He Escaped ISIS to Lead NYC Pride: Subhi Nahas’s Fight for LGBT Refugees
An ISIS operative once threatened to kill Subhi Nahas. On Sunday, he was one of the grand marshals of the NYC Pride parade.
You can understand why Subhi Nahas and his boyfriend, Mark Averett, might be looking a little shell-shocked—in the happiest way—as they exit the elevator of their swish Manhattan hotel, bedecked in rainbow flags.
It is late Sunday afternoon, and a few hours earlier, Nahas, 28, had been one of three grand marshals of this year’s 46th New York City Pride March, taking place in the wake of the massacre of 49 people at the LGBT club Pulse in Orlando.
Early forecasts estimated 2.5 million spectators attended NYC Pride (there were around 14,000 marchers and 400 groups participating), and Nahas was right at the front, with people hollering, waving, and shouting his name.
Out on the march, so many had come to show strength and solidarity with the victims of Pulse, beginning with the stunning arrangement of a group of people in white holding the names aloft of all the victims.
Many marchers and spectators held placards or wore clothing proclaiming solidarity with Orlando or stating bluntly their dedication to fighting hatred and intolerance. Hillary Clinton walked two blocks of the march, alongside New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“We must show our faces today,” René Cifuentes, an artist, told me. “What happened in Orlando was an act against LGBTs, and it was also about guns, and crazy people having access to them.”
Both Cifuentes and his partner, Jeff Mathews, an entrepreneur, said Pride should be political as well as a celebration—just as it was, for example, in the 1980s in an era of greater anti-gay prejudice, and the deaths of so many from AIDS.
“In a climate of fear it would be too easy for us to withdraw,” Mathews said. “It’s so important to show we are not afraid, to live and love in our city openly—and there’s no better place to show that than at Pride. We have to celebrate ourselves and stand up for ourselves.”
Nahas’s story, of course, is also indelibly political.
“It was unbelievable,” Nahas told The Daily Beast of leading the parade. “I never thought I would be here at all. Maybe I thought one day I would come to the parade, but not as a grand marshal. The journey has been a long one, and scary.”
Nahas has told me that story before, just after he made history last August by becoming the first person to address the United Nations Security Council on the persecution of LGBT people under ISIS.
Originally from Idlib, a city of 1.5 million residents north of Damascus, Nahas had feared he would be murdered by ISIS for being gay.
He had grown up being teased and bullied for his perceived effeminacy. His family didn’t accept him. He says that, although the Western media is focused on ISIS’s brutal atrocities against gay men—or men it accuses of being gay—even before ISIS’s terrible barbarism, the Syrian government persecuted LGBT people.
In 2012, Nahas became a target. “Soldiers stopped the bus I was riding to university,” he told the UN. “They took us to a secluded house where they assaulted us. They noticed my effeminacy and they mocked me, calling me faggot, sissy, and other profanities unworthy of this chamber.
“I feared that one of them—or all of them—would rape and kill me. You see, those who condemn us for being different are often the ones who brutalize us sexually. Miraculously, I was released.”
Next, he began to be aware of ISIS’s anti-gay murders, which the group has proudly publicized to the West.
“At the executions, hundreds of townspeople, including children, cheered jubilantly as at a wedding,” Nahas said. “If a victim did not die after being hurled off a building, the townspeople stoned him to death. This was to be my fate, too. I was terrified to go out. Nor was my home safe, as my father, who suspiciously monitored my every move, had learned I was gay. I bear a scar on my chin as a token of his rage.”
In 2012, Nahas escaped to Lebanon, and then to Hatay in Turkey, where he worked as an interpreter.
“Death threats followed me to Turkey,” Nahas told the UN. A former school friend from Idlib named Khalil had joined ISIS. “He relayed through a mutual friend that he wanted to kill me, aiming to go to paradise. He then called me from inside Turkey threatening that ‘I would see his face soon.’
“I was terrified. [ISIS] operatives circulated freely where I lived, and it was only a matter of time before I would be found and killed.”
Finally, just over a year ago, Nahas was granted asylum in the United States, and today he lives in San Francisco, where he first worked for the LGBT refugee organization he helped co-found, the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration (ORAM).
Now Nahas is setting up his own organization, Spectra.
While Sunday was an exhilarating day, the soft-spoken, modest Nahas reflected it made him realize how lucky he was to escape.
“Facing all that, where you’re persecuted, illegal, when you’re not allowed to do anything, you’re nothing…To be here, to cross this huge distance to come here, and lead New York Pride—I can’t describe it with words.”
At the beginning of the parade Nahas was introduced to Mayor Bill de Blasio and some members of Congress, and then he had to wait for the march to begin.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he says, smiling. “It was fun. There were a lot of people waving, and I was trying to gauge the crowd. Somebody gave us flags to wave, and flags made everything easier.” He laughs—besides his resolute activism he has a mischievous, quick wit.
“It was fast. The last Pride march took us three or four hours. This was less than an hour, so”—Nahas smiles—“Pride is definitely easier with a car.”
There was, he says, a lot of energy and love. De Blasio wished him a Happy Pride and told him, “We love you, keep going.”
Some people shouted his name, which impressed him, as they also pronounced it correctly.
He says he was too freaked out to calculate the numbers thronging the sidewalks around him, and he tried to respond as best he could to the wall of sound and good will.
“I remembered when I was isolated in a lot of my school time because people did not want to talk to me or be with me. To have people cheering now because I am different, compared to back then, when they were shutting me out because I was different—my brain sometimes cannot comprehend this. It is amazing and, truthfully, my emotions are mixed.”
He wishes his story was told correctly, he says. “I did not escape ISIS in Syria,” he emphasizes. The threat, when it came to him in Turkey, though indirect, meant “I could not take the chance of waiting and one day he could find a way.” He read recently that ISIS had killed two more men suspected of being gay. Does he think, had he stayed, he would have been killed? “It’s highly possible.”
Since moving to the U.S., Nahas has felt safe and accepted, and he wants this for LGBT refugees, hence his founding of Spectra (in Arabic, the equivalent word means “everyone”), which he hopes will provide a safe haven for those like himself, while also being a practical source of help and ultimately encouraging those who seek its services to become LGBT activists, as Nahas has become.
The most recent reports he has heard from LGBT people in Syria are of fear: There is no one for LGBT people to go to, or seek support from. “They are too afraid to tell their stories because ISIS controls everything,” he says. “I was worried my father might give me up to ISIS, and so are they.
“People are escaping families in areas not controlled by ISIS. Their families persecute gay men before ISIS does, and then families say, ‘Our gay child has brought us shame, so we should give them to ISIS.’ You hear lot of this.”
Spectra will focus on helping LGBT refugees in Turkey from countries including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. Nahas has already surveyed 90 such refugees in a survey, finding that most need urgent legal advice. “There is a tremendous pressure, a need, to do something,” he says.
Just because it has been a few months since we have seen images of men being thrown from buildings, we should not think that ISIS’s vicious and relentless persecution of gay men has abated, says Nahas.
“ISIS will not stop. In their eyes, we are the reason the war is happening, we are the bad things in the universe,” he says. “Whether there is publicity or not, they are still killing us. LGBTs in Syria have no community, no support, they live in the shadows, hiding if they are lucky enough to hide. If you cannot hide, if your behavior gives you away, as it were, it is a disaster.”
Nahas has also received stories—which The Daily Beast has reported before—of ISIS commanders using young boys as sex slaves, an abusive power dynamic with long roots in Islamic history. “They believe any man has right to sleep with a young boy. These boys are categorized by if they have a smooth face, or slightly scruffy bearded face. They are categorized according to their sexual use. They are kept for pleasure—after all, they cannot get pregnant—and girls are kept for conceiving children.”
The boys prized in these scenarios are effeminate; the men being killed by being thrown off roofs and the like are seen as “masculine,” says Nahas.
Nahas has lived in San Francisco for a year. “I don’t find it easy being a public figure,” he says. “I don’t like the exposure at all. But no one else is prepared to do the work I am, and I feel I have to help, I feel like I have to do it.”
Was he always a rebel? “Yes,” he says, smiling. “I was always asking why I was being told to do something. I used to think, ‘Why am I wrong to like other boys? Why do they hate me? Let’s do something about this.’ Of course, I was not able to back then.”
Nahas’s father and he have not spoken for ages, and although he told his mother what he was coming to New York to do this weekend, “she said it sounded cool, but what did he mean exactly.”
“We need to tell the Middle Eastern community that LGBT was not invented by the West. Look at our history. To deny that, to deny people access to basic rights and believe it’s OK, is not acceptable. We need to tell them that basic human rights are not something to give, they are something we are entitled to have—and we will fight for them and we will get them, whether you give them to us or not.”
Nahas concedes that “I would be being optimistic” if he thought that LGBT equality would come to Syria in his lifetime, “but look at the States. In the 1950s, the thought was that we were diseased, not humans, not equal. Now, 50 years later…”
Alongside his brave political fighting, Nahas has also struggled with the sudden liberation afforded to him. “A lot of things have happened to me. I needed to process a lot of things. I couldn’t just throw myself out there because I had lived my entire life up to that point lying to myself and others. I talk in a certain way, but could I now, or would I be judged? It’s a long process, but I hope the effects of persecution will go away in the end. Living in a place like San Francisco, or New York City, helps enormously.”
Nahas and Avarett, who is a 35-year-old project manager for a wealth management company, met last July via a dating app.
Nahas was looking for housing and needed help and advice. “We talked about housing,” says Avarett, “and that turned into a date. We decided we liked each other and carried on dating.”
Nahas, he thinks, made a point of not telling him about his celebrity status initially so as not to scare him off.
“I think, in general, people do not understand the refugee situation,” says Avarett. “You might hear it on the news, but Subhi has really enlightened me. It has been an interesting learning experience, I was pretty oblivious before, and definitely felt stupid afterwards. I should have known it, but I guess before I was a stereotypical American: we sometimes block out the bad news.
“If it’s not happening in our own backyards, if it’s happening far away, it’s like it doesn’t affect us. But we have to acknowledge it—those places like where Subhi is from where there’s a real struggle. It’s been good for me to learn.”
The relationship is challenging in other, more personal ways: It is Nahas’s first serious one with another man. Averett says, “The circumstances he grew up in affects his daily life: whether that be around trust, safety, feeling like he has close friends or family. Some of his previous life experiences he finds hard to be open about, and obviously in a relationship that’s something you do—so that’s a challenge. I’m trying to be patient.”
Nahas nods his agreement—and yes, they seem adorable together. Both men are extremely handsome, and Nahas’s looks and celebrity mean he gets many approaches from men in person and online.
“It’s fun. I like he gets attention for doing something so helpful,” says Averett. “But it’s difficult for the partner when someone else is in the limelight all the time and getting lots of attention from lots of men from all over the world, all day every day.” He laughs. “That’s just a lot of competition!”
“However, they are not here,” says Nahas, smiling at his partner. He is naturally shy, and bemoans that much as he tries to guide conversations in the direction of getting his admirers involved in activism or volunteering, their interests can lie elsewhere. The attention is flattering, he says, but not what he intends to invite.
“Like any relationship, we will see how it goes,” says Averett, who himself seems lovely and is clearly devoted to Nahas. “The important thing here is to support him, and we love each other. I think we are both learning a lot from each other.”
Both men, like the many marchers and attendees at Pride, were affected by the events in Orlando. Many of Nahas’s LGBT friends in San Francisco are too nervous to go to LGBT bars, he says. He and Averett both say they are more aware of their surroundings—this, notes Nahas, is something he was all too attuned to growing up gay in Syria, trying to evaluate whether a situation on a street could turn nasty.
Nahas is also shocked, and saddened, by both the anti-immigrant sentiment partly belying Britain’s Brexit vote, and the similar rhetoric of Donald Trump here. “To say refugees are not welcome is so strange to me,” he says. “The same people had grandparents or great-grandparents who came here as refugees. There is something wrong in the political system if this is now used as a weapon. We are escaping from people who the U.S. and Britain really need to fight, and need to take a stand against. If they ever did bring the wrong people here, the refugee community would stand as one to tell them.”
Nahas pauses, and says slowly, “We don’t want them. We escaped from them. I hope one day people who are against refugees will understand this.”
I ask what memories stand out of leading NYC Pride. Nahas laughs. “It was waiting at the start, and not knowing what to do. I realized that if you wave at people, they want to wave back at you. It was their support, their love, which has such power. It feels amazing.”
His voice cracks. “I cannot describe it, sorry. It is very emotional. I never thought that in my entire life I would celebrate myself, or celebrate my sexuality, or that I would be free to do anything at all. And so to stand there, to be celebrated and to represent a whole community which is still under persecution, was amazing. It is sending a message to them: ‘You’re not alone. Things will get better. We’re working to get things better.’ To me, it’s very powerful. It isn’t just about me, it’s about them.”
For Averett, the parade was at its most intense in its home stretch along Christopher Street and The Stonewall Inn. Here, people’s energy and emotion were on full display.
What was their favorite sight of the day?
“Can I be inappropriate?” says Nahas. “A lot of topless people. They were really cute. And to see people wearing such colorful things.”
Their time in New York is almost at an end. Averett heads back to San Francisco on Monday, while Nahas goes to Washington to continue fighting for his cause. He has noticed legislators respond most to personal stories that touch them. Sadly, there are far too many of these.
To LGBT Syrians, trapped, afraid, or in even direr straits, he says: “They should feel not alone. They should feel supported. We are working on things that will hopefully impact their lives and change them for the better. I will always work for them.”
In a few hours, Nahas and Averett say they will head to the Pride weekend finale: “the dance on the pier.” They both smile happily at the prospect. But first, they say, they’re heading upstairs for a well-earned disco nap.