By Frank Bruni for The New York Times
AS he tried to concentrate on his final college exams, he couldn’t erase the terrifying images in his head, an endless replay of a video he’d seen. It showed two men being killed — their necks noosed, their bodies dragged through the streets and set on fire.
They had burned, he told me, because they were gay.
Just like him.
Islamic extremism was sweeping through Iraq, and terror coursed through his veins. It became unbearable when, in mid-2014, the Islamic State seized control of the city where he lived. He fled, traveling furtively across Iraq for nearly a month, looking for a point of exit, finally finding one and boarding a flight to a city in the Middle East where he wouldn’t be in danger.
“The greatest moment of my life was stepping on that plane,” said the man, in his mid-20s, who asked that I not use his name or any identifying details, lest harm come to family members back in Iraq. “I was able to breathe again. I hadn’t been breathing.”
On Monday, he will tell his story at a special United Nations Security Council meeting on L.G.B.T. rights. American officials involved in it arranged for me to talk with him in advance by phone.
Although Monday’s discussion isn’t a formal one that Security Council members are required to attend, it’s nonetheless the first time that the council has held a meeting of any kind that’s dedicated to the persecution of L.G.B.T. people, according to Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations.
And it’s an example, she told me, of a determined push by the United States and other countries to integrate L.G.B.T. rights into all discussions of human rights by international bodies like the U.N.
“We’re trying to get it into the DNA so that when you’re talking about minorities or vulnerable groups, you would always have L.G.B.T. people included,” Power said.
There has been a commendable acceleration of that effort since September 2011, when Barack Obama, in an address to the U.N. General Assembly, unsettled many in the audience by declaring: “We must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere.” Power, who was present for those remarks, said that she was near enough to Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, to hear him mutter: “My God.”
There have also been enormous victories for L.G.B.T. people in nations as different as Nepal and Malta over the last few years. This year alone, a popular referendum legalized same-sex marriage in Ireland and a Supreme Court decision did so in the United States.
But, Power noted, “Unfortunately, internationally, those trends are not being paralleled in very large swaths of the world.” This divide is becoming ever starker, creating new diplomatic tensions, challenges and responsibilities for countries like the United States.
I can’t recall any foreign trip by a president that prompted as much discussion of gay rights as Obama’s to Kenya, where homosexuality is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Obama confronted that harsh reality head-on.
“The state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation,” he said at a news conference with the Kenyan president, going on to add: “The idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong. Full stop.”
Our own country can’t wholly congratulate itself. Federal legislation to outlaw employment discrimination based on sexual orientation has languished for many years.
But American officials were among those who pushed back successfully earlier this year when Russia fought to overturn a policy to grant benefits to the same-sex spouses of U.N. employees.
“L.G.B.T. rights have become one of the most controversial dimensions — one of the most controversial tests — of the universality of human rights,” noted Jessica Stern, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. She, too, will speak at the meeting on Monday.
She shared with me her group’s timeline of killings of gay men that the Islamic State has publicized, sometimes with gruesome photos. It’s a bloodcurdling document, recounting 30 executions for sodomy, though the commission is careful to stress that it cannot authenticate each incident and that the count is almost certainly not comprehensive.
Many men were reportedly thrown off roofs. Others were stoned. One was stoned after the fall from a roof didn’t kill him — to finish the job.
The Iraqi refugee I interviewed told me that on social media earlier this year, he saw images of a rooftop execution and learned later that the victim — unrecognizable because he was blindfolded and shown mostly from behind — was a friend of his who hadn’t left Iraq.
The Security Council meeting, which the United States is co-hosting with Chile, will focus on the Islamic State’s brutality against gays as a way of getting countries who might not be sensitive to the plight of gays, but who have profound concerns about the Islamic State, to pay attention.
Even so, there’s no telling whether such Security Council members as Chad, Angola, Nigeria, Russia and China will send high-level representatives or any representatives at all. The meeting is also open to countries that aren’t on the council, but it’s closed to the public and members of the news media.
Power said that it’s vital that the Islamic State’s treatment of gays not be omitted from discussions of its atrocities against other vulnerable groups.
And that’s partly because the terror felt by gays in areas controlled by the Islamic State is an extreme form of their victimization in far too many other places. It’s a summons to action for enlightened countries that could open their arms wider to L.G.B.T. refugees.
They need to recognize gay people like Subhi Nahas, 28, who will also speak at the meeting.
A little over three years ago he was still living in Syria. His town was taken over by the Nusra Front, a Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda. It announced that it would cleanse the town of people who had engaged in sodomy, he said. Men suspected of being gay were rounded up.
He hid in his home.
After a few months he escaped to an L.G.B.T. safe house in Lebanon. He’s now in San Francisco, where he works for the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and struggles to make sense of the barbarism in Syria and why gay people should be special targets of it.
“If I did not get out, I’d be dead by now,” he told me. Knowing that, he said: “Even here, in the safest place I can think of, I still sometimes don’t feel safe.”