Op-ed: Why Syria Matters for LGBT People

If you still don't know or care about what's going on in Syria, here's why you should.

BY Victoria A. Brownworth

September 13 2013 3:00 AM ET

Syrian refugees in Istanbul.

Syria has an undeniably terrible history on gay and women’s rights. Although Syria is not specifically a theocracy, Islamist law prevails. It is among the most repressive nations in the world with regard to women and gays. It is illegal to be gay or lesbian in Syria, so many gay men and lesbians are imprisoned for being queer. Laws prohibit organization of any kind of LGBT rights movement. Laws stipulate that homosexuality is a crime, even when between consenting adults. Syrian law also gives the Syrian Secret Service broad discretionary powers to detain and harass anyone deemed to be a threat to public order, morals, or national security. Since the current conflict began, such detentions have become a commonplace, and with them, rapes.

But the problems for LGBT people are not new. In 2005 the deputy minister of religious endowments publicly stated HIV and AIDS were divine punishment for people who engaged in fornication and homosexuality.

The Health Ministry stated that only 400 Syrians were infected with HIV. In addition, the ministry stated the government offers such persons "up-to-date medicines to combat this disease freely." Yet nongovernmental organizations estimate there are significantly more people with HIV or AIDS in the nation than the Health Ministry is reporting.

And then there is the cataclysmic use of rape as a tool in the conflict, which has gotten next to no attention in the international media. Yet the reports from the United Nations, the International Rescue Committee, and Human Rights Watch have been succinct: rape is being used as a tool by both government forces and rebel forces to control and manipulate women and boys in the conflict. The U.N. refugee agency notes that many of the refugees are fleeing the stigma attached to rape in Syria. Human Rights Watch reports, "Syrian government forces have used sexual violence to torture women, men and boys detained during the current conflict. Witnesses and victims also told Human Rights Watch that soldiers and pro-government armed militias have sexually abused women and girls as young as 12 during home raids and military sweeps of residential areas."

The Human Rights Watch report included testimony that women are being sent to various locations to be raped by commanding officers. Yet there was no mention of any of this in Obama’s speech. It was solely about the gassing.

The case for intervention in Syria has been made by human rights groups for two years, with women and gays at the focus. According to human rights organizations like the U.N. refugee agency, IRC, and HRW, extreme human rights violations have been going on in Syria for the past two years of the conflict. Why have we not intervened already? Why has there been no international outcry over those abuses which have been perpetrated most extensively against women, girls, and young boys?

If it’s this bad under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which purports to be freely elected, under extremist religious law implemented by the rebels, would gay men and lesbians be put to death, as is the case in neighboring Iran? Sharia law does call for such punishment for homosexuals.

It’s not an irrational concern. Honor killings are already common in Syria and have been implemented against LGBT people as well as women. The Syrian Women Observatory reports that about 300 women are killed each year by male relatives defending the family’s honor by murdering women thought to have had sex before marriage, been adulterous, or been lesbians.

History Repeats Itself?

Before September 11, 2001, I wrote about the Taliban in Afghanistan and its ban on girls going to school and women working. It was a humanitarian crisis: Widows, single women, and women with no male family members to support them were literally starving to death. Girls were at risk of being child brides with no education, as Afghanistan had the youngest marriage age in the world. As it is — and was then — Afghanistan has the highest illiteracy rate for women in the world.

I had pleaded for humanitarian intervention with the Taliban to save women’s lives. But women and girls were expendable; nothing was done.

Then came September 11, and we saw what the Taliban and its followers were capable of.

But had the U.S. and the West intervened on behalf of women and girls long before the attacks, would that catastrophic event have happened?

My question about Syria echoes that. Why Syria, and why now? "Chemical weapons! Gassing of children!" is the response from President Obama. But the conflict in Syria has been going on for two years, during which time 2 million refugees have fled the country and an estimated 100,000 people have been killed. The U.N. reports a pandemic of rape as a tool in the fighting, just as it has been used in Congo and Darfur.

For years now the conflicts in Darfur and Congo have been ongoing, and there have been 3 million rape victims between those countries. But there has been no talk of American intervention in either the Bush or Obama administrations. So why Syria? Are gassed children more deserving of intervention than children who have been shot in the chest or, in the case of Darfur and Congo, macheted to death? And what about the treatment of LGBT people in those places during those conflicts?

Syria And The Shadow of September 11

President Obama urged Americans to watch this video of the gassing attack in case we were unconvinced of the brutality of it.

It’s the president’s contention that the U.S. must act in response to Syria’s contravention of international law. What the president didn’t say in his speech, is that there is no international law that says the U.S. can attack another country that has not attacked us without that being a declaration of war. Nor did he say what we all know — that not one of our allies is poised to support such an attack and that our staunchest ally, the U.K., voted against a resolution supporting such intervention two weeks ago.

In a New York Times op-ed Thursday, Vladimir Putin described the Syrian conflict of the past two years as anything but democratic, warning that extremists among the rebels will force a major conflagration in the Middle East. This is no Arab Spring, but rather an effort by groups as far right as the Taliban to turn Syria into an even more repressive nation than it is currently.

This week it was confirmed that our own government has been arming those same rebels for weeks. Rebels who are, not just in Putin’s estimation, but by our own government’s, Islamist extremists, a percentage among them al Qaeda, as Secretary of State Kerry acknowledged last week. Reuters reported last week that Jacques Beres, cofounder of the NGO Doctors Without Borders, has worked as a doctor in embattled cities of Syria on multiple visits. He told Reuters that the opposition fighters are made up largely of foreign jihadists.

It would take a heartless monster to ignore the horror of the gassing in Syria. The video footage is gut-churning. No one could find that kind of action conscionable.

That said, it was our ally, the U.K., which sold the chemical weapons to Syria, as the Daily Record previously revealed. And we must remember the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, where we armed rebels in the 1980s against the Russians. Those rebels would later become the Taliban fighters we have fought for a decade in Afghanistan after the 2001 attack.

The U.S. does not belong in Syria any more than it did in Iraq. There can be no question that the gassing of civilians was a grievous and horrifying crime. But it is far from the only crime perpetrated against Syrian civilians throughout this conflict. We have not, for example, intervened to help stanch the epidemic of rape. Or even mention that it exists, despite the well-documented use of rape — often gang rape — as a tool by soldiers on both sides of the conflict, rapes which then force the victims into exile.

What's Next For LGBT Syrians?
So for LGBT people who are unsure where they stand on Syria, these are the questions for which you need answers: What will be done to protect gay and lesbian people in Syria if the Obama administration decides to attack? When will the administration speak to the epidemic of rape being perpetrated by both the Assad forces and the rebels? What can be done to find an equitable resolution to this ghastly situation that does not involve making it worse and thus making it harder for women and gays, as well as other civilians?

LGBT Syrians are at grave risk, as are Syrian women. What we must realize is that LGBT people have significant concerns with regard to Syria and, for LGBT Syrians' sake and ours, we cannot afford to be silent.


VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, as well as the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in the The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer,  Nation, and Village Voice, among others. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired and is a contributing editor at Curve and Lambda Literary. Her most recent book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, is the winner of the Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction 2012. Her novella Ordinary Mayhem won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012. Follow her @VABVOX.

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