I came to Washington to work in the Carter administration

By Peter Rosenstein - March 2, 2023 12:00 am

When Pari, a 48-year-old gay man in Afghanistan, was beaten and forced into sex by Taliban officials, his body was so badly bruised that he told his family he had been in a car crash.

Pari had tried to lay low after the Taliban captured control of Afghanistan on Aug. 15, 2021. He is a 48-year-old gay man who worked at a health clinic before the Taliban’s return to power, providing services to men who have sex with men. The clinic shut its doors and laid off its staff as the Taliban retook power, worried that some of its former clients would report their work to the Taliban. They were right to worry. A few weeks into Taliban rule, fighters showed up to the empty building and beat the security guards. 

But the immediate months after the Taliban’s return to power was not the worst time for Pari and many other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) Afghans. Nine months later, Pari was identified on the street by a group of Taliban who appeared to know who he was. “You are ‘izak’ and promote gay sex,” they said, using a local homophobic slur. Taliban members beat him and detained him at a checkpoint, demanding the names of his former clients. 

Eighteen months after the Taliban takeover, the lives of LGBTIQ Afghans are increasingly in danger. A new Outright report demonstrates the scale and scope of violence against LGBTIQ people, who live in complete insecurity as Taliban persecution becomes increasingly systematic. In the early days after the Taliban takeover, Outright found that most threats and violence came from family members or in chance encounters with Taliban when queer people were spotted based on their appearance or identified when checkpoint guards searched their cell phones. Premeditated targeting was rare. 

But Afghanistan’s de facto rulers have stepped up their persecution of LGBTIQ people over the last year.  In December, Afghanistan’s Supreme Court announced individuals had been punished for homosexuality in Kabul, and public floggings for homosexuality have also been reported in other parts of the country. 

Outright’s documentation suggests that much of the targeting by state agents primarily affects queer men and trans women so far. In one case, a gay activist was found dead outside a police station; a medical examiner found evidence of sexual assault, according to a family member. In another, a trans woman arrived for a dancing gig at a party to discover it was a trap, and she was handed over to Taliban officers. 

For queer women and trans men, family members remain a primary source of danger, especially male relatives. One trans man we interviewed was savagely beaten by his uncle who then threatened to hand him over to the Taliban. An intersex woman who’d entered into an arranged marriage reported being beaten by her husband and forced to sleep in a cowshed. He, too, threatened to hand her over to the Taliban. 

Violence against LGBTIQ people runs counter to Afghanistan’s obligations under international law and could quite possibly constitute crimes against humanity. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) stated in December that Taliban officials could be prosecuted for “gender persecution” for targeting LGBTIQ people. (Afghanistan is under the ICC’s jurisdiction, having signed onto the treaty authorizing the court in 2003.) 

But the international community is doing far too little to protect queer Afghans, or to ensure that their persecutors are brought to justice. It’s almost impossible for queer Afghans to flee to safety. Foreign governments have provided far fewer visas to persecuted Afghans than are needed, and the process of resettlement requires refugees to spend months in Pakistan and other countries where LGBTIQ people are criminalized. Rainbow Railroad, an organization that help LGBTIQ refugees get to safety, has received requests for assistance from nearly 4,000 queer Afghans since August 2021. By the end of 2022, only 247 had managed to reach safe countries.

While many continue to try to leave, most queer Afghans cannot or don’t want to leave Afghanistan. They fall under the protection mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). But UNAMA has not made any public statements regarding LGBTIQ Afghans’ human rights and safety, even omitting reference to such abuses against LGBTIQ people in a human rights report issued in July 2022. 

Creating safe space for queer people to connect with UNAMA and other international organizations will require a long process of trust building with the community in a country where being LGBTIQ is so stigmatized. Afghanistan is so dangerous for LGBTIQ people that many fear leaving their homes; the idea of outing themselves to an international agency is terrifying, especially if it requires the involvement of an Afghan interpreter who may share widely held anti-LGBTIQ attitudes.

But the U.N. tasked UNAMA to protect all Afghans when it was created in 2002, and UNAMA must find ways to fulfill that obligation, including by recruiting staff trusted by LGBTIQ people and beginning the crucial work of documenting violence against a deeply marginalized community. 

For now, Pari has nowhere to turn for help. He ultimately escaped Taliban detention after agreeing to have sex with a man in exchange for his freedom. He thought about leaving Afghanistan, and secured a passport. But even if he could find a way out, he doesn’t want to abandon his children. To survive, he does everything possible to avoid leaving the house. 

Stories like Pari’s are far too common in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. They will only grow more common unless the international community takes action. And with no safe way for most LGBTIQ Afghans to report these abuses, their stories may never be known at all. 

(Illustration courtesy of OutRight International)

J. Lester Feder is Outright’s Senior Fellow for Emergency Research. He researches the situation of LGBTIQ people in significant crises. He is a journalist and photographer who has reported in more than 40 countries, whose work has appeared in outlets including Rolling Stone, the New York Times and Vanity Fair. From 2013-2020, Lester was a senior world correspondent at BuzzFeed News, where he pioneered a first-of-its-kind international LGBTQ rights beat. Lester was named Journalist of the Year in 2015 by NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists and received a GLAAD Media Award in 2016.

Lester holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, and an M.A. from the Columbia Journalism School.

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