LGBTQ+ Afghans still terrified Taliban militants will murder them – and desperate to escape

An illustration in yellow showing an emotional Afghan man wearing a t-shirt. The image is illustrated in the design of a postcard, with a stamp in the top left hand corner in pink reading "PinkNews LGBTQ Refugees Welcome".

Life was already hard for LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan before the Taliban seized power – but nobody could have predicted how bad things would get.

Ever since the Taliban took control over Kabul in August 2021, reports have emerged of LGBTQ+ people being beaten, brutalised, raped and even murdered by the extremist group. Any kind of deviation from the norm is not accepted. Many have fled the country, but safety isn’t always easy to find.

Shah is just one of the many LGBTQ+ Afghans whose lives changed forever when the Taliban seized power. As a non-binary journalist and human rights activist, he knew he would become a target.

“We’re in a really bad situation,” he says. “It gets worse day by day.”

Shah’s story is just one that PinkNews is covering this holiday season as part of the LGBTQ+ Refugees Welcome campaign. 

Over the festive period, PinkNews is sharing stories of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and refugees from all across the world. Some have been able to build new lives for themselves, while others are still grappling with harsh asylum systems that are designed to keep refugees out.

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While many others have fled Afghanistan, Shah has stayed behind. 

Demonstrators in London protest outside the Home Office demanding a safe passage to the UK for refugees fleeing Afghanistan
Demonstrators in London protest outside the Home Office demanding safe passage to the UK for refugees fleeing Afghanistan. (Barcroft Media via Getty Images/Wiktor Szymanowicz)

The journalist has become an integral part of the country’s burgeoning LGBTQ+ rights movement – he’s one of the activists behind the Behesht Collective, a group that provides counselling and shelter to LGBTQ+ youth.

“After the fall of Afghanistan, the people cannot have their rights, especially the LGBTQ+ community,” he says. 

“Now it’s impossible for our community. There are more than 500,000 LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan and they are hiding from themselves because they will get murdered. There is too much violence and death.

“We at least hope that the 1,200 people in the Behesht Collective are evacuated. We could be recognised by the Taliban as human rights defenders because we fight for each other.”

Under Taliban rule, people like Shah can’t be themselves. They are forced to live their lives in secrecy.

“I am facing a lot of problems, I can’t be myself and be free, I can’t express my ideas, and I can’t attract others’ attention.”

Shah wants the world to know that LGBTQ+ Afghans are people too.

“They have the right to live, hoping for the day that no one’s rights will be lost.” 

Like so many other LGBTQ+ Afghans, Shah is waiting for the day he can get to safety. Many have fled the country in a desperate bid to get to western countries where LGBTQ+ people can more readily be themselves.

“I want to get out – even straight people can’t live here. The Taliban government interferes in your personal matters, they have an issue with every single thing that human beings do. 

“I want to leave the country and continue my activism outside of Afghanistan and fight for the people there.” 

He hopes to one day make it to Canada, where he says there is “more freedom” for people like him.

The problem is that western countries are slow to act. Many have adopted harsh asylum policies that make it almost impossible for people in need to seek refuge.

Double standards persist in the treatment of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers

Nemat Sadat is an Afghan LGBTQ+ rights activist who’s based in the United States. Since the fall of Kabul, he’s worked tirelessly to evacuate LGBTQ+ people from Afghanistan, and he’s also been instrumental in amplifying queer Afghan voices.

According to Sadat, western governments aren’t interested in helping LGBTQ+ Afghans – and there’s a worrying double standard at the core of the problem.

“There is one standard for the treatment of LGBT+ Ukrainians and another for LGBT+ Afghans,” he points out. “I believe that western governments just don’t care anymore about Afghanistan.”

It all comes down to racism, he says.

“Afghanistan matters. It is the epicentre of the Eurasian landmass. Unfortunately, the world, especially the west, has used Afghans as pawns, first to use in the fight against Soviet communism and then Islamic terrorism. But every time the west retreats, it abandons the Afghan people, who allied with the west. This obviously comes from a place of thinking that Afghans are inferior.”

As far as Sadat sees it, Ukrainians fleeing war have been treated with more compassion by western countries.

“It is appalling that in 2022 western democracies are still plagued by institutional racism. Afghans, especially LGBT+ Afghans, deserve to receive the same treatment as LGBT+ Ukrainians.” 

What’s more, he’s encountered outright hostility from some western governments – particularly the United States – when he’s asked them to help LGBTQ+ Afghans.

“The US State Department refuses to even acknowledge me let alone respond to my message. I feel like I’m going in circles with the UK government.”

He now feels like western governments wish he and his advocacy group Roshaniya never existed.

“I feel like I’m a thorn to them, they want to keep LGBT+ Afghans out of sight, out of mind, and I keep reminding them that they have turned their backs and abandoned a community that has a right to receive asylum protection and has been forgotten by the international community.” 

Sadat wants the world to know that LGBTQ+ Afghans have lives that are worth living and worth saving.

“This is why I’m so concerned about changing the narrative on LGBT+ Afghans so they are not just the helpless victims, but seen as powerful change agents, as human rights defenders, who are defying the odds to fight for their right to live and for everyone else in the community.” 

It’s because of those LGBTQ+ Afghans that Sadat isn’t willing to give up.

“I’m not operating as a lone vigilante as I was doing at the start of my humanitarian evacuation work when Kabul fell,” he says.

“I have the backing of over 100 active Roshaniya activists who are working with me at full speed and we are actively pursuing grants and pathways and I’ve empowered LGBT+ Afghans to help each other escape Afghanistan.”

A Taliban fighter stands guard near a damaged car after multiple rockets were fired in Kabul on August 30, 2021.
A Taliban fighter stands guard in Kabul. (AFP via Getty/WAKIL KOHSAR)

He adds: “Roshaniya’s goal is to safely evacuate and resettle the remaining 1001 LGBT+ Afghans and 20 LGBT+ peer advocates on our list before the second anniversary of the Taliban takeover. We are confident we can do it.” 

It’s because of LGBTQ+ Afghans like Shah that PinkNews launched the LGBTQ+ Refugees Welcome campaign. The initiative is raising funds for Micro Rainbow, a charity that provides safe housing for LGBTQ+ people seeking asylum, and for OutRight Action International’s LGBTIQ Ukraine Emergency Fund, which distributes money to activists on the ground in Ukraine.

PinkNews’ series puts a spotlight on the painful realities LGBTQ+ people across the world face that force them to leave their homes, from familial violence to anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

But that’s not all, the series also shows how a person’s life can change radically when they’re granted asylum. When they can get to safety, LGBTQ+ people have the chance to thrive.

PinkNews wants to show how living without the threat of violence or persecution can help queer people build beautiful, kaleidoscopic lives – but they can only do so if they’re given the proper support.

Please give what you can to the PinkNews LGBTQ Refugees Welcome campaign on GoFundMe. Through GiveOut, we will be directly donating to OutRight Action International’s LGBTIQ Ukraine Emergency Fund, helping the activists and organisations on the ground in Ukraine and surrounding countries to support the needs of LGBTQ+ people turning to them for life-saving help.

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