The plight of Iraq's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning or queer (LGBTQ) community returned to the spotlight last week when Kurdish security forces in Sulaymaniyah reportedly arrested several gay men. The government denied targeting the group, saying its operation was rather to crack down on prostitution.
Members of the community told VOA the arrests of at least eight gay men on April 1 instilled fear among them, particularly after security forces reportedly attempted to force the men to undergo physical examinations.
"I don't feel like I'm part of the Kurdish society," said Zhyar Ali, an activist member of the community.
"There is so much discrimination against the LGBTQ community in Kurdistan. You don't feel there is room for you. It has unfortunately reached a level that most of the LGBTQ members are leaving the country."
Ali lives in Sulaymaniyah, a northern city under the control of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. But in this city officially nicknamed "the cultural capital of Kurdistan," there are still overt signs of discrimination.
Before the government said the raid targeted prostitution, Kurdish local media had quoted the operation supervisor Pshtiwan Bahadin as saying the raid was against "immorality" and targeted some LGBTQ suspects.
On April 3, the U.S. consulate general in Erbil in a tweet said it was watching the event in the Kurdish city "with concern."
LGBTQ community members report widespread discrimination throughout the Middle East. During its draconian rule in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State terror group published videos showing its members killing gay men by throwing them off building rooftops.
In Iraq, the LGBTQ community continues to face threats nationwide, according to the U.S. State Department's annual Human Rights Report, which came out last week. The report accused the Iraqi government of failing "to identify, arrest, or prosecute attackers or to protect targeted individuals."
Last year, a young gay man was killed in Baghdad's Sadr City. Iraq's Foreign Ministry condemned the EU mission for offending what it called the country's "norms and values" when the foreign mission hoisted the rainbow flag, a symbol of LGBTQ pride, in the Iraqi capital.
Experts say a legal loophole is at the heart of the problem facing Iraq's LGBTQ community.
"Neither the Iraqi law nor the [Kurdistan] Region's amendments have offered any definition for the LGBTQ community," said Asrin Jamal, an Iraqi human rights lawyer.
Meantime, life for Ali in the mountainous northern city remains a daily struggle.
"Every day when I step outside my home," he said, "I fear that this might be the last day of my life."