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by Nandika Ravi

A participant has rainbow colors painted on the face during a queer pride walk in Gauhati, India, Sunday, April 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

2SLGBTQ+ communities across the world are celebrating the month of June, while many in Afghanistan are being prosecuted for the exact same reason.

According to a study,  Human Rights Watch Country Profiles: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity 2021, 2SLGBTQ+ Afghans continue to be persecuted, sexually assaulted, or directly threatened due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. With no end in sight, the Toronto-based charity Rainbow Railroad is pushing for a safe way out for these individuals.

Threats and Safety Concerns in Afghanistan

Data from Rainbow Railroad annual report 2020: The Global Persecution of the LGBTQI + people.

Kimahli Powell, executive director of the Rainbow Railroad project, has experienced how the Taliban takeover has impacted these communities.

“I’ve heard stories of raids happening in people’s homes, people being persecuted if they dress a certain way,” Powell said.

“Or they discovered that they had a same sex partner, the humiliation and physical assaults. It’s a really dangerous situation, especially for this community.”

Afghanistan was a dangerous place for the queer community even before the Taliban takeover. In 2018, President Ashraf Ghani passed a law that unambiguously criminalized same-sex sexual relations, making it a criminal offense.  However, when the Taliban regained control of the country in August 2021, the situation worsened.

A Taliban spokesperson told Reuters in October, “LGBT..That’s against our Sharia [Islamic] law.”

Devon Mathews, director of programs at Rainbow Railroad, has been working directly with these 2SLGBTQ+ individuals. She said they received 8451 requests for help in the past year, while in 2022 they anticipate the number to go over 10,000.

“In terms of Afghanistan, since August 15, 2021, when we marked the Taliban takeover, we’ve received 4,500 requests from Afghans, and that number is growing each day.”

“We were only able to provide assistance to 257 individuals at this stage.”

According to Rainbow Railroad’s 2020 annual report, 2SLGBTQ+ individuals around the world declared that their top two safety concerns were family based rejection and life-threatening physical violence.

Data shows safety concerns/threats Rainbow Railroad annual report 2020: The Global Persecution of the LGBTQI + people.

We’re seeing reports of these acts of violence that have been encouraged by the members of the Taliban or by leaders of political or military movement within the country,” Mathews said.

“We’re seeing people being locked in family homes or in locations where they can’t access basic support or medical care. And incidents of violent attacks, public shaming as well as threats and sexual violence as well.”

The only way out for the Afghan 2SLGBTQ+ community is resettlement. Organizations like Rainbow Railroad say that these individuals face unique barriers to relocation. Gender-nonconforming individuals said they were afraid to go get a passport issued, or even pass through routine checkpoints on public roads for fear of being spotted by Taliban officials.

The Taliban prohibits women from traveling without male relatives, so lesbians and bisexual women cannot escape on their own. Many 2SLGBTQ+Afghans have had to give into social expectations and marry a different-sex partner, have children, and end up stuck in these relationships

Safe Way Out

Back in August 2021, when the Canadian government made an announcement that they would evacuate and resettle 2SLGBTQ+ individuals on humanitarian grounds, Powell felt like the “floodgates have opened.”

“Not just from individuals, but from international humanitarian groups, international government groups, looking at us saying, ‘Rainbow Railroad focuses on 2SLGBTQ+ persons and we’re from Canada. So, there was a sort of direct assumption that the Government of Canada would work with us. And that’s all we’re trying to do,” Powell said.

There are multiple facets of how the organization brings refugees to safety. They provide unique thinking pathways, solidarity to help people in their movement process either to one of the neighboring countries where the group can help safeguard them, or ultimately options to resettle them to international countries where they can find permanent and safe futures.

“It’s difficult because, oftentimes what we have to do is move them into a neighboring country such as Iran, Pakistan, the UAE,” Mathews said.

“The problem with these countries is that they’re also not super hospitable for LGBTQI+ individuals,” she added.

Rainbow Railroad has started a petition calling on the Federal government to provide a ‘Safe Way Out’ to those persecuted in Afghanistan.

“This is why the petition is so important, we’ve already done the work of identifying, verifying and vetting of these 300 people and if the government of Canada would partner with us, we can provide safety to those people,” Powell said.