Hidden in his bedroom, home alone with the classmate he made out with for hours each day, 15-year-old Danny Ramadan believed he and his friend were the only two of their kind in Syria.
“I didn’t even realize that there are other people who are gay in the world,” Ramadan says now, somewhat pixilated over Skype.
“It was our little secret, and it was full of shame and full of sin, full of weird feelings . . . hard to describe.”
His former classmate is now married to a woman and lives abroad. Ramadan lives quietly in Lebanon, hoping to come to Canada as a refugee.
He, too, left Syria, only to return two years ago after nearly a decade of nomadic self-discovery in which he immersed himself in all things gay.
“I studied it, I read about it, I learned to speak English, and I spent hours and hours reading about it just to understand,” he says.
He speaks of the Damascus to which he returned in February 2011 in terms that approach culture shock.
“The gay community in Syria reminds me of the gay community in the States or in Canada back in the 1920s. Nobody wants to speak about it; nobody wants to be a part of it,” he says.
“It was shocking to see how nobody knows who they are. They are just drifting through life trying to figure it out, or trying to ignore it, or trying to just pass time until they are pressured enough by their families to get married.”
Ramadan felt like he was the only one who was out to his family and, in a limited way, at work.
He says he’s never felt comfortable, even among other gay Syrians, who constantly question how open he is about his sexuality.
“Everybody was like, ‘What does gay mean? Why do you want to be out, and why are you so proud of that? You shouldn’t be proud of that.’”
Ramadan says it wasn’t uncommon for the men he wanted to date to beat a hasty retreat because he was so open.
“It’s actually an extremely negative thing. They are like, ‘You are going to bring shame to me; you are going to bring fadeiha” — an Arabic word for scandal.
Ramadan says the percentage of gay people who end up in traditional marriages in Syria is high.
“It’s something you are trained to do,” he explains. “Religion says so, society says so, the family says so, the sheikh at the mosque says so, the priest at the church says so, the teachers say so, your older brother — every single person tells you as a man, you don’t leave your family house for any reason other than to go to wife’s house. For women, it’s the same.”
While he believes that the strong family structure in Syria is conducive to building community, he says it doesn’t leave room for difference.
Ramadan holds out little hope for a politically active gay movement in Syria. Should one arise, he thinks lesbians would be at its forefront because of the particular challenges women face.
“While men in Syria might have their ‘play time’ for a while — as they might be able to postpone the wedding bells until they are late into their 30s — women who are not married by their mid-20s are considered spinsters and people might look down upon them,” he says.
“Also, women are under constant lockdown in most Syrian families, who are traditionally more scared for their honour,” he explains.
“Ridiculous as it may sound, the fact that women are under so much pressure due to the small details preventing them from being truly themselves — don’t be late, don’t befriend that person, don’t wear this, don’t do this, don’t do that — is what is going to push them to revolt,” he predicts.
Syrian women are strong, he says, and the women of the lesbian community have “by far” a more acute awareness of their rights and their needs than the gay community.
“The fact that a feminist movement is overdue in Syria will add momentum to the lesbian movement in Syria as well,” Ramadan says.
A possible catch is if an Islamic decree is introduced that bars women from basic education or prevents them from openly expressing their opinions, he notes. “Then we can say our farewells to a feminist movement, LGBT movement and any other social movement you might think of.”
The ongoing political chaos in Syria makes nonsense of attempts to jump-start a social movement, regardless of the direction people may want to take it, Ramadan says.
“It ruins the possibility for the community to evolve beyond being just a sexual community into a cultural entity and a social entity.”
He says the ruling regime invokes the negative perception of homosexuality to tarnish the reputation of opposition politicians, labelling them louti, Arabic for faggot.
“They would say it out loud on TV, how so-and-so from the opposition is louti and they are not calling for revolution because revolution is good; they are calling for revolution so they can have gay sex in the streets.”
Anyone caught having gay sex faces up to three years in prison and is subject to public shaming through the publication of their photos and warnings for people, especially children, to avoid them.
Compounding the challenges of being gay in Syria is the reality of being caught up in the intense violence that has pervaded the country for more than two years.
The area where Ramadan lived in Damascus was the scene of rocket attacks. At one point, a sniper took up residence in a back alley near his house.
The only safe room was the bathroom, where he and his partner, Aamer, played cards and backgammon to the background of crossfire on the streets.
Ramadan jokes it was his unholy meeting with Aamer in May 2012 that brought the crisis to Damascus.
Ramadan says his growing disillusionment with gay life in Syria, plus a longing for the routine of “normal” life, compelled him to find a way out.
“I wanted to be in a relationship that in 10 years, we would move to a different country and get married, and in four or five more years, adopt children, and in 15 more years, regret adopting children. You know what I mean?”
Ramadan and Aamer (who is not out to his family and requested his full name not be published) now live in Lebanon.
For Ramadan, gay life in Lebanon is “a bit more evolved” than in Syria. He points to the existence of a gay rights group, Helem, and greater access to information that creates self-awareness and acceptance.
Still, the community in Lebanon is not free from harassment and public humiliation.
About two months ago, the mayor of the suburban town of Dekwaneh ordered a raid on a gay-friendly club that led to the rounding up of patrons who were allegedly beaten, forced to undress and photographed naked, the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar reported.
According to the report, Antoine Shakhtoura ordered the shutdown of the club Ghost, claiming it promoted prostitution, drugs and homosexuality.
“I went inside . . . I saw people kissing, touching each other, and a man wearing a skirt. These homosexual acts that are happening . . . are scandalous sexual acts,” Shakhtoura reportedly told Al-Akhbar.
“Of course we made them take off their clothes. We saw a scandalous situation and we had to know what these people were. Is it a woman or a man?” Shakhtoura said.
Among those arrested were “people from the Syrian community and a Lebanese transsexual woman, who was harassed and forced to undress in the municipal headquarters,” Helem founder Charbel Maydaa told Al-Akhbar.
The report notes that Helem had been checking up on the club, as police regularly target it.
Ramadan says he also leads an uneasy life in Beirut as a Syrian refugee who is opposed to Syria’s ruling Assad regime, which is supported by the Lebanon-based Shiite group Hezbollah.
Syrians are also now subject to a curfew in certain parts of Beirut and can’t be on the streets before 5am or after 7pm. If they are, they can be arrested and sent back to their civil-war-torn country.
A June 19 New York Times report says Lebanon “officially hosts” more than half a million Syrians who have fled the conflict, the majority in the last five months.
The report adds that the Lebanese government estimates there are an additional 500,000 Syrians who are not registered.
Ramadan says his meeting online three years ago with another gay Syrian, who now lives in Vancouver, prompted him to consider Canada as a potential new home.
“The way he spoke about his life there is something I want to have in my life as well. He spoke about being out, being in a relationship with his boyfriend,” Ramadan says.
“He made me feel like it really made him feel like his home. That pushed me to read more about Canada.”
Ramadan says he wants to be able to hold hands with Aamer in the street, to be proposed to, and to “make love without having to close all the doors and windows.
“I don’t want to feel guilty about my love,” he says.
Through his Syrian-Canadian friend, Ramadan met Vancouver registered nurse Carl Meadows, who decided to take up his bid to come to Canada.
“I was fairly impacted by the concept of having no status and the vulnerability someone has in that state,” Meadows says.
Two years ago, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) would partner with the Rainbow Refugee Committee (RRC) to provide up to $100,000 over three years to help settle gay refugees in Canada.
According to CIC, the funds will go toward three months of income support for each refugee that RRC or its partner organizations sponsor. Sponsors have to provide refugees with orientation services, accommodation, basic household needs, basic food staples and clothing for the duration of the sponsorship period.
The cost to sponsor one refugee for a year works out to about $11,800.
Meadows hopes to sponsor Ramadan and Aamer to bring them to Vancouver.
Last month he spearheaded the launch of the Danny and Aamer Foundation of Hope, with its own Facebook page and teams responsible for internet fundraising, local fundraising, documentation and settlement.
“There’s lots of resources in our community,” Meadows says. “It’s just a question of coordinating them.”
Settlement is really the most important part of sponsorship, Meadows stresses.
“It’s what their community of hope looks like.”
The process of bringing the two men here could take about two years.
“It sounds like a miracle to me,” Ramadan says.
“We’re ready for the next chapter of our book,” Ramadan says, when asked how he feels about the prospect of having to wait for two more years. “I hope it happens. I want it to happen.”