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Baghdad's Gay Community: A Tale of Two Cities

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Baghdad, Iraq -- This is my second time in Baghdad, and I have to admit, overall I have seen a lot of improvements. My first trip, in the summer of 2007 to do a large investigative report for New York's Gay City News was during the height of the Surge, the U.S. military effort to calm the insurgency. It looks like it worked. Baghdad in the summer of 2009 is much easier to get around. What were once unknowns, on the other side of barrier walls I was always warned not to cross, are wonderful, beautiful places. Baghdad looks like Los Angeles crossed with Havana and New Orleans. The increased safety has also meant that nightlife has returned to Baghdad, from bars and restaurants on Abu Nawaz Street along the Tigris, to even belly dancing hotspots.

For gay men however, this increase in nightlife has created a tale of two cities. On the one hand, safety during the night meant that gay men, one part of reemerging cosmopolitan society, were throwing parties and becoming visible again. Unfortunately, that visibility created a backlash. Groups like the Mahdi Army seized on the resurgence earlier this year, killing gay men from the Sadr City area, a poor, deeply religious neighborhood in the eastern side of the city.

I have interviewed a few men from the area, and they have told me about witnessing killings by members of the Mahdi Army, dressed in their famous black gear, strafing sidewalks with bullets in drive by shootings. Others told of midnight burnings of cafes popular with gay men. It's hard to hear these stories, even harder to watch some of the videos they've brought me of friends who have been killed.

Another man I met, whom I tried to meet two years ago, but could not because it was simply too dangerous, helps runs some of the safehouses that Ali Hili of Iraqi LGBT is involved in. He was old enough to have a good perspective on the Saddam reign, and looked at me dreamily when talking about life then. He doesn't want to leave Iraq though, telling me, "I am Iraqi, where else can I go. This is my home."

At the same time, life is different for some of the gay men I interviewed, who hang out in groups on Abu Nawaz or head to fashionable cafes. Even here though is some cognitive dissonance. One young man, a handsome bodybuilder, told me as I chatted with him and a group of friends, all as fashionable as men from West Hollywood or Chelsea, that "life is good for gays in Baghdad." But he lamented what happened to his effeminate friends, whom he called, "more like sissies," who risk their lives to be on the street. Some he said, had been forced to perform oral sex in the body search trailers with the guards meant to protect their neighborhoods. Other men he explained, wound up dead after being harassed at these checkpoints.

My visit comes after the release of the Human Rights Watch report on the gay killings in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq which have gone on since 2004, but peaked in the spring of this year. The horrible mutilations included anal gluing, a disgusting method of death where a heavy glue is forced into the anus and the victim is given laxatives so that his insides rip apart. Some men have survived this, but can't return to their families once it's known the method of torture used on them. I was able to go past Al Kindi hospital in northern Baghdad where some of the men went for help, and near which some of the bodies of those who didn't survive were dumped.

All this has to be put into perspective with the deaths that go on in Iraq on a daily basis, including the spectacular bombing of the Foreign Ministry on August 19th, the day I arrived into the city and which killed 100 people. And members of Baghdad's cosmopolitan society remain at risk, from women in the workforce, to musicians, to artists, to Christians and other religious minorities. Still, one official I spoke with at a foreign embassy who has dealt with a variety of persecuted Iraqis told me "it's the gruesomeness of the killings," that has prodded attention.

I leave Baghdad soon, this beautiful, dangerous and ancient capital, wondering what to make of this tale of two cities for the gay men I have met who must walk a precarious balance in this still war-torn place.