Words by Lara Bellone d’Altavilla1
Illustrations by: 
Aude Nasr 

When most Syrian LGBTQ persons flee to Turkey, they don’t do so seeking safety for their sexual orientation. Rather, they flee seeking safety from the conflict and violence that has endured in Syria for over 10 years. The ongoing conflict has left 2.8 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in northwest Syria, with the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) having access to the area to provide humanitarian aid through cross-border mechanisms. Northwest Syria lies under the control of non-state armed groups in the northern Aleppo governorate and extremist armed group, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), in the Idlib region. HTS aligns itself with the Syrian Salvation Government which is an alternative government of the Syrian opposition in the Idlib governorate. The Turkish government has forces there that influence the governance system in the area and maintain the ceasefire agreement. 

IDPs live in fear not only of violence from war but also from living under HTS, which uses religion to make a profit and recruits children to their forces. This leaves little room for anyone to feel safe, let alone LGBTQ persons. Even when relocating to Turkey, it is often still unsafe for Syrian LGBTQ people to be open about their sexuality because they will encounter others from their native villages and cities. And, Syrian refugees are not welcomed into their newly resettled communities in Turkish society; the Turkish government and its opposition use refugees to serve their respective political agendas in elections, making it more difficult for LGBTQ persons to feel secure. Most Syrian LGBTQ people live “double lives” for fear of being “outed”, and many are forced into heterosexual relationships that result in unhappy marriages. However, this was not the case for Locked.

Locked is an LGBTQ advocate and humanitarian worker who is originally from northwest Syria but resettled in Gaziantep, Turkey in 2020. Due to the number of threats he received for being openly gay, fleeing Syria was a matter of life or death.  He wanted to stay in Syria to continue his human rights work with civil societies, explaining, “I would have loved to stay in my country. My mother always asked why I wanted to stay, but it was because I could not leave my community. When you are advocating for human rights, you are more dedicated when you are close to the community. I fought hard to stay.”

But his work in human rights caught the attention of HTS. In 2016 and 2018, HTS kidnapped and tortured him for being homosexual and for his work in human rights. Locked said that when a gay person is discovered in Syria, they are usually killed, but that HTS decided not to kill him because they lacked solid evidence that he committed a crime. Instead, they beat him to the point where he was sent to the hospital’s intensive care unit. “I was treated for serious fractures and bruises, including to my face. The pain was unbearable and I did not know if I would survive.” Kidnapping and torture were not the only sufferings he endured in Syria; he faced constant harassment, security pursuits, calls for investigation, and surveillance. Locked ended up leaving Syria after a friend informed him that HTS wanted to kill him. “I ran. I ran in the middle of the night to save my life and had to cross illegally into Turkey.”

Illustrations by: Aude Nasr

Locked felt safer as an LGBTQ person after fleeing Syria and relocating to Gaziantep in southern Turkey, in part because of its secular constitution. He explained that although Syria also has a secular constitution, the human rights principles it outlines are not upheld by the government or within society. Additionally, Turkey does not have extremist groups like HTS inflicting violence. He clarified, “This is not to say that violence against LGBTQ persons in Turkey does not exist; it is just that in Syria they are more likely to be killed.”

One example of what makes Turkey safer for LGBTQ persons is how extremist groups incite fear through gay dating applications. Apps that are in Turkey are less used in Syria because it is known that extremists use these platforms to catch LGBTQ persons and blackmail them. Locked fell victim to this: “Someone threatened to share one of my photos unless I paid them. So, I decided to publish the photo myself. I received heavy backlash, but I refused to be backed into a corner for being myself.” Confronting blackmail in such a way is not an option for many because coming out as gay can be a death sentence; most are forced to pay off extremists.

Even after moving to Gaziantep, Locked found that there was still no space to be gay because of the compounded trauma related to the war, his sexual identity, and a lack of support and protection for LGBTQ refugees. Gaziantep is home to nearly half a million Syrians (mostly from Aleppo and Idlib) and hosts a number of international and local Syrian NGOs working on cross-border aid into northwest Syria. However, there are no LGBTQ-specific organizations working towards the protection and rights of the community. He discovered that, when it comes to seeking help in Gaziantep, NGOs meant to provide support are useless. International NGOs in Gaziantep do provide support services for Syrian LGBTQ persons prove insufficient, focusing mostly on trauma therapy and financial aid. These shortcomings appear in resettlement applications for at-risk Syrian LGBTQ persons, many of whom must wait years to receive a response. Despite the continuous threats to his life, which he has reported to numerous NGOs in Gaziantep, Locked is still in the resettlement process. He contacted a well-known international NGO via their WhatsApp helpline, but they never responded. Locked, who works in the humanitarian sector, believes these organizations include Syrian LGBTQ persons as a target demographic in their programs to showcase to their donors, but that in reality, they offer little psychological and financial support to them.

As for the Syrian NGOs working in Gaziantep, they show no interest in helping the Syrian LGBTQ community. Locked found that these organizations’ are homophobic despite having inclusive Codes of Conduct upholding human rights principles to showcase to their donors. In fact, Locked was fired from his position with a local NGO for being gay. He said that what NGOs working in Gaziantep really need to provide real support for LGBTQ populations is to be more inclusive, suggesting for donors to implement staff quotas for women and LGBTQ persons or withhold their funding from them.

And on a national level, Turkey’s March 2021 decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention demonstrates the government’s lack of interest in providing protections for women and the LGBTQ community. The Istanbul Convention’s main objective is to combat violence against all women — no matter their sexuality, gender orientation, or migration status — and provide protection services that respond to survivors of violence. Turkey was the first country to sign the Istanbul Convention in 2011, followed by more than 40 European states, and the first to withdraw because it allegedly ‘normalized homosexuality,’ which is ‘incompatible with Turkey’s social and familial values.’ 

Not surprised by Turkey’s withdrawal, Locked said that,“The Istanbul Convention served Turkey as a marketing tool showing that they valued democratic principles and human rights to the European Union. But in recent years, Turkey has lost interest in joining the European Union so the government decided to leave at the expense of women.” Nonetheless, he explained that despite Turkey’s half-hearted efforts to uphold the principles of the Istanbul Convention as a signatory and limited efficacy (femicide rates have continued to increase in recent years), it had a purpose: “The Istanbul Convention was not enough to stop violence against women or LGBTQ persons, but it was at least something. It was showing that there was an interest in holding perpetrators accountable for violence against women, including LGBTQ women. Now, it has become a way to discriminate against gender equality and LGBTQ rights.”

Even still, Locked has already noticed a shift in treatment towards LGBTQ persons after the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. “Initially, when I came to Turkey last year, there was a mistake with my national protection card. I identified that I was a part of the LGBTQ community while fixing it, and this actually helped the process because of the principles of the Istanbul Convention. But now, having identified as LGBTQ could hurt me in the future.” Syrian LGBTQ persons in Turkey are directly affected by the withdrawal [from the Istambul Convention], further heightening the difficult circumstances they already face.

Illustrations by: Aude Nasr

Each Syrian’s story of displacement is different and entails different kinds of suffering.  But the stories of many Syrian LGBTQ persons remain unheard. Their lives are under constant threat despite having sought refuge.  Like other Syrian LGBTQ persons who have migrated, Locked thought that perhaps he could be his true self and receive protection services in Turkey but found nothing because of NGOs’ lack of efforts and Turkey’s shifting political actions. 

Locked shared, “Many cannot understand the constant struggle of wanting to say, I am here and I deserve to live. The hardest feeling in the world is being scared that you’ll be killed for speaking your truth.” But despite the constant oppression and fear that Syrian LGBTQ people are living under, and their inability to participate in advocacy due to concerns over visibility and safety, Locked takes comfort in knowing that there are many straight supporters for LGBTQ people. “Knowing that there are people in this world that care about our community motivates me to continue advocating for our rights.” Syrian LGBTQ individuals are forced to deal with the trauma of war and displacement, but also with the fear of being discovered in Turkey in what is already a mentally draining resettlement process. More organizations must focus on providing specific services and protections to Syrian LGBTQ persons so that they can finally speak their truth, rather than remaining locking it within themselves.

  1.  *Freelance writer covering social justice issues and politics surrounding the Middle East