in the heart of Mosul, sandbags tied around their necks to ensure the impact would be fatal. There were two textile workers thrown off the top of a building under construction in the eastern neighborhood of Wadi Hajar. There were three men in their twenties in the district of Karama who were bound in chains, doused with gasoline, and burned to death.
Majid’s sources told him that many of the victims weren’t even gay. The accusation was so widespread and arbitrary, Majid wrote to Mohammed, that “the people in Mosul are now preventing their children from interacting with others ... because accusations [by] the terrorists can be directed at any young man.”
But M. and F. said they knew ISIS militants were specifically looking for them. A gay friend of theirs had been executed three months earlier, and they believed he gave their names to his captors before he died. They’d heard an order had been issued for their execution, and went into hiding.
It was by then impossible for Majid and Ahlam to cross into ISIS territory to get them out. But sources behind ISIS’s lines gave them a route they might be able to use to escape. Ahlam told the mother that M. and F. would have to drive hundreds of miles through a series of smaller towns. There would be no escaping ISIS checkpoints, Ahlam said, and it would be up to them to figure out how to make it through. M.’s mother would have to accompany them, along with F.’s mother and sister, because a family traveling together would attract less suspicion than men traveling alone.
The drive would end at a town called al-Safra, on the end of the Hamrin Mountains, a rugged border region between territory controlled by ISIS and the Iraqi military’s front lines. They would have to cross the mountains on foot, and it was dangerous — one refugee who completed the crossing in the dark told Majid and Ahlam she’d heard a mysterious crunching beneath her feet, only to discover when the sun rose that she had been walking on human bones.
Water was scarce on the mountains, which were littered with land mines, and ISIS snipers would likely shoot them if they crossed in daylight, the men were warned. Ahlam told them they would need a smuggler to show them the way, but they should have no trouble finding one after they reached al-Safra if they could cover the cost, which would be equal to around $800 per person. Ahlam said they would tell their contacts in the Iraqi military to look for them when they came down from the hills.
“We’ll handle our issues,” Ahlam recalled M.’s mother assuring her.
Against all the odds, they made it.
Even Majid and Ahlam say they don’t know how the family got all the way to al-Safra without being detected by ISIS. But if M. and F. had managed to stay out of sight in Mosul for three months, Majid said, they knew how to stay undercover.
When Majid and Ahlam met the two men, they were so shaken they could barely speak. M. did not at first believe they had truly made it out of ISIS territory, and he kissed the ground when reality set in.
Majid and Ahlam said they were so moved that they began crying too. They took the men and their families to the OWFI office, where volunteers had prepared a meal of okra and specially seasoned meatballs. M. and F. were still so nervous that even the sound of the refrigerator cycling on and off made them jump.
After a couple days, Majid and Ahlam transported M., F., and their families to a city in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
OWFI alerted OutRight, the New York–based LGBT rights group, to M. and F.’s escape, and the group gave the men a little emergency funding to support them. The men gave brief phone interviews to a researcher with the group, mostly confirming what M.’s mother had told Ahlam. They also spoke to a lawyer from Madre, the women’s rights NGO, to help confirm what Majid was documenting.
All these questions made M. and F. even more nervous, Ahlam told BuzzFeed News. The OutRight researcher had explained they could go to Turkey and seek refugee status, a process that can take years. There were also rumors that ISIS members from Mosul had fled to Istanbul. They went to Turkey, but then cut off contact with the NGOs. M.’s mother told OutRight’s researcher that she’d heard they’d crossed illegally to Greece, but she didn’t know how to reach them.
“You know when a bird is in a cage and you free the bird? You won’t find them anymore.”
Ahlam said she wasn’t surprised M. and F. had decided to disappear.
“You know when a bird is in a cage and you free the bird? You won’t find them anymore,” she said. “I felt this [might happen] during the last phone call — finally they are free.”
Before M. and F. had even left Iraq, Majid and Ahlam were already assisting a lesbian couple in their early twenties who were also trying to escape Mosul.
According a report Majid wrote on their case, the women said ISIS had put their names on an execution list after going through old records at Mosul University. The two women had met while students in the teachers college, but had been expelled in 2013 after getting caught kissing in a bathroom. The university had also reported them to the police, but charges of indecency were dropped for lack of evidence.
They’d spent months hiding in abandoned houses on the Mosul outskirts until September 2015, when they met someone in Mosul who had Majid’s number. He passed them on to Ahlam because they were more comfortable speaking to a woman. She gave the women a similar route that they’d used with M. and F., but it took the women nearly two months to be ready to make the trip.
In November, they crossed the Hamrin Mountains to a town called Rubaidah, where Majid and Ahlam picked them up. They also soon moved on to Kurdistan, where they remain to this day.
They had spent the night walking hand in hand, they later told CUNY’s Davis in a phone interview. When Davis asked why, when they knew it could increase the risk of stepping on a land mine, she said one of the women replied, “Because if we were going to die, we will die together.”
The fighting is not, in fact, over. ISIS has lost its territory in both Syria and Iraq, but cells remain active, including in the region where Majid and Ahlam live. Majid and Ahlam also did not feel any profound sense of relief when ISIS’s hold on the surrounding region was broken. The Shiite militias that swept into their area to help push ISIS out brought with them a new round of sectarian violence.
But ISIS’s decline creates a new challenge — Ahlam said that if there is no accountability for the kind of violence ISIS committed, it makes it all the more likely that it will happen again. And if ISIS can get away with atrocities on this scale, why would anyone think twice before raping a woman or attacking an LGBT person in Iraq?
“Our responsibilities are getting bigger after the end of ISIS,” she said.
They have little faith in the Iraqi courts, which began holding trials last year that rushed to judgment so swiftly that there was no effort to investigate specific atrocities — or even give the defendants a chance to refute the charges. OWFI’s legal team made a long-shot request to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open an investigation in November 2017, but the court rejected the petition last month because Iraq has not signed the treaty that would give the ICC jurisdiction within its borders.
But just after the ICC turned OWFI away, a UN investigative team working in Iraq formally requested a copy of OWFI’s documentation. The team is formally charged with advising the Iraqi government on its own investigations into ISIS, but it was created by the UN Security Council to promote meaningful investigations of human rights abuses.
This is unlikely to directly lead to charges for LGBT persecution, but it is a chance to get the documentation from Majid and Ahlam before some of the world’s leading experts in international law. Lawyers working on cases against ISIS are also discussing holding some kind of symbolic tribunal for cases they can’t get prosecuted in Iraq. Some are also considering bringing charges in a country like Germany, which allows its court to hear international criminal cases even when the crimes were committed in another country.
“We must create a historical memory so that history doesn’t forget what happens to LGBT people in conflict.”
CUNY’s Davis said OWFI and its partners are trying to do more than convict ISIS members — they’re trying to convince the world that it should treat the targeting of LGBT people as a crime. Dozens of countries still criminalize homosexuality, and no war crimes tribunal has ever considered the question of whether it’s illegal to kill LGBT people. Just a few UN resolutions specifically condemns LGBT persecution but there’s no legal mechanism for directly enforcing them. Many lawyers argue that language about persecution on the basis of “gender” in the treaty that created the ICC in 1998 covers persecution on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. But it also includes a convoluted definition of “gender” that some anti-LGBT governments hoped would prevent exactly these kinds of prosecutions.
Cynthia Tai, a former prosecutor at the ICC, said OWFI’s documentation is “unprecedented.”
“I believe that this is the first time that the world has seen such a robust and holistic collection of documentation that presents a clear picture of gender-based persecution,” said Tai, who offered pro bono support to OWFI’s legal team. She said the documentation makes a clear case that “LGBT are included in the definition of gender, given that people are being persecuted on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identify.”
The stories Majid and Ahlam collected will also be impossible for the world to ignore, CUNY’s Davis said. They demonstrate that ISIS’s targeting of LGBT people was widespread and systematic, key tests of whether a form of persecution may be considered a crime against humanity.
“We must create a historical memory so that history doesn’t forget what happens to LGBT people in conflict,” Davis said. “What we want to do is to change the discourse of LGBT crimes in the world.”
Last updated on November 10, 2018, at 12:21 p.m. ET
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 10, 2018, at 9:32 a.m. ET
RIACE, Italy — Domenico Lucano just wants the world to leave him alone.
Lucano is the mayor of a tiny medieval village, near Italy’s southern tip, that he saved from extinction by welcoming hundreds of refugees. Today he’s in demand from progressives around the world, a symbol of the resistance to the global rise of the far right and anti-immigration sentiment. On Saturday, he was a star speaker at a rally of tens of thousands of people against anti-immigrant legislation in Rome.
But he's not enjoying the attention.
“Enough! Everybody wants my attention — I might as well kill myself at this point!” Lucano shouted through a scratchy apartment building intercom when BuzzFeed News tracked him down one evening last week. “Everyone is using me... Nobody ever cared about the refugees and now, here you are. I am bitter. About everything.”
Lucano’s town, Riace, started welcoming the refugees sailing to Italy more than 20 years ago. But he really grabbed international attention at the height of the refugee crisis in 2016. He was celebrated by Fortune magazine as one of the “World’s Greatest Leaders,” visited by countless reporters, and praised by the pope. More than 300 communities in Italy and beyond now run their own programs to integrate immigrants on what’s become known as the “Riace model.”
“Everyone is using me... Nobody ever cared about the refugees and now, here you are. I am bitter. About everything.”
But his life’s work is about to be erased by the star of Europe’s nationalist movements, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Salvini became Italy’s dominant politician by using social media to turn the country’s politics into a constant shouting match over immigration, and has permanently cut off funding for Riace’s programs. He’s on the verge of passing sweeping anti-immigrant legislation that could gut similar initiatives across Italy and lead to thousands of deportations.
Salvini pounced on Riace in October, just after prosecutors presented charges against Lucano including mishandling town contracts and “facilitating illegal immigration.” Lucano’s allies say the prosecution is politically motivated and a judge tossed out the most serious allegations. But the court barred Lucano from entering Riace, using a provision usually reserved for cases of Mafia corruption or harassment.
“I wonder what … all the do-gooders who want to fill Italy with immigrants are thinking now,” Salvini said when posting the news on Twitter.
Italy’s left was shattered by the last election, and there are no credible politicians on the national stage who can take Salvini on. Many are looking to Lucano to fill that void. But Lucano doesn’t want to be a martyr for the left. And he couldn’t out-shout Salvini if he tried — the minister has more than 3.5 million followers on Facebook, while Lucano has scarcely posted to social media in the past three years.
When he finally sat down for an interview, the calls only stopped coming when his cellphone died. He lost his temper with one caller, who wanted him to attend a rally later this month 300 miles away.
“I am not angry with you — I am angry with myself,” he quickly apologized. “I am just sick of it all… I know everyone is trying to help, I understand who you are.
“I am called elsewhere, but Riace is failing.”
Lucano briefly slept in his car after being sent into exile, and is now staying in a bare-bones apartment in a nearby town.
His office is a kitchen lit by naked lightbulbs and his desk is a dining table covered by a cloth decorated with farm animals that seems to be straight out of the 1950s. The only food in sight when he spoke with BuzzFeed News was a partly eaten tray of cookies and a bottle of greenish-white citrus liqueur, which — ever the good host — he offered even as he vented his frustration in a mix of Italian and the local dialect.
“I am tired... You see how I live — my bedroom is a disgusting mess,” he said. “I am ashamed to show it to you. This is it, what you see. I have no means.”
“I am called elsewhere, but Riace is failing.”
Riace is in even worse shape. A crowdfunding campaign is underway that has raised almost $350,000 for the town, but it needs more than $2 million to avoid bankruptcy. And hundreds of immigrants relying on the program have no money for food or rent. Their children have stopped going to school because there is no gas for the school bus.
Lucano spoke to BuzzFeed News just after returning from a rally in Milan, an event he’d forgotten about until just hours before he had to be at the airport. The rally had left a sour taste in his mouth, even though he seemed moved that it had brought together factions that hadn’t come together for 20 years. He didn’t say what had upset him, but it might have been that Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala of the center-left Democratic Party, hosted Lucano and then immediately posted an interview on the party’s website saying Italians become racist when “immigrants touch our needs and opportunities.”
He was missed while he was gone. One of Italy’s most respected anti-racism activists showed up in Riace after driving six hours from Sicily. He’d come to invite Lucano to the big protest against Salvini’s policies in Rome. A pair of vacationing environmental activists from Germany also wandered into town to offer their support. Even Lucano’s 92-year-old father, Roberto, said he couldn’t get his son on the phone after he abruptly canceled a lunch date when he remembered he had to fly out the day before.
Roberto is proud of his son, saying he’d always had a passion for social justice. As a teenager, Roberto remembered, the boy had turned down a soccer prize because he believed credit should go to his entire team.
When asked about this story, the mayor said that his morality was shaped even then by a feeling that “we were close to a global revolution.” He keenly remembered the US-backed coup that overthrew Chile’s socialist president in 1973, when he was just 15. Lucano said he is still guided by the words of Che Guevara, “We, unfortunately must feel on our own skin any injustice and humiliation that may happen to any other human being.”
He initially hesitated when asked whether he was so tired that he thought he could quit.
“I do not know — I don’t know anything,” he said, slumping over a pile of folders containing reports of the investigations against him. “I involuntarily became the symbol of the Italian left.”
But he soon recovered his energy and his composure, and his thoughts began to come out in long speeches that referenced radical priests, Malcolm X, and the Beatles. He explained that though Guevara’s words had given him his mission, he had always worried he might not be strong enough to bear the burdens of others.
“It was such a beautiful project and in the past two years it’s gone to shit,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”
Calabria, the region where Riace lies, has always taught people to treat migrants with empathy, Lucano said, in part due to the long tradition of Calabrians crossing oceans looking for work. The numbers who settled in the US helped popularize a regional dish, spaghetti with meatballs. Calabria is said to have been visited by Homer’s Odysseus and at various times sheltered wandering sailors from Greece, Africa, and the Middle East.
There was no grand plan when he decided to begin working with refugees, he said. “I did whatever came naturally to me.”
One of the newer arrivals now depending on Riace is Evelyn Samuel, a 28-year-old from Nigeria’s Delta State, part of a region that has seen decades of fighting over the region’s oil supplies. She spent six years working in Libya before it became too unstable and she decided to get on a boat for Italy with her months-old baby. She was settled in Riace 10 months ago after being rescued at sea by a boat operated by an NGO.
“I don’t know where to go,” Samuel said tearfully in English, calling Lucano by the Italian word for mayor, sindaco. “Salvini don’t like sindaco. Salvini don’t like black [people]. And sindaco like black [people]… Salvini now is chasing us away. ”
Confusion has spread as the program collapsed, and some of the immigrants believe Lucano is to blame for the funding being shut off. Many direct their anger at his partner, a refugee from Ethiopia, believing she manipulated Lucano into playing favorites among the refugees, putting the whole program in danger.
With Lucano in exile, “It’s kind of a desperate situation — no one can fill that void,” said Bahram Arcar, who arrived with the first group of refugees in Riace 20 years ago. He now works for the collective Lucano created to run refugee programs. But with the program out of money, he too will have to leave since he has no way to support his family.
“It was such a beautiful project and in the past two years it’s gone to shit,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”
Arcar arrived in Riace with a group of around 200 refugees in 1998, on a boat that landed on a nearby beach after a dangerous eight-day voyage from the southern coast of Turkey.
They were part of an exodus from Kurdistan, fleeing a civil war between Kurdish factions and efforts by Saddam Hussein to retake a region of northern Iraq that became independent after he was defeated in the Gulf War that ended in 1991. Their arrival in Europe sparked a crisis inside the EU that has many parallels with the one faced by the bloc today, but the players were reversed. Italy, with urging from the Catholic Church, championed the cause of the refugees, while Germany questioned whether a southern European country with such a porous border should be allowed into the EU’s newly created free travel zone.
Lucano, then a teacher in Riace’s school, said the geopolitics were far from his mind when he first heard about the Kurds’ arrival from the local bishop. When the Kurds lost their shelter at a local church, Lucano called his aunt in Argentina and other relatives overseas to ask for permission to put them up in the houses they’d left behind. He’d lined up shelter for 100 people within a few hours, sometimes in houses that had stood empty for 50 years. They sometimes had to break in — keys had disappeared from hiding places on rotted windowsills or crumbling walls — and they scrounged candles for light.
It felt like fate had brought them there, Lucano said. He recalled one of the Kurds telling him, “We are people without a home, and we arrived in a place made of houses without people.”
“We are people without a home, and we arrived in a place made of houses without people.”
Most of the Kurds eventually left to join family in Germany. But Lucano, Arcar, and a few others decided to create a collective, called Future City, to welcome other refugees. They planned to restore buildings, set up apprenticeships with artisans in local workshops, and run small hotels they hoped would draw visitors interested in “ethical tourism.” Soon they got the town involved in a national program called SPRAR focused on vulnerable refugees — like families with children, people with illnesses, and women at risk of being forced into sex work — that specializes in integrating them into communities.
“We wanted this project to become more famous,” Arcar said. “We thought it was important because it would attract tourism, too, because we wanted to make outside money come in. But I thought — and [Lucano] thought too — that it was going to cause problems.”
Images of Afghans, Ethiopians, and Nigerians saving Italy’s ancient heritage seemed to embody all the best of what immigration could be. Projects like Riace were a welcome alternative to Italy’s main refugee system, CARA, in which immigrants are warehoused in isolated camps and often exploited by organized crime.
It seemed to benefit the town’s original residents, too. The school was saved from closure by an influx of new students, historic buildings were restored, and restaurants and grocery stores reopened. Because state money came irregularly, they created a system of IOUs to circulate in town, printing up a town currency with the faces of Nelson Mandela, Guevara, and local activists killed by the Mafia.
Lucano was elected mayor in 2004 on a nonpartisan slate, and he was reelected in 2009 and 2014. Riace first attracted international attention in 2008, when a famous German director made a short film inspired by its immigrants, and in 2010 Lucano was included on a list of the world’s outstanding mayors.
But he became an international symbol at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016, when stories began appearing about him in English. Lucano’s fans always mention his inclusion on Fortune’s 2016 list of the “World’s Greatest Leaders,” where is ranked in between a minister of Africa’s largest country and the philanthropist Melinda Gates.
As Lucano and his allies in the refugee rights community see it, this international publicity painted a target on Riace even before populists took power in Italy in 2018. Inspectors first arrived to audit the program in the summer of 2016, just as the then-ruling center-left Democratic Party was getting spooked by an anti-immigrant backlash. The national government soon moved to tighten restrictions on the NGOs rescuing people from leaky boats trying to reach Italy’s coasts, and it sealed a deal with Libya that it hoped would stop immigrants attempting the crossing.
The audit produced a vaguely worded report implying Lucano may have been playing favorites with government money, though it noted that open bidding was difficult in regions where many contractors are in league with the mob.
A follow-up report found no wrongdoing and praised the program as “a model of hospitality,” but the Interior Ministry kept that report secret while a criminal investigation was underway. It also froze payments to the program in 2016, forcing the town to go into debt to keep the program running.
Lucano told BuzzFeed News they had made mistakes as they expanded the program, allowing new groups to run projects that included “people taking advantage.” But Giovanni Maiolo, head of an alliance of communities modeled on Riace called the Network of Townships of Solidarity, told BuzzFeed News the government’s response was like giving someone who ran a red light a life sentence.
“I would have never imagined we would fall into barbaric racism as such only 80 years after the racial laws of the fascist dictatorship.”
By that time, a prosecutor had also brought sweeping charges against Lucano and 35 others for offenses ranging from corrupt contracting arrangements to “facilitating illegal immigration.” Wiretap recordings of his phone were leaked to the press in which he discussed arranging the equivalent of a green-card marriage for a young Nigerian woman, though full transcripts of the conversation also showed he rejected the idea when the proposed husband demanded she have sex with him.
Requests for comment about the investigation sent to Salvini's office and local investigators were not returned.
All this was hanging over Lucano’s head when Salvini entered office in June this year. Just after he took power of the Interior Ministry, Salvini posted a video saying Lucano is worth “zero.”
Alfonso Di Stefano of the Sicilian Anti-Racism Forum, an organizer of Saturday's protest against Salvini’s anti-immigrant legislation, told BuzzFeed News, “Everything is in danger now.”
Salvini is claiming there is a national emergency to bring the legislation to Parliament under special rules, though new arrivals are way down from their peak in 2016. It would dramatically restrict the grounds on which immigrants would be allowed to petition to stay in Italy, and includes a number of other measures to weaken Italy’s asylum laws. Sounding a lot like Donald Trump, Salvini at one point promised the bill would include a provision to impose a curfew on “ethnic stores,” which he called the “haunt of drug dealers and drunks.” He has also pushed legislation making it easier for Italians to buy guns.
“We [have] never reached such a low point,” Di Stefano said. “I would have never imagined we would fall into barbaric racism as such only 80 years after the racial laws of the fascist dictatorship.”
The legislation passed the Senate last week, and it will likely spell the end of programs like Riace by drastically restricting the number of new immigrants eligible for the SPRAR system. Instead of getting support to integrate into the community, even more refugees would be pushed into isolated holding camps. In southern Italy, Di Stefano said, this would be a gift to mobsters, who have embezzled money from camp administrators and profit by serving as brokers who arrange labor on the region’s commercial farms.
If there’s any silver lining, said the Network of Townships of Solidarity’s Maiolo, it’s that Lucano’s arrest has given civil society someone to rally around at “such a black time for human rights.” Though their efforts have only pulled in a fraction of what Riace needs, $350,000 is an unusually successful crowdfunding campaign by Italian standards. And there are other signs of grassroots support for immigrants in Italy. When Lodi, a small northern city, cut many immigrant children from a school lunch program, an online effort raised tens of thousands to feed them for the rest of the year.
“Their faces were different, but it didn’t matter — they were people,”
Lucano is grateful for the support, even though he hates being cast as a David taking on Salvini’s Goliath. But he recognizes that Riace does provide a counter to the “industry of fear for pure political gain” taking hold across the world.
At one point, Lucano broke into a gap-toothed smile and wondered whether Salvini had ever truly listened to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” “John Lennon was one of our heroes back then,” Lucano said, and reminisced about how easy everything was back when they first turned empty houses into shelters.
“Considering how Italy has become today, I would like to try and go back to that simplicity,” he said.
Back when the Kurds arrived in 1998, Lucano had just helped put on a play that imagined Riace down to its final residents in 2020. The town painted a mural of the sea along a road renamed “Utopia Street,” dreaming that those who’d left would one day sail home again. For Lucano, the Kurds appeared as if they were the long-lost residents of Riace who’d simply returned wearing different skins.
“Their faces were different, but it didn’t matter — they were people."
DENIZLI, Turkey — A group of 12 queer Iranians in hiding in Turkey had gathered for a small party on Tuesday night when someone spotted the report that President Donald Trump planned to stop resettling refugees in the United States.
Several of those there that night had been waiting for their US visas, their cases having been referred to the US by the United Nations. Some had already been turned away from other countries. Others were still waiting to find out if they would ever get a ticket out.
All felt their dreams crushed as they heard the news.
“I’m going to die here,” said Hamid, a 36-year-old gay man who fled his home in northern Iran in 2014 and was referred to the US for resettlement in August 2016. He is one of many queer Iranians who have camped out in Denizli, a small textile manufacturing city in southwestern Turkey, to endure the years-long wait for a ticket to the West where they hope to build a new life.
“We are all gonna end up in this fucking Turkey,” said Soheil, a teacher also from northern Iran whose case is under review with the US, in a text message after the news had sunk in the next day. “Trump is signing the law that literally prevents all Iranian asylum-seekers from entering states except religious minorities. It’s hell. It's fucking hell.”
News of the order was first reported by Reuters earlier in the week, but the full details were not clear until President Trump imposed the rule on Friday. He did it through an executive order — not a law — that froze refugee resettlements for 120 days and then will admit only people from countries where cabinet officials certify “sufficient safeguards are in place” to vet refugees. It also suspends resettling Syrian refugees indefinitely, requiring Trump to personally sign off on resuming the program. It also cuts the number of refugees allowed to be admitted to the US in 2017 to 50,000, less than half of the 110,000 allowed under a cap set by President Obama.
The new rules makes clear that Trump could bring an end to the international cooperation that helps refugees reach safety. The US is not just one among many countries that resettles refugees; it has a special role because it resettles far more refugees to its shores than any other country. In 2015, it accepted 60% of all refugees resettled worldwide, according to the UN. Other countries allow much greater numbers of people to remain within their borders who arrive under their own steam, but no country voluntarily resettles more people than the US through the international refugee process.
There had long been bipartisan support in the US for refugee relief until Republicans began objecting to resettling refugees from war-torn parts of the Middle East under President Obama. This backlash helped propel Trump into the White House. Now he is shaking the foundations of the international system that help people fleeing war and persecution reach safety.
“If the US turns its back on refugees, then other countries might cite this as an excuse to ... provide safety to asylum-seekers.”
And it comes as this system is already stressed to its breaking point, confronted with more people seeking shelter than ever before in human history. Almost 65 million people worldwide had fled their homes as of 2015, according to the latest numbers published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Trump’s order also signals a major shakeup in priorities for the US refugee program if it does resume. Under Obama, the US made a priority of resettling people who were persecuted on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The order from Trump, however, makes a priority of resettling those claiming refugee status on the basis of “religious-based persecution.” This appears to prioritize Christians, allowing for the continued processing of religion-based refugee claims during the freeze on resettlements only in cases where “the religion of that individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” In other words, a Muslim from Iran might not qualify even if their claim is related to their faith.
The news caused anxiety among refugees throughout Turkey, where around 3 million people are now living after fleeing their homelands. Many who spoke to BuzzFeed News — including some who were in the process to be resettled to the US — appeared to be in denial. It seemed unthinkable to them that one man could bring a process to a halt that had been in the works for years under the auspices of the UN. Many believed Trump would only take action against undocumented immigrants.
“Those things concern the illegal immigrants, not the refugees like us,” said Ana, a lesbian from northwest Iran who was forced to abandon her then 7-year-old son and flee after her brother discovered her in bed with her girlfriend in 2014.
(All of the refugees who spoke to BuzzFeed News asked to be identified only by their first names or nicknames because they feared violence for being identified as LGBT or because they worried about retaliation from migration officials for criticizing the process.)
Nienose, a 32-year-old gay Iraqi who came to Turkey in 2015 and is now in the final stages of being resettled to the US, said, “It seems [Trump] is doing something for which he doesn’t know the consequences.”
Nienose now lives in Sakarya, a city about 100 miles east of Istanbul. It’s the second place he’s sought shelter in Turkey; he said he had to leave Manisa, a city near the Aegean coast, after his Turkish neighbors discovered pictures on his Instagram revealing he was gay “and they attempted to kill me.”
“Maybe Trump would think I ran away because I’m a terrorist or want to do bad things in the USA,” said Nienose. “If I am here [in Turkey] any longer and the USA rejects my case, I believe I may kill myself.”
“Whatever I may do, however good a person I may be — a good citizen — the hosts still do not like me.”
Neil Grungras, executive director of ORAM, an NGO that assists LGBT asylum-seekers, said he believes threats of suicide are credible. There have already been instances of refugees harming themselves after losing hope during the confusing and bureaucratic process to qualify for resettlement. He’s especially worried about refugees like Nienose, who were approaching the end of the process and were expecting to leave for the US very soon and now have no idea about their future.
“Refugees who have just been hanging on waiting to be resettled ... are going to become absolutely despondent — I expect people will commit suicide,” Grungras said.
A major slowdown in resettlements to the US could also have much wider consequences, Grungras warned. Turkey and the EU have been working very hard to try to shut down the sea routes to Europe that have brought more than 1 million people into the EU without permission. In March 2016, Turkey reached an agreement that allows the EU to deport migrants to Turkey, in exchange for cash payments and a commitment to resettle qualified asylum-seekers through legal channels.
But this has increased tension over migrants inside Turkey, and would-be refugees need some level of faith in the legitimate asylum process in order not to attempt the increasingly difficult sea crossing. Even if someone doesn’t want to go to the US — and most LGBT refugees say they prefer Canada or Europe because they fear gun violence, think the US is not LGBT-friendly, and want easier access to health care — most know another refugee who’s gone or in the process of going there. These resettlements were proof the process could work; if that stops, it could cause asylum-seekers to lose faith in the system.
“Turkey is ready to explode, and the refugee program is the pressure release valve — and the US led the system,” Grungras said.
The system is already bursting at the seams, derailing the cases of even the refugees who had the greatest reason to believe in a reliable process.
Two of those in this situation are a couple in their mid-forties from Iran named Alireza and Saeed. They had a comfortable life in the capital, Tehran, living together for 10 years in the building where they ran a graphic design and printing business. Then, around October 2013, Saeed’s brother hacked Saeed’s cell phone and attempted to blackmail him with a private sex video.
They first tried to pay a smuggler who promised to get them British visas, but he skipped town with their money. They then tried to get a Greek visa, but were rejected by the consulate. Finally they decided they needed to take the route familiar to many LGBT Iranians. Most know someone — or at least know about someone — who’s gone to Turkey, claimed asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation, and been resettled in the West, usually to Canada. The whole process usually takes two years, and Alireza and Saeed came to Denizli to wait.
They registered with UNHCR in March 2014, and learned in April 2015 that they had been referred to Canada for resettlement. They heard nothing else for more than a year, though they sent hundreds of emails and called each week trying to get an update. Finally, Alireza said, a UNHCR worker called him in November to say Canada was “closed”; they would not accept their cases after all. Instead, their case would be forwarded to the US, where Trump had just been elected president.
Trump didn’t worry them, they said in an interview on Monday just before news of his planned refugee order broke. “We knew Trump was the new president but that did not do anything to us,” Alireza said. “We are legal immigrants — that does not concern us,” Saeed added.
They were shocked when they learned of the report on Wednesday.
“We've been waiting so long the only hope that if Canada is closed, there was US. What can we do?” said Alireza.
“We feel like unwanted guests,” said Saeed. “Whatever I may do, however good a person I may be — a good citizen — the hosts still do not like me.”
Alireza and Saeed are not the only ones in this situation. Saghi Ghahraman, director of the Iranian Queer Organization, a Toronto-based group that supports asylum-seekers in Turkey with the resettlement process, said she has received more than 30 reports from people whose cases were pending with Canada who were informed their cases would be referred to the US instead.
With Trump in office, Ghahraman warned, “I think they are trapped there in Turkey.”
Neither UNHCR nor Canada’s immigration agency responded to questions about these cases. But migration experts say the global scramble to find spots for the overwhelming population of Syrian refugees has meant it is becoming harder for non-Syrians to be resettled.
“I would not be surprised if Syrians were crowding out Iranians in 2016 as the government was clearly prioritizing Syrians over everyone,” said Howard Anglin, who was chief of staff to Canada’s immigration minister before Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister in 2015.
LGBT Syrians have actually had a relatively quick path to safety in recent months. Many countries have given priority to resettling Syrians in response to public outcry as refugees of a war that’s estimated to have claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people and displaced almost 5 million has reached European shores. And UNHCR considers LGBT Syrian refugees at particular risk of violence in Turkey, especially after a 23-year-old named Wisam Sankari was found decapitated in Istanbul in July.
Since then, ORAM says it has been able to help clients facing threats of violence access a small number of spots UNHCR reserves for “emergency” resettlement that can get them out of the country in less than a year, while the process for people who are not deemed high risk can take many years. Most of these fast-tracked cases go to European countries, because the US’s extensive legal and security reviews are generally considered too slow for urgent situations. The US already maintains some of the most extensive vetting procedures of any resettling country.
But even the European countries that resettle the largest number of refugees take far fewer than the US, which resettled 98,873 refugees from countries around the world in 2016, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration. The UK, which resettled the most refugees of any European nation that year, took just 5,213, and many European countries stopped accepting new cases in 2016, according to ORAM, while there are 1,500 self-identified LGBT refugees in Turkey registered for resettlement.
The best-case scenario for those awaiting resettlement under the Trump order is that the US fully resumes its resettlement program after the 120-day freeze. But even then, there will be 60,000 fewer slots to the United States at a time when millions of people are hoping to be resettled from conflict areas around the world. Canada, which resettled 44,741 refugees in 2016 making it second to the United States in the number of refugees it resettles, was already refusing new cases from Turkey in late 2016.
Australia was the recipient of the third-largest group of refugees in 2016, taking 11,388. The country’s internal politics make it unlikely for it to increase resettlements to pick up the hole left by the US. The issue of resettlement is highly controversial there as well, and the country is locked in a years-long battle over a couple thousand asylum-seekers who are confined to remote Pacific islands after attempting to reach the country by boat.
A US retreat on its refugee commitments could have a domino effect, worries Begüm Başdaş, who works on asylum issues for Amnesty International Turkey.
“If the US turns its back on refugees, then other countries might cite this as an excuse to shirk obligations under international law to provide safety to asylum-seekers," Başdaş said.
And if asylum-seekers lose hope in getting to safety through the official resettlement process, she believes more will risk their lives by crossing the sea in smugglers’ boats.
“If these [international] commitments [to shelter refugees] fail, the refugees who need a better life will do whatever it takes to reach areas where they think it will be safe and a future for their children,” she said. “People will die — that’s what it means in plain English.”
This story has been updated following President Trump signing the executive order on Friday.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 29, 2016, at 10:24 a.m. ET
As the rights of transgender people became a major political issue in the US with fights over bathroom access, many other countries around the world have been locked in fundamental debates over gender identity.
In 2016, Norway joined a small but rapidly growing number of countries where changing your legal gender is as simple as filling out a form, and a committee of the British Parliament called on the UK to follow suit. Lawmakers in India are weighing laws that would ban discrimination and establish affirmative action for transgender people in response to a Supreme Court order. And a global effort to remove being transgender from the catalog of mental illnesses kept by the World Health Organization has gained ground and appears poised for victory when the list is updated by 2018.
To get a sense of global attitudes on transgender rights, BuzzFeed News and the polling firm Ipsos partnered with UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute to conduct a first-of-its-kind survey of 23 nations asking about everything from bathroom access to sex reassignment surgery.
We ranked support for trans rights in countries surveyed based on how respondents answered six policy questions. The questions concerned access to bathrooms, sex reassignment surgery, marriage, parenting, and protection from discrimination.
Spain and Sweden — both of which have long been at the vanguard of LGBT rights in Europe — rank at the top of our list.
Sweden was the first country in Western Europe to adopt a procedure to allow people to change their legal gender marker in 1972, and its gender identity law became a model for other nations. Argentina, which comes in third in our ranking, set a new gold standard with a “self-determination” gender identity law adopted in 2012: For the first time in the Western Hemisphere, individuals could change their legal gender by simply filling out a form — no surgery or doctor’s permission required. Four countries in Europe have since adopted self-declaration laws modeled on Argentina’s, and at least 18 more countries are considering similar proposals, according to the advocacy group Transgender Europe.
Russia ranks last on nearly every measure in our survey, perhaps because of the anti-LGBT campaign around passage of the so-called gay propaganda law in 2012. The lawmaker who conceived of that provision — St. Petersburg state legislator Vitaly Milonov — is reportedly at work on legislation that would open the door to prosecutions against doctors who perform sex reassignment surgery.
Unfortunately, technical and financial constraints meant we couldn’t do a survey that would be truly representative of all parts of the world. We focused primarily on countries with high internet penetration, where online surveys tend to more reliably represent the general population. As a result, less developed nations, especially in Africa and Asia, are underrepresented in our sample.
We conducted online surveys in 16 countries with widespread internet access. We also surveyed six countries with somewhat lower internet penetration, where the results provide a clue about what people think but might not be broadly representative of public opinion. Additionally, in India we commissioned surveyors to conduct in-person interviews because of the country's low internet penetration. Ipsos considers the results of these surveys to be accurate within a window of 3.1 to 4.5 percentage points, depending on the size of the sample in each country. (You can read more about our methods here.)
Because the word “transgender” (or its equivalent in other languages) is not widely known in many places, we asked respondents about their attitudes toward people “who dress and live as one sex even though they were born another.” We also used the word “sex” rather than “gender” throughout the survey, because many people don’t understand the difference and because many languages don't distinguish between the two.
In nearly every country we surveyed, less than half of the respondents said they believe that individuals should have total control over their own legal gender designation:
Spain was the only country where a majority of our sample support allowing people to change their legal gender designation without restriction, and 48% of our sample support the idea in Argentina, where it is the law. In most countries, a substantial portion of respondents said people who want to change their legal gender should first be required to have sex reassignment surgery or get permission from an official, such as a judge or doctor. (If you want to read up on requirements for changing legal gender designations around the world, check out this new report from the advocacy group ILGA.)
Twenty-four percent of respondents in the United States said that legal gender reassignment should not be allowed under any circumstances, meaning respondents in the US are the most opposed of any country we surveyed — even slightly more opposed than Russian respondents.
Most respondents in two-thirds of these countries said transgender people should be “allowed to use the restroom of the sex they identify with.” Support was over 70% in Spain, Argentina, and India. This group includes some countries that score toward the bottom on our measures of support for transgender rights, including Turkey and Peru.
In the United States — where bathroom access has become the primary battleground over transgender rights — just 47% said transgender people should be “allowed to use the restroom of the sex they identify with.” Other countries where less than half of respondents support bathroom choice include Brazil, Japan, and Russia.
Most respondents don’t know a transgender person.
People who said they personally know someone who is transgender are substantially more supportive of transgender rights in nearly every country we surveyed. In some countries, people who know a transgender person were 30% more supportive on the scale calculated by BuzzFeed News.
Less than 3% of respondents identify as transgender in almost all the countries we surveyed — the only country where the score was higher was the United States, where 5% said they “dress and live as one sex even though they were born another.”
Our sample wasn’t large enough to precisely measure such small groups, so our findings don’t really tell us how many people identify as transgender. We combined these respondents with people who said they have a transgender friend, family member, or acquaintance to calculate how familiar people in different countries are with transgender people. And we found a huge range.
Brazil came in first on this measure, where 50% of respondents reported familiarity with a transgender person, but the country ranks 14th on our combined measure of support for transgender rights. This visibility is especially notable because Brazil records some of the highest rates of anti-trans violence in the world.
In Spain, our most trans-supportive country, just 25% of respondents reported being familiar with a trans person. The percentage of people who reported being familiar with a transgender person in our most anti-trans country, Russia, is statistically equivalent to the percentages we find in countries like the UK, India, and Germany — all between 16% and 20%. Respondents in Japan appear to be the least familiar with transgender people, even though a 2003 law made the treatment of transgender people a concern of the national government.
People are more comfortable with gay people than transgender people in some countries.
To get a sense of how attitudes toward transgender people might play out in the real world, we asked respondents how they would feel about having different types of people as neighbors. In many countries, the number of respondents who said they wouldn’t want a gay neighbor or a transgender neighbor were about the same. But in several — including the United States — respondents said they are far more opposed to having a transgender neighbor than a gay or lesbian one. Gay and lesbian neighbors are also far more acceptable to respondents in some countries than neighbors of a different race or ethnicity, especially in Europe.
Majorities in nearly every country said they believe transgender people “should be protected from discrimination by the government.”
In most of the world, you need a psychiatric diagnosis to change your legal gender designation. But majorities in most countries surveyed don’t consider being transgender to be a form of mental illness.
Except in the handful of countries with self-determination gender identity laws, you usually need a doctor to diagnose you with “gender identity disorder” or “gender dysphoria” if you want to change your legal gender markers. Many transgender rights supporters and health professionals say this promotes discrimination against transgender people — just as labeling homosexuality a mental illness used to do — and have been pushing medical associations to stop calling transgender people “disordered.” They are poised for a big victory: A draft of the next edition of the World Health Organization’s list of diagnoses deletes the term “gender identity disorder” and no longer classifies being transgender as a mental health issue.
We found only a few countries where a majority of respondents said they think transgender people “have a form of mental illness”: Russia, India, and Turkey. Russia and India were also the only countries where majorities of respondents said they believe transgender people “have a form of physical disability.”
Many countries require sterilization for people who want to change their legal gender designation, but majorities in most countries believe transgender people have a right to be parents.
The fact that a majority in Turkey support allowing transgender people to conceive children is especially notable, since Europe’s top human rights court ruled last year that its sterilization requirement violated international law.
One of the world’s most important gender identity debates is now happening in India.
Legislation is now pending in India that would provide protections to transgender people in the country, home to 1.25 billion people.
Centuries-old communities of transgender women — most commonly known as hijras — were criminalized under laws passed when India was a British colony, and today often make a living as beggars or sex workers. India’s Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the government must enact broad reforms to correct this history, including outlawing discrimination on the basis of gender identity, creating affirmative action for transgender people in employment and schools, and giving them welfare benefits. A law to comply with the order unanimously passed the upper house of the Indian legislature in 2015, but the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced its own watered-down version of the legislation earlier this year that transgender activists have widely condemned.
Our in-person survey in India — which was conducted just before the government rolled out its legislation in August 2016 — found overwhelming support for the original Supreme Court ruling, with 47% saying they “strongly agree” with the decision and an additional 35% saying they “somewhat agree.” Support for individual provisions of the ruling ranged as high as 80%, and 64% said they also support reserving seats in the legislature for transgender people the same way there are seats specifically allocated for women. (This idea was not included in the court order.)
But responses in our survey suggest that Indians are still conflicted about the place of transgender people in society. The long history of transgender communities and religious beliefs that they bring blessings is reflected in the fact that more than 60% of Indians said transgender people have “a special place in society” and 48% said they believe they “have unique spiritual gifts,” more than any other country on both measures. But 55% also said transgender people “are violating the traditions of [their] culture” and 49% said they are “committing a sin” — comparable to Russia on both measures.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 26, 2016, at 11:52 a.m. ET
DENIZLI, Turkey — Sorena sought out the mullah after committing a sin she feared could not be forgiven.
It was the winter of 2014, and Sorena was just 17 years old. She lived with her family in Shiraz, a city of 1.5 million people in southwest Iran. Sorena had been to consult the mullahs before as they dispensed advice from tables in the city park, mostly about how to reconcile the beliefs of her mother — who belonged to Iran’s minority Sunni sect — with the teachings of Shia Islam, the faith of her father, and Iran’s official religion.
But never had she come to discuss something so personal — or so potentially dangerous.
“My desires are not matched with my body,” she told the mullah. “I think because I’ve fallen in love with someone who’s the same sex as me that I’m committing a sin.”
Sorena’s family had raised her as their youngest son, but she saw herself as a woman when she dreamed. She’d also recently had sex with a man for the first time, and the fear that she had sinned beyond redemption drove her into a panic that lasted weeks.
Sorena didn’t tell the mullah about having had sex; she just told him about her desires. But her revelation didn’t shock the mullah, even though homosexuality is punishable by flogging and execution in Iran. He did not denounce her as a sinner or a pervert.
Instead, he told her, “Don’t feel sinful … this is completely acceptable to us.”
In the Islamic Republic of Iran — unlike any other country in the Persian Gulf region — sex reassignment is not only allowed, but also subsidised by the government.
“You are transsexual, and you have to go for the surgery,” he pronounced. “It is accepted in our religion.”
Almost 30 years before Sorena went to see the mullah, a trans woman named Maryam Khatoon Molkara marched up to the armed compound of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, to seek his blessing.
Molkara, who was then 33 years old, was dressed in full compliance with the laws regulating how men should dress, including a full beard. Her breasts, which had been developed through hormone therapy, were tightly bound beneath her shirt. She’d been trying to get Khomeini’s permission for sex reassignment surgery for years; in 1978 she had unsuccessfully sought an audience with him in Paris, Khomeini’s headquarters during the last months that Iran was under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country’s last monarch.
The following year, a revolution toppled the shah and established the country as an Islamic republic. Khomeini returned from exile and was installed as the country’s supreme leader, head of a council of clerics that had veto power over any legislation deemed “un-Islamic.” Khomeini positioned the country to be a leader of Muslim nations in a battle against the United States — which he dubbed the Great Satan — and other Western nations considered imperialist enemies of Islam.
The new republic’s laws included rules for how men and women should dress and the death penalty for homosexuality. This meant trouble for Molkara, according to interviews she gave before her death in 2012. She lost her job at a TV station, was locked in a psychiatric institution, and was injected with male hormones against her will.
Still, Molkara believed that Khomeini would side with her if she only could speak to him directly. So in 1986, she went to his house in northern Tehran to try again. She carried a Qur'an and hung a pair of shoes around her neck, a Shiite symbol meant to convey that she was seeking shelter.
“You are transsexual, and you have to go for the surgery ... It is accepted in our religion.”
But Khomeini’s guards beat her when she insisted on speaking with the ayatollah. She was saved only because Khomeini’s brother, Hassan Pasandideh, happened to pass by. He called off the guards and invited her inside.
There she unraveled, Molkara told The Guardian in 2005. She began screaming, “I’m a woman!” She opened her shirt to reveal her breasts, and women in the room ran to cover her with a chador. Molkara was first given the chance to tell her story to Khomeini’s son, Ahmad, who she said was moved to tears. Then she was allowed to make her case to the ayatollah himself.
“The atmosphere, the moment, and the person were paradise for me,” Molkara said of the encounter. “I had the feeling that from then on there would be a sort of light.”
Molkara left the meeting with a hand-written fatwa — a ruling on religious law — giving her permission for sex reassignment. “God willing, sex reassignment, if advised by a reliable doctor, is permissible,” Ayatollah Khomeini wrote.
Hundreds have undergone sex reassignment surgery in Iran since Molkara’s meeting with Khomeini. Almost 1,400 people applied for permission for the process between 2006 and 2014, according to government figures published in Iranian media, and the country’s State Welfare Organization even provides some funding to help cover the cost of surgery. Iran has also become a destination for transgender people seeking surgery from other Muslim countries; most countries in the region persecute homosexuals and transgender people alike.
A major reason Iran’s rules on gender identity are so different from its neighbors’ is that Iran is Shiite, while most countries in the region are Sunni. That’s according to Iran’s most visible authority on the theology of sex reassignment, Hujjat al-Islam Kariminia, a cleric and legal scholar at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International University.
Sunni teaching holds that someone’s “true gender” cannot be altered, Kariminia told BuzzFeed News, but Ayatollah Khomeini’s understanding of Shiite teaching is that surgery reveals their “true gender” that may be hidden within.
In fact, Khomeini had ruled that sex reassignment was allowed by religious law two decades before Molkara showed up on his doorstep. He wrote about the issue in 1965, just after he was sent into exile by the shah for challenging an agreement allowing US troops to be stationed on Iranian soil.
“If they get the surgery, the gender will not change but [their] real gender that has [long] been hidden will become visible,” Khomeini wrote in a collection of judgments on religious law. Surgery is allowed if “a man finds in himself tendencies similar to a woman’s, or a woman finds tendencies [like that] of men,” he explained, but added that until the whole reassignment process is complete, “they [must] not act as the opposite sex does and has to, since this is haram [forbidden].”
But the legal and medical process can take years, and many Iranians — including government officials — often don’t see much difference between transgender and gay Iranians. Legally transitioning requires passing through 10 separate steps as well as obtaining approval from multiple government agencies, according to a new report from the New York–based LGBT rights group OutRight Action International. The surgery is expensive — especially if you want one of the few surgeons who know how to perform the surgery properly — and the government program to subsidize the procedure is chronically underfunded.
Until the process is completed, transgender people are constantly at risk of violence or arrest on accusations of being gay or for violating laws requiring gender-appropriate clothing. And despite the country’s official position allowing sex reassignment, transgender people often encounter roadblocks from authorities even though they’re following the country’s laws.
That’s what happened to Saman Arastou, an actor who became famous playing women in Iran’s state-funded film industry before transitioning in 2006. For seven years after his transition no director would hire him, he said, and he spent a year and a half battling government censors before getting permission to put on a play about his transition that ran in Tehran earlier this year.
“We are in a country where we have to be either women or men and nothing else,” Arastou told BuzzFeed News.
The authorities claim, “‘We give authorizations [for sex reassignment] and are proud,” Arastou said. “But it is not true — there is no support.”
Despite the mullah’s blessing, Sorena didn’t feel that her problems were solved by their meeting in the park back in 2014.
One of the biggest of those was figuring out whether she was trans, or if she was actually a gay boy. It didn’t make it easier that the stakes were so high: One path required major surgery she wasn’t sure she wanted; the other meant risking arrest or worse. (Sorena asked to be identified only by the name she used in her "gay life" out of concern for her security.)
Sorena began entreating God for help answering this question when she was 16. “God, please let me ... try to know myself,” she recalled praying.
She believes God answered by leading her to Facebook. Her family had just gotten the internet at home, where she could go online without worrying about someone peeking over her shoulder in an internet cafe. She used the new privacy to create a Facebook profile with the name “Sorena Gay Boy,” and within a month she went on her first date with a man. He was 30, and opened the whole world of Shiraz’s “gay life” to her.
“See, you’re not the only one like this,” he told her while showing her around Manjam, the gay dating site popular throughout the Middle East. Sorena remembered seeing thousands of profiles — many where users had posted pictures of their faces— and was “jumping inside” with the realization that “all of them are like me [and live] in my city!”
But her joy turned to panic after they first had sex, and she ran out of the house in the middle of the night. Her boyfriend ultimately took her to a psychiatrist known as an advocate for gay men. The psychiatrist told her being gay was “natural” but encouraged her to leave the country because “your identity here is a crime.”
Leaving home was unthinkable for Sorena. She couldn’t sleep at night if she didn’t say goodnight to her mother, and was so close to her twin sister they were like “one person,” while her four older brothers “behaved like [her] fathers.” They even found her femininity endearing for most of her life. One of her earliest memories is being caught praying while wearing her mother’s hijab when she was 7 — her brother laughed when he saw her, “What is all this silliness?”
“We are in a country where we have to be either women or men and nothing else.”
But her family grew less tolerant as she approached the end of high school. “This is not how a boy behaves,” her father would scold her. They would interrogate her about plucking her eyebrows or shaving her body hair. She tried to convince them it was just teenage fashion, but the stress was becoming so unbearable that she dropped out of school.
When she couldn’t take it any more, she went to see the mullah. And then she decided to tell her mother what was going on even though she still wasn’t entirely sure herself.
“At that time, I wasn’t sure if I was gay or trans,” Sorena said. “I told her what that mullah had told me: that trans is accepted by Islam, so I told her I’m trans.”
The mullah’s words didn’t save her. Her mother suggested she go to another psychiatrist to be fixed; then her twin sister threatened to kill herself if Sorena transitioned. Her brother beat her when he discovered her makeup kit, and later her father — who’d never raised his hand to her before — smacked her across the face and kicked her out of the house in the middle of the night.
So as soon as she could, she left Iran. She felt like she would never be able to figure out who she was between risking arrest while living as a gay man or going through with sex reassignment over her family’s objections. In October 2015 — when she was just 19 years old — she left the only home she’d ever known to seek asylum in Turkey.
“I’m also confused about myself,” Sorena said in an interview, one month after she arrived in Turkey. “I think the atmosphere in Iran ... and the fact that I still think about my family doesn’t allow me to understand what I actually am.”
Sorena is now staying in Denizli, an industrial city in southwest Turkey that has become a kind of purgatory for LGBT people fleeing Iran in the hope of being resettled as refugees in Europe or North America.
She seemed at ease with herself when she first spoke to BuzzFeed News in November 2015, though the pain of being rejected by her family quickly came to the surface. She was then anxiously helping her boyfriend make arrangements to leave Iran and join her, which he succeeded in doing later that month.
In a follow-up conversation a year later, she said that the distance from home had “helped me to find myself” and she could finally “see my soul as a woman.”
But knowing herself better has not made her future any more certain.
She had hoped to be resettled as a refugee in Canada, which has a long history of taking queer Iranian refugees; she also believes the government health care system will make sex reassignment easier. But the waiting list has grown so long that many are having their applications referred to the United States, which flies out more refugees from Turkey than all other Western nations combined. Now the election of Donald Trump — who promised to stop refugee resettlement and bar Muslims from entering the US — threatens to close that escape hatch, too.
“I was ready to die to do the surgery.”
Sorena first spoke to BuzzFeed News in the small apartment that was home to two other refugees who’d arrived a year earlier, who Sorena quickly began calling “Mom” and “Dad” after they met. “Dad” is a 35-year-old trans man named Danial from a city in northern Iran who spent years fighting to stay in the country. (Danial asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his security.)
Danial had tried to play by the rules: He got permission for sex reassignment, went through with multiple surgical procedures, and tried to change his gender on all his legal documents. But he met nearly impossible hurdles at every turn, which is why he eventually left Iran. His story seemed to confirm that Sorena had also made the right decision to flee.
When Danial went for breast reduction surgery in June 2013, he knew his doctor was a butcher. But he let him operate anyway, because he feared a delay could mean he’d be killed by his family. A mangled chest seemed a small price to pay for freedom.
Danial had run away from home three weeks before his chest surgery. He’d spent the previous four years jumping through the legal hoops required to get a permit for sex reassignment behind his family’s back. His family came down on him hard after they discovered years earlier that he would change into men’s clothes after he left the house. There was little he could do to resist his father’s authority as long as he was a woman on paper — a father is his daughter’s guardian as long as she is unmarried in Iran.
“They thought I was homosexual and they wouldn’t accept me changing my sex ... [telling me], ‘You have to be executed,’” Danial said. After his escape, he’d heard his father had ordered his brother, “Go find him and kill him and I will pay for it.”
Becoming legally male was his path to freedom, and he had to complete all the surgical procedures first — that technically meant removal of all female organs and the implantation of a genital prosthesis. And he didn’t have much money, so he couldn’t afford to go to a private hospital with a skilled surgeon. Instead, he went to a public hospital and took an appointment with the first available doctor. And he rushed into the chest surgery just 15 days after having a hysterectomy and was quite weak.
Other trans men warned him not to let the surgeon operate on his chest: They’d showed him how the doctor had left their chests like a pair of deflated balloons that got infected and caused constant pain. But Danial didn’t think he could wait.
“They didn’t realize I had no choice,” Danial said. “I was ready to die to do the surgery.”
His chest turned out as terrible as he’d been warned. The skin where his breasts were is now shrivelled and scarred, and he lost the tip of one nipple to an infection that went untreated because he couldn’t afford a doctor. His recovery was rocky because he had to take a job as a laborer just 15 days after the operation to pay for the hostel where he was staying during the recovery.
Things started looking up after he completed the paperwork to change his legal gender, and he was able to marry the woman he’d kept up a secret relationship with since high school. But, like with all trans people, his paperwork said he’d been excused from military service because he was “mentally disturbed,” which meant he couldn’t get a driver’s license. Employers would see that and turn him away from a job.
And he continued to live in so much fear of his family that he’d turn and run whenever he saw a car that resembled one driven by a relative.
Finally his wife said to him, “You can’t keep living like this in Iran — everywhere you go you have to tell everyone your story.”
So they left for Turkey in early 2015 and settled in Denizli. Danial has managed to find decent work, but health care is a struggle. He brought a stash of hormones from Iran, but he’s had to cut his dose in half to make it last and he worries about serious complications without having his therapy monitored by a doctor. The couple recently gave up on their hope to be resettled in Canada and they are now waiting to learn if the US will accept them for resettlement.
But even this limbo is better than being in Iran, he said.
“I used to love Iran, regardless of all the bad things … I didn’t think I could survive somewhere else,” Danial said. But it was only after leaving, he said, that “I felt like being free — and now I can be myself.”
Soheil Akbari and Soudeh Rad contributed to this story.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 14, 2016, at 10:12 a.m. ET
GAINSBOROUGH, England — If the 25-year-old had been born with a penis, he likely never would have been charged with sexual assault.
The events that brought him before an English judge in December 2015 began four years earlier, when he was 21 and going under the name of Joey Crislow in a Facebook profile. In the summer of 2011, he struck up a relationship online with a 23-year-old woman named Carol.
In an interview this spring, Carol recalled Joey’s profile picture showed a man who was tall and buff — “like an Australian surfer.” Joey initially said meeting in person would be difficult because he lived an hour away. But over the course of the next year, their relationship grew from chats to text messages to calls that would last until they both fell asleep. They traded “explicit” photographs, according to court records. At the time, Carol was three months pregnant and had just been dumped by her partner of four years, and Joey sent her pictures of his own daughter and said his ex wouldn’t let him see their child.
“How did I fall for somebody that I’d never met?”
Sitting at her mother’s kitchen table as her child climbed in and out of her lap, Carol described how quickly she had fallen in love. “It was the most stupidest love,” she said. “How did I fall for somebody that I’d never met?” (Carol spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition that her last name not be used.)
Joey went to great lengths to avoid meeting. One time when they’d made a date, Carol said, she got a text from a strange number telling her Joey had had an accident and was in intensive care — but she called all the hospitals in the area and none had a patient called Joey Crislow. He avoided meeting her a few more times before she gave him an ultimatum: “You’ve got till next weekend to come down — and if you don’t come down … I’m not going to keep doing this.”
When Joey finally pulled up outside her mother’s house in October 2012, Carol realized why he’d been hiding — he looked nothing like his picture. The person behind the wheel was chubby and baby-faced, trying to conceal his features inside a puffy jacket and a floppy hat. He wouldn’t look her in the eyes when she climbed in. As he started to pull away from the curb, she jumped out in fear and ran back to her mother’s.
Carol didn’t speak to him for about two weeks after that, but eventually gave him a chance to explain. He fed her a story about creating the Joey Crislow profile as a scheme to help catch a friend’s cheating girlfriend. He told her his name was actually Kyran. He thought she wouldn’t have been interested in him if he’d shown her a real picture of himself.
It probably sounds crazy, she said, but she forgave him.
“I’d fallen for this person … That’s why, even then, I met up with them and I gave them a chance.”
Their relationship only lasted for a few more weeks but it was very intense. “Everything just came together,” Carol said of that fall of 2012. “It felt like I knew this person my whole life.” The lies were in the past, she thought, and now they “knew everything about each other.”
Kyran doted on her baby and he started sleeping over at her house almost immediately. But he was painfully shy about his body, sleeping in boxers and a tight top he said was to hide an embarrassingly large gut. They had sex just once, and both remember it as quick and awkward. Kyran kept his clothes on and pushed Carol’s hand away every time she reached for his penis.
At the time she just chalked the weirdness up to nerves: “You know when you get embarrassed the first time and you’re like, ‘Oh fuck,’ and you just roll over and you’re like, ‘I’m sorry.’”
But there were still some things Kyran hadn’t told her.
A week later, Carol’s mother caught Kyran in another lie: She spotted him working at the drive-thru window at a local McDonald’s when he had told them he worked miles away. Carol rushed to confront him and saw Kyran running out the back of the restaurant as she charged in the front.
The manager told her that the person wasn’t called Kyran, Carol remembered: “She’s Fiona Manson, and she’s a lesbian.”
As soon as Carol recovered from the shock, she went straight to the police.
Kyran told BuzzFeed News his story in May 2016, sitting on the couch in a row house off a fading commercial strip on the outskirts of Gainsborough, a town of around 20,000 in the countryside about two hours north of London.
Kyran said he met Carol just as he was fully coming to terms with being trans, and he remembered the weeks he and Carol dated as being one of the happiest times in his life so far.
Before Carol, he said, the only place he could be the man he felt himself to be was in online profiles, and their relationship was so easy precisely because she never knew he was raised as a girl. He seemed to speak forthrightly about much of what happened, though he glossed over some key details. But in his mind, one thing he never lied to Carol about was his gender.
“She was the first person I could be with in the same [physical] place and actually be myself,” Kyran said. “I was completely myself, apart from the fact that she didn’t know who I used to be.”
He was in the middle of his medical transition, having recently recovered from his second chest reduction surgery, and was looking forward to having bottom surgery. But he said that it took many years to learn that transitioning was even an option.
“I had no idea that people like me existed — the only [trans] people I ever saw on TV were men turned into women,” he said.
“I was completely myself, apart from the fact that she didn’t know who I used to be.”
Then he discovered the videos of Aydian Dowling, a trans man who became a YouTube star documenting his transition in a series of videos beginning in 2009. But once Kyran knew transitioning was possible, he said he was still afraid to take that first step — he chickened out on several doctors' appointments he booked in early 2012.
“My first thought was like, ‘How do you tell people?’... If I had got over that hurdle quicker, I would have done everything so much earlier,” he said.
Kyran said he’d planned to tell Carol after New Year's; she was so looking forward to Christmas that he didn’t want to risk upsetting her and ruin the holiday. During his sentencing hearing, the prosecutor described how Kyran came up with many excuses to avoid having sex — once claiming he’d “found a lump ... down below” — and the judge accepted Kyran’s story that he only gave in after she threatened to break things off. (Carol disputed this account in her interview with BuzzFeed News.)
In Kyran’s version of events, Carol’s mother was the one who called the police about him, omitting the fact detailed in court records that he tailed Carol from McDonald's to the police station on November 28 and was warned for harassment. Kyran described turning up at Carol’s mother’s house in January 2013 and refusing to leave when Carol wouldn’t speak to him, but he didn’t mention that he threatened to kill himself on her doorstep, according to court records, while “holding a knife as blood dripped down her [sic] arms.”
When prosecutors finally brought charges against him, he was stunned to learn that he was accused with assault by penetration — just a step removed from rape — which can carry a sentence of up to life in prison.
On June 6, 2013, Kyran pleaded guilty. He says his lawyers told him the prosecution’s case was ironclad and fighting the charge would only doom him to a stiffer sentence. And he was petrified of going to jail — he didn’t know whether he’d go to a men’s or women’s prison, and both seemed likely to leave him deeply scarred.
He pleaded guilty, but was still shocked that what he'd done was classified as sexual assault.
"It sounds like you’re going to pin someone down and do some horror to her, and it wasn’t that," Kyran said. “I’m getting done for something I didn’t even know I was doing."
British tabloids sensationalized the cases with headlines like: “Woman Duped by Lesbian with Fake Penis Reveals Her Horror.”
The British tabloids covered this case with headlines like, “Woman Duped by Lesbian with Fake Penis Reveals Her Horror” and “Mum Duped into Sex with Lesbian Using Fake Penis Vows to Get On With Her Life.” A similar case sentenced months before Kyran’s garnered equally sensational headlines, and one that came months after was summed up with phrases like, “Woman Used Rubber Penis to Pretend to Be a Man to Lure Girls Into Sex.”
There have been at least six prosecutions for so-called gender fraud in the UK since 2012, and they’ve mostly been reported as sex crimes that are so outlandish it can be easy to forget they involve real people. But they’re complicated personal stories when looked at more closely.
Most of the defendants in these cases have not identified as trans, or at least not tried to defend themselves against the charges on that basis. The courts have mostly seen these as cases of lesbians tricking women into homosexual sex. (None of the gender fraud cases have so far involved cisgender men or trans women.) But some of the other defendants appear to have been young women who seem to have been genuinely exploring their gender identity. And the prosecutions raise a fundamental question about the law of sexual consent: How far should the law go in policing what people tell each other before having sex?
Britain’s legal system is also struggling with the questions of gender identity they raise.
On Wednesday, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales ordered a new trial in the most widely covered of the recent gender fraud cases. The same day, the Court of Appeal rejected a request to reduce the prison sentence of more than three years in a separate case concerning Jennifer Staines, who pleaded guilty in March to eight charges related to three relationships she had between 2008 and 2014. The first of these relationships began when she was still a minor, and her lawyer said during sentencing that this was a time when she was also googling “transgender” and other terms that suggested she was "a confused young woman who is trying to come to terms with who she is."
How far should the law go in policing what people tell each other before having sex?
Staines was 17 when she befriended a 12-year-old girl online. They met and “snogged” after the young girl had turned 13, but they never had sex. During sentencing, the judge said three months of her total jail time was to punish this sexual touching, and there were additional counts for possessing explicit pictures that the young girl had sent to her. Staines also pleaded guilty to having sex repeatedly with another girl closer to her own age whom she dated for more than a year beginning in 2012, and a third girl who she dated for several months in 2014.
Her attorney, Stephen Mooney, told BuzzFeed News that he believed the judges were somewhat sympathetic. Though Staines now identifies as a lesbian woman, Mooney presented evidence that Staines' gender identity questions were real and that the sex grew out of emotional relationships. But in general, the courts are more concerned with the impact on the victims rather than the defendants’ situations.
“The court of appeals understood that this wasn't a girl who's a predator, who was anything other than confused,” Mooney said. But the bottom line was that the complainants “had sex with her without a full appreciation of the circumstances,” and the court put “more emphasis on the deceit than why the deceit was perpetrated.”
Carol wanted Kyran prosecuted for the fraud of creating a false persona, but fraud is only a crime in England if done for financial gain. But the fact that Kyran’s persona was male and his legal gender was female cleared the way for a sex crime charge.
As Carol put it, “I didn’t consent to having sex with a woman; I consented to having sex with a man.”
“I didn’t consent to having sex with a woman; I consented to having sex with a man.”
These crimes have become known as "gender fraud" even though they're actually prosecuted as cases of sexual assault. The basis for these charges is a little confusing because there’s no law that specifically says that it is illegal to lie about your gender to a sexual partner.
The principle grew out of a premise that no one argues with: that a person has a right to consent to sex with full knowledge of all the information that would affect their decision. The Sexual Offences Act that applies in England and Wales nods to this idea by requiring someone to “reasonably believe” a partner consents before sexual contact. (Five of these cases were prosecuted in England; a sixth was prosecuted under a different charge in Scotland, which has a separate criminal system.) If that consent is based on a lie, it follows, the consent doesn’t count.
But critics say that the courts have selectively enforced this principle, ruling out prosecutions for people who lie to a sexual partner about things including their real name, marital status, or wealth. Many legal experts contend that this reflects the bias of the largely male legal system, turning a blind eye especially to the kinds of things men routinely lie about to get women into bed.
In one recent high-profile case, prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against a group of undercover police officers who had sex with women without revealing their true identities — including two cops who fathered children with women who believed they were in an ongoing relationship.
The courts have mostly held that the only kind of lies that can nullify consent are about the nature of the sexual act, such as breaking promises not to ejaculate inside someone or to wear a condom. Misrepresenting who you are generally isn’t a crime.
The gender fraud cases have put gender identity in a very special category, and the pattern is alarming to transgender rights advocates. They create a precedent that means trans people could risk prosecution if they don’t out themselves before even light sexual contact. But disclosing their gender identity could have life-or-death consequences. There’s a long history of what’s known as “trans panic”: A number of trans women have been murdered by sexual partners who discovered they’re trans during or after sex.
It’s notable that these cases are now happening in British courts, because they come as lawmakers are deliberating reforms that would make Britain one of the easiest countries in the world to change your legal gender.
In January, a House of Commons committee issued a transgender equality report, which essentially recommends allowing people to have total control over their legal gender designation, removing requirements that transgender people must submit medical evidence to a government panel before changing their legal records.
“It’s a central part of who we are as a country that we treat people with respect, people who have the courage to think about their sexuality, to think about their gender,” Conservative MP Maria Miller, who chaired the committee, told BuzzFeed News in an interview in May 2016. (The matter is now on the back burner in the uncertainty following the UK’s decision to leave the EU.)
Miller said she was unaware of the gender fraud prosecutions, but said “there are always going to be anomalies” when changes are made “in these sorts of areas,” and that shouldn’t mean the country should be “limiting people’s rights to be able to determine who they are.”
The gender fraud cases are partly a reflection of a general shift in approach to gender identity, said Stephen Whittle, a professor of equalities law at Manchester Metropolitan University and a specialist adviser on Parliament’s transgender equality report.
“The idea that you can adopt a transgender identity is much more pervasive today — there’s not the fear that my generation had, and we have lots of young people exploring these issues for themselves,” he said.
But, he said, the courts are falling behind. He pointed out that the judges who decided the defining gender fraud case were three men in their sixties all educated at Oxford, and they are “making judgment about the lives of people on things like they’ve never experienced.”
In England and Wales these gender fraud cases have been prosecuted under a precedent set in the Court of Appeals in a 2013 ruling.
The defendant’s name was Justine McNally, a girl from Glasgow who was going by the name Scott Hill on a social networking site called Habbo in 2007. She was just 13 at the time, and befriended a girl about a year younger living in London — whom the court calls “M” — and they developed a relationship over the next three and a half years, speaking on MSN messenger and by phone.
Many of the details of the case have not been made public, but the summary of events presented in the Court of Appeal judgment makes it sound like they could have been two teenagers falling in love. They talked about getting married, having children, what they’d do together in bed.
(McNally declined to be interviewed for this story through an attorney, but directed BuzzFeed News to refer to her with female pronouns.)
M alleged they had sex just once, the first time McNally visited her in London in March 2011, when McNally was 17 and M was 16. (Sixteen is the age of consent in England.) But their relationship carried on for several visits, during which “there were lots of occasions of oral penetration and occasions of digital penetration,” the court wrote. “They wanted to engage in sexual activity all the time.”
On McNally’s fourth and final visit, M’s mother found a bra and a strap-on in McNally’s bag, a discovery M testified made her feel “physically sick.” McNally confessed everything to the two when confronted — and showed them her Facebook page under her given name that pictured her wearing a pink dress and heels. She “kept talking about wanting a sex change” and begged to keep the relationship alive, according to the court.
It’s not clear what M wanted at this point, but M’s mother called McNally’s school to complain, and the school reported the sexual contact to police.
The appeals ruling suggests McNally never told police, her lawyers, or a judge that she wanted to undergo medical transition. She initially intended to fight the charges by claiming that M had known about her gender for about two years before they met in person. But in a turn that appeared to mystify her defense attorney, she withdrew the claim and decided to plead guilty to almost all the charges against her.
In March 2013, when McNally was 19, a judge sentenced her to three years in prison for six counts of assault by penetration using her fingers and tongue. In a deal with prosecutors, a seventh charge for penetrating M with a dildo was dropped — McNally maintained throughout the proceedings that this never happened.
McNally appealed her sentence, and her new lawyers hoped they could get the Court of Appeal to throw out her conviction altogether in part by arguing that the conviction got the law wrong: A lie about gender shouldn’t invalidate sexual consent.
There were only two relevant cases in which the courts had ruled consent could be invalidated by a lie, they said; both concerned violating an agreement about the sex act, not a misrepresentation of identity. One concerned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in which the court decided that it could be a crime to break a promise to wear a condom; the second involved a man accused of breaking a promise to pull out before ejaculating. In essence, McNally’s lawyers argued, a lie about gender was more like lying about your wealth than lying about exposure to semen.
The three-judge panel agreed to reduce her time in prison, but rejected that she had committed no crime, saying her attorneys’ argument defied “common sense.”
“Thus while in a physical sense, the acts of assault by penetration of the vagina are the same whether perpetrated by a male or a female, the sexual nature of the acts is, on any common sense view, different where the complainant is deliberately deceived by a defendant into believing that the latter is a male,” wrote Lord Justice Brian Leveson for the three-judge panel.
“Some deceptions (such as, for example, in relation to wealth) will obviously” not be the kind of lie that would invalidate consent, Leveson wrote. But gender could be fundamental to consent, Leveson continued: “M chose to have sexual encounters with a boy and her preference (her freedom to choose whether or not to have a sexual encounter with a girl) was removed” by McNally’s misrepresentation.
The Crown Prosecution Service — the agency that oversees all prosecutions in England and Wales — issued guidelines following this judgment urging prosecutors to consider factors including whether the offense “occurred as a result of the suspects [sic] uncertainty or ambivalence about his/her gender identity” and what steps a defendant “has taken to acquire a new gender status.” CPS senior legal adviser Neil Moore told BuzzFeed News in an interview that trans people were not being “targeted” for prosecutions.
But the McNally precedent creates tremendous uncertainty for transgender people, said Tom Wainwright, who represented McNally during her appeal. The ruling says “there’s no consent in some circumstances,” if someone is judged to have misrepresented their gender, “but we don’t know what those circumstances are.”
Because “sexual assault” encompasses a wide range of acts, the courts may have opened the door to gender deception prosecutions for sexual contact far short of penetration.
“That has huge implications for the trans community,” Wainwright said. “That definition of consent applies not just to sex; it [also] applies to sexual assault — which can include a kiss.”
It creates serious problems for the court to get involved in personal relationships on this level, Wainwright said. "My view generally on these things is, 'buyer beware.'"
By the time the sentence was handed down in December 2015, the person who had been charged as Fiona Manson was officially known as Kyran Lee.
Sentencing was delayed for 18 months because another woman came forward after Carol’s accusation made the news, saying Kyran had similarly deceived her. Kyran fought the charges and won, his lawyer said, because there was insufficient evidence he and the other woman had ever had sex.
During those 18 months, Kyran had begun to medically transition. He said he first requested hormone therapy from his doctor around July 2012, but it took until 2014 to complete the psychiatric and medical reviews required by the National Health Service to start hormone therapy. He had his first chest reduction surgery shortly before being sentenced.
You don’t get a handbook what you can and can’t do as a trans man.
The evidence of transition that Kyran presented to the court helped keep him out of jail. Judge Michael Heath said he would commute Kyran’s two-year prison sentence so he wouldn’t go to prison unless he commits a serious violation of his probation. The judge said he was lenient because he was convinced that Kyran wanted to “have a relationship as a man with a woman ... it was not a [ruse] to practise lesbian behaviour.”
Kyran is, however, now a registered sex offender. But when he spoke to BuzzFeed News in May his life had seemed to be getting back on track, including recently getting engaged to be married. And he still thinks it's unfair that if he’d been raised a boy and done the same thing — created a fake male persona and had sex with a woman — he likely wouldn’t have been prosecuted.
"You don’t get a handbook what you can and can’t do [as a trans man],” he said.
Carol also feels let down by the justice system. She was shattered when Kyran escaped jail, and now suffers anxiety so severe that she generally won’t leave the house alone. She questions nearly everything Kyran told the court, and now she lives a few blocks from the person she feels raped her.
Kyran “violated me, as far as I’m concerned,” Carol said. “People should be who they want to be, and nobody should have a right to tell them who they are … [but] I think what that person had done was completely in the wrong.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 8, 2016, at 10:26 a.m. ET
TEGESWETAN, Indonesia — Local police dispatched officers as soon as they got a report that two men planned to marry each other in Tegeswetan, a mountain village of around 2,000 people in Indonesia’s Central Java province.
Officer Singgih quietly approached the thatch-roofed house where 27-year-old Andi Budi Sutrisno lived with his two parents. A crowd of several dozen spilled into the yard and onto the village’s main street that Saturday morning in mid-March. Dozens of guests had journeyed to the event in minibuses and SUVs, and a feast awaited them made with scores of coconuts, a broad array of spices, and 100 pounds of rice.
Andi emerged from his bedroom wearing a gown of golden lace and a crown pinning his hair into an imposing bun. His boyfriend, Didik Suseno, wore a dark suit on his skinny frame and a garland of flowers around his neck. Didik’s parents cried as the couple performed sungkeman, a ceremony asking the parents’ permission to marry.
Officer Singgih reported back to his superiors as soon as he saw Andi and Didik pose for a photograph. Officers arrived to take Andi and Didik away while they were shaking hands with their guests, and escorted them to a summit with village leaders at the house of a local official nearby.
This was exactly what Andi was afraid of from the moment Didik suggested they marry. The idea was to please Didik’s parents, who lived in a far-off village and had only met Andi dressed as a woman. They expected the couple to marry after they’d been dating for two years, and had even managed to get a wedding license from a government office in their village.
Andi told Didik he thought it was a bad idea from the moment he first proposed. “What a weird proposal you made,” he recalled saying. “We’ve never been able to get married here — never.” To head off legal problems, Andi asked village officials to see that the wedding application was formally nullified before the party took place. The event was just meant to look like a wedding celebration to satisfy Didik’s family.
But none of these details mattered to police. They saw the couple as part of shadowy movement rapidly infecting the country and a chance to proclaim which side they were on.
“The police are concerned that an LGBT problem occurred in this village … this case, in fact, confirms our prediction that LGBT is spreading,” Suharwoko, deputy commander of the local police subdistrict, told BuzzFeed News. (He, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.) Tegeswetan, like Indonesia as a whole, is overwhelmingly Muslim and they were worried, the local police’s public relations director said, that a same-sex wedding would create “social unrest.”
“For a man to marry a man … is haram. Allah created only male and female.”
Since that March day, this tiny village has been sucked into a moral panic over homosexuality that swept Indonesia in the first half of this year, with gangs on the streets attacking LGBT organizations and the highest government keeping up the drumbeat. Homosexuality is not criminalized in the country and the term “LGBT” was barely known outside activist circles, but in January lawmakers began describing the movement as an existential threat to the country. It was a new front in a long-running culture war over the place of Islam in a country that is 87% Muslim but officially enshrines freedom of religion.
The police eventually let Andi and Didik go, but the police quickly published an account of the event on the department’s Facebook page under the headline “Police Thwart Same-Sex Marriage,” with pictures of Andi in his regalia. Most Indonesians would know two different words for a man who wears women’s clothes: the polite equivalent of “transgender,” waria, and the rude equivalent of “faggot,” banci. The police press release quoted a Muslim cleric denouncing Andi as both.
“For a man to marry a man … is haram,” the cleric lectured the couple according to the police Facebook post. “Allah created only male and female … not waria or banci.”
The story quickly traveled across Indonesia, a nation of almost 260 million people spread over around 6,000 inhabited islands in a chain that stretches the distance between Seattle and Miami. The police’s Facebook post was shared thousands of times and the story was picked up by several news outlets. Andi had lived his whole life in a remote village, but now he was cast as a kind of foreign invader who threatened the fabric of society.
“This phenomenon is a sign that LGBT movement and its propaganda in Indonesia has been very successful,” said Fahira Idris, a senator representing Jakarta in the National Assembly who built her national profile as a social media crusader for conservative causes. During a national news program, she said, “They are targeting Muslim countries such as Indonesia … because they think their propaganda has been successful. … If the government does not respond quickly, it will extend even further.”
Andi with his parents at their home in Tegeswetan.
He is one of the region’s best dancers of ndolalak, a local style that is usually performed only by women. He wears the women’s dance costume with perfect poise, and he is a master of ndolalak’s precise hand inflections, tight twirls, and elegant ripples of the sash. As he walked through a recent festival in the village, children delightedly cried “Andini!” — the female form of his name.
He’d shown his aptitude for dance at an early age, and the story of how he got his feminine grace is well-known in the village: When he was 11, an elder took him to a shaman who poured him a glass of water. After he drank it, the shaman told Andi it contained the spirit of a princess said to be a guardian of the forest. She was called Putri Babi — the Pig Princess — and she would make him more beautiful and a better dancer.
The change was immediate, said Edi Purnomo, a village official who ran the town’s ndolalak troop. Edi had also been one of Andi’s first religious instructors, teaching him to read the Qur'an. But he was thrilled with the dancer Andi became after the visit to the shaman.
“After drinking the water, he began dancing attractively like a woman, so my ndolalak group got more gigs,” Edi said, noting that Andi supports his two disabled parents with the money he makes from performing. Most of the neighbors respectfully address Andi as “sister” even when he was out of costume, and, Edi said, “I support what he is now because his soul is full of artistry.”
Edi Purnomo, right, at a festival in Tegeswetan, Aug. 27, 2016.
Though Indonesia is home to more Muslims than any other nation on earth, the faith has historically lived comfortably side by side with belief in ghosts and spirits with roots in Buddhism, Hinduism, and other traditions that dominated the region before Islam arrived in the 12th century. People from the area told BuzzFeed News they’d heard of others occasionally being possessed by a spirit of the opposite sex, but no one knew of someone who appeared to have changed as much as Andi.
And Andi fits in a long tradition of cross-dressing in theater on Java; it used to be that men mostly played women’s parts and sometimes took on feminine roles offstage. Transgender people are well-known throughout Indonesia by the term waria — a term that combines fragments of the word for woman (wanita) and man (pria). Though they are often driven from their families and only able to support themselves by sex work, they have not historically been harassed by their neighbors or especially targeted by morality campaigners or police.
Andi didn’t consider himself a waria, though. The ones he’d seen were sex workers in the nearby city, he said, “and I am not associated with that.”
“I dress up like this simply for work, to earn money to support my family,” he said. Until March, he had “no regrets” about growing out his hair and wearing makeup, which he was drawn to the moment he felt the princess move into his body. He called the princess a blessing, “a tool to earn money.”
He said he was “madly in love” with his boyfriend and went along with the wedding ruse so they could be together. But Andi doesn’t call himself gay — it’s not really a word he’s familiar with.
The events that upended Andi’s life began back in January in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, when the minister of higher education declared that LGBT runs counter to Indonesian “values and morals.” He was responding to posters hung up at the University of Indonesia for an “LGBT Peer Support Network” offering counseling services to “friends who need a place to share their stories.”
It snowballed from there. Over the next month, a former cabinet minister called for gay people to be put to death, the vice president demanded the United Nations cut support for LGBT rights programs in the country, and the defense minister called the LGBT movement a front in a “proxy war” to occupy “the minds of the nation” that was more dangerous than “nuclear war.”
A wave of attacks on LGBT people by vigilante groups followed. In Bandung, West Java, a group called the Islamic Defenders Front raided the rooms of suspected lesbians and hung banners around the city saying “Homos and Lesbis forbidden to enter.” In Yogyakarta, the nearest metropolis to Andi’s village, a group called the Young Generation Muslim Brotherhood Forum threatened an LGBT solidarity march — it was ultimately violently shut down by police. Another Yogyakarta group forced the temporary shutdown of an eight-year-old Islamic school for waria, which had made international headlines as the world’s only madrasa for transgender women.
Since he got caught up in this firestorm, village leaders have been looking for a Muslim cleric to perform a ruqyah — a kind of Islamic exorcism — to get rid of the princess spirit. And Andi wants to see her gone.
“I’d love to have the spirit out — it’s led me astray because it’s black magic,” he said.
But he is still confused about how he became part of a national controversy. He tripped over the foreign acronym as he said, “I don’t even know what LBGT is or what the connection is [with me].”
Andi after a dance performance in August.
Homosexuality had become a major issue in national politics so suddenly that it was weeks before seasoned LGBT activists realized a fundamental shift was underway.
LGBT activists had occasionally clashed with Islamist vigilantes over isolated events — like a queer film festival or activist conference — but the confrontations were soon forgotten, and they could continue their work. And arrest or mob violence have followed marriage attempts by same-sex couples going back several years. But this time the attacks were sustained, and policymakers seemed determined to make the crackdown permanent.
The biggest potential threat to LGBT rights made headlines in August. The Constitutional Court began seriously considering a petition that would criminalize homosexuality for the first time and punish the crime with five years in prison.
The suit made clear that this unprecedented fight over homosexuality was just the latest round of a very old argument over the place of religion in Indonesia. The petition was backed by a three-year-old coalition called the Family Love Alliance (abbreviated AILA in Indonesian), which included much older organizations that had long campaigned to bring a stricter interpretation of Islam to Indonesia.
In court, AILA’s experts argued that criminalizing homosexuality was part of the unfinished business of breaking from the country’s colonial past. The criminal code was written by the Dutch colonial government that ruled Indonesia until World War II, they said, and Indonesia could become like a Western nation if it was not updated to criminalize sexual conduct counter to local religious beliefs. Their request to criminalize homosexuality got most of the attention, but that was actually only one part of the petition — they also wanted to criminalize all heterosexual intercourse outside marriage as well.
“This criminal code was adopted from the Dutch with its own particularistic values ... We were not only colonized in terms of territory but also morally,” Atip Latipulhayat, a law professor at the Padjadjaran University in Bandung, argued during an August 23 hearing.
Several of the judges seemed persuaded by this argument, including Patrialis Akbar, who said from the bench, “This constitution is liberal, yes, because it’s coming from imperialist government ... Should all laws that are not in accordance with morals and religion be synchronized with local values?”
“We are considered as part of the Eastern world, a civilized nation, a religious nation, a nation with noble character ... It has norms. It is not like the West, America, which can be as free as they want.”
There were armed militias that wanted to establish an Islamic state when Indonesia won independence in 1945, but the military regime that consolidated power by 1965 drove them underground. They sprung back to life after the dictatorship of President Suharto fell in 1998. Islamist organizations also grew on university campuses. Generations of students returned from years abroad — especially in Egypt — inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and other international Islamist movements. Recently, conservative voices have grown louder with the explosion of social media, which has also opened channels for appeals from hardline Islamic groups overseas.
The internet is also where conservatives see the greatest threat. Lawmakers first responded to the LGBT crisis by calling for a ban on LGBT “propaganda” online. The government, which has been locked in a much broader regulatory battle against foreign tech companies, moved in September to block Grindr and is reviewing more than 80 LGBT apps and websites.
Internet use has more than tripled in the country since 2010 — around 30% of the country is now online — and it is one of the world’s biggest markets for social media. This has created a space where LGBT Indonesians can be more vocal than they could ever be in the real world, and where they can find support as part of a global community. But this has also seemed to validate the argument that LGBT activists are agents of a foreign movement penetrating the country through computers and smartphones.
“All news and information is dominated by Westerners, by outsiders — they intentionally aim to influence our mind, our way of thinking,” warned Said Aqil Siradj, chairman of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, the 91-million-member Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said during an August speech.
The NU called for the criminalization of homosexuality and LGBT “propaganda” in February, which stunned progressives. The group had been a key voice for pluralism during the early years of democracy, and its endorsement of the anti-LGBT campaign was the clearest sign that the politics of the issue had fundamentally shifted.
Private homosexual relationships or waria were not something that needed to be policed before Western backing turned LGBT into a “massive movement … asking to legalize it,” Siradj told BuzzFeed News following the speech. “We are considered as part of the Eastern world, a civilized nation, a religious nation, a nation with noble character ... It has norms. It is not like the West, America, which can be as free as they want.”
The NU is also working to counter the spread of al-Qaeda and ISIS-style terror groups, which have carried out several small attacks in Indonesia, and Siradj said that homosexuality was just as dangerous.
Homosexuality “destroys the nation … just like terrorism,” because if there is sex “between man and men, then [humanity] is finished,” he said. “It is the anus [they use for sex], you know — I want to vomit just talking about this.”
What happens next may determine not only the future for queer Indonesians, but also could make this year a turning point for the relationship between religion and state in the country.
The worst of the street violence has subsided, progressive activists say, primarily because many LGBT groups have canceled public events and gone underground to avoid new confrontations with vigilante groups. But the legal environment is growing increasingly ominous: in late August, police in a city near Jakarta announced that they had busted a child prostitution ring operating through Facebook and gay apps, renewing the urgency of calls for a government crackdown.
The Constitutional Court’s hearings continue on the petition to criminalize homosexuality; no timeline for issuing a decision has been announced.
Several of the judges have made clear they’re sympathetic to the petition, but it’s not clear how far they’re willing to push their authority. Many legal experts — and some of the justices — have said the court would be making a new law by granting the petitioners’ request and violating its mandate to simply review regulations enacted by other branches of government. But the lead lawyer for the petitioners, Feisal Syahmenan, told BuzzFeed News that the case was designed to be within the court’s power. All judges need to do is delete an age restriction from an existing provision criminalizing sodomy with a minor.
The court has a reputation for being political, so the case is volatile, progressive activists say. Even if they don’t unilaterally change the law, the judges could recommend the proposal to the legislature, which could incorporate a sodomy law into a revision of the criminal code already in the works.
“We have a problem with the Constitutional Court, and the conservative groups and the Islamists they know that,” said Alissa Wahid, who heads a network to promote pluralism in Indonesia called Gusdurian.
Wahid’s father, Abdurrahman Wahid, was a Muslim scholar who lead the NU for more than a decade, and for many Indonesians he personified the ideal of Muslim citizenship in a pluralistic Indonesia. He was better known as Gus Dur — using a title that means “son of a cleric” — and in 1998 he became Indonesia’s first democratically elected president. Gus Dur came to the defense of many minorities targeted by conservative Muslim factions, including waria — he joined a waria beauty pageant in 2006 when the Islamic Defenders Front tried to shut it down.
Gus Dur had worried about the “Talibanization” of Indonesia, Alissa Wahid said, and the changes in the 10 years since his death make her worry his fears are coming true.
“We have this massive campaign from the trans-nationalistic Islamic community where people are starting to be bombarded with ideas that we should be more part of a Muslim community worldwide than the Indonesian identity,” Wahid said. You could see the change in social media campaigns to promote the wearing of headscarves, early marriage, and even polygamy — a practice never common in Indonesia — Wahid said.
On the national level, the authorities have endorsed campaigns against the minority Ahmadi Muslim sect, and police often allow vigilante groups to shutter churches and Shiite mosques. Local governments have also adopted dozens of Sharia ordinances concerning everything from alcohol to Qur'an reading to headscarves. Some local laws already specifically target homosexuality, according to research by the Indonesian LGBT group Arus Pelangi.
When the NU endorsed the anti-LGBT campaign in February, Wahid said she was “surprised in a way,” but in retrospect, “I should have seen that coming — of course the conservative wave has also touched the NU.”
The issue was also rapidly gaining traction among the public; a poll conducted in March and April by an allied progressive Muslim think tank, the Wahid Institute, found that 26% of Indonesians identified “LGBT” as their most disliked minority groups.
“You cannot think of the LGBT issue as a stand-alone issue in Indonesia,” Wahid said. Conservatives “have already changed society,” she said.
“This is [one of] the oldest debates in Indonesian fundamental principles: whether Indonesia should give a special mention to the Muslims because this is a majority,” Wahid said.
Her father was in a long line of Indonesian Muslim leaders who fought against the creation of an “Islamic state of Indonesia because we [have lived] together with other [groups of] people for a long, long time,” Wahid said. But today this vision is threatened by those who believe “there is only one way of living, and that is Islam ... their kind of Islam.”
Some liberals may downplay the current uproar, believing LGBT “is just one small group,” she said, but “they lack the understanding that this is a social shift.”
“This is huge,” she said. “It’s a turning point.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 2, 2016, at 6:11 p.m. ET
MEXICO CITY — On a bright fall day last weekend, tens of thousands of people dressed all in white took to the streets of Mexico City for the country’s first national march against marriage equality.
They had flocked from across the country, and marched with signs bearing the names of their states and a number, which was a count of how many people had participated in local protests held two weeks before in dozens of cities. Thousands carried flags with the logo of the new group that had organized the marches. It called itself the National Front for the Family and said it was made up of “millions” of people from all walks of life as an emergency response to a proposal rolled out by President Enrique Peña Nieto in May to establish marriage equality in all of Mexico’s 31 states through a constitutional amendment.
“Mr. President, count us well,” they chanted, as they marched down Paseo de la Reforma, a wide boulevard punctuated with monuments commemorating key moments in Mexican history. “We’re not just one, we’re not just 100.”
The national media were stunned, and marriage equality supporters were incredulous. There had never been a serious national anti-LGBT movement, and full marriage equality had spread from Mexico City to 10 states since 2009 with only ripples of opposition. The Supreme Court had repeatedly ruled that marriage discrimination was unconstitutional, and many thought the fundamental question was settled. Many LGBT rights supporters thought they’d already won the most important fights — they just needed to push the country’s remaining 21 states to come into compliance with these decisions and allow same-sex couples to marry.
And some things seemed strange about the march, which had been billed as a scrappy grassroots movement. Organizers had set up six Jumbotrons along the march route broadcasting a live feed of the procession, narrated by an advertising consultant who had worked for some of Mexico’s largest mining companies and luxury brands like Versace. The protest’s online image was managed from a war room in an upscale hotel managed by an ad agency that had worked for Mexico’s major right-leaning political party, the National Action Party (PAN), and universities affiliated with the conservative Catholic order Opus Dei.
Who was funding all this, the group’s opponents wanted to know, and how did they get so well-organized so fast?
This was not simply a spontaneous backlash to the president’s proposal. This was an event more than a year in the making, coordinated by a network of conservative groups who wanted to amend the constitution to reverse marriage equality gains, interviews by BuzzFeed News with more than a dozen activists, political advisers, and members of Congress both for and against marriage equality show.
These groups had already stitched together the body of a nationwide movement against marriage equality outside the national spotlight. Since August 2015, they’d worked together to gather signatures in support of a “citizens' initiative” to amend the constitution to block same-sex marriage, and had 200,000 by early 2016 — more than the number needed to technically require Congress to give it formal consideration. This proposal was one of the first to take advantage of relatively new rules to allow citizens to directly introduce legislation to Congress.
But this work was done so quietly that when they submitted their petition to the Senate in February, hardly anyone in the press or the halls of Congress even noticed. Now they needed a surge of energy to get the issue into the spotlight and to rally a broader movement that could demonstrate political muscle. The president’s marriage equality proposal came like a bolt out of the blue, and it was just the opportunity they’d been looking for.
“Many of us are grateful to the president,” said Rodrigo Iván Cortés, leader of the National Front for the Family and a former PAN member of Congress. The president did what they could not, he said, bringing “to life [a movement] that seemed was never going to be brought to life.”
Peña Nieto’s marriage equality proposal caught nearly all of Mexico by surprise.
Olivia Rubio, chief of staff of the Senate Human Rights Committee and a longtime LGBT activist, had been invited to the president’s residence on May 17 for what she was told was a “consultation” on LGBT rights measures, timed to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia. She was, she told BuzzFeed News, caught totally off guard when “we realized the whole world of [LGBT] activists were there, [and] there was press — it was a mega-meeting.”
She first realized the president would make a big announcement when she overheard one aide say to another, “Did you bring the initiative?”
Peña Nieto proceeded to announce a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar states from prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying.
Though the Supreme Court had already ruled such laws were unconstitutionally discriminatory, the technicalities of Mexico’s legal system meant that couples had to bring a new lawsuit every time they wanted to marry in most states. Peña Nieto hoped his proposal would immediately allow same-sex couples to marry throughout all of Mexico by simply going to a registrar, just like opposite-sex couples.
Many LGBT activists were overjoyed at the president’s backing, but some recognized that it also created a serious problem. There was no truly national LGBT organization like the US’s Human Rights Campaign that could lobby congress, run a media strategy, and organize to get the proposal passed. Most LGBT rights groups worked on the local level, and infighting had frustrated broader collaboration. Even the push for nationwide marriage equality never required them to develop political savvy — it largely rested on litigation spearheaded by a single lawyer.
To fill the vacuum, LGBT activists turned to WhatsApp, where Victor Espíndola, an activist and political consultant who had worked on the president’s social media team, had put together a group the afternoon of the announcement. There, the collaboration between activists was more collegial than ever before. It would ultimately produce a new national organization called the Movement for Equality in Mexico, which launched a Facebook page on May 24.
The president’s team “probably thought it would be easy,” but it was an “error in calculation and judgement,” Espíndola told BuzzFeed News during a recent interview. The LGBT activists were essentially starting from zero, and, Espíndola said, supporters of the president’s proposal quickly realized they were outmatched.
“Can we compete with the [National Front for the Family]?,” Espindola asked. “No — they’re well-organized, they have the pulpit in their favor.”
The leaders behind the National Front for the Family were already planning their first salvo while Espíndola was still building his contact list.
Front leaders say they were on the phone within hours of the president’s announcement, and met face-to-face within days. The organizing committee included Juan Dabdoub, of a small group known as ConFamilia and author of the citizens' initiative to block marriage equality, which had been submitted to the Senate two months earlier. It also included leaders of the two largest groups that helped gather signatures for the initiative: Consuela Mendoza of the National Parents Union — a group that has fought restrictions on church participation in politics and to provide alternatives to secular public education — and Mario Romo of the Family Network, an umbrella organization whose local affiliates range from addiction programs to emergency pregnancy centers to groups that promote abstinence.
They met in person on Friday, May 20, and held their first press conference announcing they would unite under the banner of the National Front for the Family on May 24, and they were looking abroad for ways to step up their game. One example was a recent movement in Colombia, said Dabdoub, where conservatives had mobilized against a new sex education curriculum to be rolled out under the country’s education minister, who is a lesbian.
The Front was also getting some coaching and support from CitizenGo, a kind of conservative MoveOn.org that began in Spain and expanded to Latin America three years ago, including a staffer in Mexico and a list of 500,000 members in the country. (CitizenGo also includes Brian Brown of the US-based National Organization for Marriage and World Congress of Families on its board; he was in Mexico City for the Sept. 24 march.)
The Front had a lot to learn and quickly, CitizenGo’s Latin America Director Luis Losada told BuzzFeed News.
“They didn’t have the capacity before,” Losada said. “They tried their best … but they were not so efficient.”
But the timing of the president’s announcement made it obvious to the leaders what they had to do next. There would be elections in 12 states and Mexico City on June 5 — less than three weeks after the president’s marriage equality announcement — and the president’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was already in serious trouble thanks to corruption scandals, widespread violence, and the president’s low approval ratings.
So they set out to frame the vote as a referendum on marriage equality. Through small protests organized in partnership with CitizenGo and campaigns on social media, they targeted PRI candidates to demand they reject the president’s proposal or face a “punishment vote.”
“We needed an instrument so that they’d take [this issue] into account,” said the Front’s Rodrigo Iván Cortés. “On this basis, we’re going to ask people not to vote for the PRI in the states … [and] the people responded.”
The June 5 vote was a disaster for the PRI, which lost governorships in seven states, including four where it had never lost an election. National polls showed no evidence of an overwhelming tide against marriage equality — pollsters find the public evenly split or largely in favor of marriage equality. But the Front proclaimed victory, and got help from key voices to spin the vote as a rebuke of same-sex marriage.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico City called the results a “deserved punishment vote” for a “destructive and immoral” proposal in its official publication, Desde La Fe. Former PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida called the marriage equality proposal a “decisive, fundamental” factor in the party’s loss and blasted the president for not consulting party leaders before rolling it out.
By the time Congress returned for the legislative session beginning in September, the leaders of the president’s own party declared his marriage equality proposal dead in the water.
The PRI leader in the Senate said he was putting it “in the freezer,” an expression that meant Congress would set it aside without ever giving it a vote. He said it was because party members were divided on the issue, but it was clear party members wanted to distance themselves from the president, whose approval ratings had fallen to 23 percent following his deeply unpopular invitation to meet with Donald Trump. Elections are looming in 2018, and the party looks doomed unless it can show that the next PRI president’s term will be very different than this one.
Since then, a few lawmakers with left-leaning parties have introduced their own versions of the marriage equality proposal in the hopes of getting the issue onto the legislative calendar, but their supporters privately admit Congress is unlikely to take action on any of these proposals this year.
With the president’s marriage equality initiative stalled, it was time for the National Front for the Family to press their advantage. Congress had never acted on the citizens' initiative to amend the constitution against marriage equality, either, and now they had a chance to mobilize to put it on lawmakers’ agendas.
“Society woke up, and the people felt they could achieve something,” said Dabdoub, whose citizens' initiative was still lying in wait in the Senate. Now, he said, “we’re ready to show our faces."
The Sept. 24 march in Mexico City was a sort of coming-out party for the National Front for the Family.
As marchers streamed toward Mexico City’s Angel of Independence, the group distributed a press release declaring the Front was a “permanent” movement. The group laid out its demands in a “manifesto” published in several national papers the next day, which included a call on lawmakers to “protect … the institution of marriage between a man and a woman” in the constitution by enacting Dabdoub’s citizens' initiative.
The statement was a declaration of war from an organization that believed it had proved itself a credible political threat. They also were increasingly professional and, apparently, well-funded.
Press materials from the march identified the Front’s lead press contact as Pablo Mier y Terán, president of a PR firm called Mier y Terán and Associates, whose past clients include Mexico’s state oil company Pemex and the National Action Party. Another press contact is Ruben Rebolledo, communications director for a Front member organization — whose LinkedIn profile, though, says he is also a director of media relations at Mier y Terán — who has previously worked for major mining corporations and luxury brands.
Neither Mier y Terán nor Rebolledo would discuss the Front’s budget, but there there are clues that they are well funded. One is the fact that their firm managed a media command center on march day out of three conference rooms in the Sheraton complete with buffet, one of Mexico City’s premier business-district hotels.
The speed with which their movement mobilized has prompted allegations that there are much bigger forces behind them. The press in both Spain and Mexico have buzzed with rumors that the front is manipulated by El Yunque, a shadowy secret Catholic network with fascist leanings said to have had senior Mexican politicians as members, but no concrete direct evidence of a link with Front leaders has been reported.
There are clearer ties, however, between the Front and other conservative religious factions. The Sept. 24 march was branded as a joint effort between the Front and an organization called the National Christian Union for the Family (“Christian” in Mexico is usually meant to refer to evangelical denominations), which has a Facebook page that lists its official website as a broken link with a URL hosted by the Apostolic Church of Faith in Jesus Christ. The Mier y Terán agency also lists past clients as multiple educational institutions affiliated with Opus Dei, a Catholic order known for promoting doctrinaire church teaching in public policy.
Several of the country’s Catholic bishops have been unusually outspoken in support of the marches, and LGBT activists have filed legal complaints against several archdioceses arguing that this violates Mexico’s strict laws against church involvement in politics. (Another LGBT group was widely condemned by other activists when it retaliated against the church by releasing the names of senior priests they claim have had same-sex relationships.)
“We’re going to regret it,” José Raúl Vera López, the liberal Catholic Bishop of Saltillo, told BuzzFeed News. “The backbone of these marches comes from a very closed faction … with fascist — even Nazi — tendencies. It is very sensitive what we’re doing.”
The anti–marriage equality forces are not entirely united, however; Front leaders told BuzzFeed News that some evangelical groups have wanted to fight marriage equality through their own initiatives. In early September, a separate citizens' initiative to ban same-sex marriage was submitted with 400,000 signatures to the House of Deputies with support of a small political party seen as drawing its core support from evangelical Christians, the Social Encounter Party. (Social Encounter Party members did not respond to interview requests from BuzzFeed News.)
But even as marriage equality opponents are more visible than ever before, LGBT rights supporters are confident their efforts will ultimately come for nothing.
For one thing, they’d need two-thirds of both houses of Congress to amend the constitution to outlaw marriage equality, and so far no major political party has shown an interest in taking up the cause. And although the rules of citizens’ initiatives technically require Congress to formally consider the anti–marriage equality amendments, lawmakers and congressional aides who support marriage equality say they are confident they can quietly be buried in committee.
There is no sign that Mexico’s marriage equality backlash will ever be as strong as the one that defined the politics of the United States for more than 20 years. Unlike the US, where there is a long history of conservative religious political activism, Mexican politics has historically frowned on religious political participation — priests were not even allowed to vote until the 1990s.
There’s also no political party that clearly benefits from the issue the way the Republicans did in the US. The most likely candidate to lead the charge to roll back marriage equality would be the National Action Party. The last PAN president, Felipe Calderón, unsuccessfully fought all the way to Mexico’s Supreme Court to block the country’s first marriage equality ordinance, enacted in Mexico City in 2009. But now full marriage equality is a reality in one-third of the country’s states, and the politics have changed a lot since then. One of the PAN’s leading contenders for the 2018 presidential nomination is Calderón’s wife, Margarita Zavala, who tweeted on the day President Peña Nieto endorsed the marriage equality amendment, “For a Mexico [that is] more inclusive, without prejudice, and #WithoutHomophobia.”
And the US movement surged before the Supreme Court had decided whether marriage was a right for same-sex couples; Mexico’s Supreme Court could not have been more clear that same-sex couples have a right to marry. The court almost seemed to taunt the Front in the week surrounding the march, releasing three more rulings on Wednesday that “reiterated the unconstitutionality of ... [state laws] that circumscribe the institutions of matrimony and cohabitation to a union of a woman and a man” concerning couples in three different states. And the day before the march brought a nine-to-one decision by the full court in an adoption case that held states cannot discriminate against gay couples, even indirectly.
But ConFamilia’s Dabdoub said they’ve only just begun to fight to overrule them by amending the constitution.
“Here it is obvious that we are the immense majority of the country,” said Dabdoub during the Mexico City march. “If [politicians] vote against the citizens' initiative … we’re going to vote against them.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on August 7, 2016, at 9:24 a.m. ET
OSAKA, Japan — When the principal at a middle school in Osaka, a few hours west of Tokyo, insisted one of his new students do gym classes with the boys, the child's mother turned to the only person who could help: Dr. Jun Koh.
It was the spring of 2014, and the student was entering junior high at her new school. The problem posed by the gym classes was just the latest in a series of transitions she had been forced to navigate as she grappled with her identity — and it wasn’t the first time her mother had called on Koh for help.
Back in first grade, when the Osaka student began insisting on wearing skirts, Koh was able to reassure her mother that there was nothing wrong with a boy wearing girls' clothes. Later, in the fifth grade, the student wrote a will after the teasing she faced in the boys' locker room left her contemplating suicide. So they turned to Koh again, and he helped get the school comfortable with the idea of the student living as a girl full-time. Koh was even the one to explain to the parents of her classmates why she’d be sleeping in the girls' room on the sixth-grade class trip. (The student’s family requested her name not be used to protect her privacy.)
A rumpled, soft-spoken psychiatrist at Osaka Medical College, Dr. Koh has counseled more than 2,000 gender-nonconforming people in Japan. On this occasion, he found the school principal was adamant — the only way for the student to get out of the boys' gym class was if she had some kind of medical excuse. Boys and girls are graded separately because they have different physical advantages, he argued, and he would have to get sign off from the board of education to waive the rules.
So Koh gave her a diagnosis: gender identity disorder (GID), which is defined as “a desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex.” It is listed in the World Health Organization’s catalogue of ailments used by doctors all around the world, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which has 22 chapters covering everything from cholera to blindness to the loss of limbs. GID can be found in the chapter “Mental Health and Behavioural Disorders,” alongside conditions ranging from “profound mental retardation” to schizophrenia.
“Simply, if a boy wants to wear a skirt, he should wear a skirt.”
The diagnosis solved the Osaka student’s immediate problem: She would be allowed to play tennis with the girls. (“She’s terrible, but she’s so cute,” one of her mentors gushed.) And, as if accommodating a physical disability, the school renovated a bathroom intended for her private use — though she now isn’t allowed to access it for periods of the day when it’s reserved for a disabled classmate.
Koh gave the Osaka student the diagnosis — even though he doesn’t agree with it. Koh, who began his career specializing in schizophrenia, has become one of the few doctors in Japan who works with transgender children. There is an irony here, because Koh doesn’t believe these children need doctors.
“If the child expresses this gender identity, then let them be — they do not require diagnosis,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Simply, if a boy wants to wear a skirt, he should wear a skirt; if a boy wants to go to the girls’ bathroom, the boy should be able to use the girls’ bathroom. But in order for a boy to use the girls’ bathroom, the other girls have to accept [the child] in the girls’ bathroom. That’s all there is to it — giving a diagnosis won’t solve that problem.”
But he knows how the system works. He dispenses the diagnosis because in Japan, the doctor’s office has been the first stop for a transgender person seeking their basic rights, from changing legal documents to protection from discrimination. The role of the diagnosis is so fundamental that Japan’s 2003 law allowing people to change their legal gender is called the Law Concerning Special Cases in Handling Gender for People With Gender Identity Disorder, more commonly known as the Gender Identity Disorder Law.
Outside Japan, transgender activists have been engaged in a long fight to kill the term “gender identity disorder” and retake control over their lives from the doctors who diagnose it. This movement is poised for a major victory: A draft of the new edition of the ICD erases the term "gender identity disorder." When the WHO adopts the new edition in 2018, transgender people will no longer be branded as mentally ill.
But there is little appetite for this fight in Japan, where doctors have been responsible for transforming transgender people from eccentrics on the margins of society to fully fledged citizens.
Even leading transgender rights activists in Japan want the doctors to stay in control, fearing that if individuals are given the power to define their own gender, the entire system will collapse.
The fight over GID is part of a much more fundamental debate: Are trans people normal and capable of making their own decisions about how they live their lives, or does gender identity need to be regulated by authorities?
Supporters of reforming the ICD say they want to “depathologize” being trans — to end the perception that they have a disorder that requires a doctor’s management. Trans people, they believe, should have control over whether to access care like hormones or surgery and what gender markers their legal documents bear, and have those decisions respected.
The power of depathologization is clear from the history of the gay rights movement. The case that gays and lesbians deserve acceptance and rights has been built on the argument that they are normal: that they can’t and don’t need to change, that they don’t have a condition that can infect children, and that they have the character to serve in the military or hold other sensitive jobs.
Gay rights activists won that battle in US medical institutions in the 1970s, though it took 20 years for the WHO to follow suit. The WHO is playing catch up again; the American Psychiatric Association voted to reject the term GID in 2012.
The draft of the new ICD offers a new term, “gender incongruence,” emphasizing that a patient might need treatment for the ways their body does not match their sense of self — rather than defining the patient as disordered because their sense of self doesn’t match their body. This is partly to ensure that transgender people can still access therapies like hormones or surgery if they choose them. But nowhere in the new definition is the word “disorder.” Instead, the new ICD takes the concept out of the chapter on mental illness and puts it in a brand-new chapter devoted to “Conditions Related to Sexual Health.”
“To freely pick and choose without a medical condition — that’s not right.”
If the WHO adopts the draft as proposed, Japan’s medical community may have little choice but to follow suit, said Hiroshi Hase, now Japan’s cabinet minister responsible for science and education and a committee chair when the legislature adopted the GID law. The country’s medical system is required to follow the diagnoses laid out in the ICD.
“We will need to accordingly reclassify with the new concept that this is not a disorder,” Hase said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. "Because that’s the law."
But he said Japan was unlikely to follow the lead of the growing number of countries in South America and Europe that have introduced gender identity laws that reflect the spirit of these medical reforms. Known as “self-declaration” or “self-determination” laws, they allow you to change your gender simply by filing a declaration with a government agency — with no rules requiring sterilization or any other medical procedures, nor any doctors or bureaucrats demanding you “prove” your gender.
Doctors would likely always have a role in the process, Hase said, and Japan was far from ready for a radical rethinking of its gender identity law.
“We continue to explain to Japanese people who don’t have the understanding [of transgender people]: ‘These people aren’t like this because they chose to be — it’s not a fetish. They are only asking to be treated with the basic necessities to live their life,'” Hase said. “However, this requires changes including legal status and physical appearance, including genitalia, and hormone treatments and such. So naturally this would require medical assessment, and not just by one doctor but by several doctors.”
Even influential activists in Japan don’t want to be part of the global push to erase GID.
“I reject the notion of self-selection of gender,” said Ran Yamamoto, head of the organization gid.jp, which claims around 1,500 members, making it the largest organization of its kind in Japan. (Yamamoto rejects the term "transgender" and considers herself a “woman with GID.”)
“There is a reason why there is a separation between man and woman … I don’t know if God chose that or nature chose that,” she said. People with GID whose “disability compels them to change” their gender have a right to demand access to public toilets and other accommodations, she said, but for those “who do not have as much of a need, then gender should not be blurred.”
“To freely pick and choose without a medical condition — that’s not right," she said.
The story of why Japan’s transgender community stands so far apart from much of the global movement dates back to 1965, when police raided a bar in Tokyo’s Akasaka district and arrested 10 women on charges of prostitution, according to transgender historian Junko Mitsuhashi.
Three of these women were male on paper, which meant they couldn’t be prosecuted for selling sex — under Japan’s prostitution law only women could be charged for the offense. So the police went after the doctor who removed their male genitals, Dr. Masao Aoki.
Aoki wasn’t sentenced until 1969, perhaps because it wasn’t immediately clear what law he had broken by performing the operations. The prosecution ultimately charged Aoki with violating a law created early in World War II that relied on the same scientific ideas that informed the race laws of Japan’s ally, Nazi Germany: the National Eugenics Law of 1940. The Japanese law included a provision that made it a crime to sterilize any healthy person “without cause.”
That might not have changed if doctors hadn’t miraculously saved the penis of a truck driver after it was badly mangled in a traffic accident in the mid-1980s.
“These people aren’t like this because they chose to be — it’s not a fetish.”
A surgeon from a medical school outside Tokyo, Dr. Takao Harashina, was brought in to reconstruct the driver’s genitals. The surgery was spectacularly successful, and the operation made headlines in 1992 after the patient managed to father children.
Those news reports caught the eye of a 25-year-old trans man who came to be known by the pseudonym Kei’ichi Nakahara. He called Harashina’s clinic, hoping the doctor could construct a penis for him. When other trans people followed suit, Harashina decided to challenge the ban on sex reassignment with a petition to Saitama University’s ethics committee.
It took two years for the ethics committee to reach a decision; in 1996 it declared that “an illness named gender identity disorder exists,” ending the freeze on sex reassignment almost overnight. Shortly afterwards, Japan’s Society of Psychiatry and Neurology adopted a protocol for diagnosing and treating GID, and the Ministry of Health certified that doctors would not face prosecution.
On May 1, 1998, Kei’ichi Nakahara became the first person to have sex reassignment in Japan in more than 30 years, and hundreds of others would soon follow.
Before GID, the terms available to describe trans people were all derogatory or tied to performance: “okama” — which translates roughly as "faggot" — or “Mr. Lady.” One of the most popular was "nyuhafu," the Japanese contraction of the English words “new half” and a play on “hafu,” children with mixed Japanese and white parents. Legend has it that the term traces back to a quip by an entertainer, “I’m half man and woman, so I’m a new half.”
Trans women were always quite visible in postwar Japan. Historian Mark McLelland writes that a group of transgender performers from France became celebrities in the early 1960s during a tour in Tokyo, clubs known as “show bars” sprung up in their wake featuring drag and trans performers — some who’d had sex reassignment abroad — appeared on television and magazines. The term "nyuhafu" became mainstream in coverage of Matsubara Rumiko, a winner of a Tokyo beauty competition in 1981 who became a celebrity when it was revealed that she was trans, releasing an album of songs called Nyuhafu and posing semi-nude in men’s magazines.
But visibility didn’t translate to acceptance in normal life — quite the opposite. It was fine for trans people to appear on television or in magazines, but it seemed impossible to ask for space in everyday life as long as cross-dressing seemed like an individualistic eccentricity.
“The opinion was … it’s still a personal preference — it’s a choice,” said Aya Kamikawa, who became Japan’s first out trans elected official when she won a seat on the municipal council of Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward in 2003. The attitude among the general public, Kamikawa said, was that “it’s so laughable that these people are demanding a right to have their personal preference respected.”
But there was no name for those living outside the world of entertainment or red light districts. Before GID was introduced, Kamikawa said, “I didn’t know what I was.”
The arrival of GID transformed her life. She was diagnosed in 1998, became an activist, and launched her political career in 2003 to help promote legislation to allow for people to change their legal gender. Three months after she was elected, the Japanese legislature unanimously adopted the Gender Identity Disorder Law.
The doctors had done what trans people never managed to do on their own: succeeded in convincing authorities and persuading everyday citizens that trans people deserved a place in everyday life. They had a medical condition that couldn’t be helped.
While calling something a “disorder” can make someone embarrassed or ashamed in many parts of the world, in Japan it can do the opposite: It makes behavior acceptable that would be shameful if seen as a personal eccentricity, said Junko Mitsuhashi, the historian.
GID was part of a pattern of pathologization in Japan — in the early 2000s, officials also gave a name to teenagers and young adults who were withdrawing from school and becoming hermits in their room: "hikikomori." The Ministry of Health first defined the term in 2003, leading to a flood of coverage of the phenomenon; by 2010, the country was estimated to be home to 700,000 people with the condition and there were NGOs dedicated to helping them out of isolation.
“Anything that is kind of deviating from what is considered the general flow of society can be diagnosed as something, [like] children who don’t want to go to school... If they put a medical name to the symptom, people will feel relieved,” Mitsuhashi said. “What really pushed the conviction to allow [the GID Law] to pass was the argument that this was an illness, a medical symptom.”
But not everyone was happy with the pathologization push. Mitsuhashi was one of a small group of trans activists who warned that it had a dark side.
“One senses that the logic is that ... an illness must be cured, and it is medicine’s role to bring these people to a normal, or ‘healthy’ state of alignment through treatment,” she wrote in the December 2003 issue of a magazine called Situation. “Such a thought could be expected from ignorant and close-minded doctors who believe they are elites within society ... After all, until those neuropsychiatrists introduced the concept of gender identity disorder in the early '90s, they were the ones who planted the roots of social prejudice and oppression by labeling transgenderism and transgender people as ‘perverts,’ ‘sexual deviants,’ ‘paraphiles,’ or ‘sexual anomalies.’”
It also meant leaving Japan’s rigid gender divide intact and in the hands of the largely male medical establishment, said Tomato Hatakeno, a trans activist who spent a decade as a sex worker and launched a Japan trans news site in 1996.
“People from the nyuhafu era … we were queer presences,” Hatakeno said. "And with the GID model coming out, these people were no longer queer … [living] stealthily so your queerness doesn’t show through." People who didn’t want surgery, or couldn’t afford it, or didn’t want to get on the track of full medical transition, “fell through the cracks” in a system where doctors seemed largely in control of their patients' lives.
In much of the rest of the world, transgender activists are fighting to take the power to define who they are away from authorities. In Japan, the transgender movement is more comfortable with authority — after all, it made them normal and gave them their rights.
But a new generation is trying to claim new control over how their gender is defined — they call themselves x-gender, and they are increasingly visible online.
One called Tsukasa from Kanagawa Prefecture southeast of Tokyo writes a blog under the name Hedwig, taking her name from the show Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Now in their late thirties, Tsukasa spent their life feeling out of place as a girl but also never felt a connection with people who wanted to have surgery to become a man, though they’d have her breasts removed if their husband would tolerate it, they said.
Hedwig is the parent of five-year-old fraternal twins, and the child they were raising as a boy, declared herself a girl at about three years old. Hedwig remembers the girl, who they call Makoto on their blog, saying: “I wish I didn’t have this bit, but if I cut it off, it’s going to hurt, right?”
Hedwig told her what it meant to be transgender, not to have GID.
“Treating it like an illness and to pathologize it — it just didn’t feel right,” they said. “I said, there are people whose gender does not match the gender that was given to them at birth. I said there’s nothing wrong with it, there's nothing weird — it’s natural.”
“Technically we needed it,” Hedwig said.
And as much as he wishes it would go away, Dr. Koh is working to further institutionalize the diagnosis. He’s chairing a committee of the Japanese Society of Gender Identity Disorder to create a certificate for doctors who specialize in the treatment of GID.
“I hate it,” Koh said, “but there’s also what goes on behind the screen.” Japan’s health care system will only pay for therapies if dispensed by certified specialists for treatments, and now Japanese transgender people must pay the full cost of surgeries or hormone treatments.
“Society should change into one where people can acknowledge their own gender and be accepted,” Koh said. He supports a proposal that would go even further than the new ICD draft and do away with any diagnosis for children, since there’s nothing a trans child needs from a doctor before reaching puberty — they’re too young for either hormones or surgery.
“Logically, it’s the right step for the WHO to remove that section,” Koh said. But, “I do what I can from my position … I don’t work only with logic — I see the individual and think only about what can be done to live the life they want.”