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Horror and Homophobia in Iraq

The torture photos from Iraq show, among other things, the deep-seated homophobia in the U.S. military.
 
 
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The claim by some members of the gay and lesbian community that the invasion and occupation of Iraq is not a “gay” issue crumbled last week when photos emerged of hooded, naked Iraqi captives at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad being forced to simulate gay sex acts as a form of abuse and humiliation.

As a gay man and as a person of Arab descent, I felt a double sting from those pictures.

Looking at the blurred-out photos of hooded Iraqi prisoners being forced to perform simulations of gay oral sex on one another, I had to wonder what it was that my fellow Americans in uniform who were directing the scene found the most despicable: the fact that the men were performing gay sex, or that they were Arabs.

No one can doubt that the gay-sex photos of abuse display the deeply-seated homophobia that remains pervasive and unchecked in the United States military.

But this is not where the gay angle ends to the story of abuse, humiliation, and torture in the prisons there, or indeed of our very involvement in Iraq. There are broader issues to the debacle of Iraq that we as gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are particularly situated to tackle because of our own history of being maligned and misrepresented by government propaganda and lies.

Part of our legacy as gay and lesbian people must be to learn from our own history, and to be able to apply those lessons to other situations as we seek clearer pictures of truth in troubled times.

Now more than ever we need to muster our sense of skepticism and cut through government manipulation to figure out what peril our country is in in Iraq, and how we might help put it on a better track.

As a shocked world now knows, the “gay sex” pictures were among numerous disturbing photos depicting Iraqi prisoners in various deplorable conditions: In some cases, naked Iraqis were shown shackled together and piled on top of one another in a human heap. Behind the mound of stripped humanity, American soldiers stood with evil smiles on their faces, giving the camera a thumbs up.

One photo shows a dead and bruised Iraqi in an open body bag filled with ice.

In another, a man in a black pointed hood stands on a box or crate. Wires are attached to the tips of his fingers and other parts of his body, and he stands with his arms spread to either side, execution style.

And in others, American soldiers are shown dragging naked prisoners around on the ground on collars and leashes, as if they were dogs.

Since the leaked photos were made public, reports have also surfaced that captives were not just humiliated, but were likely tortured, both psychologically and physically. According to a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, abuse at 10 detention facilities in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, was widespread. Part of the abuse was psychological, and included keeping detainees naked in small concrete cells without food or sleep. Other abuse documented by the Red Cross included physical mistreatment that lead to prisoners sustaining burns, bruises and other bodily injuries.

The Red Cross report documents conditions at prisons in Iraq between March to November 2003—long before the disgraceful photos came to the public’s attention in early May 2004.

Press reports are also now confirming that some Iraqis have died while in the hands of military interrogators, though the details of what happened to just how many prisoners remains shrouded in secrecy. When the particulars do emerge, the picture is likely to get even grimmer.

President Bush has condemned the photos and given a mild chastising to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. At least six guards at the prison are being court martialed.

But Bush and Rumsfeld want us to believe that what we are seeing in those photographs are isolated incidents carried out by a few unruly soldiers. That explanation lacks credibility.

As gay and lesbian people, we know that when one of our own gets bashed, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens within an atmosphere that tolerates violence towards us because of who we are. The same thing is happening in prisons in Iraq.

The Red Cross report describes the methods of cruelty and torture it documented as a systemic pattern of abuse used to extract information from detainees. And in a May 9 investigative feature in the New York Times, soldiers reported that the now-infamous photos were taken with the intent of scaring and intimidating other prisoners into making confessions or “cooperating” in other ways with authorities.

Some in the military have tried to defend, or at least minimize, these actions by saying that the prisoners were suspected “terrorists” and “insurgents.”

But we also need to ask difficult questions about who is being detained in Iraq, and why. Human rights groups estimate somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000 Iraqi men, between the ages of 15 and 81, have been imprisoned since the invasion. Are we really to believe that there are 20,000 “terrorists” in Iraq—and that the United States army was clever enough to capture that many of them?

Calling the masses of Iraqis “terrorists” is as absurd as saying most gay men are pedophiles. It is nothing more than propaganda that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Indeed, the Red Cross report estimates that 90 percent of Iraqis detained in American-controlled prisons there were arrested “by mistake.” It seems painfully clear that thousands of Iraqi men are probably being rounded up in general sweeps and being illegally held for no good reason at all.

Our government told us we were invading Iraq to rid it of weapons of mass destruction. Those arms have never been found.

Since we invaded Iraq, nearly 800 American soldiers have died. An estimated 15,000 Iraqis have been killed.

Now we see stomach-turning photos of American-led abuse, and we are supposed to believe that it isn’t government policy, but the work of a few miscreants.

Isn’t it time we demanded some plausible answers—and some real policy revisions—on what is going on in Iraq?