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.”
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.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 8, 2016, at 4:35 p.m. ET
Mohsen was crushed the day his possum died.
The possum, whom he’d named Tcho, had never been a particularly good pet. The animal resisted his captivity in Mohsen’s small room, peeing everywhere and biting Mohsen as he slept. But Tcho was at least a kind of company on the Pacific island that had been a prison for this 28-year-old refugee for more than two years.
“It kept biting me until the day it died,” Mohsen said. “But sometimes it would listen to me.”
In 2012, Mohsen, who is bisexual and a Christian convert, fled his home in Iran after his uncle hit him with his car and, when he survived, vowed to finish him off.
Mohsen was hoping to take shelter in Australia, but the boat smuggling him to its shores was stopped at sea. Now he is trapped on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. He has has twice been beaten by off-duty immigration officers in the past year and is now afraid to leave his room. The locals seem frighteningly foreign to him: Possums like Tcho are slaughtered and eaten, and the locals chew something that stains their mouths the color of blood.
Mohsen is one of more than 1,300 asylum seekers that Australia has sent, since 2012, to what is called the Manus Island detention center. It’s a facility for single men and teenage boys; several hundred women and families are being detained 1,300 miles to the east on the island nation of Nauru. They were all captured at sea while trying to reach Australia by boat from Indonesia, under a policy that even the United Nations secretary general has personally pleaded with the Australia’s prime minister to bring to an end.
Canberra calls this the “Pacific Solution” to the problem of people attempting to get to Australia by boat. Those it cannot force back into international waters it holds in camps outside its borders in an attempt to prevent them from asserting the right to asylum on its territory.
“I wish I had died on that boat 100 times a day.”
Government officials have justified the policy as a way to discourage people-smuggling, and the country’s High Court upheld the constitutionality of the offshore detentions in a ruling issued on Wednesday that clears the way for 267 people — including 91 children — to be returned to Nauru after a period in Australia for medical care. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull applauded the ruling and vowed to continue the policy, saying that it ensures that “our borders are secure.”
Conditions at the Manus Island detention center are so bad that human rights advocates have alleged they violate international law. Amnesty International described it as “resembling a combination of a prison and a military camp.” Human Rights Watch compared it to Guantanamo Bay. The center even included a shower block that guards had allegedly nicknamed the “rape dungeon,” according to an account from someone who worked in the camp until early 2014.
There’s an added fear for queer asylum seekers like Mohsen. They worry about being targeted by others in the camp, who are mostly from Iran and other countries where homosexuality is criminalized, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. They also are afraid of Papua New Guinea’s police force because the country’s laws punish homosexuality with up to 14 years in prison.
“This place is no better than Iran,” Mohsen said. “I wish I had died on that boat 100 times a day.”
Mohsen left Iran after his uncle hit him with his car, the culmination of more than a decade of abuse that began when he was 13. It began when his family learned he’d had sex with another boy. Things got worse after he converted to Christianity in his early twenties. His father and uncles were high-ranking members of the police force in their province on Iran’s border with Iraq, and he said they once had him imprisoned and tortured for more than two weeks after his conversion. (Mohsen’s account could not be independently confirmed; his last name is withheld due to security concerns.)
Now he believed they meant to kill him. His uncle only succeeded in breaking his arm with his car, but he called Mohsen to make clear he wasn’t done: “Next time will be different — you will not escape from death.”
Within days, Mohsen had sold the two stores he owned and all his possessions to buy a ticket to Indonesia; there he paid a smuggler $30,000 to get him across the Indian Ocean to Australia. He handed over the cash on the day he arrived in Jakarta, only for the smuggler to disappear. After a day passed without the smuggler answering his calls, Mohsen saw on Facebook that he had changed his profile picture to show him holding a stack of cash, and Mohsen knew he’d been robbed.
“He had all the money in his hands ... so I understood what had happened,” Mohsen said of the photo. “I was left behind with not even a dollar, not knowing any language.”
“I was left behind with not even a dollar, not knowing any language.”
He scraped by doing sex work, but later was able to pick up some cash running errands for other refugees who were too afraid to leave their hotel rooms while waiting for their boats. That’s how he finally got a lucky break: He knew a family who’d paid for the trip but who got cold feet at the last minute. He was able to board the ship for free by pretending to be one of them.
He remembers there being around 100 other refugees from Iran on the boat, which started leaking three days into the journey. He saw the passengers bailing water break out in boils from urine and vomit that polluted the water gathering in the hull.
But though it looked like they would sink, Mohsen said he was never afraid; he was drunk. He’d brought six bottles of liquor to get through the trip, but he was still jealous of ones who had passed out altogether from the stress of the journey.
He downed the last shot when he saw an Australian boat sail to their rescue after their fifth day at sea.
“I told myself all the misery’s over,” he said. “I knew whatever was waiting for me was better than the past.”
Mohsen was wrong.
Manus Island is the northernmost large island belonging to Papua New Guinea, more than 600 miles from the northern tip of Australia’s mainland. It’s largely covered by rainforest and sparsely populated by about 50,000 people — its largest town, Lorengau, is home to only around 6,000. Guidebooks say Manus once had a tourist industry built around scuba diving, but today it is known primarily as a holding pen for asylum seekers Australia does not want.
Australia and Papua New Guinea want the outside world to see as little of Mohsen’s home as possible. It is very difficult for foreign journalists to get official permission to visit Manus Island, so Mohsen spoke to BuzzFeed News by Skype.
Mohsen has been outspoken about conditions on Manus. He pressed charges against the officers he said first beat him last year and has given interviews to Australian reporters. But this is the first time he’s spoken publicly about the experience of being a queer refugee.
He has more freedom since being officially recognized as a refugee in 2015 and allowed to leave the detention center, he said, so he feels able to speak up on behalf of those still locked inside. But with no hope of getting off the island, he also feels he has nothing left to lose by coming out publicly.
“The only one having access to a phone and is out of [the detention center] is me. ... I could talk about all the things happening there — those who were killed and what we were going through,” Mohsen said. This is why he agreed to talk when he first learned BuzzFeed News was working on this story through a contact in Iran. “The fact that I am Christian puts me in danger, the fact that I am bisexual puts me in danger, the fact that I am here puts me in danger. ... What can make this worse?”
“The fact that I am Christian puts me in danger, the fact that I am bisexual puts me in danger, the fact that I am here puts me in danger.”
The detention center itself — where all the other known queer refugees are still living —is almost entirely closed off to the outside world. An Australian law even threatens jail time for employees who reveal details about what goes on inside its walls.
The roots of the “Pacific Solution” lie in a standoff that took place in August 2001 involving a group of 430 Afghan refugees. They’d been rescued by a Norwegian freighter after their boat became stranded in the Indian Ocean. The Australian military boarded the freighter to prevent it from bringing the Afghans to an Australian territory called Christmas Island. Most of this group was then sent to Nauru, some remaining there for three years.
Fears of terrorism helped turn the ad hoc approach into law. Legislation was adopted shortly after 9/11, and then-Defense Minister Peter Reith helped sell the proposal by warning that the boats could “be a pipeline for terrorists.”
The Pacific Solution allows Australia to claim it is upholding international human rights law while still turning away people with credible asylum claims. Key to this is making sure they never set foot on Australian land — many rights under international and national law only begin once someone has already entered a country’s territory. Maintaining this premise has required the Australian government to also re-interpret what counts as its territory. The government claims that Christmas Island, where refugees are processed before being sent to Manus or Nauru, doesn’t count as part of Australia for immigration purposes even though it is a territory wholly under Australia’s control.
This approach gives Australia one of the harshest policies toward asylum seekers of any developed democracy, say human rights activists.
“It’s a pariah nation in terms of refugee protection,” Human Rights Watch Australia Director Elaine Pearson, who visited Manus last June, told BuzzFeed News.
Australia stands out for the numbers of asylum seekers it holds offshore, but it didn’t invent the idea. The U.S. used similar logic in the 1990s when it held around 300 HIV-positive Haitian asylum seekers for two years at its base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the same place that would later hold detainees in the War on Terror outside the reach of U.S. courts.
Australia has gone a step further, however. Not only do refugees on Manus Island spend years in a horrific detention center, their asylum applications are processed in Papua New Guinea instead of Australia. (Papua New Guinea, meanwhile, expected to benefit from several million dollars in aid from Australia as well as the jobs the detention center creates for Manus residents.)
This means that LGBT asylum seekers are being forced to seek asylum in a country that criminalizes homosexuality, which human rights advocates say is a direct violation of prohibitions in international law against deporting people to places where they have a well-founded fear of persecution.
“I thought Australia and its people would be my protector, but they taught me otherwise,” wrote one gay Iranian in the detention center in a set of letters published by The Guardian in 2014. Another wrote, “I sought asylum from [the] Australian government which claims to respect the human rights … [but] I am a homosexual, a gay man, and because of that I was tortured here and no one is hearing me to help.”
The United Nations has condemned the camps as a form of “mandatory detention” that violates international law, and problems in the camps — like riots and rape — have been extensively reported. Australia's immigration minister declined to be interviewed for this story through a spokesperson, but Australian leaders appear more enthusiastic than ever about the plan. Both major parties intend to campaign on continuing the program in the next election. Some Australian leaders are even arguing it should be a model for the world as Europe is overwhelmed by refugees arriving in the hundreds of thousands from the Middle East and North Africa.
“The only way to prevent a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it forever,” said former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in an October speech in London, means “turning boats around for people coming by sea ... and it means establishing camps for people who currently have nowhere to go.”
The situation in the Manus Island detention center was so bleak that Mohsen said he attempted suicide multiple times during the two years he was held there.
Even now, he said, “There is not a minute that I do not think about ending this life.”
The facility where he lived was meant to be temporary and hold fewer than 500 people. But the number climbed to more than 1,300 over the course of 2013. That was thanks largely to a new program announced while Mohsen was at sea — July 19 — that refugees sent to Manus would be eligible for asylum only in Papua New Guinea rather than Australia.
Mohsen’s new home was a muddy compound penned in by a chainlink fence about eight feet high. Pictures from inside the facility leaked by asylum seekers or captured surreptitiously by the press show modified shipping containers, tents, and tin-roofed concrete buildings built during World War II crowded with asylum seekers in the tropical heat. The refugees would have had a view of the beach a few yards away, but when Amnesty International visited in 2013 the sea view was blocked by green mesh that a camp official said was to prevent the media from using boats to photograph conditions inside.
A 2014 report by an Australian Senate committee collected extensive testimony about the horrors in the camp: The toilets backed up, dead flies were found in the food, there were suspicions that the guards were urinating in drinking water, and detainees sometimes got heat stroke because they had to wait in long lines for food without shade in direct sun.
Mohsen said there was also extensive abuse at the hands of Australian security contractors and Papua New Guinea immigration officers, and the Australian Senate committee heard accounts of similar incidents. One of the most disturbing testimonies came from Nicole Judge, who worked on programs in the camp run by the Salvation Army during the second half of 2013. She reported witnessing Australian guards with the United Kingdom-based security company managing the camp, G4S, beat an Iranian unconscious after he ran back to his room to take cover from a rainstorm, an attempted “invasion” of the camp by locals from outside who used machetes to sever water lines, and evidence of sexual assault that security officials ignored.
“We’ve had some cases of people who’ve been raped.”
“I have heard P1 [shower] block in Foxtrot [compound] being referred to by G4S guards as a ‘rape dungeon’,” she wrote. In one case she saw reported seeing a young man from Myanmar leaving the toilet block “looking to be in pain” after entering with an older detainee, and was told by a supervisor, “because these transferees were Muslim and actively engaging in prayer that any sexual activity would have been consensual.”
Abuse inside the camp keeps queer refugees in fear even of one another, said a 24-year-old from Tehran who asked to be identified only as Amir.
“I can’t trust anyone,” said Amir, who BuzzFeed News reached with help from an Australian refugee activist and a contraband cell phone — guards confiscate cell phones discovered in the camp. Amir interrupted the conversation several times whenever someone else came within earshot.
Amir said he fled Iran in May 2013 after his boyfriend’s father reported him to the police, but he hasn’t told anyone in the camp the truth of his case and he largely avoids others he suspects are gay in fear of being targeted.
“I told everyone I had a problem with my girlfriend [back home] so that no one would realize,” he said.
If others found out, “They’d harass me, make fun of me, you know we still have this Iranian culture” in the camp, he said. “We’ve had some cases of people who’ve been raped.”
Mohsen spent many months after his arrival on a hunger strike, part of a protest movement that built as the camp grew increasingly crowded throughout 2013. Some of the refugees Amir knew had sewn their lips shut in protest.
According to the Australian Senate report, the protests reached a boiling point in February 2014, after immigration officials told a group of protest leaders that they "would never be settled in Australia and that if they wished to settle in a third country, they would receive no support from Australia or [Papua New Guinea] to do this,” according to an account of the event by Amnesty International.
The protests ignited long-simmering hostility from the local community, who felt they had not gotten the economic benefits promised from having the camp on their island. When Papua New Guinea police rushed in to shut down protests on Feb. 17, they were backed by a mob of locals who’d been stockpiling weapons outside the compound.
By the time peace was restored on Feb. 18, an Iranian named Reza Barati was dead, allegedly from having been beaten. Amir said a Papua New Guinea officer entered his room and beat him with a baton though he was hiding from the violence. Mohsen said he was hit in the head with a rock and knocked unconscious.
The despair is so great that detainees are attempting suicide or harming themselves.
Australia has made some changes since the riot, including finishing the transfer of control over the camp to a new contractor. But it has also made the camp even more secretive, including adopting the law that could jail employees working on the island for disclosing conditions there. The despair is so great on both islands that detainees are attempting suicide or harming themselves in other ways at a rate that the Sydney Morning Herald reported was reaching “epidemic levels.”
The riots have also left the prospect of settling in Papua New Guinea even more terrifying to the asylum seekers, especially since the government has made it nearly impossible for them to settle in another part of the country.
More than 100 asylum seekers in the detention center have had their refugee petitions accepted and now have the right to move to a more comfortable and open facility outside the island’s main town called the transit center, but they are refusing to relocate. Around 300 asylum seekers have decided to go back to the countries they fled, including a Syrian who was tortured by police for 20 days after he returned last year and was later injured in shelling that killed his father.
Mohsen has lived in the transit center since last spring, but he said he’s attempted suicide twice in the months since. Almost all the other queer refugees are still inside the detention center, in part out of fear of the country’s sodomy law. That fear is so great that at least one asylum seeker reportedly refused to report two incidents of rape because he worried the Papua New Guinea police would throw him in jail.
Amir doesn’t want to take the chance of living on the outside — but unless Australia changes its policies, his only other choice is to go back to Iran.
“I cannot take the risk of living somewhere even worse than here, where those people who wanted to kill us — who killed Reza Barati — live,” he said. “If I had left for any reason other [than being gay], I'd go back the next day.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 27, 2015, at 10:18 a.m. ET
SAN SALVADOR — La Cuki Alarcón was late to work on the night that his roommate disappeared, which is why he is still around to tell what happened.
His hair was extravagantly curled, and he matched a long skirt with high boots, a look he hoped hid his legs, which he thought looked too manly to appeal to his clients.
Alarcón was hurrying to the strip they used to work across the street from El Salvador’s national symbol, the Divine Savior of the World monument, a statue of Jesus with his feet planted on a globe perched atop a column about 60 feet in the air. Work was so steady on that corner that Alarcón thought a client might have already picked up his roommate and the other locas they hung out with. Outsiders called them all “homosexuals,” but the sex workers — some who lived as women all the time, others who dressed as women primarily on the job — called each other “crazies” even though some used it as an insult that would roughly translate to “sissy.” (Alarcón asked BuzzFeed News to refer to him using male pronouns.)
As Alarcón reached the opposite corner, he could see his friends were still there. He hesitated for a minute before crossing because the stoplight was out, and that’s when he realized the locas were not alone. Four tall men in ski masks were throwing them into the back of a green truck, clubbing them with the butts of their guns.
Alarcón remembers the year as 1980, a time when death squads were using trucks like this one to make people disappear by the hundreds every week. This was the beginning of the civil war that consumed El Salvador until 1992. The United Nations, NGOs, journalists, and scholars have sought to uncover what happened to many of the more than 75,000 who were killed or disappeared during the conflict, but no one has ever investigated what happened to Alarcón’s friends. As far as anyone knows, no one has even recorded their names among the missing.
But Alarcón can still rattle off the names of many of the dozen he remembers being thrown into the truck that night. There was his roommate Cristi, whom he remembers as a gentle 26-year-old who would bring him gifts of coats or shoes from trips she’d frequently make to Guatemala and Mexico. Another was Verónica, from San Bartolo near the Honduran border, who was so pretty that her clients would sometimes insist on having their pictures taken with her. Carolina was so well put together that she’d sometimes get into trouble — she looked “all woman,” Alarcón said, and her clients could get violent when they discovered she was trans as she undressed.
Alarcón is one of the only witnesses to their disappearances who is still alive, but the story of that night is well-remembered. It has been passed down from generation to generation of trans sex workers in the country’s capital, San Salvador. It’s been retold so many times it can sometimes be hard to separate fact from legend, passed down in the same way many families retell the haunting mysteries that still linger from the war. The tale stakes a claim for trans women in a country that often seems to wish they would disappear.
“Maybe there still could be some justice for us, right?” Alarcón said during an interview in San Salvador last December. “Maybe remembering everything that happened to these friends can bring some peace for all homosexuals?”
I first learned about this story from a 38-year-old Salvadoran trans activist named Karla Avelar in the fall of 2014 while working on a story about LGBT kids fleeing the country to make the dangerous, illegal trip to the United States. El Salvador has some of the highest rates of anti-LGBT violence in the hemisphere, and Avelar recounted waves of unpunished murders over the past several decades. In 2014 alone, at least 12 women and two gay men were killed, according to media reports. There was the “Bloody June” of 2009 in which at least three trans women and two gay men were murdered. Avelar herself survived being shot in the 1990s by a serial killer who had been gunning down trans sex workers.
The ones taken from the Savior of the World were almost mythical to Avelar, who was a baby when the events occurred.
“We don’t even really know much ourselves, but a little while ago one of the survivors told us what happened and said to us, ‘Why don’t you document this, that I was a victim of that attack?’” she said. But the task seemed impossible. “There is no documentation whatsoever, no publication nor record — there is nothing.”
Avelar knew of just one witness who still survived, a woman named Paty who she said was 78 years old, a miracle in a country where violence and HIV are so widespread very few trans women survive to middle age.
“They said that they had dressed them up as soldiers and made them play war”
I flew to El Salvador as soon as I could. Paty’s health sounded fragile and if she died before her memories could be recorded, any hope of documenting the atrocity would die with her. I decided to work with Nicola Chávez Courtright, co-founder of a small organization documenting the history of El Salvador’s LGBT movement called AMATE, hoping she would have ideas on how to start substantiating Paty’s memories.
When we visited Paty — whose full name is Patricia Leiva — shortly before Christmas last year, we learned that much of what Avelar told me was wrong. Leiva was only 60, though it was understandable why Avelar had thought she was much older. Health problems had swollen her stomach like a basketball and made it nearly impossible for her to walk. She also had not been there on the night of the disappearances from the Savior of the World, and years of heavy drinking meant she could only recall bits and pieces of the story, despite having heard it countless times.
Leiva lives in the remains of what used to be a popular beer hall called the Bluegill in a once-thriving red-light district called the Praviana, now subdivided into tenements. The bar had belonged to La Cuki Alarcón, Leiva told us, and he had been there that night.
Alarcón is now retired and lives in the suburbs, surviving with help from his children who live in the United States. Alarcón doesn’t routinely go by “La Cuki” (a Spanish spelling of Cookie) anymore, preferring his male name. But he asked that we not publish his legal first name because he was worried about his safety for talking about the war. Besides, he said, “La Cuki” had been “my nomme de guerre — my homosexual one.”
Alarcón hid from the men rounding up his friends that night by throwing himself to the ground in a small garden. He tried to slink away after watching the men pile his friends into the truck, but more armed men were patrolling the surrounding streets. He remembered making it to the La Religiosa funeral home up the block, where he tried to take sanctuary, but he said the guard wouldn’t let him in because there was a lavish wake underway — “There are only famous people in there,” the guard told him. So he waited out the raid crouched between the cars parked outside.
When the coast was clear, he went back to work on the corner. Within minutes, a client had come and picked him up. Alarcón figured he’d see Cristi in a day or two, which is how long the cops usually held sex workers after a routine vice raid.
But Cristi never came home. None of them did.
Alarcón went to the police stations to try to find her. He even hired a lawyer. But the cops made fun of him and hinted that his friends were already dead.
“They said that they had dressed them up as soldiers and made them play war,” he remembered.
“Maybe there still could be some justice for us, right? Maybe remembering everything that happened to these friends can bring some peace for all homosexuals?”
El Salvador’s 12-year civil war had its roots in political battles that had been going on for half a century. In 1980 it blew up into one of the last and bloodiest conflicts of the Cold War. That year, military leaders ousted moderates in the ruling junta while paramilitary squads aligned with the regime hunted down government critics. The war vaulted into international headlines in March, when the head of the country’s Catholic Church, Archbishop Óscar Romero, was shot through a church doorway while he was celebrating mass.
The U.S. government threw tremendous weight behind the military leaders even as the body count grew, and a rebel force called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front fought back with a little support from Nicaragua and Cuba. Echoing the early days of Vietnam, Washington sent in military advisers, contributed tens of millions of dollars in military aid, and trained Salvadoran troops at an installation in Panama known as the School of the Americas. The U.S. continued this support even after reporters for the Washington Post and New York Times uncovered that a U.S.-trained battalion was responsible for one of the war’s most infamous atrocities, the extermination of an entire farming village called El Mozote in 1981.
The two sides were locked in a stalemate as the Cold War came to an end with the Soviet Union’s collapse. Peace accords signed on Jan. 16, 1992, made uncovering the crimes committed during the war a cornerstone of rebuilding the nation, creating a Truth Commission run by the United Nations to gather witness statements and write a definitive account of the war’s greatest atrocities.
Because many of the war’s abuses were so extensively documented in that process, we thought we might find some record of the disappearances from the Savior of the World. But we came up empty. Our best hope was the archives of the two human rights offices run by San Salvador’s Catholic Archdiocese — the most active human rights monitors during the war — but they could locate no records matching the case. They might have been able to search more if we could provide the victims’ legal names, but Alarcón and the others we spoke with only knew them by their female names.
We had hoped that El Salvador’s oldest gay rights organization, Entre Amigos, would be able to help us substantiate these memories. When it organized the country’s first pride march in 1997, the group declared it as a commemoration of another event said to have happened during the war years: the abduction of a number of trans women from the heart of the Praviana red-light district by a U.S.-trained battalion in June 1984. This is the one case of crimes against LGBT people claimed to have been recorded by human rights monitors during the war.
Entre Amigos’ co-founder William Hernández told us in an interview that he had uncovered a statement from a witness to that incident while working in the archive of an organization called the Nongovernmental Human Rights Commission just after the war's end. But, Hernández said, the account was so confusing and incomplete that, when examined “from a legal point of view, it wouldn’t give me anything that argues that this was real.”
He initially said that he would be glad to dig it out of the group’s files for us anyway, but he grew increasingly combative when we attempted to follow up. Finally, he sent us a note saying his lawyers did not “trust how the information will be managed” and requested that we remove reference to Entre Amigos from this story.
So we went directly to the Nongovernmental Human Rights Commission, and they told us they could not locate any such testimony in its archives. None of the people we interviewed said they’d witnessed an abduction as described by Entre Amigos or knew of anyone who had. If the testimony existed and it was as mixed up as Hernández described, there’s the possibility that the person was describing the disappearances from the Savior of the World and some of the details got scrambled in the retelling, including the year.
And we could never pin down the date of the disappearances for sure. It’s not uncommon for people to have difficulty remembering dates from the war years — even when loved ones died, the violence was so unrelenting that the number on a calendar seemed like a fairly meaningless abstraction in daily life, other reporters who covered the conflict told us. Calendar dates might even be especially hard for the trans women we interviewed, most of whom didn’t finish elementary school because they were thrown out by their families once their femininity became apparent.
The witnesses we interviewed mostly gave dates ranging from 1978 to 1980, but the fall of 1980 seems likeliest. One person who lived in the Praviana at the time told us she remembered they were still searching for the missing when one of the most notorious killings of the war took place: the rape and murder of three American nuns and a laywoman by the National Guard on Dec. 2, 1980.
This timing may be confirmed by something we found while paging through three years of newspapers from the period, held in dusty binders in the collection of San Salvador’s Museum of Anthropology. The only announcement for an event at the La Religiosa funeral home we found was published by both major dailies, El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica, on Oct. 1, 1980. It was for a man who had died in Los Angeles, California, whose remains had been shipped home for burial, suggesting he may have been from a wealthy or important family. Alarcón remembers the wake where he tried to hide from the raid as being especially fancy, so there’s a possibility this was it.
That’s not a lot to go on, but two days later, El Diario de Hoy reported that police were leading sweeps to “purge those elements that are undesirable to society” in response to recent thefts. The operation was reportedly focusing on a park about two miles away from the Savior of the World — though close to the Praviana — but the next day La Prensa Gráfica quoted police saying the effort was expanding to target “other sites known as refuges for criminals.”
It may be hard to imagine a dozen people could disappear without attracting some attention. But at that point in the war, unexplained deaths had become so routine that it was remarkable when anyone raised a fuss. (And these were sex workers — trans ones at that — the kind of people whom many would probably have been happy to see cleared off the streets if they noticed them at all.)
Bodies were being dumped at a rate of more than 150 a week, which the U.S. Embassy would tally in regular “Violence Week in Review” cables, even as the U.S grew closer with the El Salvadoran regime. Remains were found scattered around the capital every morning, sometimes with their faces destroyed so they could not be identified or left in a spot where vultures could be counted on to scatter their bones. Trucks like the ones Alarcón saw at the Savior of the World were icons of the inescapable violence.
The death squads’ victims were “killed in the usual fashion,” reported a cable from the U.S. Embassy to Washington of the 179 people who died in the week ending Nov. 28, 1980: “Kidnapped by a group of armed men who appeared as civilians, taken away in the ubiquitous pick-up trucks, shot or strangled or both, and then dumped along roadsides.” Six of that week’s murders included top opposition leaders that attracted some outcry, the cable noted, but their deaths were “unusual in that they have gone noticed.”
If news of the death of a group of sex workers had reached officials at the U.S. embassy or human rights organizations, it could have easily been ignored as an extreme vice raid rather than as a political crime.
But those who lost their friends believe they died because of politics. The most intriguing part of the legend of the disappearances from the Savior of the World — and the part that is probably the most impossible to pin down — is that they were killed to cover up a government secret.
They were taken that night, the story goes, in a hunt for two sex workers who had evidence of a crime. Evidence they had stolen from an American.
Some of the locas thought the American was a diplomat, while others believed he was a reporter. No one really knew why he was in the country, but they all knew what he looked like. The ones we spoke to who had seen him recalled that he appeared to be in his fifties with close-cropped white hair and a mustache or a goatee. He was a big spender who always hired two at a time — “one for him to make love to while the other made love to him,” one person told us.
They were taken that night, the story goes, in a hunt for two sex workers who had evidence of a crime. Evidence they had stolen from an American.
The two he picked up shortly before the raid stole his briefcase. Inside were some cameras that the locas believed had been used to photograph some kind of a government crime.
All this might be easily shrugged off as the kind of conspiracy theory that proliferates in wartime, except several sources said they’d heard it from people directly involved. La Cuki Alarcón said the American came to his bar offering a reward to get his cameras back. Another sex worker, who asked not to be named, said she’d been warned that a hunt for the thieves was underway by a sergeant in the National Guard who was her regular client. Several told us that one of the thieves had a wife, a cisgender woman named Sonia who lived in San Salvador for at least another 30 years and would sometimes talk about how the authorities eventually dug the briefcase out of her patio with the cameras still inside.
Everyone believes both thieves escaped, but there are a lot of different stories about what happened to the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World: They were tortured by having their fingernails pulled out and their breasts shorn off. They were dragged to death by horses at the infantry barracks. They were dumped in a hole on the road to the notorious Mariona prison.
Their families tried to find them. A woman named Yazmín Zulema Enríquez, whose mother did laundry in a Praviana brothel, told us how relatives of the missing would come for help with their search. She remembered being left in charge of the brothel when the owner would personally make the rounds of the offices of the National Guard, the Treasury Police, and the National Police. The men said to have taken the locas away wore no uniforms, so there was no way to be sure which force had taken them.
“We didn’t even hear of any of [the locas] being held prisoner,” Zulema told us. “Of all the ones they carried off, not even cadavers were found.”
El Salvador is filled with stories like these, people turned into ghosts because unanswered questions are all that remains of them. A monument to the dead and disappeared that was unveiled in San Salvador in 2003 now bears the names of around 30,000 dead or disappeared who have been documented. Another 45,000 are estimated to be missing from that wall, a number that includes the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World.
Unexplained death became even more common for the trans women of San Salvador after the war. They were victims of the gangs that took over San Salvador’s streets, or targeted in drive-by shootings, or killed by HIV. By the turn of the century, the Praviana — which the sex workers say was home to dozens of trans women around the time of the war’s end — had essentially ceased to exist.
All that’s left is what remains of the Bluegill, with Patricia Leiva living in its carcass. Her home is a small room with a beat-up pallet on a concrete floor for which she pays $3 per day. She survives primarily by selling a few Coca-Colas and packs of gum from her door. She also still turns the occasional trick, though she can only walk a block or so on a good day.
She lives about a mile from the Monument to Memory and Truth, and her rusty shack is the closest thing to a memorial for the friends who passed through it. If it is too late to find out who killed the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World, they at least want their memories to be believed.
Leiva showed us her ID card when we asked if it was safe to publish her name for this story.
“Use my name!” she demanded. “This is serious what we’ve talked about. And we’ve told the truth.”
January 4, 2016, at 11:39 a.m.
This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the document that Entre Amigos claims to possess.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 16, 2015, at 1:26 p.m. ET
DENIZLI, Turkey — There was only one way Danial could think of to get out of Iran: He would have to sell his kidney.
He got the idea from fliers offering cash for organs, which he had seen pasted to walls in the northern Tehran neighborhood of Tajrish. Danial had vague memories of them tacked near the bus stop where he’d get off to go to his painting classes. Those classes were how he kept his dream of becoming an artist alive, despite the fact that he’d never been allowed to go to school.
His situation felt hopeless. His mother had confronted him about being gay one December morning in 2013. By noon he had fled the family home, taking nothing but the clothes on his back and 50,000 rials — about $2 — in his pocket. His boyfriend lived in the city of Isfahan six hours to the south, but it wouldn’t be safe for them to stay together even if he could afford a bus ticket. Danial had a job at a glass factory in southern Tehran — he still has scars on his emaciated body from where the furnaces burned him — but it didn’t pay enough for him to rent an apartment on his own, let alone escape across the border into Turkey.
“I had no way forward, no way backwards — I just wanted to escape from that place,” Danial said.
For most Iranians, getting to Turkey would be as simple as buying a plane ticket, which can cost less than $200; a few hundred LGBT Iranians make this trip every year because it’s an easy jumping-off point to a new life in the West. Iranian passport holders don’t need a visa to enter Turkey, and the United Nations fast-tracks LGBT refugees for resettlement because it considers them especially vulnerable.
"I just wanted to escape from that place."
But Danial couldn’t get an Iranian passport. He was the son of an Afghan, one of the estimated 3 million who have come to Iran since the 1980s, fleeing decades of war and looking for work. The Iranian government wants them out; it generally doesn’t grant their children citizenship and deliberately makes it hard for them to access basic services — that’s why Danial hadn’t gone to school. Without documents, Danial could only get to Turkey by hiring smugglers to sneak him across the border, which would cost a seemingly impossible amount: around $1,000.
Selling his kidney turned out to be harder than Danial had hoped. He initially marched into a government-run clinic on Valiasr Street in the heart of Tehran and announced he wanted to sell his kidney, but they wouldn’t even let him past the front door because he had no ID to prove he was an adult.
Then he got a break, of sorts. A man followed him out of the clinic and introduced himself as the uncle of an 8-year-old boy who needed a kidney transplant. They had a short conversation establishing that Danial had a compatible blood type, and the man offered him 50 million rials, about $1,700.
“I had no other options, so I accepted,” Danial said.
Like millions of other refugees from across the region, Danial saw going to Turkey and then on to the West as his only path to the future. But as their numbers have grown — from around 25,000 to over 2 million in just four years — the system for processing refugees in Turkey is being strained to breaking point. Danial sold his kidney to get to Turkey, trusting the system would take care of him once he got there. Instead he discovered that he had to fend for himself, navigating a system so complicated that the refugees with the fewest resources can easily fall through the cracks.
Danial had met his boyfriend, Parsa, at a birthday party for a mutual friend about two years before he fled his family. (Both men asked to be identified by their nicknames out of fear for their safety.)
Parsa, a 21-year-old aspiring musician with an electric, angular smile, was DJing, and he chatted Danial up about a painting of a flower he’d made as a birthday present for their friend. Parsa was about four years older than Danial and had also struggled to pursue a career in the arts after his family forced him to abandon his studies. They started dating soon after but could see each other only occasionally. When they couldn’t be together, Danial and Parsa traded text messages every night before bed.
“I could not go to sleep without those messages,” said Danial, whose high cheekbones make him look pixieish when he smiles. He suspects the messages were what tipped his family off to their relationship. “I kept every single one.”
So Parsa was alarmed when he hadn’t heard from Danial in the month after he left his mother’s house. Danial finally broke the silence with a short message telling Parsa to meet him the next day at a hospital in Tehran. Parsa was frantic when he arrived, convinced Danial had been in an accident.
But Danial looked perfectly healthy when he found him. Parsa was furious when he learned what he planned to do.
"For how much money did you put your life in danger?"
“For how much money did you put your life in danger?” he recalled shouting at Danial. He started arguing with the doctors: "With what authorization would you operate on someone who has no one with him and cut a part of his body — how could you let him decide to do such thing?"
Danial had known Parsa would react this way, which is why he kept the plan a secret until all the arrangements were made; he’d even rented a motel room for his recovery. Now it was too late to back out. The buyer had already invested around $350 for medical tests to confirm Danial’s kidney would match, and they had no way to repay it. The couple also felt for the child who was due to receive his kidney, whom they saw being wheeled into surgery.
“He was a very small boy who had so many scars all over his body — his kidneys were failing since he was born,” Parsa remembered.
Danial realized what a terrible mistake he’d made immediately after his surgery. His stitches became infected, and he burned through some of his profits to have them treated. Months flew by and he was still not well enough to travel; the bill for his room was beginning to add up even though he was paying just $14 per night.
After six months, he had just about $1,060 left, and he was still very weak.
“I had no way back to undo what I had done,” Danial said. “I realized I had even more problems.”
Many LGBT Iranians who seek asylum in Turkey simply fly to Ankara and go straight to the office that registers new refugees. Iranians make up the majority of the 700 LGBT people currently in the pipeline for resettlement who have identified themselves to the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). One NGO that supports queer Iranian refugees reports getting an average of 30 new requests for help every month.
Hundreds of LGBT Iranians have been resettled in the West — especially in Canada — over the past several years, and many arrive in Turkey with a good deal of information about how to navigate the process. It now generally takes about two years for them to get a ticket out of Turkey even though UNHCR considers LGBT people especially vulnerable and fast-tracks them for resettlement. Many LGBT Iranians have had friends who’ve already been resettled or at least know the general outline of the process; some save up for the wait before they come or even have support from their families, making the wait easier to bear.
But Danial had to travel before he was really ready. If he waited any longer to recover his strength, he wouldn’t be able to afford the smuggler’s fee. Parsa would have to meet him in Turkey. He was an Iranian citizen and so would be able to fly to Turkey legally, but it would take a little time for him to get his passport issued.
In early August 2014, two smugglers guided Danial and a few others on a four-day trek through mountains and forests from the Iranian town of Maku to Van in southeastern Turkey. At night they would sleep in clearings in the brush. Despite Danial's fragile condition, he had to run in places where they might encounter border patrols.
In Van, the smugglers put him on a bus to Ankara. As the bus left the station, he realized that he was now totally on his own and had very little idea about what would happen next. He could speak no Turkish. He didn’t even know that Turkey used a different currency than Iran and got cheated out of half his remaining cash when a money changer took advantage of his ignorance. He had a sheaf of papers documenting his kidney surgery, but nothing to prove his identity. He couldn’t even definitively tell refugee officials how old he was — his best guess was around 21 or 22 by that point — because his family never told him his birthdate.
“The only thing I knew was there is something called the ‘United Nations,’” he said. “I thought because we are gay and we are different, there is nothing to be scared of.”
Danial followed a group of other refugees from the bus station in Ankara to the office of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), an NGO that registers refugees on behalf of UNHCR.
Others who passed through that ASAM office around the same time described it as an off-white building in a well-off residential neighborhood that appeared to have been built for the time before Turkey became one of the world’s top destinations for refugees. Iranians and Afghans waited alongside Syrians and people from a number of other Arab countries in chaotic lines that streamed out the front door. Refugees choked the narrow hallways inside, waiting to be summoned for processing. The walls echoed with the cries of screaming children and exuded the smell of the thousands who had passed through the building in a desperate search for shelter.
Danial wound up in line with a bunch of Afghans, who advised him to say he was Afghan when his turn came to explain his case. “They told me Afghans are being accepted easily [as refugees], compared to Iranians,” he said. “So I just said I was Afghan and gay — I had nothing else to say and I had no documents.”
"They told me Afghans are being accepted easily... So I just said I was Afghan and gay."
This proved to be a serious mistake, according to Saghi Ghahraman, director of the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), which assists Iranians with the refugee process and ultimately took up Danial's and Parsa’s cases. Most of her Iranian clients leave the ASAM office with a date for their first face-to-face meeting with a UNHCR official — called a pre-interview — but Danial left without any appointment at all.
It’s impossible to know for sure if Danial’s case would have progressed differently if he’d said he was Iranian. But a number of refugee advocates told BuzzFeed News that UNHCR appears to have generally put all Afghan cases “on hold,” largely because the countries that take refugees from Turkey allocate very few slots to people of Afghan origin.
Danial “didn't get a pre-interview date at that time because he said he was Afghan,” Ghahraman said.
Selin Unal, spokesperson for UNHCR-Turkey, did not comment directly on this case, but she denied that the agency is treating Afghan refugees differently than any others in an email to BuzzFeed News.
“UNHCR continues to process vulnerable Afghan asylum seekers and refugees, and provides protection assistance to those in need in collaboration with the Turkish government and NGOs,” she said. But, she said, “Resettlement opportunities depend on quotas [set] by resettlement countries.”
Parsa, who showed up at ASAM on Dec. 18 with an Iranian passport, sailed through the system compared to Danial. He had his first interview with UNHCR on Jan. 27, was granted refugee status by the agency in April, and his paperwork was with the Canadian government by the end of June to be considered for resettlement.
His case may have been accelerated because they enlisted the help of IRQO’s Ghahraman shortly before he registered. Danial said they learned about IRQO by chance when they struck up a conversation with some trans refugees they overheard speaking Farsi in a public park, and it took a couple of tries before they convinced Ghahraman about the urgency of their case. Her intervention also nudged Danial’s case forward — UNHCR brought him in for his pre-interview in January, after she described his case to an agency contact.
But in the months after Parsa learned he might go to Canada, no call came telling Danial he was going too.
They had spent much of their year in Turkey on the edge of homelessness. Danial had followed other refugees he met at the ASAM office in Ankara to the city of Denizli, a fast-growing city of about 600,000 people nestled at the feet of dramatic mountains in southeastern Turkey. Turkey bars refugees from most countries from living in major cities like Istanbul, and Denizli had become a major hub for Iranians — especially LGBT Iranians — awaiting resettlement. Denizli's downtown is clean and new, but its economy is built on textile manufacturing — allowing refugees who are prohibited from working legally to eke out a living under the table in sweatshops.
The work was hard on Danial, whose urine sometimes turned red from internal bleeding at the end of 12-hour days hauling bolts of fabric that could weigh more than he did. Sometimes the bosses wouldn’t pay the wages they owed, and Danial and Parsa were thrown out of one apartment after another.
Danial became convinced he would never be freed from this purgatory and worried Parsa would give up his chance to go to Canada in order to stay with him. He grew so weak that his dark black hair began falling out in patches, making his scalp look almost leopard-spotted. UNHCR referred him to a psychiatrist, who said he couldn’t do anything to advance his case and instead offered him a prescription for anti-anxiety pills.
“My case will not end up anywhere and [Parsa] is stuck because of me,” Danial remembered thinking to himself one night when Parsa went out to buy bread. “I knew that if I have to stay here, he will stay with me and not leave.”
“I wanted him to go and live free,” Danial said, “so I took all of those pills.”
Danial was unconscious when Parsa found him. Parsa frantically searched for a neighbor who knew the number to call for an ambulance and spoke enough Turkish to give them the address. The paramedics would not let him ride with Danial in the ambulance, and he had to be careful about how he showed his feelings because they lived in a building filled with other Iranian refugees who they were terrified would figure out they were a couple.
“It was like a nightmare,” Parsa said. The doctor said that Danial could die anytime within the next three days — but if he survived that period he would live.
Danial survived, but when the couple spoke to BuzzFeed News two weeks after his suicide attempt, he was feeling more alone than ever.
“No one can ever help us,” Danial said. “What does U.N. believe in? Why does U.N. exist? ... When they don't help me, who are they helping?”
"What does U.N. believe in? Why does U.N. exist?"
On Oct. 12, Danial finally got a piece of good news: He would also be considered by Canada for resettlement.
Their problems aren’t over yet; it often takes about another year from this step in the process before a refugee actually boards a plane. But at least the end is in sight.
But their story shows just how easily the most vulnerable refugees can fall through the cracks in the system that should be trying to help them most, said Ghahraman. If they hadn’t found an advocate with contacts inside UNHCR, Danial might never have even learned that it was a mistake to say he was Afghan, let alone had a chance to correct it.
Many of the people who work in UNHCR are doing it for all the right reasons, Ghahraman said, and she has seen individuals leap into action when they learn of a refugee who needs extra help. But the system as a whole is set up to comply with “the policy and the rules and laws —nobody helps somebody out just based on humanity,” she said.
Danial is still painting while he waits — mostly pictures of flowers — though he was using up the last of canvases and had no money for more. Other than his medical records, just about the only other things he brought with him from Iran were 12 small tubes of oil paint.
“It's more than a year that I am waiting in Turkey; for someone who is in good situation, this might not feel like [even] a month, but for me it feels like years — I cannot take it anymore,” Danial said. “My art is painting and I really can't do anything else.”