‘It’s a Death Sentence’: LGBTQ Afghans Fight for Their Lives
LGBTQ Afghans are telling stories of fear and desperation, as allies and organizations battle to try and help them flee the Taliban, and threats of persecution and death.
A trans friend from Kabul recently told Ahmad Qais Munhazim, “There is hope in waking up tomorrow, but I am afraid I would be killed tonight.”
“Being in love is the most beautiful feeling in this ugly war. Qais, I have fallen in love with someone,” a queer friend from Kabul recently texted Munhazim. “It is nice to wake up not thinking about the war but waiting for his text. I fear what if Taliban kill my lover. What would I wake for?”
The perilous situation facing LGBTQ Afghans now living under Taliban rule didn’t simply emerge in recent days, Munhazim, assistant professor of global studies at Thomas Jefferson University, East Falls, told The Daily Beast. Munhazim, an Afghan-born scholar, queer activist, and political scientist, said that LGBTQ Afghans had been “displaced as a consequence of the war, and also years of no attention being paid to them.”
Under existing Afghan law, a sexual act between two men is punishable by long-term imprisonment. In June, a Taliban judge said that under Taliban rule, according to Sharia law, gay men in Afghanistan would either be stoned to death or crushed to death by a wall being pushed on them.
Munhazim, who sounds exhausted, says they haven’t slept or eaten properly in days, as they help LGBTQ Afghans try and find a way out of the country, or help them stay as safe as possible if they are remaining there. Munhazim is staying in close contact with them as discreetly as possible, and now not through social media, which the Taliban is likely monitoring—with the intention, says Munhazim, of identifying and persecuting LGBTQ Afghans.
“It’s a death sentence, it’s absolutely a death sentence, there is no tolerance at all,” Bilal Askaryar, the “Welcome With Dignity” communications coordinator at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told The Daily Beast about the Taliban’s intentions towards LGBTQ Afghans.
“The Taliban don’t see LGBTQ Afghans as existing, and if they do, they deserve to die because there is no place for them in society,” said Munhazim. “This is why so many queer and trans Afghans have gone into hiding. There is no place for queer and trans people within the Afghanistan of the Taliban. They don’t see them as human beings. They abuse them, hunt them, kill them. Right now, they are collecting information, and then they will wait for the eyes of the world to close, so they can follow up on the information they are gathering. Living under the Taliban as a queer or trans person is not possible.”
“I am hearing stories of fear and near-death,” said Munhazim. “Anything can happen at any point in a country with no government and no rule of law. LGBTQ Afghans are telling me stories of seeing the Taliban outside, of being afraid to go out. One queer Afghan told me, ‘Instead of moving forward, there is a feeling of going back.’ Another said, ‘There is no life left here.’ Of course, there is a fear of being outside, being identified, or in any way being caught.
“As well as the general violence associated with heternormativity and patriarchy, under the Taliban there is this sense that, even if you are not visibly displaying your gender and sexuality, ‘We know who you are.’ And, as a queer or trans person, you know why people come after you or the state prosecutes you. For those reasons, people have a fear of stepping out. I have spoken to people who are only leaving their homes to buy bread.”
Amitesh Parikh, senior staff attorney at LGBTQ advocacy organization Immigration Equality, told The Daily Beast, “The situation is absolutely dire for queer people in Afghanistan. It is not only endangering their physical well-being and safety but also their mental health. A lot of people have contacted us to say they have attempted suicide and other forms of self-harm, because they absolutely do not want to live under the Taliban regime, and that’s absolutely heartbreaking. The situation is terrible, and we should do everything in our power to help.”
Recalling the Taliban judge’s words, Parikh said, “That created more and more fear that this regime will be very, very homophobic, if that wasn’t already clear from the past.”
Maria Sjödin, deputy executive director of international LGBTQ advocacy group OutRight Action International, told The Daily Beast, “We have heard from people who are desperately trying to get out of Afghanistan, because they know enough about the Taliban the previous time they ruled, and their ideology, to know that they might become targets. That said, most people who may be persecuted in some way—including LGBTQI people—will not have an opportunity to flee.”
Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps LGBTQ people escape state-sponsored violence, is attempting to aid LGBTQ Afghans to flee the country.
In a statement to the Daily Beast, Executive Director Kimahli Powell said: “Rainbow Railroad is hearing first-hand from LGBTQI+ people on the ground that their situation is dire. People have told us that they are hiding in their homes and afraid to go out. We’ve also received reports of LGBTQI+ people being threatened by the Taliban. Rainbow Railroad is using our expertise and all the tools available to help LGBTQI+ people in Afghanistan find safety.”
The organization recently said it had received 50 requests for help originating in Afghanistan before recent events, “and we anticipate an uptick in requests due to the deteriorating security situation that threatens the safety of LGBTQI+ people. Moreover, there are a limited number of human rights defenders in the country and civil society engagement is minimal, meaning that support for LGBTQI+ people from within Afghanistan is limited. However, we are currently relying on our deep international network and contacts within the country in order to reach people facing persecution.”
Immigration Equality had heard from LGBTQ Afghans feeling “very, very afraid of the Taliban if they are outed,” Parikh said. “We have heard of people being blackmailed by family members, who have told them, ‘If you continue to be queer, we will out you to the Taliban.’ Even before the Taliban came to power, the situation for queer people was tough. We had heard of queer men and women and trans people being forced to endure corrective rapes. Before, there were beatings of LGBTQ people in front of their communities. LGBTQ Afghans have told us they fear those beatings will now take place on an even more public scale to set them ‘right.’”
Sjödin agrees: “LGBTQI people often face threats from families in societies where they are not accepted. In a society like Afghanistan, which is likely to become even more hostile to LGBTQI people, I would fear that this threat level would potentially increase.”
A representative from one LGBTQ organization, who requested anonymity to protect LGBTQ Afghans’ identity and safety, said, “From what we hear, LGBTQ people in Afghanistan are basically going underground, and have been doing so for several weeks in preparation for what they expected would happen.” LGBTQ Afghans had reached out to their organization for help, and the organization was trying to help them escape, the person said—a process being undertaken with the utmost sensitivity and caution given the ever-shortening timeframe of the United States’ August 31 withdrawal deadline.
“The situation is so volatile in Afghanistan right now, confidentiality is key,” said Parikh. “We can’t disclose certain information that would put queer Afghans in danger. For example, if they disclose themselves to someone representing themselves as a U.S. officer but is actually a Taliban operative, that would put a person’s life in danger. If someone doesn’t have access to an attorney, who do they go to? These are all issues there are no answers for.”
“We need to reimagine the entire system to figure out how we welcome people seeking safety”
If they do flee, the dangers for LGBTQ Afghans seeking asylum are many, activists say. Munhazim said they may not be safe at Kabul airport, especially if overheard discussing their sexuality or gender identity with officials. “LGBTQ people see what is happening at the airport, and do not want to go through that. Also, that mess at the airport in Afghans’ eyes has been created by the West. Some people think they would rather die in their own homes than go through that and lose their dignity.”
LGBTQ Afghans may be sent to places that do not have a good record on LGBTQ rights, said Munhazim. They may also be subjected to invasive and demeaning physical tests intended to deduce if they are LGBTQ in those countries.
Queer people with links to LGBTQ organizations, NGOs, in education, or women’s rights have connections to help them escape, said Parikh. But LGBTQ Afghans without those links, Parikh said, were “very scared, and were limiting contact to avoid being outed to the Taliban. One way to come to the United States is by applying for humanitarian parole. But there is no American Embassy operating as usual in Kabul—except in a vastly scaled-down way at the airport—and how is mail getting out of Afghanistan right now?”
Canada has said it will accept 20,000 vulnerable Afghans, including LGBTQ people by name in its announcement. “A lot more of the same should be done by other countries,” said Parikh.
Askaryar said that the asylum and refugee systems were “so outdated” when it came to the “complex situations” faced by LGBTQ Afghans. Askaryar had heard of LGBTQ activists presenting themselves at Western embassies “to say, ‘We need to get out of here.’ They were told that the embassies would go to these people’s families to ask what they thought about them being gay. “That can’t be on the table for these people whose lives are in danger,” said Askaryar. The Welcome With Dignity campaign that he works on seeks to ensure that people “aren’t placed in more danger when asking for safety.”
The leading countries that border land-locked Afghanistan—Iran and Pakistan—would not necessarily welcome LGBTQ Afghans, Parikh said. “Immigration Equality represents clients from those countries because they have state-sponsored homophobia. Afghan citizens have visa-free access to a few countries, but how can they fly to those countries if the airport is closed to them? There are few options for queer Afghans unless they have contact with organizations outside Afghanistan, or organizations working to help people.”
Neither Iran nor Pakistan are “paragons of acceptance,” said Askaryar, and the Taliban are impeding people’s efforts to reach them anyway.
“I have worked with queer Afghans who walked to Turkey, and then took a boat to Greece,” said Askaryar. “They just keep quiet about their identities until they get to a European nation. But even those situations are fraught. Say someone overhears you in a camp saying to an official you are LGBTQ. Word then travels through the camp, but also back home, so your family becomes a target. We need to reimagine the entire system to figure out how we welcome people seeking safety.”
To reach a country like Turkey, Parikh added, queer Afghans would first have to safely traverse a dangerous part of Iran, “and while there was a brief period where Turkey was doing alright on queer rights, since 2016 that has plummeted. We have heard from several people persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and we have heard from queer Afghans and Iranians in Turkey to say how terrible their lives are there. Even in Istanbul, which people may think is relatively progressive, people can still be persecuted on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
So, what could fundamentally help LGBTQ Afghans right now? “Unless the United States changes its immigration laws, or other countries make it easier for queer Afghans to access other countries, unless they decide to evacuate people en masse, the situation does look extremely dire,” Parikh said, adding it would also help if LGBTQ Afghans could be officially classified as being deserving of refugee resettlement on the basis of their vulnerability and the likely harm and danger they face under the Taliban.
“Even if someone can’t get out right now, in the future they might be able to. We must ensure they are able to access the right forms to help them get to safety,” Parikh said. “We must keep the pressure on public representatives and governments to help them do so.”
“I think that countries should make commitments to receive asylum seekers knowing how difficult it will be for people to flee,” Maria Sjödin said. “They should halt any deportations. LGBTQI people from Afghanistan should be granted asylum.”
“We must not lose sight of the fact that we need more proactive policies to help LGBTQI+ persons in crisis situations,” Rainbow Railroad said in a statement. “Whether it is state sponsored crackdowns on LGBTQI+ persons in Ghana or Uganda, the continuous migrant crisis in Venezuela, or refugees in Kenya and Turkey still awaiting resettlement, we need to immediately resume the resettlement of LGBTQI+ refugees—Rainbow Railroad is fielding 3,000-4,000 requests for help from around the world annually. Many need immediate support.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did not immediately return a request for comment from The Daily Beast about what the department was doing to help LGBTQ Afghans.
When asked what the State Department was doing to protect LGBTQ Afghans, or aid their safe passage and refuge, a spokesperson responded via a statement.
“We are focused on safely getting as many people out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Vulnerable Afghans may include Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, internally displaced Afghans, victims of conflict, and Afghans in need of protection. Afghans eligible for Priority 1 (P-1) and Priority 2 (P-2) referrals to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and other Afghans at risk are among our priority assistance groups.
“This effort is of utmost importance to the U.S. government. We are devoting a significant number of resources to support these programs and will continue to surge resources toward these efforts to the fullest extent possible.”
The United States was also “working closely with allies and partners on our shared objective of quickly assisting vulnerable Afghans such as women leaders, human rights activists, and LGBTQI+ individuals outside Afghanistan through humanitarian programs,” the statement continued. “Our commitment to providing humanitarian assistance inside Afghanistan also has not changed, albeit in a more difficult security environment.
“The United States is the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, and we will continue our support for vulnerable populations in Afghanistan and in neighboring countries in the region. Our humanitarian assistance for Afghans in need allows our partners to provide lifesaving food, nutrition, protection, shelter, livelihoods opportunities, essential health care, water, sanitation, and hygiene services to respond to the humanitarian needs generated by conflict, drought, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
“I am watching my family, my community, my whole country dying. I also feel the guilt of survival”
Munhazim—who came to the U.S. from Afghanistan as an international student 12 years ago before becoming an asylee and now a Green Card holder of three years standing—says they feel “so helpless” watching from afar, trying to do what he can to help.
“I am watching my family, my community, my whole country dying. I also feel the guilt of survival, and another sense of guilt around what I can do from here, how I can help. That’s why I can’t sleep. I feel I must do whatever I can, whether that’s filling out forms, or giving hope to someone back home, calling me and asking me about the how, when, and where of their planned escape. It has really shifted my perspective of who I am, how I connect with home, and how I connect with my queerness. It has made me more fearless, even if it means coming out to my family if they read something. If I can save lives, and/or get people around the world to help, that would be fine.”
Munhazim was in Afghanistan a month ago to visit family and friends. “I knew things were going to change, and I took the risk. At the time there was lots of violence and roadside bombs. I thought, ‘What if this is the last chance I will ever get to see home again?’ It was getting worse while I was there.”
When Munhazim saw their LGBTQ friends, they felt a sense of embracing queer community he does not feel in America, “as a refugee, Muslim, Brown person, always feeling and facing racism, xenophobia, and many other phobias. Being around my friends was everything I wanted it to be. We listened to our favorite music, danced, and it was amazing to talk about queerness in my own language. I’m happy to have had that experience and felt that way.”
Today, most of those LGBTQ friends are “displaced and in escape mode. They are running away from danger, and nervous of being monitored by the Taliban. They know they are not going to be alive when everything is taken over by the Taliban. They are suffering from depression and distress, and also poverty. Now, under the Taliban, there is a state that openly persecutes queer and trans people.”
Not all LGBTQ Afghans want to leave the country, said Munhazim. “Some say, ‘This is my country. Where do you want me to go? This is my home.’ There will still be queer and trans people in Afghanistan.”
The last 20 years had not provided LGBTQ Afghans with any significant political freedoms, said Munhazim, but as anywhere else the younger generations of millennials and Gen Z had informed a wider and more embracing view of gender, sexuality, and queer acceptance. “This isn’t about a Western idea of having to ‘come out,’ but rather finding new ways to be themselves. The younger generations were changing things up. Now that hope has gone.”
Even before the Taliban takeover, LGBTQ Afghans reported a wide range of human rights abuses, catalogued in a State Department report last year. It stated: “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals reported they continued to face arrest by security forces and discrimination, assault, and rape. There were reports of harassment and violence of LGBTI individuals by society and police. Homosexuality was widely seen as taboo and indecent.
“LGBTI individuals did not have access to certain health-care services and could be fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Organizations devoted to protecting the freedom of LGBTI persons remained underground because they could not legally register with the government.”
“Afghanistan has always been a homosocial society—people of the same gender socialize together all the time,” said Askaryar. “That looks very different to Westerners—people being physically affectionate and sometimes, especially men, having sexual relations with each other is not considered homosexual. That was always tolerated historically—maybe not approved of, but an eye turned the other way, especially if you had the power and privilege to get away with it. But with the Taliban it’s a death sentence.”
Askaryar, 35, was born in Afghanistan, left with his family aged 5, grew up in the U.S., and returned to Afghanistan for periods of time for work.
“Afghanistan has never been safe for LGBTQ Afghans, but now it’s a whole different paradigm,” he told The Daily Beast. “There was—in the bigger cities, especially Kabul—a modicum of freedom for certain individuals, like a lot of Afghans raised abroad or who had been refugees in Pakistan and Iran, and then for whatever reason had come back to Afghanistan.”
On his visits to Afghanistan, Askaryar had seen an underground queer scene in Kabul “with gay men, gender non-conforming people, and others who would meet up on occasion and just hang out. That existed, although obviously it was very private. And now there is no room to play. There is no room to breathe. People who in those times would not be targeted now will not even go outside. They are staying home and stocking up on groceries. Those people without the support of a large family unit are isolated in their own apartments worried about going out to buy their next batch of groceries. Other LGBTQ people who do live with their families are also staying inside because of their fear of targeting and harassment.”
“When I did go back to Afghanistan, I was surprised to see a queer community there, and it was beautiful to see,” Askaryar said. “I’m worried about those people, their physical safety first and foremost. They are my siblings in so many different ways. Being Afghan means being a refugee. If they are under the age of 40, they haven’t seen a single day of peace. They’re queer, gender non-conforming, and trans, but they also have never had the chance or luxury of exploring those aspects of their identities, or know where they stand on that spectrum.
“I met people who said, ‘I know I’m not straight, but I don’t know what I am.’ The resources aren’t there, the internet is filtered. They don’t have others to talk to, unless they are lucky enough to happen upon each other.”
In the last 20 years, “there was a little bit more room to breathe—especially in Kabul, which for the last 20 years was an international city,” Askaryar said. “People from all over the world were mixing at supermarket chains. Afghans worked for foreign NGOs and offices, so picked up on ideas, and relationships happened between LGBTQ Afghans and members of the international community. I heard of people who got married at embassies and left with their foreign spouses. Now that doesn’t exist anymore.”
“I hope they see peace, and—even if it’s just quietly—an opportunity to be themselves”
“White cis gay people need to come out and support queer Afghans and queer and trans people of color more generally,” Munhazim told The Daily Beast. “People should use their privilege and do whatever they can to help those in danger. International governments need to emphasize to the Taliban that LGBTQ people live there, that these lives matter and must be protected. Of course, they won’t take notice, but they still must say something.”
“I think we owe it to the queer community at large to help as many Afghan people as we can to get to safety,” said Parikh. “If you know any LGBTQ people in Afghanistan, get them to contact us, or any other organizations like ours. Call on your public representatives to help queer Afghans get to the United States or other countries. Even if they go to a third country where they can apply in the interim for immigration benefits it would be much safer than being in Afghanistan. If you can speak Dari or Pashto (the languages spoken in Afghanistan), volunteer your time as an interpreter.”
Askaryar said Westerners should talk to their public representatives, and “demand they grant humanitarian parole to anyone in danger, specifically LGBTQ Afghans and ethnic and religious minorities, waiving any kind of quota your government might have.”
On August 12, Munhazim set up a GoFundMe account, “Emergency Help for LGBTQ Afghans in Afghanistan,” which so far has raised over $50,000. But Munhazim says GoFundMe administrators are “holding it hostage,” and not allowing him and other organizers to access funds to send to LGBTQ Afghans directly.
Munhazim said GoFundMe had asked for the identities of those the money would be sent to, but Munhazim said that naming those people would imperil their safety. GoFundMe had also asked if the money could be distributed via Unicef and other NGOs, said Munhazim. But he says those NGOs do not have the connections to the LGBTQ Afghans who need support urgently. The account had been frozen for a period of time, meaning people could not donate.
“Your platform is based on human generosity, and the community helping individuals. Why is this one so hard for you to process?” Munhazim asked of GoFundMe.
In response, a spokesperson for GoFundMe told The Daily Beast: “GoFundMe complies with all U.S. and international laws, and due to Taliban control, we can no longer transfer money directly to an individual in Afghanistan or release funds that will be transferred to an individual in the country. This is not a policy specific to GoFundMe—it is based on laws and regulations. Just like every fundraiser on GoFundMe, we work hard to ensure all donations go to those intended, so that our platform remains trusted by the 100 million people that use it. That means, our Trust & Safety team must review every fundraiser related to Afghanistan to ensure it remains compliant with the law and global financial regulations, protecting both organizers and donors.
“There are some cases where a fundraiser was started prior to Taliban control, with the intent to send money to an individual in Afghanistan. In those cases, the organizer will have to update donors that the stated use of funds has changed and will now be sent to a verified non-profit or GoFundMe will fully refund all donors. We are in touch with all organizers impacted, and our teams are working 24/7 as providing aid to those in need, safely and quickly continues to be our top priority.”
In order to ensure GoFundMe can get funds to the intended beneficiary, the company is requesting that organizers choose a verified non-profit organization operating in the region or request a refund for any available balance.
The company insists it is “working hard” to ensure that the donations reach their intended recipients. When that isn’t possible, as it isn’t at this time for individual fund transfers into Afghanistan, GoFundMe says it is offering options to their users to either have any available balances refunded, or to direct amounts raised to vetted charities that can currently receive monies to assist those impacted.
“We are still trying to figure things out—finding a nonprofit to get our money through and maybe help those who will be coming to the U.S.,” Munhazim told The Daily Beast.
“I hope they see peace, and—even if it’s just quietly—an opportunity to be themselves,” Askaryar said of the LGBTQ Afghans who remain in the country. “Afghanistan is not the West. It is not other countries. It is not even Turkey, which has an LGBTQ scene. It is a nightmare for everybody right now. No one is safe. If you’re outside Kabul in other population centers, what are you supposed to do? If you go to the airport, the Taliban could ask you, ‘Why are you leaving? Who do you work for? Are you a Western spy?’ It’s difficult for an average citizen, much less a queer Afghan citizen. Right now, American citizens are being evacuated. We’ll see if they get to the queer Afghans.”
Queer love and desire are parts of Afghanistan’s deep cultural history, Askaryar said. “It will be controversial for me to say it, but the poetry of one of our most famous poets, Rumi, is about love for another man as an example of his love for God. Whether that love is sexual is up for debate. But his entire work, his entire opus of poetry, that we as Afghans recite by heart, lives on our tongues. It is all about love for someone of the same sex. It has always existed, it always will, and I am grateful for it.”
When this reporter asked Askaryar if there was anything else he wanted to say about Afghanistan, he replied, “Afghanistan is not the place people think it is. If you’re lucky enough to go and lucky enough to be welcomed into an Afghan home, you will be shown incredible graciousness and hospitality. There are also beautiful, fleeting moments of queer love there. We just might not see them.”