By Mubarak Dahir
When Iraq holds its national election on Sunday, Jan. 30, Walid – a gay Iraqi who asked that he be given a pseudonym for this article – will not cast his ballot.
“The election is a joke,” he writes from his cramped apartment located in what he describes as “downtown Baghdad.”
I first met Walid about two months ago on a gay Internet site.
Since we first began chatting in intermittent conversations – broken over time by power failures – he has painted a dire picture of fear and desperation in a city and country besieged both by foreign forces and by armed rebels who often end up killing average Iraqi citizens in their raids on the American military and their sympathizers.
Walid doesn’t trust either side.
And he doesn’t have any faith that the elections will produce much of anything other than more fighting.
“The Americans will impose the results they want,” he believes. “It doesn’t really matter who wins the election. The Americans will still be the rulers. Whoever wins the election will have to do what the Americans say.”
Little else will change with the election, too, Walid fears.
“The electricity will still go out, the water will still get shut off, and people will still get shot in the streets,” he writes.
The notion that an election, under the auspices of the United States or any other country, will change the harsh attitudes and conditions in Iraq for gays is unrealistic.
“It is very difficult to be gay here,” he says. “It can be very dangerous.”
But Walid doubts that social attitudes against homosexuality are not going to change with any newly elected government.
“Those things are not something the government here will get involved in,” he says. “It is about the way people think. It will not change for a long time. Maybe never.”
If anything, Walid fears, a new government here might make the atmosphere worse for gays.
There will be 111 political parties on the ballot. But most people know very little about any of the parties or candidates. Campaigning is minimal, with some parties even refusing to name their candidates out of fear they will become assassination targets.
For security reasons, most voters do not even yet know where their polling stations will be, and when they find out, they might not be able to get to them to cast their ballots, if the insurgents have their way.
The result, Walid says, is that no one really knows anything about the parties or the candidates or what they stand for.
Those who do vote, he says, will likely cast their ballots based on religious affiliation or some sort of family or tribal loyalty.
One of the most favored parties is the United Iraqi Alliance, which is the merger of the two biggest Shiite Muslim political parties in the country.
“If religious parties win, things will get worse for gays,” because there will be a stricter interpretation of religious laws, Walid worries.
But even the political parties that claim to be secular, he fears, will be heavily influenced by religious leaders.
“This would not be good for gays.”
What there once was of gay life in Baghdad disappeared with the war, Walid says.
No, there were never gay bars like in Europe or America, he says, but there used to be coffee houses where men could covertly meet each other if they were extremely careful about it.
And sometimes, he says, you could just catch a man’s eye in the markets, and you would know.
But today, you try to avoid catching the eyes of strangers, Walid says. Today, a stare is more likely to mean you are being watched by a spy for the Americans or are considered suspicious by the rebels, he says.
“The best thing is to walk and not look at anybody,” he writes.
Walid, who is in his mid-30s, remains unmarried, despite strong pressure from his family to find a wife. Social custom dictates that most gay Iraqis will get married and have kids and live their lives in the closet, even as they continue to have sex with men on the side.
“But I never will marry,” he says. “I cannot.”
Despite the hardships of today’s Baghdad, Walid, an unemployed engineer, admits he is lucky, as far as gay Iraqis there go.
Coming from an educated, at one time affluent family, he has a little more personal freedom that many other gay men do.
Furthermore, unlike many single, gay Iraqi men who follow the traditional customs, Walid does not live with his family, though they live nearby and are heavily involved in his life.
“There is not privacy the way you Americans think of it,” he says. “Here, your family is in all your business.”
If his family found out he was gay, “I couldn’t say what might happen,” he says.
When asked if he would be in physical danger, he said he hopes his family would not actually hurt him. But they might totally ostracize him, literally leaving him no way to survive in war-torn Baghdad.
Since the war began, Walid says he has not had any personal encounters with gay men of a romantic or sexual nature.
“How do you do it now?” he asks. “It is too risky.”
He says he has never had a long-term boyfriend, and while he would prefer to fall in love with another Iraqi man, he is skeptical that can ever happen.
He dreams of meeting a Western gay man, and moving away from the dangers and fears of Baghdad. But he admits that, too, seems unlikely.
Still, he has e-mailed several American gay and lesbian groups, inquiring about how he might get political asylum as a gay Iraqi.
The Internet is his only outlet for gay life for now, he says. And at the moment, that’s enough.
“I do not think so much every day about being gay,” he says. “I just think about staying alive.”