Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 30, 2019, at 11:12 a.m. ET
TACLOBAN, the Philippines — When the winds blow this strong, the rain stings like needles, scraps of wood cut through flesh like bullets, and corrugated metal sheets slice like knives.
On that morning in November 2013, the wind churned the ocean into a mountain of water and pushed it onto the city. Survivors remember the sea crashing ashore in three massive black waves, so tall even the coconut trees were drowned. The water lifted five cargo ships huddled by the city’s port into the air and sent them crashing on top of a slum on the opposite bank.
It was as if the sea was suddenly everywhere — even the rain tasted like salt.
Street artist and photographer AG Saño was asleep when the storm crashed into Tacloban, a small port city on the Philippines’ Pacific coast. The winds woke him at 4 a.m., shaking the walls of his hotel so loudly that it sounded “like a horse running on the roof.”
Saño raced to the ground floor, taking shelter with around 50 other guests. The storm surge soon shattered the hotel’s front doors. Water chased guests up to the first floor and kept rising.
When the storm finally passed and Saño could step outside, he saw two men pushing the corpses of a mother and daughter on a wooden cart through ankle-deep water. Then he met four fathers carrying the bodies of their children from the school where they’d drowned. He found a doctor who’d taken command of a dump truck. Saño volunteered to help him gather the dead, who were emerging from the receding waters by the hundreds.
Typhoon Haiyan was the most powerful storm to ever make landfall when it smashed into the Philippines on November 8, 2013, with wind speeds up to 235 miles per hour. The government said more than 6,000 people died, but the country’s top forensics expert later said she thought the real number was more like 18,000.
Saño spent four days helping to pile bodies into body bags to await identification or burial in mass graves. Then he decided he had to leave, because there was one body he could not face seeing.
He already knew his best friend in Tacloban — a tattoo artist called Agit Sustento — was dead, and Saño didn’t want to be the one to find him. Sustento’s corpse would be instantly recognizable from the tattoos that covered him from head to toe. Sustento, who originally studied to be an accountant, had just opened a new shop dedicated to reviving ancient traditions from the days when tattoos commemorated the victories of warriors in the remote northern mountains. Tattoos were not just fashion or art to Sustento, his friends and family said. They represented the connections between people, their identity, and the Earth.
Saño had come from Manila to document and photograph Sustento at work. Instead Sustento was washed away. So were his parents, his wife, and his 3-year-old son.
The only members of Sustento’s immediate family to survive were his younger siblings, Mal and Joanna. During the storm, Joanna struggled to hold their mother above the churning waters, but she drowned in her arms.
Saño and Joanna decided to dedicate the years after the storm to winning justice for their loved ones.
Typhoon Haiyan was not a natural disaster, Saño believed. Warming oceans cause storms to grow more powerful, and global warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions. The Philippines had played little part in this — it’s a poor country estimated to have contributed less than 1% of all greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.
Saño came to see Tacloban’s citizens as the victims of a crime, but no one was trying to hold to account the people he saw as responsible.
“When people would die in, let’s say, an apartment in New York City, investigators would find out who caused it, right? ... They find justice for that person,” Saño said. “But how come we have [thousands of] dead people in Tacloban and nobody was asking whose fault it was?”
This question would help revolutionize climate activism over the years that followed Typhoon Haiyan. World leaders had wasted decades failing to reach a collective agreement on climate action, and not everyone was equally to blame for global warming. Oil companies and other large polluters had grown rich while the world got hotter, pouring millions into lobbying efforts to keep people hooked on fossil fuels. Activists like Saño came to believe that this was a kind of mass destruction in slow motion. If they could start getting judges to agree, courts might be the lifeline needed to prevent the Earth from warming further.
To lay the groundwork for future lawsuits, Saño and a group of other citizens and NGOs are petitioning the Philippines’ top human rights tribunal to declare fossil fuel giants like ExxonMobil and Shell responsible for violating the fundamental rights of the Filipino people by contributing to climate change. This coalition, led by the local chapter of Greenpeace, includes not just survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, but also people hurt by climate change in other ways — fishers whose stocks are disappearing from the ocean, and farmers whose crops are failing in changing weather.
They filed their petition in 2015 and will get an answer next month when the Philippines Commission on Human Rights is due to release the results of an investigation conducted over three years and three continents. It has chosen to release its findings during the global climate summit in Madrid, a sign it wants to send a message to the world.
The legal team knows its argument is a long shot — only a few tribunals anywhere in the world have considered whether human rights law applies to climate change, and no one has successfully sued a fossil fuel company for climate impacts.
We won’t know exactly what’s in the report until December, but the commissioner leading the investigation, Roberto Cadiz, suggested the commission intends to give the petitioners one of their key demands: a declaration that the major carbon emitting firms have “negatively impacted the human rights of the Filipino people.” But, he said, the report would not weigh in on whether courts should hold corporations directly liable for climate damage. He said he had a number of concerns about people suing companies for the way they’d been hurt by climate change. First, he thought there were too many steps in between carbon being emitted and something like an extreme storm to hold a company directly liable for damage. Second, since everyone feels the effects of climate change, what gives any individual or group a greater claim on climate damages than anyone else? And, finally, he didn’t think it was fair to sue companies over specific climate damages when the whole world has relied on their products.
“It’s not a black-and-white issue from the point of view of climate justice … Right now they’re being sued, the carbon majors, but if they totally stop production, they’re going to be sued!” Cadiz said.
But even if the petitioners don’t get everything they want, they believe it’s an important step in changing the way jurists around the world think of climate change.
“Agit’s death was the responsibility of those corporations,” Saño said. “I know in my heart that it’s the case.”
Litigation is one tool climate activists haven’t fully tested, and they hope the Philippines investigation could inspire people around the world to fight global warming in court.
In recent years, lawyers and activists around the world have brought hundreds of cases in several countries in an unprecedented push to get courts to force action on climate change. The Philippines petition was among the earliest to be filed. The most successful strategy so far has been to sue governments for failing to protect their citizens from climate impacts, and top courts in a handful of countries have already ordered governments to implement climate plans on those grounds.
But it’s an uphill battle. For one thing, the science connecting the dots from carbon emissions to an individual storm like Typhoon Haiyan is complicated and incomplete, though it’s getting better. No court has yet concluded there’s a direct enough connection between a fossil fuel company’s emissions and the climate that would impose legal liability on the company for major catastrophes.
There’s also the problem of location. Courts will typically only try a crime if it happens within their own country, but carbon emissions are everywhere. If someone is hurt by climate change in the Philippines, and they want to sue an oil company like Shell — which is based in the Netherlands, but drills oil and sells it in many other countries — where do they go to court? If they find a court, how do they ask a judge to punish a fossil fuel company for selling a product that remains legal, one that governments even subsidize because it’s still considered essential?
Winning a case like that requires a legal revolution. There have been revolutions like this before, where arguments that were once unthinkable become obvious. The US Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation after upholding it for half a century; same-sex couples won the right to marry nearly 30 years after the Supreme Court ruled gay people could be arrested for having sex.
But these changes take years of work, in courts and in the culture. And for years, the most familiar story about climate change has been the one pushed by fossil fuel companies themselves once they were forced to acknowledge it was a reality: The burden for stopping climate change falls on individual consumers, who must drive less, fly less, and buy less. Everyone is to blame and so no one can be truly held accountable.
If judges are to take action on climate change, they must first believe it is a story of injustice.
That’s why Greenpeace’s lawyers decided to take this case to the Philippines Commission on Human Rights rather than directly to the courts. The commission is an independent agency under the constitution, with broader powers to investigate alleged abuses than courts have, but lacking a court’s power to enforce its findings.
This obviously has a major downside: The commission can’t force polluters to change their behavior or compensate climate victims. But these kinds of commissions can do a lot to change the thinking of judges when a related case comes before them.
The Philippines is a powerful place to challenge the climate change narrative. The country must cope with massive storms while more than half the population earns less than $5.50 per day. But, despite the efforts by a handful of local environmental activists, many people from Tacloban still don’t believe that climate change is a story of wealthy corporations inflicting harm on the vulnerable. If they’ve heard of climate change at all, residents will say they caused it themselves by burning too much trash or by throwing too much garbage into the ocean. Some priests in this deeply Catholic country even gave sermons saying Typhoon Haiyan was a form of divine punishment for human sins.
Challenging this idea is also hard because environmental advocacy is a deadly business in the Philippines. Shortly after he became president in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte gave a speech in which he said he wanted “to kick” an ambassador who asked about reducing carbon emissions. On Duterte’s first full day in office, a leading anti-coal activist was assassinated, and at least 30 other environmental activists were killed in 2018.
Both Duterte and the Typhoon Haiyan petitioners agree that the Philippines is a victim of richer nations. But for Duterte, that victimhood is not a chance to rally for climate accountability, but rather a reason to treat it as inevitable and continue business as usual.
The president sent the chief of his cabinet, Karlo Nograles, to a Typhoon Haiyan memorial ceremony in Tacloban earlier this month, where he boasted of a plan to build a sea wall to protect against storm surges — a “Great Wall of Leyte,” he called it, because Tacloban sits in Leyte province. This sea wall is planned to be about 13 feet high — even though Haiyan’s storm surge reached almost 20 feet in some places.
Nograles grew angry when asked in an interview with BuzzFeed News about plans in the Philippines to expand coal power, and whether the government could put more pressure on foreign fossil fuel companies.
“You’re always playing, looking at us — what’s the US doing?” he said as he stormed off. “You guys do it in the States. You show us the way. You show that you can win.”
Last updated on June 24, 2019, at 4:29 p.m. ET
ISTANBUL — The first time Majid and Ahlam saved a gay person’s life, they didn't even know what LGBT stood for.
Word had reached them that three men were being held at home by members of their extended family, who were preparing to execute them for “shaming” the family.
Majid, a bulky 54-year-old who spent much of his life as a housepainter, and Ahlam, the 50-year-old widow of an intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein’s military, arrived at the house an hour later to find it surrounded by 15 armed men.
As Ahlam remembers, she approached the house on foot and told the men standing outside that she had been harassed on the road. In keeping with local custom, the men invited her to take refuge in the house, and left to find the supposed wrongdoers.
Inside, Ahlam said she found the mother of one of the three men being held captive and worked with her to sneak them out of the house. They made it out the back door undetected and hopped the fence. Outside, they found Majid waiting in the car and were soon joined by Ahlam, who had walked out the front door after thanking everyone for sheltering her. Together they sped off to safety.
“What kind of political movement is this?” he asked. “These guys are kissing each other!”
Majid was shocked when two of the men kissed each other in celebration of their freedom. He called the colleague who had first alerted him about their plight for an explanation: Majid had been told that three “LGBT people” needed rescuing — but had thought LGBT was the name of a political party.
“What kind of political movement is this?” he asked. “These guys are kissing each other!”
So began Majid and Ahlam’s surprising journey to become champions for LGBT rights in a stronghold of Islamist groups in central Iraq. (BuzzFeed News is withholding their last names and other identifying information for security reasons.) This rescue took place in 2011, at a time when they worked for a feminist group focused on helping women escape violence. They came to realize LGBT people were fleeing the same religious fundamentalists who were spurring violence against women. Then, in 2014, ISIS arrived.
This is the story of how Majid and Ahlam secretly worked to help LGBT people escape ISIS at a time when the Islamist militants regularly bragged online — in grisly images and videos that made headlines around the world — about throwing gay men to their deaths. It’s also the story of how they are now trying to bring ISIS to justice.
Majid and Ahlam helped two gay men and two lesbian women escape execution orders during the three years ISIS controlled parts of northern Iraq.
They recorded the stories of 87 people who were tortured or executed for homosexuality, working with a network of their own friends and family members to document ISIS violence.
From the beginning of the conflict, the feminist group Majid and Ahlam worked for, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), was preparing for a time when it might be possible to bring ISIS to justice.
The 87 LGBT cases are part of a much larger dossier of ISIS abuses that OWFI compiled, covering 4,383 victims and 1,804 ISIS members. With help from contacts inside the Iraqi military, Majid and Ahlam also got their hands on many of ISIS’s own records related to these cases in this dossier.
OWFI’s legal team has been trying to find a court that will prosecute these crimes since ISIS’s hold on the region was broken in 2017. But the lawyers know it’s extremely unlikely that Iraqi courts will prosecute ISIS for killing gay people — Iraqi lawmakers, after all, had once made homosexuality a crime punishable by death. And no war crimes tribunal has ever prosecuted a case based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
OWFI wants ISIS leaders to be charged with crimes against humanity for persecuting LGBT people, which would be a revolutionary step in international law. OWFI knows it faces a long fight to make that happen, but it got a chance to start making its case last month. An investigative team that the United Nations Security Council sent to Iraq to help investigate human rights abuses formally asked OWFI for copies of the evidence it had collected.
OWFI’s legal team is led by Lisa Davis, a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law and senior legal adviser at Madre, a women’s rights NGO. Davis said there may be no hope for the kinds of trials the legal team would like to see in Iraq, but putting this evidence before the UN could be the start of building an international consensus to treat the persecution of LGBT people as a crime against humanity.
“I want this to be our moment to change the conversation about LGBT issues in conflict — this is our moment.”
“We know we can’t get prosecutions of LGBT war crimes in Iraq — we just don’t have the legal infrastructure or the political will,” Davis told BuzzFeed News. “What we want to do is to change the discourse of LGBT crimes in the world. What we want is to build the global political will.”
How Majid and Ahlam went from unknowingly assisting a few gay men to potentially transforming the way the world treats the persecution of LGBT people is being told here for the first time. It is based on more than eight hours of interviews with them conducted between 2015 and 2018. Their memories for exact details are sometimes fuzzy, reflecting the trauma of having witnessed so much violence themselves and hearing about much more from hundreds of others. Majid, who has panic attacks and fatigue, carries pictures of children killed during the conflict on his cellphone.
BuzzFeed News was given access to more than 700 pages of emails and documentation that Majid wrote during the conflict. His documents were vetted by a legal team at the CUNY School of Law and Madre to make sure they would stand up to legal scrutiny, and the organizations’ researchers directly confirmed many of his reports with victims and witnesses. BuzzFeed News also spoke repeatedly with the human rights lawyers, researchers, and translators supporting their work.
Davis said she believes the evidence Majid and Ahlam helped assemble against ISIS could transform law on the persecution of LGBT people in a similar way to how a prosecution of the Rwandan genocide helped spur the world to view rape in wartime should be treated as seriously as genocide. They have compiled an indictment of ISIS’s crimes that will be impossible for the international community to overlook.
“Now we have it, and we can’t ignore it,” Davis said. “I want this to be our moment to change the conversation about LGBT issues in conflict — this is our moment.”
Majid had been training for secret missions since he was a boy. His father ran a kebab shop and was an underground Communist Party activist. Majid remembers delivering messages for party members hidden in papers wrapped around kebabs.
Majid held on to his leftist ideals throughout the decades Saddam ruled Iraq, but he felt no joy when US forces toppled the dictator in 2003. Hundreds of civilians were killed by US forces in Majid’s part of Iraq, including his own mother. She died, Majid said, when US forces blew open the door to his brother’s house, mistakenly believing there were militants inside.
Majid, a committed secularist, also hated the Islamist forces that took hold of his region after the invasion. Shiite clerics became powerful leaders and held sway over large militias. At the same time, al-Qaeda, became a force in northern Iraq fighting the US occupation. Its campaign won support from many of the region’s Sunni residents, but it also stirred up hatred toward their Shiite neighbors.
“If you disrespect him with the smallest gesture, you better beware — he can be very hard.”
As fighting between Shiite and Sunni groups escalated around his town, Majid became especially troubled by an explosion of violence against women. This included so-called honor killings, child marriages, and other practices that fundamentalists claimed were endorsed by Islam. Majid made it his mission to help women fleeing violence.
“I know too many women that are very active and have great dreams,” he said. “That’s why I advocate women’s rights.”
He began this work without any organization behind him, but he soon learned about a new group based in Baghdad trying to set up women’s shelters — OWFI.
OWFI was cofounded by Yanar Mohammed, a feminist activist born in Baghdad now living in Toronto, just after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. She said she first learned about Majid through mutual contacts in communist circles. Mohammed had heard stories about “a very brave man who was able to stand against al-Qaeda” when the group’s fighters kidnapped local women, even confronting the group head-on to win the women’s release.
When she finally met Majid in 2004, Mohammed said, she became convinced that “he is someone who you can win over by respect, and he will be with you and hold your back till the end of time.”
But, she added, “If you disrespect him with the smallest gesture, you better beware — he can be very hard.”
Majid became part of the network OWFI was building across Iraq, and he opened a local office in his town.
Ahlam lived near Majid for years without ever meeting him.
For more than a decade, she was married to a man who would rarely let her leave the house. He was an officer in Saddam’s military who was so abusive and controlling that Ahlam said, “I felt like I was his slave.”
Then, one rainy morning in 2005, her husband was kidnapped. The family had just sat down to breakfast when a car pulled up to the house. It was filled with men who had once been her husband’s friends, but they were now members of al-Qaeda. They had come for Ahlam’s husband because he had worked briefly as a translator for US troops.
Ahlam remembered pleading for her husband’s life, but one of the men pointed a gun at her and said, “If you utter just one more word, I will kill you and all of your family.”
Ahlam, who was then pregnant with their sixth child, remembers chasing the car until she collapsed into the mud. No one responded to her cries for help, and the family never learned what happened to her husband.
Ahlam sunk into a deep depression in the months after his abduction, said her oldest daughter. Ahlam nearly stopped eating altogether and started losing her hair. Her daughter said she was at risk of having a miscarriage. So Ahlam moved her family to Baghdad to be closer to better doctors as her due date approached, working for a time as a security screener at a government building. But they were forced to flee the city when sectarian violence erupted — they went to Syria in 2007, which was then much safer than Iraq.
After working in a textile factory with her oldest daughters in Syria, Ahlam brought her family back to Iraq in 2009, returning to the town where she had lived when her husband disappeared so she could claim a government pension for widows. She had just visited a government building to file the necessary paperwork when she spotted the local OWFI office for the first time — it was just across the street. She’d never been involved in politics, but the group’s name — the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq — spoke to feelings she didn’t know she had inside.
“I decided to go in because women are the victims of society — and I am among those victims … a victim of violence, a victim of slavery, a victim of tribes, a victim of religious oppression,” Ahlam said.
“I had this dream inside me to defend women and to prove myself.”
She met Majid for the first time when she walked inside the small office, which was just two rooms with a few chairs. She recalled Majid describing the group as a “feminist organization that works on women’s rights.” She decided to join on the spot.
“I had this dream inside me to defend women and to prove myself,” Ahlam said. “I was in a very bad place. I needed mental support, [to learn] how to trust, how to have confidence ... [and] to be strong [for] my family.”
Her immediate concern was how to survive day to day, but in 2010 she took in a woman who was fleeing a death threat from her ex-husband. He wanted to kill his ex-wife, Ahlam said, because he held her responsible for their 16-year-old daughter’s suicide. They later learned the girl had killed herself after her father promised to marry her to a much older man.
She realized that she could address her own trauma by helping other women with theirs.
“They make me strong, and I help make them less vulnerable,” she said. “We help each other.”
Not long after that, Ahlam joined Majid on rescue missions.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Mohammed, the cofounder of OWFI, explained it took a while to convince Majid that the group should be helping LGBT people for the same reason the group was helping women.
“In his upbringing, it was all about being ‘faggots on the corner of the streets,’” Mohammed said. After OWFI first asked him to rescue the three gay men in 2011, she said, “I had to take him on a safe route to make him feel like it’s a political duty of a leftist to protect somebody who’s being threatened.”
She said she won him over by pointing out, “In this society, gay men are being threatened by honor killing, just like women are being threatened.” Helping LGBT people became a major priority for OWFI at the time, because the group unexpectedly had many people coming into its offices fleeing a wave of violence targeting men believed to be gay.
In 2011 and 2012, there was a spate of anti-LGBT attacks that became known as the “emo killings” — sparked by a campaign against skinny jeans and other Western styles seen as effeminate. Human rights activists estimate that dozens of people were killed in this period under suspicion of being gay.
Majid and Ahlam said they witnessed a man being burned to death by his family during this wave of violence, cementing their commitment to LGBT rights.
Majid was “totally traumatized” by the incident, recalled Davis of CUNY Law, who spoke to him shortly after. She recalled his outrage at the police officers and militia members who stood there and watched as the man’s family set him on fire.
Many OWFI members were unprepared to work with LGBT people, so Mohammed asked Madre and an LGBT rights NGO, OutRight Action International, to organize sensitivity trainings and workshops on documenting human rights abuses. This led to 2014 reports on LGBT abuse in Iraq, mostly focused on abuses in the country’s Shiite areas.
In this first training, OutRight director Jessica Stern said she had to dispel a number of stereotypes, fielding questions like, “Are gays oversexed?” or whether there were more gay men than lesbians. The trainings became an annual event, and Stern said she was moved by how Majid and Ahlam grew passionate about this work. It was “so obvious that they just take care of [LGBT people]. They did what you would wish someone would do for you.”
“If you want me, come get me. I’m at home.”
Majid and Ahlam’s work grew steadily more dangerous over time. Many local al-Qaeda members in Sunni areas had swung their allegiance to ISIS, and by late 2013 the group had control of major cities. In the months after ISIS laid claim to northern Iraq in June 2014, Majid and Ahlam managed to cross into ISIS territory to help rescue women. Sometimes, they said, they would send messages taunting ISIS members for letting them get past — many of the group’s members had been Majid’s and Ahlam’s neighbors for years.
“Many of our family members and friends used to say we were either crazy or brave,” Majid said. Once, Ahlam got a threatening text message from an ISIS member, demanding she come to the mosque to repent for her work or face execution. She replied, “If you want me, come get me. I’m at home.” Then she broke her SIM card and moved out of her house.
“My own fear became bravery,” Ahlam said.
At times the fighting between ISIS, Shiite militias, and the Iraqi military was so close that mortar shells fell near Majid’s and Ahlam’s houses. More and more reports of ISIS’s brutality began reaching them: women being forced into marriage, women doctors being stoned to death for practicing their profession, the widespread use of rape to terrorize communities.
Some of this seemed to fit the pattern of violence Majid and Ahlam had seen in the regions for years. But they grew increasingly shocked at ISIS’s cruelty, Majid told Mohammed in emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
In an email from late October 2014, he described how a woman had been stoned to death by a mob that included her own father.
“How can a father be so separated from his paternity and humanity and be involved in the stoning of his daughter?” Majid wrote. “The answer is the ideology … concealed within millions of males who were programmed that women are a shame and violate honor[.] … [T]his is the religious heritage.”
Majid responded to the growing violence by documenting everything he could, keeping detailed records whenever he and Ahlam worked with victims or spoke to contacts who secretly called them from inside ISIS territory.
Someday, he wrote to Mohammed that October, “we will publish [all this information] so that all can know of ISIS organization’s terrorism and what it commits of crimes.”
By the time ISIS had made the killing of gay men a key part of its propaganda in 2015, defending LGBT rights had become a special passion for Majid and Ahlam.
As Majid’s understanding of the threat to LGBT people grew, so did his understanding in the importance of the mission. At a conference for Syrian and Iraqi feminist groups in Istanbul in 2015, Majid shouted down an activist from another group who said they shouldn’t be talking about LGBT rights.
“LGBT rights are human rights,” he shot back. “They have rights just like anyone else.”
So when Majid and Ahlam starting getting calls that September from gays and lesbians trying to escape ISIS, they were ready.
“There are two guys, they are gays, and they need to escape from Mosul,” the man on the phone said. “Please help them!”
Majid didn’t recognize the voice on the other end of the line that day in September 2015. The man said he was a friend of Majid’s aunt, a kindergarten teacher who lived in the area around Mosul when ISIS took control. She had become one of Majid’s best informants, secretly calling him in the rare moments when she could get a signal to give him the details of people who had raped, tortured, or murdered.
After confirming with his aunt that the man could be trusted, Majid agreed to help the gay men escape. They were a couple, whose first initials are M. and F. (BuzzFeed News agreed to withhold the names of victims and sources to protect their privacy.) M. was a 23-year-old who worked in a bakery, and F. was a 26-year-old who worked in a restaurant, and both had been in hiding for three months. They were so frightened that they had a hard time speaking to strangers on the phone, so M.’s mother took the lead in making the arrangements.
Majid and Ahlam had a pretty clear picture of what the two men were running from. For weeks, Majid’s aunt and other informants had been giving him updates of new executions of people accused of homosexuality.
There were the nine boys and men aged between 15 and 21 who were executed on August 6, 2015, thrown from the National Insurance Company building and other landmarks in the heart of Mosul, sandbags tied around their necks to ensure the impact would be fatal. There were two textile workers thrown off the top of a building under construction in the eastern neighborhood of Wadi Hajar. There were three men in their twenties in the district of Karama who were bound in chains, doused with gasoline, and burned to death.
Majid’s sources told him that many of the victims weren’t even gay. The accusation was so widespread and arbitrary, Majid wrote to Mohammed, that “the people in Mosul are now preventing their children from interacting with others ... because accusations [by] the terrorists can be directed at any young man.”
But M. and F. said they knew ISIS militants were specifically looking for them. A gay friend of theirs had been executed three months earlier, and they believed he gave their names to his captors before he died. They’d heard an order had been issued for their execution, and went into hiding.
It was by then impossible for Majid and Ahlam to cross into ISIS territory to get them out. But sources behind ISIS’s lines gave them a route they might be able to use to escape. Ahlam told the mother that M. and F. would have to drive hundreds of miles through a series of smaller towns. There would be no escaping ISIS checkpoints, Ahlam said, and it would be up to them to figure out how to make it through. M.’s mother would have to accompany them, along with F.’s mother and sister, because a family traveling together would attract less suspicion than men traveling alone.
The drive would end at a town called al-Safra, on the end of the Hamrin Mountains, a rugged border region between territory controlled by ISIS and the Iraqi military’s front lines. They would have to cross the mountains on foot, and it was dangerous — one refugee who completed the crossing in the dark told Majid and Ahlam she’d heard a mysterious crunching beneath her feet, only to discover when the sun rose that she had been walking on human bones.
Water was scarce on the mountains, which were littered with land mines, and ISIS snipers would likely shoot them if they crossed in daylight, the men were warned. Ahlam told them they would need a smuggler to show them the way, but they should have no trouble finding one after they reached al-Safra if they could cover the cost, which would be equal to around $800 per person. Ahlam said they would tell their contacts in the Iraqi military to look for them when they came down from the hills.
“We’ll handle our issues,” Ahlam recalled M.’s mother assuring her.
Against all the odds, they made it.
Even Majid and Ahlam say they don’t know how the family got all the way to al-Safra without being detected by ISIS. But if M. and F. had managed to stay out of sight in Mosul for three months, Majid said, they knew how to stay undercover.
When Majid and Ahlam met the two men, they were so shaken they could barely speak. M. did not at first believe they had truly made it out of ISIS territory, and he kissed the ground when reality set in.
Majid and Ahlam said they were so moved that they began crying too. They took the men and their families to the OWFI office, where volunteers had prepared a meal of okra and specially seasoned meatballs. M. and F. were still so nervous that even the sound of the refrigerator cycling on and off made them jump.
After a couple days, Majid and Ahlam transported M., F., and their families to a city in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
OWFI alerted OutRight, the New York–based LGBT rights group, to M. and F.’s escape, and the group gave the men a little emergency funding to support them. The men gave brief phone interviews to a researcher with the group, mostly confirming what M.’s mother had told Ahlam. They also spoke to a lawyer from Madre, the women’s rights NGO, to help confirm what Majid was documenting.
All these questions made M. and F. even more nervous, Ahlam told BuzzFeed News. The OutRight researcher had explained they could go to Turkey and seek refugee status, a process that can take years. There were also rumors that ISIS members from Mosul had fled to Istanbul. They went to Turkey, but then cut off contact with the NGOs. M.’s mother told OutRight’s researcher that she’d heard they’d crossed illegally to Greece, but she didn’t know how to reach them.
“You know when a bird is in a cage and you free the bird? You won’t find them anymore.”
Ahlam said she wasn’t surprised M. and F. had decided to disappear.
“You know when a bird is in a cage and you free the bird? You won’t find them anymore,” she said. “I felt this [might happen] during the last phone call — finally they are free.”
Before M. and F. had even left Iraq, Majid and Ahlam were already assisting a lesbian couple in their early twenties who were also trying to escape Mosul.
According a report Majid wrote on their case, the women said ISIS had put their names on an execution list after going through old records at Mosul University. The two women had met while students in the teachers college, but had been expelled in 2013 after getting caught kissing in a bathroom. The university had also reported them to the police, but charges of indecency were dropped for lack of evidence.
They’d spent months hiding in abandoned houses on the Mosul outskirts until September 2015, when they met someone in Mosul who had Majid’s number. He passed them on to Ahlam because they were more comfortable speaking to a woman. She gave the women a similar route that they’d used with M. and F., but it took the women nearly two months to be ready to make the trip.
In November, they crossed the Hamrin Mountains to a town called Rubaidah, where Majid and Ahlam picked them up. They also soon moved on to Kurdistan, where they remain to this day.
They had spent the night walking hand in hand, they later told CUNY’s Davis in a phone interview. When Davis asked why, when they knew it could increase the risk of stepping on a land mine, she said one of the women replied, “Because if we were going to die, we will die together.”
The fighting is not, in fact, over. ISIS has lost its territory in both Syria and Iraq, but cells remain active, including in the region where Majid and Ahlam live. Majid and Ahlam also did not feel any profound sense of relief when ISIS’s hold on the surrounding region was broken. The Shiite militias that swept into their area to help push ISIS out brought with them a new round of sectarian violence.
But ISIS’s decline creates a new challenge — Ahlam said that if there is no accountability for the kind of violence ISIS committed, it makes it all the more likely that it will happen again. And if ISIS can get away with atrocities on this scale, why would anyone think twice before raping a woman or attacking an LGBT person in Iraq?
“Our responsibilities are getting bigger after the end of ISIS,” she said.
They have little faith in the Iraqi courts, which began holding trials last year that rushed to judgment so swiftly that there was no effort to investigate specific atrocities — or even give the defendants a chance to refute the charges. OWFI’s legal team made a long-shot request to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open an investigation in November 2017, but the court rejected the petition last month because Iraq has not signed the treaty that would give the ICC jurisdiction within its borders.
But just after the ICC turned OWFI away, a UN investigative team working in Iraq formally requested a copy of OWFI’s documentation. The team is formally charged with advising the Iraqi government on its own investigations into ISIS, but it was created by the UN Security Council to promote meaningful investigations of human rights abuses.
This is unlikely to directly lead to charges for LGBT persecution, but it is a chance to get the documentation from Majid and Ahlam before some of the world’s leading experts in international law. Lawyers working on cases against ISIS are also discussing holding some kind of symbolic tribunal for cases they can’t get prosecuted in Iraq. Some are also considering bringing charges in a country like Germany, which allows its court to hear international criminal cases even when the crimes were committed in another country.
“We must create a historical memory so that history doesn’t forget what happens to LGBT people in conflict.”
CUNY’s Davis said OWFI and its partners are trying to do more than convict ISIS members — they’re trying to convince the world that it should treat the targeting of LGBT people as a crime. Dozens of countries still criminalize homosexuality, and no war crimes tribunal has ever considered the question of whether it’s illegal to kill LGBT people. Just a few UN resolutions specifically condemns LGBT persecution but there’s no legal mechanism for directly enforcing them. Many lawyers argue that language about persecution on the basis of “gender” in the treaty that created the ICC in 1998 covers persecution on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. But it also includes a convoluted definition of “gender” that some anti-LGBT governments hoped would prevent exactly these kinds of prosecutions.
Cynthia Tai, a former prosecutor at the ICC, said OWFI’s documentation is “unprecedented.”
“I believe that this is the first time that the world has seen such a robust and holistic collection of documentation that presents a clear picture of gender-based persecution,” said Tai, who offered pro bono support to OWFI’s legal team. She said the documentation makes a clear case that “LGBT are included in the definition of gender, given that people are being persecuted on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identify.”
The stories Majid and Ahlam collected will also be impossible for the world to ignore, CUNY’s Davis said. They demonstrate that ISIS’s targeting of LGBT people was widespread and systematic, key tests of whether a form of persecution may be considered a crime against humanity.
“We must create a historical memory so that history doesn’t forget what happens to LGBT people in conflict,” Davis said. “What we want to do is to change the discourse of LGBT crimes in the world.”
DENIZLI, Turkey — A group of 12 queer Iranians in hiding in Turkey had gathered for a small party on Tuesday night when someone spotted the report that President Donald Trump planned to stop resettling refugees in the United States.
Several of those there that night had been waiting for their US visas, their cases having been referred to the US by the United Nations. Some had already been turned away from other countries. Others were still waiting to find out if they would ever get a ticket out.
All felt their dreams crushed as they heard the news.
“I’m going to die here,” said Hamid, a 36-year-old gay man who fled his home in northern Iran in 2014 and was referred to the US for resettlement in August 2016. He is one of many queer Iranians who have camped out in Denizli, a small textile manufacturing city in southwestern Turkey, to endure the years-long wait for a ticket to the West where they hope to build a new life.
“We are all gonna end up in this fucking Turkey,” said Soheil, a teacher also from northern Iran whose case is under review with the US, in a text message after the news had sunk in the next day. “Trump is signing the law that literally prevents all Iranian asylum-seekers from entering states except religious minorities. It’s hell. It's fucking hell.”
News of the order was first reported by Reuters earlier in the week, but the full details were not clear until President Trump imposed the rule on Friday. He did it through an executive order — not a law — that froze refugee resettlements for 120 days and then will admit only people from countries where cabinet officials certify “sufficient safeguards are in place” to vet refugees. It also suspends resettling Syrian refugees indefinitely, requiring Trump to personally sign off on resuming the program. It also cuts the number of refugees allowed to be admitted to the US in 2017 to 50,000, less than half of the 110,000 allowed under a cap set by President Obama.
The new rules makes clear that Trump could bring an end to the international cooperation that helps refugees reach safety. The US is not just one among many countries that resettles refugees; it has a special role because it resettles far more refugees to its shores than any other country. In 2015, it accepted 60% of all refugees resettled worldwide, according to the UN. Other countries allow much greater numbers of people to remain within their borders who arrive under their own steam, but no country voluntarily resettles more people than the US through the international refugee process.
There had long been bipartisan support in the US for refugee relief until Republicans began objecting to resettling refugees from war-torn parts of the Middle East under President Obama. This backlash helped propel Trump into the White House. Now he is shaking the foundations of the international system that help people fleeing war and persecution reach safety.
“If the US turns its back on refugees, then other countries might cite this as an excuse to ... provide safety to asylum-seekers.”
And it comes as this system is already stressed to its breaking point, confronted with more people seeking shelter than ever before in human history. Almost 65 million people worldwide had fled their homes as of 2015, according to the latest numbers published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Trump’s order also signals a major shakeup in priorities for the US refugee program if it does resume. Under Obama, the US made a priority of resettling people who were persecuted on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The order from Trump, however, makes a priority of resettling those claiming refugee status on the basis of “religious-based persecution.” This appears to prioritize Christians, allowing for the continued processing of religion-based refugee claims during the freeze on resettlements only in cases where “the religion of that individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” In other words, a Muslim from Iran might not qualify even if their claim is related to their faith.
The news caused anxiety among refugees throughout Turkey, where around 3 million people are now living after fleeing their homelands. Many who spoke to BuzzFeed News — including some who were in the process to be resettled to the US — appeared to be in denial. It seemed unthinkable to them that one man could bring a process to a halt that had been in the works for years under the auspices of the UN. Many believed Trump would only take action against undocumented immigrants.
“Those things concern the illegal immigrants, not the refugees like us,” said Ana, a lesbian from northwest Iran who was forced to abandon her then 7-year-old son and flee after her brother discovered her in bed with her girlfriend in 2014.
(All of the refugees who spoke to BuzzFeed News asked to be identified only by their first names or nicknames because they feared violence for being identified as LGBT or because they worried about retaliation from migration officials for criticizing the process.)
Nienose, a 32-year-old gay Iraqi who came to Turkey in 2015 and is now in the final stages of being resettled to the US, said, “It seems [Trump] is doing something for which he doesn’t know the consequences.”
Nienose now lives in Sakarya, a city about 100 miles east of Istanbul. It’s the second place he’s sought shelter in Turkey; he said he had to leave Manisa, a city near the Aegean coast, after his Turkish neighbors discovered pictures on his Instagram revealing he was gay “and they attempted to kill me.”
“Maybe Trump would think I ran away because I’m a terrorist or want to do bad things in the USA,” said Nienose. “If I am here [in Turkey] any longer and the USA rejects my case, I believe I may kill myself.”
“Whatever I may do, however good a person I may be — a good citizen — the hosts still do not like me.”
Neil Grungras, executive director of ORAM, an NGO that assists LGBT asylum-seekers, said he believes threats of suicide are credible. There have already been instances of refugees harming themselves after losing hope during the confusing and bureaucratic process to qualify for resettlement. He’s especially worried about refugees like Nienose, who were approaching the end of the process and were expecting to leave for the US very soon and now have no idea about their future.
“Refugees who have just been hanging on waiting to be resettled ... are going to become absolutely despondent — I expect people will commit suicide,” Grungras said.
A major slowdown in resettlements to the US could also have much wider consequences, Grungras warned. Turkey and the EU have been working very hard to try to shut down the sea routes to Europe that have brought more than 1 million people into the EU without permission. In March 2016, Turkey reached an agreement that allows the EU to deport migrants to Turkey, in exchange for cash payments and a commitment to resettle qualified asylum-seekers through legal channels.
But this has increased tension over migrants inside Turkey, and would-be refugees need some level of faith in the legitimate asylum process in order not to attempt the increasingly difficult sea crossing. Even if someone doesn’t want to go to the US — and most LGBT refugees say they prefer Canada or Europe because they fear gun violence, think the US is not LGBT-friendly, and want easier access to health care — most know another refugee who’s gone or in the process of going there. These resettlements were proof the process could work; if that stops, it could cause asylum-seekers to lose faith in the system.
“Turkey is ready to explode, and the refugee program is the pressure release valve — and the US led the system,” Grungras said.
The system is already bursting at the seams, derailing the cases of even the refugees who had the greatest reason to believe in a reliable process.
Two of those in this situation are a couple in their mid-forties from Iran named Alireza and Saeed. They had a comfortable life in the capital, Tehran, living together for 10 years in the building where they ran a graphic design and printing business. Then, around October 2013, Saeed’s brother hacked Saeed’s cell phone and attempted to blackmail him with a private sex video.
They first tried to pay a smuggler who promised to get them British visas, but he skipped town with their money. They then tried to get a Greek visa, but were rejected by the consulate. Finally they decided they needed to take the route familiar to many LGBT Iranians. Most know someone — or at least know about someone — who’s gone to Turkey, claimed asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation, and been resettled in the West, usually to Canada. The whole process usually takes two years, and Alireza and Saeed came to Denizli to wait.
They registered with UNHCR in March 2014, and learned in April 2015 that they had been referred to Canada for resettlement. They heard nothing else for more than a year, though they sent hundreds of emails and called each week trying to get an update. Finally, Alireza said, a UNHCR worker called him in November to say Canada was “closed”; they would not accept their cases after all. Instead, their case would be forwarded to the US, where Trump had just been elected president.
Trump didn’t worry them, they said in an interview on Monday just before news of his planned refugee order broke. “We knew Trump was the new president but that did not do anything to us,” Alireza said. “We are legal immigrants — that does not concern us,” Saeed added.
They were shocked when they learned of the report on Wednesday.
“We've been waiting so long the only hope that if Canada is closed, there was US. What can we do?” said Alireza.
“We feel like unwanted guests,” said Saeed. “Whatever I may do, however good a person I may be — a good citizen — the hosts still do not like me.”
Alireza and Saeed are not the only ones in this situation. Saghi Ghahraman, director of the Iranian Queer Organization, a Toronto-based group that supports asylum-seekers in Turkey with the resettlement process, said she has received more than 30 reports from people whose cases were pending with Canada who were informed their cases would be referred to the US instead.
With Trump in office, Ghahraman warned, “I think they are trapped there in Turkey.”
Neither UNHCR nor Canada’s immigration agency responded to questions about these cases. But migration experts say the global scramble to find spots for the overwhelming population of Syrian refugees has meant it is becoming harder for non-Syrians to be resettled.
“I would not be surprised if Syrians were crowding out Iranians in 2016 as the government was clearly prioritizing Syrians over everyone,” said Howard Anglin, who was chief of staff to Canada’s immigration minister before Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister in 2015.
LGBT Syrians have actually had a relatively quick path to safety in recent months. Many countries have given priority to resettling Syrians in response to public outcry as refugees of a war that’s estimated to have claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people and displaced almost 5 million has reached European shores. And UNHCR considers LGBT Syrian refugees at particular risk of violence in Turkey, especially after a 23-year-old named Wisam Sankari was found decapitated in Istanbul in July.
Since then, ORAM says it has been able to help clients facing threats of violence access a small number of spots UNHCR reserves for “emergency” resettlement that can get them out of the country in less than a year, while the process for people who are not deemed high risk can take many years. Most of these fast-tracked cases go to European countries, because the US’s extensive legal and security reviews are generally considered too slow for urgent situations. The US already maintains some of the most extensive vetting procedures of any resettling country.
But even the European countries that resettle the largest number of refugees take far fewer than the US, which resettled 98,873 refugees from countries around the world in 2016, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration. The UK, which resettled the most refugees of any European nation that year, took just 5,213, and many European countries stopped accepting new cases in 2016, according to ORAM, while there are 1,500 self-identified LGBT refugees in Turkey registered for resettlement.
The best-case scenario for those awaiting resettlement under the Trump order is that the US fully resumes its resettlement program after the 120-day freeze. But even then, there will be 60,000 fewer slots to the United States at a time when millions of people are hoping to be resettled from conflict areas around the world. Canada, which resettled 44,741 refugees in 2016 making it second to the United States in the number of refugees it resettles, was already refusing new cases from Turkey in late 2016.
Australia was the recipient of the third-largest group of refugees in 2016, taking 11,388. The country’s internal politics make it unlikely for it to increase resettlements to pick up the hole left by the US. The issue of resettlement is highly controversial there as well, and the country is locked in a years-long battle over a couple thousand asylum-seekers who are confined to remote Pacific islands after attempting to reach the country by boat.
A US retreat on its refugee commitments could have a domino effect, worries Begüm Başdaş, who works on asylum issues for Amnesty International Turkey.
“If the US turns its back on refugees, then other countries might cite this as an excuse to shirk obligations under international law to provide safety to asylum-seekers," Başdaş said.
And if asylum-seekers lose hope in getting to safety through the official resettlement process, she believes more will risk their lives by crossing the sea in smugglers’ boats.
“If these [international] commitments [to shelter refugees] fail, the refugees who need a better life will do whatever it takes to reach areas where they think it will be safe and a future for their children,” she said. “People will die — that’s what it means in plain English.”
This story has been updated following President Trump signing the executive order on Friday.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 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 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 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 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.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 22, 2015, at 1:22 p.m. ET
ISTANBUL — M was standing at a bus stop on the outskirts of Damascus when a group of armed men pulled up in a car and ordered her to get in.
M wears thick-framed glasses and her black hair cut just above the ear. She stood out in a largely devout neighborhood where most women wore headscarves, making her a target that day in July 2014.
“You are not covered — and why is your hair short?” she remembered her captors asking, slapping her across the face and striking her on the back of her head. They demanded she recite a verse from the Qur'an to prove she was a Muslim, and she was lucky they picked one that she had learned as a child.
“Why are you imitating men?” they demanded. “All this entitles you to execution.”
They held her blindfolded for two days; she kept time by counting the calls to prayer from a nearby mosque.
The 46-year-old M lived in an area that was a battleground that summer as government forces attempted to push the rebels back from the Syrian capital, and many of her neighbors had been wounded when the area was under siege. She practiced alternative medicine for a living, caring for the wounded regardless of which side they supported, without accepting payment.
This charity is what ultimately saved her life. At the end of the second day, a leader who her captors called “the sheikh” said an order had been issued for her execution for being a “mistarjili” — literally, a woman who acts like a man. But, she said he told her: “Listen, I will not impose the ruling … I asked all the people in the area and they told us that you are a person who helps all people.”
The group released her with nothing but her ID card and a warning that the reprieve was only temporary.
“At any moment you might be killed,” the sheikh warned her. “You should leave the area immediately."
“Why are you imitating men?”
Her neighborhood was being shelled, so she never went back to the small home where she lived for 15 years. Instead, M borrowed money from a friend and headed to Turkey later that summer as soon as she could get a passport.
For seven months, she was barely scraping by working a series of black-market jobs that required her to work 12-hour days. But she felt a surge of hope in April when she learned that she was eligible to be considered for resettlement to someplace like the United States or Europe by the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She went to an office of the NGO that takes new cases, told them about what had happened to her in Syria, and waited for someone to call her with good news.
Six months passed. The phone never rang.
“My dream was to live in a country that respects a queer woman like me as a human being,” she told BuzzFeed News in Istanbul last month. “I felt that finally my problems will be solved ... but it turned out to be an illusion.”
If she had the money, she would do what her roommate did earlier this summer: hire a smuggler to carry her to Europe on a boat. But that costs about $2,500, more money than she can even dream about. In Istanbul she hasn’t been able to find work for several months even washing dishes. She is on the verge of being thrown out of her tiny room, which smells of sewage and has drug dealers conducting business just outside her window.
The people who met her when she arrived say her time here has aged her at least a decade. Deep worry lines cut into her sunken face, and her clothes sagged off her withered frame.
Finally, she decided to do something she describes as a way to commit suicide: She bought a ticket back to Syria.
“I’m returning to my death, but what choice do I have?” M said.
UNHCR actually fast-tracks LGBT refugees for resettlement because it considers them especially vulnerable. But the process still leaves many in despair, showing that the system wasn’t really built to rescue large numbers of people in immediate danger. The fates of refugees who are desperately seeking security are in the hands of a bureaucracy that spans multiple governments, agencies, and NGOs. These institutions generally don’t have nearly enough staff to keep up with the workload created by the influx of Syrians since the war began.
LGBT refugees will usually have to wait about two years for a ticket out of Turkey, said Selin Unal, spokesman for UNHCR's Turkey office: one year for UNHCR to decide if they’re eligible and a second for another country to grant them a visa and fly them over.
“We are trying our best to shorten waiting periods,” Unal said, but given the numbers seeking resettlement, “this period is not really too long.”
Those who “have been resettled are probably very grateful to UNHCR for having helped them and given a chance to build their life in a new environment,” she added. “We acknowledge the difficulties of a daily life for refugees during a waiting period … [and] we do not spare any efforts in order to support and assist [them].”
The two-year wait is far shorter than the one faced by refugees not considered vulnerable — advocates who work with other categories of refugees report that UNHCR is telling their clients they won’t even have their first meeting with an agency caseworker until 2022 or 2023.
But to an individual, those two years can feel like an eternity. Refugees are generally barred from working and often survive doing back-breaking black-market labor or sex work. One sign of how at risk they feel is that all of those who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this story asked to be identified by their first names or nicknames. Many — especially trans people who stand out on the street — will be victims of hate crimes from Turks or other refugees who come from the very countries they are fleeing, according to the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM), which advocates on behalf of LGBT people.
UNHCR-Turkey now reports 700 LGBT people in its system, but ORAM believes there are many more who don’t know they can seek asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity or are too afraid to out themselves. In 2014, UNHCR asked the governments that resettle refugees from Turkey to consider the cases of 227 LGBT people, most of whom were from Iran.
The process for resettlement is well known to Iranian LGBT people because most have friends who have gone through it in the past several years. But it’s newer for Syrians, who just began to seek asylum in large numbers since the start of the war. Before the conflict began, the Assad regime was brutal with political opponents, but it was secular and didn’t seek out LGBT people for harassment the way authorities do in places like Iran. What primarily makes Syria dangerous for the LGBT people now arriving in Turkey is Assad’s loss of control in much of the country to the Islamist rebels trying to overthrow him.
LGBT Syrians arrive along with millions of other Syrians — from both sides — fleeing the fighting. Their vulnerability gives LGBT refugees a path to resettlement that most other Syrians won’t be able to access, but they must go through a process that often feels incomprehensible and capricious.
Refugees bound for the U.S. — which takes the lion’s share of refugees resettled from Turkey — will generally pass through five different stages each requiring a new interview. Months can pass between each step without word on the real status of their cases, and there is little support if they can’t find somewhere to sleep, face a medical emergency, or are assaulted. There are precious few resettlement slots: The U.S. resettled just 5,162 refugees from Turkey in the last year. (Fewer than 100 of all refugees resettled in the U.S. in that period identified themselves as LGBT.)
Many advocates who work on LGBT asylum issues say they believe UNHCR’s staff is genuinely committed to getting these refugees out as fast as possible. But, said ORAM’s Neil Grungras, the system itself is “bureaucratic and inefficient from the get-go” — and now the agency’s 330 staff members in the country are completely overwhelmed as the total numbers seeking asylum in Turkey climb past 2 million.
“The system is failing them,” Grungras said. “The people who are truly vulnerable aren’t being whisked out of harm’s way soon enough.”
This is what that failure looks like.
Istanbul has become an increasingly important safe haven in recent years as other cities — like Cairo and Beirut — have become ever more dangerous for LGBT people.
Back in June, Nader, a bushy-bearded 26-year-old Syrian, helped organize about 100 Arab refugees to turn out for the city’s 13th annual pride march, exhilarated at the chance to celebrate with tens of thousands of people. They carried signs like "Stop the persecution of gays in the Arab world" and "Your life isn't worth more than mine."
So it felt like a deep betrayal when local officials banned the march at the last minute and police turned tear gas, plastic bullets, and water cannons on participants. (Turkish LGBT activists are not sure why the event was shut down after years without incident, but it fell during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and came in the wake of a defeat at the ballot box for the party of Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)
“I thought we were safe, but the police were attacking us and the people just watching,” said Nader. “That was my last straw with being here.”
Nader had worked hard to build a life in Istanbul since arriving in June 2014. He had started a weekly support group for Arabic-speaking LGBT refugees called Tea and Talk, drawing people from as far apart as Morocco to Iraq. He had also fallen in love with a sweet-faced 21-year-old from Damascus named Omar, moving in with him a couple months after they first met in one of Istanbul’s best-known gay clubs in December. They set up house just before Valentine's Day.
Istanbul was the last stop for Nader on a four-year exodus since he left his native city of Homs, Syria, for good in August 2011, five months after the uprising against Assad began. He grew up in a Sunni family in the Bab al-Sibah neighborhood, which was the frontline in sectarian fighting with members of the city’s Alawite community before the conflict became a full-fledged civil war. The city was wracked by a cycle of killings between the two communities, and many of Nader’s childhood friends gravitated to Sunni militias.
One day, a close friend took Nader to see a house in Homs where a massacre had taken place and showed him the remains of a group of Alawites. “We’re taking our revenge,” he said. Horrified at what his friends were becoming, and scared they would come for him because of his sexuality, Nader moved to Damascus immediately.
“I used to have a wild sex life in our neighborhood.”
Nader had actually fooled around with some of those friends now fighting with groups morphing into the Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. “I used to have a wild sex life in our neighborhood,” he said, and he never really hid that he was gay as he became an adult.
Once behind the lines of President Assad’s forces in Damascus, he even told an old hookup buddy turned rebel fighter on the phone that he was “gay for sure.” A few days later he learned that the friend reported the conversation to his group’s imam, who proclaimed it debauchery and said “the Islamic rule for it is throw him from off of the high building.”
So when anti-Assad fighters successfully attacked the Al-Midan neighborhood in the heart of the Damascus in January 2012, Nader made plans to go to Cairo.
But Cairo proved not to be very welcoming either, and he said he was twice beaten up in the streets during his year there, caught up in the unrest amid mass protests that gripped the city during the one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Next he tried Amman, Jordan, but discovered the city was awash in Syrian rebels fleeing Assad’s forces, including some who looked familiar from Homs.
In June 2014, one of them recognized him and tried to grab him on a street in the city center.
“You are the faggot — we captured you!” Nader remembered the man shouting. “You escaped from Syria so you think you are safe right now. [But] we will fuck you, we will kill you!”
The yelling drew a crowd, and Nader managed to shake him off in the commotion. Two days later he bought a ticket to Istanbul, and went to the NGO registering new cases for resettlement to North America or Europe, the Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Migrants (ASAM).
Earlier this month, Nader finally got a call from UNHCR that Norway had agreed to take him. He will probably be moving within six months. There was only one problem: It would mean leaving his boyfriend almost entirely alone.
Omar’s resettlement petition appeared to have gotten stuck in a personnel shake-up at ASAM. Though he’d registered in June, he had to essentially re-do his first interview with a caseworker three months later because the official he spoke to the first time had left the job without forwarding his paperwork to UNHCR. (ASAM did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.)
The pair spoke to BuzzFeed News hours after they learned Nader would be going to Norway, and Omar’s eyes were visibly red from crying. They had thought about sending Omar on the boats but they were afraid he would be detained by authorities before reaching Norway. They even had a long-shot idea about going to Brazil — the only country they said they had found that performs same-sex marriages and grants visas to Syrians — to get married in order to enable Nader to bring Omar as a spouse.
“He’s leaving and we don’t know when we will meet again,” Omar said.
They were basically considering anything they could think of so they wouldn’t have to rely on UNHCR.
“I don’t trust them,” Nader said.
This is the bureaucratic maze that generally awaits refugees seeking resettlement from Turkey — if they don’t run into any problems:
Most start by giving a basic outline of their story to ASAM. They’re also supposed to register with the Turkish government, which will assign those in UNHCR’s resettlement process to remote “satellite cities” where they must regularly appear at a police station to prove they haven’t left. (Generally only Syrians, to whom the Turkish government have given special status, can choose to live in large cities like Istanbul.)
ASAM refers eligible cases to UNHCR, and refugees can wait months or years to be summoned for a “pre-interview,” where they’ll give the in-depth version of their stories and submit any corroborating documents: medical records of assault, threatening messages from family members, arrest records. Next they have the UNHCR “interview,” where they tell their story in yet more detail — the appointment can take a full day or require a second interview.
If UNHCR decides to grant them refugee status and refer them for resettlement, the agency will have a short conversation with each of them about where they want to be resettled, though the decision depends almost entirely on which countries have open slots at the time and not on their preference.
Most will go to the U.S., so they will next be interviewed by the International Catholic Migration Commission, the contractor processing refugee cases for the U.S. Then they are interviewed again by a “circuit rider” from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on one of their periodic visits to Istanbul — that person goes over their story again from beginning to end primarily to check that they are eligible to be resettled under U.S. law. Then their personal information is sent to other U.S. security agencies to look for red flags like service in a hostile military or support for blacklisted groups, which would disqualify them for a visa. Advocates say cases can wind up on long holds even if relatively minor questions about their record are raised.
If they get final approval, they wait for an agency in the U.S. to agree to handle their resettlement and wait to be given a spot on flights purchased by the International Organization for Migration. They are forbidden from flying on their own if they find an earlier flight, and are required to start repaying the full fare in installments six months after arriving in the U.S. Before their flight date, they also must secure an exit permit from the Turkish government.
"It is truly a challenge," said Veysel Essiz, senior program officer at Refugee Rights Turkey. "You flee your own country to find at least some safety, but the feeling that the overwhelming majority of refugees in Turkey have is that they will be in limbo for eternity."
The wait in Turkey can be dangerous, especially for those who don’t manage to learn Turkish and so wind up more dependent on other refugees to share housing and navigate day-to-day life. And those who are visibly queer often worry about being assaulted.
Reza, a 34-year-old gay Iranian who wears makeup and has feminine mannerisms, told BuzzFeed News he was head-butted by a man on the street in the southeastern Turkish city of Denizli where he is living while waiting for resettlement. He said he came to Turkey after being beaten, sexually assaulted, and detained by police on several occasions, and now is too afraid to leave his apartment in Turkey alone.
“He beat me because I had red lipstick on,” he said of the December 2014 attack.
Refugees who find themselves living in enclaves with others from their home country — often the only way they can find housing — regularly find the same kind of threats they fled have followed them.
But even those who could pass as straight put themselves in danger when they try to live a relatively normal life. Ahmad, a slight, 23-year-old Syrian who wears a fedora and smokes a Sherlock Holmes pipe, told BuzzFeed News he was forced to share an apartment with Syrians who had fought for al-Nusra and would make jokes about ISIS executing gays — a situation several gay Syrians in Istanbul have encountered.
He arrived in Istanbul in April and said he was assaulted for the first time in June. He got jumped by a group of Syrians outside his apartment building — they had apparently seen him hanging out with some gay friends in the central shopping district.
“You gays put us all to shame.”
“Did you finish hooking up with your friend?” he remembered them saying before they jumped on him. “You gays put us all to shame.” Photos from the incident, which he submitted to ASAM to demonstrate the danger he is in in Istanbul, show his face purple and swollen.
He was attacked again about a month later — this time by a friend of a friend he thought he was meeting for a date — and he said that if it happens again, it would be “the next level” and he would be killed. If he had the money, he would be on a boat to Europe despite the risk of drowning and rumors he’s heard about smugglers killing refugees and selling their organs.
“It is dangerous, but it’s better than me staying here,” he said.
It’s been six months since he registered and he’s heard nothing from UNHCR. He is also worried that he’ll be sent to the U.S. while he is desperate to get to Germany.
That’s where he believes he will “find the first love of my life,” a man named Mohammed.
They had dated for four months in Damascus six years ago, when Ahmad was around 17. Ahmad came to Turkey carrying dried flowers — which now have withered to just a stick and bundle of grass — that Mohammed had given him on the day they first had sex. But not long after, Ahmad lost his cell phone when he was mugged, and he hadn’t memorized Mohammed’s phone number nor even knew his last name — it was not uncommon for people who were afraid of being outed to keep their family names secret from each other when they began dating.
“After that, I didn’t know anything about Mohammed,” Ahmad said.
But he knew Mohammed had a brother in Germany, and they had fantasized about traveling there at a time “when there was no war or anything called a refugee.”
“My inner feeling is that [Mohammed] is in Germany, and I’m going to find him,” Ahmad said.
Ezeddin Fadel contributed to this report.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on July 31, 2015, at 9:26 a.m. ET
SEOUL — Jonah Lee, a round-faced 63-year-old with a swoop of graying hair, once spent his days running gay bars and drag clubs in Korea and Japan in the '70s and '80s. His flagship, Hot Love, was a hit in both Seoul and Tokyo.
Today, Lee is known for something else entirely. He claims, through a ministry he started in the Korean capital in 1994, to have counseled more than 1,200 people seeking to “escape homosexuality.”
Lee’s story — from gay entertainment pioneer to the leading spokesperson for Korea’s ex-gay movement — was made possible by the trajectory of many of South Korea’s Christian churches, which have grown exponentially since Lee first became a Christian almost 40 years ago. For most of that time, homosexuality was basically a non-issue even in the most conservative of these churches, and Lee said no one raised concern about his business for 11 years after he started attending South Korea’s largest megachurch; he even started going to theology classes while dressed in women’s clothing, according to a former teacher.
Today, many of Korea’s most important Christian leaders have come to preach homosexuality as an existential threat. These churches believe their movement is doing more than just saving people from sin; they believe they are saving the nation itself. Lee’s path to ex-gay leader is a story in miniature of how homosexuality rapidly went from an almost invisible issue in South Korea to one that is now bringing tens of thousands of shouting protesters to the streets.
On June 28, Lee took to the stage at a rally organized by the Korean Churches Anti-LGBT Response Committee, an umbrella group that brought together five major Christian organizations to protest an LGBT march through the center of Seoul. He was on the same program as Pastor Lee Young-hoon, president of the Christian Council of Korea and head of the 800,000-member Yoido Full Gospel Church, where Jonah Lee first became a Christian.
“The church has to serve the nation faithfully in delivering the message of salvation to the homosexuals!” Lee told the crowd. Almost all of the several thousand people in attendance wore visors printed with the motto “Oppose homosexual provocation.”
Back when Lee first converted from Buddhism to Christianity — in 1978 — this event would have been as unthinkable as his participation in it. While Christian leaders who spoke to BuzzFeed News maintain Korean churches have always subscribed to a doctrine opposed to homosexuality, barely anyone ever preached against it because there were virtually no out people in Korea, let alone an organized movement.
In an interview in the small office building that houses his church at the edge of Seoul’s upscale Gangnam neighborhood, Lee said he became a Christian because he believed he was responsible for the suicide of his mother, a devout Buddhist, and needed a way to find forgiveness.
In the late ‘70s, Lee told his mother he could not marry because he was attracted to men. She told him she had been able to conceive him only after 100 days of beseeching Buddha for a son, and she now believed that his homosexuality was the price for having her prayers answered. His mother believed she could free him from his homosexuality by cleansing herself of her sins, and the only way to do that was for her to kill herself.
“My mom thought the reason why I’m gay was due to her sins. She thought it was her responsibility to resolve this problem — she wrote a will and committed suicide,” Lee said.
Lee still carried tremendous guilt for her suicide, but he didn’t run from his homosexuality. “I was heartbroken after my mother’s death,” Lee said. “But that didn’t change things. I was still gay.”
Soon after her death, he opened his first gay bar, called Hot Love, which Lee claims was the first in the Itaewon neighborhood that today has a thriving gay strip. He would perform drag there, too, taking the name Lee Ae Ma Ma, which translates to Lee Loves Mama.
Lester Feder for BuzzFeed News
Jonah Lee (center) at the event announcing the creation of the "International Association of Ex-Homosexuality" and the second "Ex-homosexuality Human Rights Youth Forum."But he was lonely and miserable. So when an old drinking buddy returned from a stint living in Japan and told him she had become a Christian and Jesus had told her to bring him to Christ, he erupted in tears.
“I started having this feeling that I wanted to repent for my sins and I wanted God to forgive me,” Lee said. “I wronged my mother and I wanted her to forgive me, but since she had passed away, I had no one to ask forgiveness from…. I repented, converted from Buddhism to Christianity, and I truly felt I was forgiven.”
Accepting Jesus didn’t mean turning away from homosexuality. He began attending Yoido Full Gospel Church even as his business took off, and he continued to run gay bars and drag clubs.
“I felt this happiness that I was able to communicate with God, but I was still homosexual,” Lee said. “I didn’t think it was a problem at the time — no one had mentioned to me that it was a sin.”
Lee was one of hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to Yoido, one of the country’s most popular and influential churches. Yoido was just one of many Protestant churches that were growing exponentially as South Korea’s economy took off in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, fueled in large part by a “prosperity gospel” that preached faith would be rewarded by wealth.
Yoido was started by Pastor Cho Yonggi, a Buddhist convert, in the 1950s, when less than 3% of Koreans were Protestant. Though Korean diplomats first brought Christianity to the peninsula in the late 1700s, it really took off after the Korean War and the South’s turn toward the United States as its most important ally and economic partner.
“I felt this happiness that I was able to communicate with God, but I was still homosexual.”
American churches and Christian relief groups took a special interest in South Korea in part because Christianity had been especially well-established in the North before the communist regime. Korean Christians had been important leaders against Japanese rule in the first part of the 20th century, and its associated with nationalism grew stronger over South Korea’s 60-year conflict with the North. As of 2010, almost 25% of South Korea was Protestant and another 7.5% was Catholic.
When Lee met with Pastor Cho to ask about the nighttime panic attacks he had been having and whether they might be a sign that God wanted him to become a pastor, Lee said Pastor Cho raised no concern about his sexuality.
“You’ve been selected by God,” Lee said Cho told him during an encounter in Tokyo, where Lee had fled in 1988, when Lee said police shut down gay bars in Itaewon in response to the spread of AIDS. “I think he was aware that people are born gay.”
Cho, through a spokesperson, declined to comment for this story. He stepped down as leader of Yoido in 2008 and was convicted in 2014 of embezzling millions from the church and of tax evasion.
The kind of culture wars then charging up U.S. evangelicals had yet to arrive in the region when Lee devoted himself to studying full-time at a Yoido-backed Bible school in Tokyo. He lived off the $3,000 a month he earned from renting out the Tokyo outpost of Hot Love and would regularly come to class dressed as a woman, according to his most important mentor, Pastor Koichi Hirano.
“I was shocked to find out he was a man,” said Hirano, who is the pastor of the Horizon Chapel in Tokyo. Hirano said that Lee had “very fair, beautiful skin for a man of his age”; though Lee was almost 40, Hirano said, he “looked like a 25-year-old woman.”
Then, 11 years into Lee’s life as a Christian, something changed.
Hirano was the first to tell Lee that he could not be gay and become a pastor. And he went one step further: He told him he wasn’t born gay and that Bible study could cure him.
“If you were indeed born gay then something is wrong with God — God created a male and a female, and he said that homosexuality is a sin,” Lee recalls Hirano telling him. “There must be something wrong with God if he says being gay is OK.”
Lee, eager to fulfill his calling to become a pastor, asked Hirano how he could stop being gay. Lee remembers Hirano pointed to him to Corinthians 6:11, promising he could be “sanctified by the Holy Spirit” if he devoted himself to scripture.
Hirano had lived in the United States for 21 years, from 1968 to 1989, where he had heard many stories of “ex-gays.”
Though Hirano had been ordained at Duke University’s liberal Methodist seminary, his preaching was heavily influenced by the Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, a megachurch that was the seat of one of the largest revivals of the 1970s. He had been posted to a church in nearby Huntington Beach after finishing seminary in 1975, and he witnessed Calvary’s legendary Pastor Church Smith bring thousands of hippies and others on the cultural margins to the church. There, Hirano had seen alcoholics and drug addicts saved by faith — and, he said, he knew “a lot of gay people [who] recovered at Calvary Chapel.”
For two years, Lee studied with Hirano and “refrained from leading a gay lifestyle,” but then had sex with an ex-boyfriend despite his resolve. He went to tell Hirano he was abandoning his studies, but while listening to Hirano finish teaching a story about Jesus exorcising a man of demons, he felt a blow to the head and it seemed as though his soul had left his body, as if chasing a tornado. He started to cry and sweat as if something were escaping through his pores.
When it was over, Lee said, he “felt a change … like cool water running through my stomach.” Though he'd had sex with a man just a few days before, he said, “I started feeling that a woman is beautiful and males are just males.”
Through Hirano, Lee said he developed a relationship with Calvary Chapel and received his certificate of ordination from its Santa Barbara branch when he visited California in 1995. Ricky Ryan, then-pastor of the Santa Barbary Calvary Chapel, declined through an employee of his current church to respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for confirmation.
At first Lee hid his gay past, and his churches struggled. By 2007, when South Korea was producing more missionaries than any country in the world other than the U.S., Lee was thinking of joining their ranks by evangelizing China.
But before he could leave, LGBT rights burst into the national debate for the first time. South Korea’s legislature, the National Assembly, took up a human rights bill that would have barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation along with several other controversial categories, including “ideology,” “military status,” and “family type.” The fight that ultimately sunk the bill finally gave Lee his niche.
Lee became one of a handful of activists who thought the major churches and religious organizations weren’t doing enough to defeat the bill. This was the first attempt to import LGBT rights laws primarily crafted in Europe and the Americas to Korea under the banner of human rights, a concept that was particularly sensitive in the country because its most popular politician, Ban Ki-moon, had just become secretary general of the United Nations.
Like anti-LGBT activists where such laws had passed, they warned this would lead to censorship of churches that preached against homosexuality. And, even though a homegrown LGBT movement had been hosting small pride marches since 1999, many viewed homosexuality as something that would never have become an issue if not for foreign influence.
Lee founded his own organization, called the Holy Life Center, to “treat homosexuals.” The group also organizes events to promote “ex-gay rights,” which Lee appears to primarily mean the right to continue to practice his brand of therapy at a time when many European and American jurisdictions are moving to prohibit it. Lee said that as word got around about his past, the groups mobilizing against the bill recruited him as a spokesperson. Ultimately, the sexual orientation language was stripped from the bill and the whole proposal was shelved.
Lee’s fame began to spread beyond his small ministry. “I heard that there was a gay pastor in Korea that was treated, and we invited him to hear his story at one of our church meetings,” said Lee Yong-hee, leader of a group called the Esther Prayer Movement. The group was originally created to “make the nation pure” in the hopes of reunification with North Korea, but it has become one of the most visible of the small Christian groups of Korea’s growing anti-LGBT movement over the past few years.
Jonah Lee eventually split with the Esther Prayer Movement and groups like it, because, he said, “they were portraying gay people as bad people” while he views “gay people as someone who needs to be saved, not as my enemy.” For the past two years, Lee's Holy Life Center has put on a series of seminars about helping people “escape homosexuality” that coincided with this year’s Korean Queer Cultural Festival. The festival, which has been organizing pride marches and other events since 1999, became the focus of the churches’ newfound fear of LGBT rights in 2015, when they organized their Anti-LGBT Response Committee in a failed attempt to get city leaders to shut down the march and LGBT rally in front of city hall.
Demonstration against the Seoul pride march in June.This year, Holy Life also organized an event at the National Assembly announcing the formation of a new international ex-gay organization to replace Exodus International, which collapsed in 2013. Lee also maintains a website where he fields questions from people seeking to be cured from homosexuality.
“Will you, Pastor Jonah, help me save myself from homosexuality? I cannot trust God. I believe that without believing in the miracles of the Lord, I cannot overcome homosexuality like this,” one young woman wrote to him. He replied, “The reason that you cannot overcome homosexuality is because you are choosing to waste your life as a homosexual being, even if you will burn with an eternal judgement…. The Biblical command is for you to come forth with a heart for repentance, and also a clear mind wishing to change completely. You must fight for your faith and have a determination of patience.”
Until this year, Lee, the Esther Prayer Movement, and a few other small organizations were the only ones consistently mobilizing against LGBT rights, though their reach was amplified by more established religious leaders who were influential in both of South Korea’s major parties and helped kill a few attempts to revive the nondiscrimination language first defeated eight years ago.
That changed this year when the Christian Council of Korea, which claims to represent 60,000 churches with 12 million members, helped organize the Korean Churches Anti-LGBT Response Committee. The committee appeared to want to capitalize on the small success of a small band of protesters in 2014, who managed to delay a pride march through Seoul by lying down in the street.
"If values such as LGBT rights seep into our society, these traditional principles and our social structure [will be] torn apart."
This year, Yoido’s top pastor and other high-profile religious leaders waged a months-long battle to get city officials to deny permission to hold the parade altogether — and nearly succeeded. The march went ahead only after a court ordered it be allowed to proceed. The Anti-LGBT Committee focused its energy on getting thousands of protesters on the streets in an unsuccessful bid to drown it out.
Yoon Deuk Nam, the general secretary of the Christian Council, told BuzzFeed News that as the pride marches began attracting crowds of more than 20,000 in the heart of the city, homosexuality had become a threat to South Korea. A special fear is that the military — the only South Korean institution that explicitly criminalizes sodomy — would be weakened if homosexuality were allowed to become accepted. The country is still technically at war with North Korea, and all South Korean men are required to serve two years in uniform.
“Of course these so-called values [of LGBT rights] will undermine our national strength,” Yoon said. “We have to send all able-bodied men to the military when they reach a certain age…. and if values such as LGBT rights seep into our society, these traditional principles and our social structure [will be] torn apart.”
Lee’s mission is critical to the churches’ efforts to defend South Korea, said Park Young-ryul, former general secretary of the Christian Council of Korea, speaking at an event Lee organized at the National Assembly in June.
“Many politicians and activists said that homosexuality is something you are born into, they must be recognized.… but Jonah was our only hope, our only alternative that proved this wrong — he showed us that homosexuality is something that can be escaped,” Lee said. “This person’s precious ministry is a milestone to the Korean history and society.”