On May 4th, 2022, Sultan Popal*, a 32-year-old gay Afghan man became a victim of a string of violent attacks against the country’s LGBTQ+ community. He was taken to a guest house by the Taliban where he was beaten and raped until the early hours of the morning. When he managed to escape, he called his friend, another gay man, who urged him to come to his house in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
For the next two months, Popal stayed hidden at his friend’s home, where he had to take strict measures so that he couldn’t be traced by the Taliban.
“I changed my [phone] number, my WhatsApp number, I changed my Facebook profile,” Popal told LGBTQ Nation. “And several times, I changed my location, often to my aunt’s home, my uncle’s home, my cousin’s home, my sister’s home…every week I changed my locations.”
Popal’s situation isn’t an isolated case in today’s Afghanistan.
According to a 2022 report by Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International. LGBTQ+ Afghans have faced an “increasingly desperate situation” and grave threats to their safety and lives since the Taliban takeover on August 15, 2021. After almost two years, life for LGBTQ+ people in the country continues to deteriorate.
Nemat Sadat, a gay Afghan-American activist and executive director of an organization that helps relocate LGBTQ+ Afghans, spoke with LGBTQ Nation about the monetary help his organization, Roshaniya, extended to Bilal, a gay man who was beaten with power cables and electrocuted by the Taliban at a safe house in October 2021.
“They hit him with these paddles, so his entire buttocks, the skin just all came off, and all you could see was flesh. After being stuck in the house for 20 days, he somehow snuck out of the house through a window and then contacted different organizations, pleaded for help but nobody did anything, nobody responded to him. We immediately sent money for him, $300. $100 for food, $100 to get him a passport, $100 for him to get a visa for Pakistan.”
The community suffers today under Taliban rule, but that is not the only battle they have to fight. In their homes, they face further danger from their own families.
“When the Taliban come to people’s homes, they ask them to hand over [their] LGBT people,” Sadat explained, “and so a lot of families, out of fear, especially in very conservative, rural areas, will go ahead and murder their sons or their daughters or transgender child out of worry that if the Taliban catches them then they would all be complicit in protecting this LGBT child.”
Saeed Behesht*, a 26-year-old gay man, spoke to LGBTQ Nation and reminisced about his friend, Lama, who was pressured by her family to marry once they discovered homosexual content on her phone. Upon her refusal, her brothers murdered her.
A powerful protest to wake up the world
On February 1st 2023, around a dozen people from Behesht Collective, an LGBTQ+ rights group in Afghanistan, assembled at a private residence to bring the world’s attention to the risk the community faces under the Taliban and to hold an online protest of the silence from the United States regarding the community’s plight.
Sadat is disappointed by the lack of effort made by the US to protect the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan. According to him, “the United States is most at fault for the predicament of LGBT in Afghanistan.” He emphasized that the community was left to suffer at the hands of the Taliban after the US withdrawal with no value given to their safety or amnesty.
“[The United States] had so much influence over the Afghan Government that they could have pressured the Afghan government to recognize the rights [of LGBTQ+ people]. And then, once they did a peace deal with the Taliban, they didn’t even consider amnesty for the LGBT people…they basically handed over the whole country to the Taliban. So, LGBT people had to go into hiding and have been [tortured] and suffering since then.”
Currently, Sadat spends his days figuring out which countries would welcome Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ community. His GoFundMe has raised more than $38,000 to evacuate more than 800 people and rebuild their lives in a neighboring country.
“Most of the money has been spent to provide evacuation support, to get the documents that they need for leaving the country or humanitarian relief,” he explained.
The struggle continues even after relocation
After the protest in February, Saeed and Popal knew that staying behind in Afghanistan was no longer an option. Along with a few other members of the Behesht Collective, they managed to move to Iran on a three-month visa. But Saeed still does not feel safe.
“Iran is an Islamic country and dangerous for the LGBT community,” he says. “We are always staying at home; sometimes, our friends shop for food. Many of us have depression. We are crying because we don’t have any future [here].”
LGBTQ Nation spoke with Popal and Saeed over video call on April 17th. Popal switched on his video camera to show the two-bedroom apartment in Tehran that they share with seven other people, all members of the Behesht Collective. The space is crammed, with the main lounge and corridors used as sleeping spaces. Mattresses are strewn across the congested areas.
“We have too many problems [here] because it’s not normal,” Saeed says.
This group of seven people has survived the past few months in Tehran due to the funds provided by Behesht Collective. Although many have searched for employment in the new country, they are met with an unwelcoming attitude from employers who do not prefer to hire Afghans.
“I sent my CV to a restaurant in Tehran, and they called me for an interview. When I went to the restaurant, the director of the restaurant told me that you are Afghan and we cannot hire you in this position,” Popal said.
Even if they manage to get work, most of them are underpaid, subjected to poor working conditions and even sexually exploited.
Noor, a transgender person and member of the Behesht Collective, left Afghanistan in late 2022 to settle in Tehran and eventually began working at a carpentry workshop. Now, he works for 14 hours a day and earns four million tomans a month, amounting to roughly $75. At night, he sleeps at the workshop due to a lack of finances. “I have nowhere to go and I have to stay here. I don’t have a proper place to sleep. I don’t even have a proper blanket or mattress,” he told LGBTQ Nation.
The owner of the workshop used to beat him, but now, sexual exploitation has become a normal occurrence. “Since he found out that I am trans and I have nowhere to go and I have to sleep in the carpentry workshop at night, he has raped me more than 15 times,” Noor said. “I tried to commit suicide several times, but I haven’t succeeded.”
Sadat agrees that working in Iran for the community is equitable to being “an indentured servant there for the foreseeable future.”
“They will hire you to work in a cement factory or as a construction worker and really the most menial, the most difficult jobs. They will give you food and a place to stay but ask you to stay here like a hostage and pay you $100/month.”
A bleak future
“We don’t want to go back to Afghanistan,” Saeed says, determined to stay away. But the challenge is far from over yet. Visas for Iran expire after three months. Saeed and Popal remain clueless about their future.
Relocation for the LGBTQ+ community, especially to Afghanistan’s neighboring countries is a temporary relief, but it can never be a permanent solution.
“[In Iran], you have to keep renewing your visa,” Sadat explained. “If your visa time runs out, you are illegal and you can be deported back. There is also a refugee loophole as Pakistan, Iran, and even Turkey do not register Afghan Refugees. Sadat is currently considering Rwanda for the community’s relocation and long-term settlement.
“In Rwanda, they have a real UNHCR system where we can register people and they get a refugee card. There’s a pathway to expedite that into a refugee asylum case or they can even register at other organizations like the Red Cross.”
Sadat does not feel hopeful for the rights of LGBTQ+ Afghans while the Taliban are still in charge. “I think when the Taliban are in power, it is not going to get better, only going to deteriorate…in the last one and half years, the situation has dramatically worsened. There has been an escalation of violence.”
The community’s demand in Afghanistan is simple: to live a life of dignity, free from the oppression they are subjected to on a daily basis.
“We staged a powerful protest claiming the right to live; that’s it,” Sadat said. “We just want to live, have the chance to even breathe without being suffocated by the Taliban.”
* Signifies name has been changed for protection
Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. If you need to talk to someone now, call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. It’s staffed by trans people, for trans people. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.