LGBTQ Afghans Facing 'Violent Death' Under Taliban Are Hiding and Fleeing But Need Help, Advocates Say

Activist Nemat Sadat wants to raise awareness and money for "the most vulnerable people in the most dangerous country" as LGBTQ advocates push U.S. and other countries to do more

Afghanistan
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Since the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August ended America's longest war, more than 120,000 people have been evacuated or fled in fear of the Taliban's return to power.

For those that remain who are part of Afghanistan's LGBTQ community, life under a regime that considers homosexuality a crime punishable by death has become a nightmare, according to advocates who are pushing the U.S. and other countries to help.

"LGBTQI people are the most vulnerable people in the most dangerous country," says Nemat Sadat, a gay Afghan-American activist and novelist who taught political science and international affairs at the American University of Afghanistan from 2012 until 2016.

While homosexuality has long been criminalized in Afghanistan, Sadat describes how the LGBTQ Afghans gained visibility and acceptance before the Taliban takeover in August.

"It was growing exponentially," he says of the community. Sadat, who came out publicly in 2013, now lives in San Diego. In an interview with PEOPLE, he gave the example of a household of transgender Afghans that were "living a Sex and the City lifestyle" in Kabul, the capital.

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"Half of that group in that house were dancers, performing at weddings and other events and making a lot of money on tips. There are also makeup artists … working on television shows, people working in spas, working in the malls," he says. "All living in one house and living their life really openly, publicly transgender people, not hiding. They're very visible in society."

Sadat also believes that under different circumstances that don't include the Taliban, the LGBTQ+ community would have gained freedoms in the coming years. "Within 10 years they would have had full LGBT rights and marriage equality because the community is so vast," he said.

Instead of pushing for and celebrating that progress, however, Sadat is now dedicated to helping the community as its members navigate life under the Taliban who, despite their claims to govern more moderately, were brutal when last in power in the '90s.

Sadat has created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help a list of more than 500 Afghans he's identified who want to leave out of fear for their lives because they are part of the LGBTQ community. He's also created a petition urging "the U.S. government to assist in the safe passage of LGBTQIA people who need to flee Afghanistan and seek refuge by providing humanitarian visas that allow them to leave the country."

After the military exited Afghanistan, American officials said they would continue to support diplomatic ways of helping Afghans leave the country — though such exits have run into repeated obstacles.

The risks of staying are very real, advocates say.

"With the Taliban's takeover of the country, LGBTQI Afghans face the prospect of a violent death," Rep. Chris Pappas, the first openly gay member of Congress from New Hampshire, said during a recent panel hosted by the Human Rights Campaign. "Sharia [Islamic] law already cemented in the constitution prohibits all forms of same-sex activity and makes same-sex activity punishable by death."

Sadat, who also participated in the panel, says the LGBTQ Afghans he is in touch with who remain in the country are "hiding in basements, in closets, on rooftops, doing whatever they can not to expose themselves."

Joined by dozens of his fellow lawmakers, Pappas sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for the inclusion of LGBTQ Afghans in the Priority 2 status that grants access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. "You have the power to protect the lives of countless LGBTQ+ Afghans from the horrors they face living under a regime that threatens their very existence," Pappas wrote in the letter.

When asked about the efforts of the HRC and other advocate groups who have urged the Biden administration to adopt policies that would protect Afghanistan's LGBTQ community, a State Department spokesperson sent a lengthy statement outlining the U.S. position and insisting the government had not abandoned Afghans.

"The United States is committed to the human rights and fundamental freedoms of LGBTQI+ persons. We know that in times of transition, LGBTQI+ persons often face heighten vulnerability to discrimination and violence," the statement reads, in part.

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"The United States' commitment to, and support of, at-risk Afghans will continue, including, but not limited to, LGBTQI+ persons, women, children, journalists, human rights defenders, persons with disabilities, and members of ethnic and religious minority groups and other extremely vulnerable populations. Consistent with this commitment, the United States will continue to support LGBTQI+ Afghans," the spokesperson also said. "That commitment does not have an expiration date attached to it, and we intend to hold the Taliban to that commitment."

In the meantime, HRC's Director of Global Partnerships Jean Freedberg, who moderated last week's panel, said, "An exodus of LGBTQI refugees has commenced and will likely expand."

Sadat is hoping some of his contacts are among those who are able flee the country. He has compiled a list of more than 500 Afghans from the LGBTQ community that he's trying to help with his fundraiser.

Although sending money to Afghanistan right now is complicated, Sadat says the funds he raises will go to groups organizing flights out of the country — which are ongoing — and to Afghans who are able to cross the border on their own. They will need financial assistance to pay fees associated with applying for asylum in countries around the world, he tells PEOPLE, as well as for food and shelter in safe houses while their claims are processed.

Afghanistan crisis
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"Slowly there are LGBTQI Afghans who are starting to get out of Afghanistan, crossing into other countries in the region," says Mark Bromley, an international human rights lawyer and co-founder of the Council for Global Equality, which advocates for inclusive U.S. foreign policy. Bromley spoke during the HRC panel about pushing the U.S. government to be ready on the ground in bordering countries to find and process refugees. "We can't abandon them again once they manage to get out of Afghanistan," he says.

Sadat's list, which he says he compiled primarily through word of mouth, represents "the entire geographic makeup of Afghanistan. All 34 provinces are represented," though the majority come from the country's largest cities, like Kabul.

Sadat says he is frustrated with the response from the U.S. and other countries that haven't been able to do more in prioritizing LGBTQ people despite the dangers they face.

He sees their predicament as "last to be evacuated, first to be executed."

"I'm trapped," he says. "I promised these people a better future a decade ago. Like — it gets better, and now it doesn't get better. I promised them I'd be their advocate and fight for them until they all get out, and all the doors are getting shut on me."

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