Being LGBT is currently criminalized in over 70 countries around the globe. Governments have become increasingly hostile towards the LGBT community, with many people facing arrest, torture and even death. The Middle East has been a particularly challenging region, with recent crackdowns in Egypt and Iran. As part of our ongoing #DecriminalizeLGBT campaign, we wanted to highlight the Spectra Project. We spoke with the Chairman of the board, Subhi Nahas.
Nahas also co-founded the first LGBTQ Syrian magazine, called Mawaleh. The magazine was used as a platform to raise awareness and educate both the LGBT and the Syrian communities. He co-founded a support group for LGBT refugees in Turkey and organized a weekly talk called “Tea and Talk”, where LGBT people could sit down and talk about their issues.
Nahas is a fearless activist working to improve lives of LGBT people around the world.
Could you briefly explain your experience coming to the United States
Coming to the United States was one the hardest/longest things to do. I had to register with the UNHCR and tell them every single detail about my life, several times. Then, they referred me to the U.S. representative in Turkey, who made me go through the same interview process and a final interview with a DHS officer. The process in total took about year until I was granted an I-94 visa.
Why did you create the Spectra Project and what is the goal of the organization?
After arriving in the U.S. I was surrounded by wonderful people that supported me every step of the way and accepted me for who I am. They taught me how to love and be myself, which is something I never thought could be possible where I came from. The Spectra Project was founded to give people like me, hope when it seems there is none, and to support their transition into safety. Also, I wanted the Spectra Project to create safe spaces where LGBTQ youth in the MENA region can go to if they ever face any discrimination and/or threats.
How have Americans reacted to you as a queer immigrant from the Middle East?
I think I am lucky because the people I have met so far are really knowledgeable and understand the situation I am coming from. However, sometimes, people tend to assume that all people from the MENA region are either religious or very different from them so they choose not to engage in conversation or shy away from me because it is an uncomfortable subject to discuss. Overall, I feel grateful for all the Americans in my life that made my on-going transition tolerable and worthwhile.
How can we help mobilize migrants and refugees around the world who work on the issue of LGBT Decriminalization?
I think awareness and shedding a light on LGBTQ people’s stories. Giving the community a platform to share their stories and have them translated into the spoken languages in the MENA region to reach the maximum audience. Additionally, starting a conversation with local activists to humanize the struggle, and eventually allow them to lead a campaign targeting their immigrant community.
How would you describe the experiences of LGBT people who live in the Middle East region? What are their biggest challenges?
I think that the MENA region is too large to be able to summarize the situation of each country. But I can tell you for sure that some of the main issues we all share are laws that make homosexuality illegal, lack of protection laws, traditions, and people using religion as an excuse to attack the LGBTQ community.
What are some specific actions people can take to support the efforts of LGBT activists around the issue of decriminalization?
Recognizing that the LGBTQ community is an international one and problems that are far away from us don’t necessarily mean that they won’t affect us. Also, applying a local lens to each country and work with local activists to address major issues. And not just take what’s been done in the U.S. and Europe and apply it blindly to the MENA or anywhere else.