4 min

The danger of being openly gay in Syria

Qmunity IDAHOT event hears importance of supporting queer refugees

(“We felt afraid. We felt lonely,” Syrian activist Ahmed Danny Ramadan tells attendees at Qmunity’s IDAHOT breakfast May 15. “Who would come to our rescue if we were arrested by our government?”/Daniela Gardea/Qmunity)

Emotions ran high at Qmunity’s breakfast event marking the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia May 15 at the Hotel Vancouver.

The 11th annual event, a fundraiser for the queer resource centre, drew more than 500 attendees and featured a powerful testament from a new Canadian who arrived as a refugee and who shared his story of life in the shadows, as well as his challenges and achievements since arriving in Vancouver. The morning was also punctuated by a tearful expression of the pride felt by a Vancouver city councillor for her trans child.

Ahmed Danny Ramadan, an author and journalist (and frequent contributor to Daily Xtra), grew up in Damascus, Syria, where deeply conservative laws and social norms locked him into a life of fear and hiding. “I felt stuck in Syria,” he says. “I felt defeated.”

For awhile he thought the comparatively more liberal Egypt might be the place for him, but he was fired from a job at a magazine there when he received a bouquet of flowers from a man he was dating. A closeted gay man in the office disclosed his secret and the employers told him he should thank them for not calling the police.

He returned to Syria and met a woman he believed to be a lesbian. For weeks they danced around the subject in what he calls the “sexual orientation tango.” Eventually, he whispered in her ear, “I’m gay.”

Her response was “Duh.”

But the amused answer betrayed the drama of the moment. If he had whispered the same disclosure in the wrong ear, it could have resulted in three years imprisonment, including possible torture and rape.

“Gay men are never out of the closet in Syria,” he says. It is also common there for families to try to “fix” their gay children through “therapy” and torture.

Over time, Ramadan and his friend built a small circle of like-minded people who congregated in his small, dark house, a sort of impromptu community centre.

What gay community exists in Syria had previously been segregated by gender but Ramadan’s house became a mixed place open to all and he gained a reputation, he says, as a “lesbian magnet.”

The house was filled at any time with five, sometimes 10 people, he says.

“Together we started to feel like a big, happy family,” he told the breakfast audience. “We were all broken but we carried one another.”

(Ramadan and his friends created a sort of impromptu community centre but it wouldn’t last./@rogue_lassy)

A 17-year-old stayed for a few days at the house because he didn’t want his family to see the black eye his friends gave him when they found out he was gay.

On one occasion, a mob congregated outside the house, shouting and then shooting. Ramadan and his friends huddled inside and survived. But they began meeting elsewhere.

“We felt unprotected,” he says. “We felt afraid. We felt lonely. Who would come to our rescue if we were arrested by our government? Who would come to our rescue if we were attacked by our society?”

He received a scholarship to an LGBT workshop in Istanbul where he met other activists and attended his first and, so far, only gay Pride parade. The experience gave him a sense of what was possible for him outside of Syria.

By 2012, civil war was ravaging Syria and Damascus was filled with what Ramadan calls the “sound of death.” As the war has exploded, Ramadan’s group has disintegrated.

“We have been scattered all over the place,” he says.

He doesn’t know what happened to some of his friends.

Ramadan and his boyfriend became refugees in Beirut, Lebanon, then made their way to Vancouver. The first six months here brought dramatic culture shock. Now that they feel more settled, they are facing the demons and fears that are difficult to let go of, as well as feelings of survival guilt toward people they left behind.

He says he is grateful to organizations such as Qmunity and Rainbow Refugee for the work they do sponsoring, integrating, counselling and advocating for queer refugees. He urged the audience to continue supporting the work being done to help refugees from the nearly 80 countries where homosexuality is illegal.

“Like all of us, they deserve to find what they’re looking for,” he said.

Rainbow Refugee co-founder Chris Morrissey spoke before Ramadan. She said that 40 percent of LGBT people live in countries where homosexuality is illegal, including five where it is punishable by death.

Rainbow Refugee has a joint program with the federal government that has sponsored 35 refugees across Canada.

“That is just a drop in the bucket,” Morrissey says.

Dara Parker, executive director of Qmunity, called Ramadan and Morrissey “fearless activists” and announced that Ramadan had just been hired as the new full-time volunteer coordinator for Qmunity.

She spoke of the absurdity faced by some refugee claimants. In one instance, she says, a claimant was asked to draw a floor plan of Celebrities nightclub in order to prove their homosexuality.

Parker also noted the difficulties facing people who have spent their entire life trying to hide who they are but are then brought before a government body and asked to prove their sexuality.

Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer came to read a proclamation from the mayor. But she provided far more personal and emotional reflections in speaking of her trans child.

She has been shocked, she says, at the level of hatred people can hurl at young people who are merely trying to find their place in the world. And she thanked the people in the room for the progress that has been made.

Reimer expressed hope that the word “phobia” will cease to be associated with the words trans and gay and queer, and instead return to associations it belongs with, like “snakes and escalators and balance beams.”

Her emotional presentation was met with a sustained standing ovation.