On a bright afternoon in late March, an 18-year-old named Fadi stood in a friend’s clothing store in Baghdad checking out the new merchandise. A worker in a neighboring store walked into the boutique with a newspaper in his hand and shared a story he had just read. It was about “sexual deviants,” he said. Gay men’s rectums had been glued shut, and they had been force-fed laxatives and water until their insides exploded. They had been found dead on the street.
That evening Fadi met up with his three closest friends—Ahmed, Mazen, and Namir—in a coffee shop called the Shisha café in the Karada district of Baghdad. Karada is a mixed Shia-Christian neighborhood that has a more relaxed, cosmopolitan feel than many parts of the Iraqi capital. Fadi and his friends had been meeting there nearly every evening for a year, Fadi coming from his job cleaning toilets for Americans in the Green Zone and the three others from college. The coffee shop was relatively new and attracted a young crowd. The walls were colored in solid blocks of orange, green, and blue, the glass-topped tables painted red and black. It was the closest thing to hip that Baghdad had to offer. For Fadi and his three friends, who secretly referred to themselves as the 4 Cats, after a Pussycat Dolls–like Lebanese group, the Shisha was a refuge from the hostile, often violent anti-gay climate that they had grown up with in Iraq.
Fadi has a warm, irrepressible laugh; his eyes narrow under thick black eyebrows whenever someone tells a joke. He told his friends about the newspaper story, but insisted it couldn’t be true.
“They’re doing this to frighten us,” he said.
In recent weeks, with rumors of gay death squads and torture on the rise, the four friends had lowered their profile. They no longer went to the Shisha every night. “We’ll see what tomorrow brings,” Fadi said, on the last night they met there.
On April 4, at about 8 p.m., Fadi’s cell phone rang. It was Mazen’s brother.
“Mazen and Namir have been killed,” he said.
The maimed bodies of the two friends had been discovered together in the vast Shia district of Baghdad named Sadr City, which is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shia militia. Mazen had had his pectoral muscles cut off. There were two drill holes in Namir’s left leg, below the knee. Both had been shot in the head, apparently from close range.
“Two young men were killed on Thursday,” an unnamed Sadr City official told the Reuters news agency in a story published that same day. “They were sexual deviants. Their tribes killed them to restore their family honor.” In the same story, Reuters cited a police source as saying that the bodies of four other gay men had been found in Sadr City on March 25 with signs on their chests reading PERVERT.
Fadi called Ahmed. They spoke for an hour. They were devastated by their friends’ deaths, of course. They were also terrified. Under torture, Mazen and Namir may have given up their names.
It has never been easy being gay in Iraq. During the Saddam Hussein era, open homosexuality wasn’t technically outlawed, but it was effectively forbidden, and harassment and torture of gay people, if sporadic, were not unknown. After the American-led invasion of the country in 2003, a similar atmosphere persisted. Fadi was 12 years old during the American invasion, so he had little knowledge of what it was like to be gay under Saddam, but as far back as a year and a half ago, he was walking past his local hussainiyah (a Shia gathering place similar to a mosque) when a man at the entrance of the building called out to him. “Come in for a minute,” the man said. Fadi knew there was no point in running because they knew where he lived. He assumed the man calling him over was from the Mahdi Army. He walked to the door of the hussainiyah thinking, This is the end for me. After some ten hours of being whipped, kicked, and spit on, Fadi was told to pick himself up off the floor and get dressed. “This is a warning for you,” one of his tormentors told him. “Tell people like you what happened to you.”
As virulent as the violence against gay people (men mostly) was, it operated at a kind of low hum for many years, overshadowed by the country’s myriad other problems. But in February of this year, something changed. There was no announcement, no fatwa, no openly declared policy by a cleric or militia leader or politician, but a wave of anti-gay hysteria hit the country. An Iraqi TV station, with disapproving commentary, showed a video of a group of perhaps two dozen young men at a private dance party, wiggling their hips like female belly dancers. Terms like the third sex and puppies, a newly coined slur, began to appear in hostile news reports. Shia and Sunni clerics started to preach in their Friday sermons about the evils of homosexuality and “the people of Lot.” Police officers stepped up their harassment of openly gay men. Families and tribes cast out their gay relatives. The bodies of gay men like Mazen and Namir, often mutilated, began turning up on the street. There is no way to verify the number of tortured or harassed, but the best available estimates place that figure in the thousands. Hundreds of men are believed to have been killed.