LGBTQ people in Afghanistan are holding out hope they’ll be able to flee the country, and bracing for the possibility that it might be too late

·3-min read
A person holds a rainbow flag and wears a shirt that says, "We stand with the LGBTQs in Afghanistan."
Members of the Turkish LGBT+ community hold rainbow flags during a solidarity protest action to support Afghan women in Ankara on August 25, 2021. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images
  • Rainbow Railroad is a Canadian organization that helps rescue LGBTQ refugees.

  • The group helped more than 70 people flee an anti-gay crackdown in Chechnya, which is part Russia.

  • The US State Department has declined to say if it has a plan to evacuate LGBTQ Afghans.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Life was already precarious before the Taliban took over. Gay men and women were subject to arrest from security forces, the erstwhile allies of Washington, and many who did not conform to traditional gender roles faced harassment and discrimination just going about their daily lives.

But bad situations can become much worse. For LGBTQ people in Afghanistan, precarity has given way to despair.

"The Taliban said, 'If we find the gays or adulterers, we will kill them,'" Aarash, a gay man in a city taken over by the group in early August, told Insider (their real name is being withheld for their safety).

Currently sheltering in place with their family, they are afraid to leave their home and unsure where to go next. The airport in Kabul is hardly a reliable option for those standing right outside its gates, or for the majority of people who live hundreds of miles away - even before the August 26 terrorist attack that killed more than 170 Afghans, and 13 US troops. Many of Afghanistan's neighbors have shut their borders to refugees; even if they had not, none would be a particularly hospitable place for someone in a same-sex relationship.

"It's already a dangerous situation, and you factor on top of that persecution based on being a member of the LGBTQI community," Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian nonprofit, told Insider. Powell's group was previously working to evacuate 50 people from Afghanistan; after the fall of Kabul, that number ballooned to more than 200.

"LGBTQI people are reaching out to us who are feeling pretty desperate for help - and desperate to escape," he said.

Those seeking assistance can request help on Rainbow Railroad's website. From there, they are assigned a case number and asked for additional information, such as their ability to access the airport in Kabul. For security reasons, Powell said, the group cannot divulge what avenues for evacuation it is seeking for those who can't come to the Afghan capital.

"Our job is to work every possible angle to advocate for this population - and in addition to advocacy, we're the ones who are actually, logistically, working with governments to possibly get them out," he said.

Why, specifically, LGBTQ refugees? Because, Powell said, even those governments that pride themselves as bastions of tolerance have failed to address the particular needs - and security concerns - of this demographic.

Indeed, asked by Reuters if it had any plan to evacuate LGBTQ people from Afghanistan, the US State Department declined to comment. The department did not respond to a request from Insider.

For many Afghans, time is running out. The Taliban have attempted to show a more moderate ideology, relative to their rule in the late 1990s, but many suspect that has less to do with a change in heart than it does a desire for international legitimacy.

Aarash said he hopes the outside world understands that people like him are expecting death.

"Everyone's life, especially LGBTQ people, is in danger," he said. Like the thousands of people trying to flee the only country they have ever known, he is still waiting to hear back from the governments and aid organizations he's asked for assistance on what, if anything, he can do next.

"I don't know that I will [be able to] rescue my life and my family's lives or not," he said.

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