Ahmed Danny Ramadan, a journalist who has contributed to publications in the U.S. and other countries, returned to the Syrian capital two months before the country’s civil war began in 2011.
He said his colleagues at the non-governmental organization where he worked “hated” the fact he is openly gay, so they reported him to Syrian intelligence officials as a journalist. Ramadan said authorities detained him for three hours at Damascus International Airport in May 2012 as he tried to travel to a book signing in neighboring Jordan — they let him go after convincing them he was not the person for whom they were looking.
He fled to neighboring Lebanon a few weeks later.
“I can’t go back because the regime still wants me,” Ramadan told the Washington Blade during a recent Skype interview from his apartment in Beirut, the Lebanese capital. “I can’t go back because the extremists are going to kill me because I’m an openly gay person.”
The U.N. estimates the civil war that began in March 2011 after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime brutally cracked down on protesters in the city of Daraa has left more than an estimated 200,000 people dead. Ramadan is among the more than 1 million Syrians who have fled to Lebanon, a country slightly less than twice the size of Delaware with a population of roughly 4.8 million people.
’I managed to escape’
Ramadan, 30, was born into a Sunni Muslim family that lived in a middle-class neighborhood of Damascus.
He said his father, who backs the Assad regime even though he fled to Jordan after his restaurant was destroyed, beat him and threatened him with a gun after he came out as gay during a fight when he was 17.
Ramadan told the Blade his father locked him inside his bedroom for three days without access to a bathroom. His sisters eventually helped him escape and he lived on his own in Syria for another two years before moving to Egypt.
“I managed to escape and never looked back,” he said.
Ramadan said life for a gay person in Syria was “limited” before the war.
The Assad regime censored websites after the Internet became available in the country in 2002, although those who spoke English could access gay-specific information.
Ramadan told the Blade that gay people, whom he described as “creatures of the night,” would gather on a Damascus street after dark to talk and spend time with each other. He said police officers would periodically arrest “a couple of them” and force them to undergo so-called anal tests to determine whether they were gay.
“They hang out at night, go have casual encounters like sexual encounters and then return to their families,” said Ramadan. “Most of them — a big chunk of them — actually live double lives where they hide it and feel ashamed about it.”
Ramadan noted to the Blade that Syrians generally have an “extremely traditional” view of homosexuality because of conservative religious and cultural attitudes. He said sheikhs in mosques and the parents and family members of those who are LGBT reinforce these beliefs.
“Homosexuality is an act that is seen as womanly,” said Ramadan. “You’re not a man. You become in the eyes of society a woman and that society has a problem with women as well.”
He noted these attitudes remain, even though LGBT Syrians had gained limited visibility before the war.
“The Syrian people — the normal people like me — are still the same people,” said Ramadan. “They are faced with an extraordinary situation of being in a civil war, but they are still thinking the same thing. They still have the same mindset. They still see homosexuality the same way.”
LGBT Syrians tortured, decapitated
Reports continue to emerge that LGBT Syrians have been tortured and even killed during the war because of their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
Ramadan told the Blade he has heard “rumors” about “extremists” killing gay men as they did in neighboring Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled then-President Saddam Hussein. He said he knows “a lot of gays” from Aleppo, the country’s largest city, and Raqqah — which is under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that once had ties to al-Qaeda — who have fled to Lebanon.
“When you have 200 to 300 people dying on a day-to-day basis in Syria, the number of homosexual people who are dying is going to be lost among the number of people who are dying every day,” said Ramadan.
Bertho Makso, a gay Lebanese man who last September founded Proud Lebanon, a Beirut-based group that provides support and other services to more than 100 LGBT Syrian refugees, told the Blade he has heard reports of gay people being decapitated. He said a transgender woman in a Damascus suburb was hanged by her breasts.
“These are people who lost their friends who were kidnapped,” said Makso. “Their friends were killed because they’re LGBT.”
Lebanese groups offer services, programs to LGBT Syrians
Proud Lebanon offers LGBT refugees medical and psychological support, access to legal and advocacy services, job training, art classes and other social programs.
The group, which operates a center in Beirut, has six full-time staffers and four volunteers.
Proud Lebanon in January received a grant from the Canadian Embassy to pay for equipment for the job-training program and tutors’ salaries for a month.
The Dutch Embassy in Beirut and the European Endowment for Democracy have also funded the organization.
“They need stability and safety,” said Makso. “We are trying to create another family for them.
The Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health and Helem, an LGBT advocacy group, also work with Syrians who have fled to Lebanon. Marsa, a sexual health clinic in Beirut, offers them free HIV and STI testing and counseling.
Dr. Hasan Abdessamad, president of the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health, told the Blade during an interview from Vancouver where he currently lives that depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse are among the myriad of problems that LGBT Syrian refugees face. A lack of access to sexual and psychiatric health care remain concerns for the advocates who work with them.
“There’s a lot of hostility,” Abdessamad told the Blade, referring to long-standing tensions between the two countries that stem from the Lebanese Civil War that took place between 1975-1990. “Now that we have more than a million (Syrian refugees) coming into Lebanon, (the) Lebanese people are very frustrated with the Syrian refugees.”
Abdessamad and Makso both said the Lebanese government has done nothing to specifically address the plight of LGBT Syrian refugees, in part because the conflict has left it overwhelmed.
“They’re doing a horrible job providing services or shelter or just the basic needs for the refugees in general,” said Abdessamad. “So of course there’s no attempt or even thinking about what to do for the Syrian LGBT refugees.”
Ramadan sought to create ‘bubble’ in Beirut
Those convicted of homosexuality under Lebanese law had faced up to a year in jail until a judge in March struck down the statute in the case of a trans woman who had allegedly had a relationship with a man.
The Lebanese Psychiatric Society last July stated homosexuality is not a mental illness.
Beirut has a number of gay bars and nightclubs, but anti-LGBT discrimination and violence remain commonplace in spite of the country’s relative tolerance of homosexuality compared to Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.
“Lebanon has always kind of been a refuge for many people to be themselves and to just come and live freely,” Joseph Aoun, Proud Lebanon’s public advocacy officer who has managed a gay bar in the Lebanese capital for five years, told the Blade. “Beirut in a way gives you a certain freedom or a choice to live freely. I’m not pretending that it’s the best place, but in general Beirut has this sense.”
Ramadan said he decided to create a “very safe bubble” for himself when he moved to Lebanon.
His American roommate and boss are comfortable with his sexual orientation — his Syrian boyfriend of nearly two years who moved to Beirut a few months after he left Damascus remains in the closet.
Ramadan told the Blade the owner of the café across the street from his apartment building from where he works once kicked out a patron who was “talking shit” about him because of his homosexuality. He then hung a sign that said he would not tolerate homophobia, racism or sexism in his business.
“I’m lucky that I’ve found this little bubble,” Ramadan told the Blade, noting he wears a rainbow bracelet but cannot kiss his boyfriend when he leaves for work. “This is something really simple compared to the challenges of other people here. As an openly gay person, I managed to create a safe zone for myself that others who are still in the closet cannot.”
Other LGBT Syrian refugees in Lebanon are far less fortunate.
A report that Amnesty International published in February highlights the plight of many of those who have fled to Lebanon. These include a 26-year-old man who contracted Hepatitis B after his Lebanese boyfriend forced him to have sex with his friends.
The report also cites another 26-year-old man who tried to commit suicide after two men raped him and took his money and cell phone.
Amnesty International notes many gay Syrian refugees also do not disclose their sexual orientation when they register with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees out of “fear of the added stigma this would expose them to.”
“The biggest challenge is being Syrian in the first place,” Abdessamad told the Blade. “There’s a lot of social discrimination towards them. It’s not always friendly.”
Former Lebanese finance minister killed outside Ramadan’s apartment
The Syrian civil war has only further exacerbated sectarian tensions in Lebanon
Clashes between pro-Assad Shi’ites and Lebanese Sunni Muslims who largely back the Syrian rebels have left more than 300 people dead. Two suicide bombers linked to al-Qaeda killed 23 people outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November.
A massive car bomb that killed former Lebanese Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah, who opposed al-Assad, and seven others last December exploded outside Ramadan’s apartment building. The Daily Star newspaper reported the explosion left 70 others injured.
“While Lebanon is not the most stable country in the world, it got more unstable due to the crisis going on in Syria,” said Ramadan.
Ramadan hopes to move to Canada with his boyfriend and their dog.
The Canadian government has approved his asylum application, and he said he expects to receive final approval from the country’s Beirut embassy in about a year and a half. Ramadan scoffed at the Blade’s question about whether he would return to Syria if peace were to return to the country.
“That assumption is not valid because the situation is not going to get better anytime soon,” he said. “It’s a stalemate.”
Abdessamad and others in Vancouver plan to provide a support network to Ramadan and his boyfriend once they arrive in Canada that he says will allow them to integrate into Canadian society. Abdessamad was quick to point out many LGBT Syrians in Lebanon cannot leave the country.
“The majority of LGBT Syrians are stuck in Lebanon,” he said. “Their case is desperate and more hopeless.”
Meanwhile, Ramadan’s father only speaks to him when he needs money — and he sends it to him in Jordan.