Growing up gay in Iraq—a country notorious for the persecution of its LGBTQ+ citizens—human rights activist Amir Ashour knew fear from an early age. It came to him in many forms.
“I was facing the fear of losing my family and the people that I care about,” he says, “the fear of being ridiculed, of being threatened.” And while each of these prospects haunted him, one scenario loomed the largest. “For me,” Ashour says, “the fear of losing myself was much greater than the fear of losing other people, or of being bullied.”
This meant he had to make a pivotal decision: continue living in denial to maintain his personal relationships, or come out and risk losing them all. “The choice was very easy,” he says. “If I’m not really being who I am,” he asks, “how real are these relationships?” In the end, it was another set of anxieties that ultimately motivated him to speak his truth: the fear of invisibility, of having to lie for the rest of his life, of having to be afraid every time he held someone’s hand.
The decision had its consequences. “I have friends and extended family members who no longer want to be in touch with me,” he says. “But I also have immediate family members and close friends, who, despite all the difficulties they face because of me, still support me one hundred percent.”
Between a government that criminalizes all “extra-marital” sexual relations—which, de facto, includes same-sex relationships—and a growing ISIS presence, Ashour was in a frightening situation, one in which he had no one to turn to for help. Then it hit him: why wait for someone else to come to the rescue? So, in 2015, he decided to found IraQueer, the first and only LGBTQ+ rights organization focused on helping those in the Iraq/Kurdistan region.
“The fear of losing myself was much greater than the fear of losing other people, or of being bullied.”
His life as an activist didn’t kick off with much fanfare. On the contrary, it began in isolation: a young man, staring at a computer screen, wondering if there was anybody else in the region willing to help. He vividly remembers the first person he contacted. “I knew him through YouTube,” he says. It was someone who’d commented on one of Ashour’s videos. Upon receiving a positive reply to this, his very first outreach, Ashour felt emboldened to start reaching out to more people.
IraQueer was on its way to growing from a party of one into a network of several hundred, working to help refugees seek asylum and making guides on security and sexual health for the LGBTQ+ community available for free on their site—but as its standing grew, so did Ashour’s sense that he was in danger. He decided he would leave Iraq and go underground for a while. “When I left, I didn’t really think that I wasn’t going to be able to go back,” he says. But after a few months of traveling, he learned he was no longer allowed to return to his homeland.
“It’s not a career, it’s not a professional choice that we’ve made. It’s either we do this, or we don’t exist. And none of us is okay with not existing.”
His life was instantly thrown into disarray. “I went from someone who was volunteering with seven projects to someone who didn’t have the right to join a gym,” he says. He was temporarily forced to pivot away from his life as an active community participant. “That was the main difficult thing that I had to deal with,” he says, sounding a bit crestfallen.
Undeterred, he made his way to New York, where he’s currently juggling his work with IraQueer with the pursuit of a Master’s degree in Human Rights at Columbia University. “When I first started IraQueer three years ago,” he says, “I thought it was going to be an online platform where people could simply have access to information related to being LGBTQ+, in their local language. Today, we’re the leading voice for LGBTQ+ rights in Iraq.” Iraqueer is currently working on a host of projects, from providing asylum-seekers with the vital information they need to working to bring global attention to the human rights violations being enacted against the LBGTQ+ citizens in the region. Naturally, Ashour does not look at IraQueer merely as a job. “For us, this is a personal fight,” he says. “It’s not a career, it’s not a professional choice that we’ve made. It’s either we do this, or we don’t exist. And none of us is okay with not existing.”
These days, for the safety of all involved, Ashour communicates with his colleagues through encrypted apps and programs. And while he does get to speak with close friends and relatives on a daily basis, they have received their share of hateful messages and threats as a direct result of associating with him. “Luckily they are all very strong people with very strong backgrounds who can stand for who they are,” he says.
That speaks to something central to Ashour’s belief system: that people should feel empowered to be their true selves, free of shame. It brings to mind an experience he had right around the time he was starting IraQueer, when he was giving a training in Basra in the southeastern corner of Iraq. One of the trainees in attendance was a fifty-year-old woman—a widow, a grandmother—who asked him to explain what queer means. So, he did. Afterward, as the group strolled along the Gulf en route to dinner, she walked up and told him she thought she was queer.
He answered her with a one-word reply: “Okay.” “She said, ‘What do you mean, okay?’” Ashour says. “‘Okay, you’re queer!,’” he told her. “’You know yourself.’” They walked on for a few seconds in silence before she looked at him and said, “Now I know why it didn’t work out with my husband.”
For Ashour, seeing this woman find herself in real time brought it all home. “That a-ha moment that took her more than five decades to realize,” he says, “was everything I wished my career would achieve. To give resources to people, share some knowledge that can help them understand who they are. That basically keeps me going every single day.”