Commentary

It takes a lifetime: Mahmoud Hassino on Paragraph 175

A parallel between gay history in Germany and in Syria

Mahmoud Hassino by Alexa Vachon

May 30, 2017 – News apps' notifications are essential to me, although they mostly inflict concerns about loved ones in Syria, and they never fail to reveal my anxious countenance. But one notification in March was quite different: it was about the recently signed bill to overturn the convictions of gay men who were prosecuted under Paragraph 175 after the Second World War. Excited about this new victory for the gay movement in Germany, I went on to read the article only to find out that it brought back some sad memories from Syria. The Guardian quoted Fritz Schmehling, a 74-year-old Berliner, saying, "I don't want to die with a criminal record." He was convicted under § 175 in the 1950s.

In Syria, Article 250 of the penal code is a relic of the French occupation of the country. It prohibits "carnal relations against the order of nature". Although it wasn't strictly applied, the Syrian regime used it whenever it deemed suitable. In April 2010, 35 gay men were arrested at a gay party in Damascus. The Syrian authorities detained those men for three months without pressing any charges, telling their families and employers that they were arrested for homosexuality.

The organizer was shown a record of every man who had a profile on a gay dating website. He was also warned that "the government will not condone any future gay parties in Syria". He reported that to me and a group of friends as well as an organization that facilitated his resettlement to the Netherlands. A dentist from a city on the Syrian coast was among the detainees, but he wasn't as lucky. After he was released, he couldn't handle the loss of his job and the social humiliation. He committed suicide just before his 29th birthday. He was the first person I knew to be killed because of his sexuality. I felt that he was murdered by the Syrian regime.

Despite having a blog since 2006, I had never thought of myself as an LGBTI rights activist before that incident. After those outrageous arrests, I started researching possible ways to challenge that archaic law. I read about LGBTI movements in the world to learn from previous experiences. I also started engaging in online conversations about LGBTI rights and anti-gay laws. Those activities alerted the Syrian regime, which added me to its wanted list of dissidents. 

I used to tell Berliners that the situation for gay men in Syria during those times was similar to that in Europe in the 1950s and 60s. However, only a few could relate to that. I felt I knew more about LGBTI rights history in Europe than some Europeans. Only "older" gay men who witnessed those anti-gay laws understood exactly what I mean by that analogy. I wouldn't have enjoyed this life in Berlin if it weren’t for those men who challenged discrimination and prejudices.

Although the Cabinet has signed the bill, it will still take time to be applied. I join Schmehling and others in hoping that this happens during their lifetimes. It will be great to witness their triumph, especially since the war in Syria has killed my hope that the same could happen to me.

Mahmoud Hassino started Syria’s first LGBTI* magazine and now works for gay counseling network Schwulenberatung Berlin