It is always interesting to know how a foreigner who fights for liberty and independence views the life of the Iraqi community and the changes that are happening. This time, I interviewed Dr.Lynn Rose who is the Deputy Director of the Center for Gender and Development Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani and a professor in the Social Sciences department. She has been living in Sulaimani for five years and previously lived in multiple cities in the Middle East, Europe, and Mexico. Below, she describe the situation in Iraq, specifically the situation of the LGBT+ community and the lack of support they have been facing for long years.
How long have you been fighting for the rights of the LGBT+ community?
I have been an activist for human rights, including the rights of LGBT+ people, for decades. My activism isn’t the kind that takes me to the streets, though I participated in marches and demonstrations in my younger days. Now, my activism is incorporated in my academic and scholarly work.
What kind of help do you provide for the LGBT+ community as a member of CGDS?
Although CGDS is not an NGO offering services, we support LGBT+ people in several ways. In our workshops, we always present sexuality, along with gender, as a continuum and a range, in which heterosexuality and homosexuality are merely two ends of the continuum, not the only options. Of the short films that we made as part of our EU-funded projects, one, “The Gender Spectrum,” has to do explicitly with gender identity. One of our podcasts for the same project is an interview with a psychologist, demythologizing transgender people. We also work to translate academic material in gender studies, some of which includes discussion of LGBT+ people.
What do most LGBT+ individuals ask CGDS to provide them with?
We don’t get LGBT individuals asking us for anything, since we do not offer services. So the requests we get involve, for example, other organizations or individuals asking us where to refer LGBT+ people. We direct them to organizations that provide services and support.
What do you witness to be the hardest challenge that faces the Iraqi LGBT+ community?
Witnessing pervasive homophobia is very difficult. A lot of LGBT+ individuals face fear of family rejection, which is not just an emotional discomfort, but has social and economic consequences and even life-and-death consequences. In my very limited experience here in Sulaimani, I have come across only a small handful of people who accept their sexuality to the point of being “out.” The rest are worried about bringing shame on their families or again being rejected by them.
Who do you notice to be more violated, queer women or queer men? And why do you think it’s like that?
I really can’t speak to this, because of my place as a foreigner, but I suppose that it is the same situation as it is the world over: lesbians are seen as not really serious, or even as entertainment for the male gaze, thus they are not perceived as much of a threat, for better or worse. Males, as the upholders of patriarchy, are seen to be more threatening when they flout the heterosexual foundation of patriarchy.
Where do you think things are heading regarding LGBT+ rights in Iraq? Is society becoming more supportive?
As a foreigner who is starting their fifth year in Sulaimani, I think that maybe there are positive changes, but it might be only that I am observing things in more detail than I did when I first arrived. I do not have the long-term perspective of someone who has lived here for years.
Do you think it could get worse?
Whether or not things have improved, yes, it could get worse—here and in any part of the world. Whenever there is progress, there is backlash. Moving two steps forward, takes us one step back, but sometimes moving one step forward can take us two (or more) steps back.
What kind of change should be made to make the Iraqi society more supportive?
Perhaps it is my bias, as an educator, but I do firmly believe that education is the most powerful tool. Education can take many forms—it doesn’t have to be classroom education, though that is an important component. One of the most important educational experiences is to hang out with people we fear or loathe. What we usually find is that we are all multidimensional humans.
What’s the best part about your job?
We do the very slow work of trying to change the attitudinal atmosphere through education so that one day individuals might not have such a hard time. The best part of my job, then, is seeing that maybe we have brought about even a small attitudinal change in even one person who would otherwise be totally homophobic. Big structural change happens slowly, and as I mentioned before, often in a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of way.