A recent report from the website GayMiddle East offers an update about “Gay Life in Syria”, somewhat positive but with ever-present changes in the political milieu that has historically repressed gay citizens. Privately, however, this hidden population adapts to the changes and continues on with life in the closet even as there are improved its treatment of its LGBT citizens, as compared to 2003-2007. What follows here is a short description of the reality of LGBT communities then briefly discuss attitude of the government to HIV/AIDS and detect current trends and development.
From: Gay Middle East
June 23, 2010
The Reality of LGBT Communities
GME (Gay Middle East) was pleased to discern a more positive recent trend in Syria toward LGBT people yet disappointed with the recent turn of events. In the last few months Syria has begun to clamp down on gay men; is this an apparent reversal of its policy?
There is a clear need for Syria to reform its laws like its neighbours to the north (Turkey) and south (Jordan), in abolishing anti-LGBT articles from its penal code. Such changes increase safety and resolve problems that Syrian authorities admit they face as well as alleviate the suffering of its LGBT citizens.
LGBT Repression in Syria 2003-2007
Article 520 of the Syrian penal code of 1949, prohibits having homosexual relations, i.e. “carnal relations against the order of nature”, and provides for up to three-years imprisonment. In 2005 a Syrian gay man wrote to GlobalGayz.com stating “”It must be told about the suffering of Syrian gays… the only mention of homosexuality is as a disease and a perverse illness.” He added that “many gays have been arrested and are now in Syrian prisons.” However this was never reported in the state controlled media and few inside or outside Syria were aware of this reality.
Thanks to a handful of sites, mostly GME and GlobalGayz.com some stories have managed to be published and given a space to be aired. However, people who reported to GME seemed to have been all too often targeted by the authorities and sometimes disappeared without a trace. Nevertheless we did manage to get some idea of what means to be gay in Syria during this period.
Another writer to GlobalGayz.com described this reality : “… gay life must be very secret in Syria and it’s dangerous when the police or neighbor or relative or stranger discovers you, especially now after many terrorist organizations were discovered in Syria such as a sham ‘army’ of Muslims fanatics. Some gays are afraid of meeting in the street or restaurant or cinema or Turkish bath in Damascus or Aleppo or Hama or Homs Lattaquia. Syrian cities have become unsafe areas for gays.
“The Syrian police look for gays to arrest them. After the arrest, they lead them for medical test using outdated methods to prove you had anal sex; they do it with fingers and put a special thing in the ass (the same instrument a doctor uses when you have problem in your ass). I knew many gays who were arrested and examined; for that reason gays are now afraid to be discovered and treated by such shameful methods… They have a special military court that can condemn gays to 3 years or more of prison. All gays in Syria have pressure from their family to marry.”
With regards to HIV and AIDS, the writer added that the “government doesn’t have any social or medical help for gays nor do they give any information about HIV or AIDS.“
From 2003-2007 GME as well as GlobalGayz.com have received many such complaints and anecdotes that the Syrian Secret Service often used sexual orientation to harass and manipulate members of the LGBT Syrian communities.
HIV and AIDS Prevention
As mentioned previously this repression complicates the ability to transmit information about safer sex in the various LGBT communities throughout Syria. The authorities seems to be completely hostile to such an idea.
In 2005, the Syrian Deputy Minister of Religious Endowments, Muhammad Abd Al-Sattar Al-Sayyid, stated on the national Syrian TV that “If only we had stoned everyone who had committed this abomination,“ which he defines as ‘fornificators’, homosexuals and other sexual deviants, “wouldn’t it be a better method than letting these diseases infect others, spreading to millions around the world?” Indeed many Syrian religious organisations echo this call, despite official medical and psychological research that regards homosexuality as an inborn natural development.
At the same time HIV/AIDS awareness have been integrated into secondary school curricula in Syria, and there are medical centres where testing for HIV can be made. However with such a hostile attitude from the authorities towards LGBT sexuality, the safety and well being of gays in Syria is seriously compromised. Fear of being exposed and arrested or abused prevents many gays from seeking or obtaining information on safer sex practice, and the social stigma that is propagated by the Syrian government undermines the good work of the Syrian Ministry of Health HIV/AIDS campaigns along with organisations such as UNICEF.
Recent Developments in Syria
To our relief, some gays have been reporting that harassment levels have been easing in the last two years; a gay Syrian reported to GME in late 2009 that he has been told by a secret police office “as long as you don’t ask for political rights or be public about your sexuality, you can do whatever you want.” The situation seems to have thus marginally improved in the last two years (2007-2009).
During this period, gay and lesbians were also harassed or even imprisoned (one notable exception was the case of an asylum seeker to the UK). But the majority, if they behaved very cautiously and did not come out or demanded rights, were left alone with minor harassment. It was also reported that discreet cruising in various localities around Syria was just about tolerated and at the same time monitored by the secret police. AFP press even reported rather euphorically stated that “Syrian gays edge gingerly out of the closet”, although that really seemed to the editorial team of GME a bit exaggerated and not confirmed by the testimonials we have received.
The increase of accessibility to the Internet for Syrians, albeit under very strict control, has enabled many gays and lesbians for the first time to communicate, network and develop a nascent self-consciousness.
But the Syrian authorities seem to have been quick to catch up with this trend. Members of the LGBT Syrian communities now exercise extreme caution when contacting each other or exposing their identity on the web. This is because the Syrian secret police have now increased their presence on the web and try to intercept gays and lesbians by chatting with them as potential dates or mates. Syria has also moved to block various LGBT related sites and search terms.
In the last months GME has received increasing complaints and we have twice reported exclusively in the press on police raids. In recent raids over private parties 25 gay men were arrested as reported by GME. The arrested people have been held several weeks without bail and face an uncertain future. In other words, in recent months Syrian authorities have been showing worrying signs of increasing repression against LGBT people.
A senior officer handling the police campaign against the 25 gay men mentioned above stated that, “Syrian authorities’ major interest is the safety of people. We targeted those parties only because of the increasing rate of drug use, while our presence in those parks and squares is because of the increasing rate of robberies.”
We take his words sincerely and urge that for the safety of all, anti-gay article 520 should be repealed immediately. This would prevent members of LGBT communities throughout Syria from being in dangerous situations in the first place and also enable HIV/AIDS education and prevention which is still an urgent problem.
Countries with a Muslim majority like Jordan or Turkey, both neighbours of Syria, that have decriminalised homosexuality have seen the benefits of such an approach which has not upset the religious or moral sensibilities of the population. It has, in fact, enabled these countries to ensure the safety and well being of all their citizens. Surely Syria can benefit from this policy, especially if we take the authorities’ own words on face value.