Gay and lesbian people in Syria have to navigate two worlds.
The first is a conservative one, in which the parents are religious and they expect their children to get married and start a traditional Syrian family.
The other world is the LGBTQ bubble. It’s a small, underground community that lets its inhabitants live and interact with one another apart from the straight world. That’s everyday life for Kamal*, a 23-year-old from Damascus.
I met Kamal in high school before I left Syria. My oldest brother and I were the first to know he was gay. Kamal said he knew he was different from an early age.
“I was not attracted to girls like my friends at the all-boys school I went at,” Kamal said, describing the moment he realized he was gay. “I started asking Google about what I felt. Talking to my parents or friends was not even an option that I could consider.”
For Kamal, meeting other gay people in Syria was difficult. “In a city like Damascus, it’s really hard to tell if someone is gay or not,” he said. Many LGBTQ people in Syria rely on dating apps and websites to make connections. Kamal met his first boyfriend online.
The relationship was long-distance. His boyfriend, who was married to a woman and had three children, left Syria because of the war and lived in Egypt and Lebanon — more than 600 miles away. They went on their first date in Beirut.
“I thought I might get kidnapped or raped. I was very terrified,” Kamal said.
According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, Syria is a country that punishes people for being gay and prohibits homosexual activities. Many Syrians refer to being gay as a “psychological sickness.” The government knows about homosexual activities, but it’s not a priority for the government to enforce laws against LGBT people, Kamal said.
“The Syrian government has turned a blind eye to us,” Kamal said. “What they care about is that we don’t organize ourselves politically.”
Enana Al-Asar, a 22-year-old lesbian from Syria, disagrees. Al-Asar moved to Germany two years ago after a harrowing incident in her home country.
“I was beaten by two army soldiers who showed up on motorbikes near my house and circled me while I was riding my bike. They pushed me off my bike and punched me while swearing and shouting.” She was “lucky” she said, because she outlasted the attack.
It was after that assault that she became determined to leave Syria. “I told my parents that I would set myself on fire if my parents didn’t let me leave to Europe,” Al-Asar said.
She came out to her parents two years ago. Al-Asar said they were accepting at first but cut ties once she began speaking about her sexuality with the media — which has played a large role in putting a spotlight on LGBT rights in the Middle East.
“As waves of migrants have fled Syria to Europe, the Syrian community has become more exposed to this issue,” Kamal said. “The people here were in a state of denial, but now they know that we’re here and they’re getting more educated about it.”
Today, Kamal is a dentist, and he’s trying to delay being drafted into the Syrian army. He’s also working to make change from within Syria — starting with his own family.
“Since they were small kids, I taught my younger twin brothers that homosexuality is not something abnormal,” Kamal said. “I lie to my mom and friends on a daily basis. Every time my mom asks me when am I going to get married, I tell her it’s too early.”
Kamal also has to lie to his friends.
“Whenever my friends from the university ask me if I have a girlfriend, I lie about having one, and I say that I’m dating a girl that I usually walk with on campus,” said Kamal, who fears that all his friends would abandon him if they knew he was gay.
A future in Syria for Kamal and his current boyfriend, whom he’s been dating for almost a year, doesn’t seem bright.“I usually use one of my female friends from school to hush up any questions about me not having a girlfriend or a girl that I like,” he said. “There is no future for me and my boyfriend here. We will leave sooner or later.”
*This name has been changed for security reasons.
About the Author
Hani Zaitoun is studying political science and economics at Davidson College in North Carolina. Learn more about him here.