Maybe Subhi Nahas was always meant to wind up in San Francisco. What better city for a young, gay activist with a penchant for new technology to put down roots, claim a sense of history and purpose and find a like-minded community of friends and supporters? But Nahas is here by lucky accident of paperwork. San Francisco was the city he happened to be assigned to when his refugee resettlement package came through after years of persecution in the Middle East.
Unlike many Syrian refugees, Nahas doesn’t have a neatly spliced before and after based on the civil war in his country. For him, persecution was a part of daily life well before militias began carving up territory and tearing apart communities.
“As a gay person, I knew that I was in direct threat because of my sexuality,” Nahas says.
Nahas grew up a confused child who wanted desperately to fit in but never could. His classmates and family teased him for the way he walked, dressed, wore his hair and especially the way he talked. When the internet was finally allowed in Syria, he started learning about himself, and recognizing he wasn’t alone.
But no amount of awareness could change the way Nahas’s own family treated him. As the oldest son, he had a responsibility to represent the family. And to them, his effeminate nature was an unacceptable public face to put forward. After a therapist “outed” him to his parents when he was 15 years old, his parents monitored all his phone calls, outlawed unsupervised time with friends and verbally and physically abused him for years. Even his mother seemed to think Nahas deserved the violence his father dished out.
“If your dad doesn’t beat you up, who will?” she used to admonish her son.
Homosexuality has long been criminalized in Syria, with young people perceived to be gay the victims of bullying at school and ostracism and violence by their families. But once the war began their treatment became markedly worse; multiple armed groups routinely targeted gay people for arrest, threatened them with violence and abuse and even stoned them to death and threw them off tall buildings into complacent crowds.
“There was no law and nobody I could go to if anything happened,” Nahas explains.
He even feared his own family might use violence against him. And one night, they did. An argument with his father ended with his father slamming Nahas’s face into the countertop. He still bears the physical and emotional scars of that night.
Nahas felt imprisoned. His family did not accept him but there was no community to which he could escape or seek shelter. “I could not escape my family, I could not escape the war, and I decided I had to leave,” he says.
From then on, Nahas began relying on kindnesses and connections, arranging for a place to stay with friends over the border in Lebanon and hoping to find work. He wanted a sustained source of income, a place to stay and form a community, and a new family and life. But as the refugee crisis grew more and more urgent and legal work was not permitted, it was almost impossible to find a job. After six months, he flew to Turkey, where refugees may work as guests. He found people to stay with and a job at a magazine, then with international NGO Save the Children.
Then the real threats started.
The first was from an old schoolmate who had joined ISIS. Through a mutual friend, he told Nahas that he knew about his sexuality and his work in LGBT rights, and planned to tell his supervisors. He said they would find a way to kill him.
Nahas knew he was being targeted for his sexual orientation, but he had no idea it could be grounds for receiving refugee status. When he told his colleagues at Save the Children what was going on, they helped him write up his case and start the process of seeking asylum.
He didn’t care where he ended up. He just wanted out.
“I was happy with the first result that came in,” Nahas says.
He only knew about American culture from music and movies, but when he arrived in San Francisco, Nahas found inspiration in the work of Harvey Milk and other early gay rights activists who had transformed San Francisco into an open, accepting and proud space.
But he also found a disappointing xenophobia that detracted from the sense of welcome he’d hoped would finally embrace him. Most people who asked where he was from ended the conversation once he responded, “Syria.” Most assumed he was Muslim, or a certain kind of person based on their preconceived notions of Middle Easterners.
“People have assumptions or stereotypes based on what they say in the news,” Nahas says. “It’s a bit hurtful. It was also fatiguing to keep attempting to explain the diversity of his region. Nahas grew frustrated in his attempts to build community here.
“I’m not as actively seeking connection with people as much as I expected to,” he says. “It’s limited my options in reaching out to people and making new connections and building a community and a family.”
But despite the challenges of overcoming assumptions and navigating new social networks, Nahas remains committed to his cause: making the world a safer and more accepting place for members of the LGBT community, and especially for gay refugees.
He continues to advocate for them, in part through a nonprofit he founded called Spectra Project. The organization helps with emergency support like shelter and food, as well as resources including legal assistance, health and sex education, and language and vocational training.
Nahas wants the world to realize that the stories of LGBT refugees are too often untold, unnoticed or hidden. “There’s not enough coverage of what’s going on,” he says simply, thinking of friends whose deaths have been covered up by police and blamed on how they looked or dressed.
Nahas’s work has come to the attention of international leaders, who invited him to speak about LGBT refugee issues before the United Nations Security Council. He accepted, and was the first openly gay man to do so.
It had taken Nahas years to accept that as a gay man there was nothing wrong with him. He had literally kept silent sometimes in Syria for fear his voice would give his sexual orientation away. So speaking up in such a public forum, and letting his voice be heard, was a terrifying and liberating step.
Similar feelings churned within Nahas when he was asked to serve as Grand Marshall for New York City’s 2016 pride parade.
“I ended up saying yes because it would not just send a message to myself that it’s okay to be who you are, it would send a message to a lot of people, especially gay youth still stuck in Syria, gay youth who became refugees because their families felt ashamed of them or (wanted) to kill them because they’re gay,” he told Suka Kalantari of the West of Middle East podcast series. “I thought that if they see this it’s like a message of hope that one day they’ll be celebrated and loved for who they are.”
That message has not yet reached Nahas’s family. Three of his sisters refused to speak to him after he led the parade. And he is not sure if he’ll ever reconnect with his parents. They still live in Idlib, Syria.
But the fact that his own story remains one sometimes filled with frustration and sadness does not take away from Nahas’s resolve to keep fighting for what he believes.
To the general public, he encourages recognitions that people are all the same. To the LGBT community, Nahas reminds them to stand up for each other and to stand together as part of a worldwide community, not one defined by the borders of cities.
For those in the Middle East, Nahas implores them to think before they judge.
He wants them to know that being gay is not a Western concept imported by foreigners. “We’re your brothers, your sisters, your best friends and maybe possibly your fathers and mothers,” he says. “One day, maybe they’ll embrace and accept us as we do them.”
We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]
If you’d like to repost this article on your website, please see our reposting policy.