A life in hiding: How gay men survive in Middle East

Published 10:20 AM ET, Tue October 23, 2012
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British photojournalist Bradley Secker has spent the last five years documenting the realities of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) life in the Middle East. In an upcoming exhibition for London's Nour festival, Secker will present a collection of his most powerful images -- some of which are included here -- in a series called "Kutmaan," an Arabic word for the act of hiding or concealing.

Here "Bissam" (not his real name), a 43-year-old Iraqi actor and former translator for the U.S. army is pictured in 2010 standing on top of a look-out point in Damascus. Secker says that it's six and a half years since he left Iraq in an effort to be resettled overseas and start his life again. He told Secker he left Iraq because he was being threatened by a local militia group because of his sexuality and for working with the American army.
Courtesy Bradley Secker
Fearing for his safety following escalating violence in Syria, "Bissam" fled to Turkey. In this image, he's sleeping in his room during his first winter there in January 2012.

For Secker, the picture symbolises the very lengthy waiting period associated with the U.N. Refugee Agency's (UNHCR) resettlement program, and the reality of what most of his days were like in winter -- sleeping, using the internet, and sitting in his room.

Becca Heller, Director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) based in New York, says that the psychological trauma of being uprooted from social ties to a life spent in hiding and boredom is "in some ways just as cruel a crime" as the physical abuse many face back in Iraq.
Courtesy Bradley Secker
In this picture, a former high-ranking Iraqi policeman, who Secker calls "Mahmoud," stares out from the rooftop of his house overlooking Damascus. Secker says that as a gay police officer he led a double life. Secker says that Mahmoud told him he released dozens of men imprisoned under Iraq's morality laws -- which Mahmoud described as a front for arresting homosexuals. It is not technically a criminal offense to be gay in Iraq.Heller says that, on the basis of research conducted by IRAP, the Iraqi police force is itself one of the most pervasive threats to LGBT men and women there. "We've had countless reports of gay men being attacked and raped at police checkpoints, often just on the basis of how they dress or carry themselves," she said. According to Secker, Mahmoud felt compelled to flee Iraq after suspicions were raised about where inmates were going -- and because of his fear of being outed. Courtesy Bradley Secker
This image from late 2010 shows "Abdul," a gay Iraqi then seeking refuge in Damascus' old city. Secker says Abdul has since been trying to flee the war-ravaged country, and recently his case was approved by UNHCR. But he is unable to travel because his flight leaves from Amman, Jordan. He can't get to Jordan because of prohibitive visa regulations for Iraqis in Syria.

Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program for Human Rights Watch, says that currently all Iraqis living in Syria are having trouble leaving because priority is given to visa applications from Syrians.
Courtesy Bradley Secker
"Mojtaba" is a writer and poet from Iran. He told Secker that he's had many problems in life due to his sexuality, and is still looking for somewhere to live where he is able to be himself freely. This picture was shot at a stop-house for refugees in a town near Ankara in Turkey.

Secker says this is one of his favourite photos. "We were talking in his room about his life in Iran and now in Turkey and suddenly he said he wants to find someone to share things with. He picked up his pillow and cuddled it like his lover."

Last month, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed in an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan that homosexuality "ceases procreation" and, through a translator, described it as an "ugly deed."
Courtesy Bradley Secker
Batu and Azat, are two friends in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey. Secker says that they live together and occasionally work together in the sex industry. In this image they are driving around the city looking for a place to have a picnic near the historic city wall.

"I chose it because for me it represents the attitude of these two people -- their spirit and strength," said Secker. Both Azat and Batu are members of a Kurdish LGBT political group called Hebun, which as well as campaigning for legal equality is also trying to gain acceptance within both the Turkish mainstream LGBT movement and Kurdish political parties.
Courtesy Bradley Secker