Meet the LGBT+ military unit fighting ISIS

The creation of an LGBTQI+ military unit of international anarchist guerrilla forces in Rojava, Syria, is catching international attention

As Donald Trump declared that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to serve in the US military last week, in Rojava, Syria, the creation of a new and rather revolutionary military unit in the fight against Daesh (ISIS) was announced.

This military unit, The Queer Insurrection and Liberation Army (TQILA), which is a subgroup of the International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF), is a specifically LGBTQI+ military unit made up of international volunteers “who seek to smash the gender binary and advance the women’s revolution as well as the broader gender and sexual revolution”, as claimed in a public statement on the IRPGF’s Twitter account.

IRPGF is an explicitly anarchist, militant group in Rojava, seeking to “directly confront capitalism and the state, and advance the cause of anarchism”, as stated in their formation announcement in April 2017.

They define themselves as a “militant armed self-organized and horizontal collective working to defend social revolutions around the world”. They deny any affiliation to a political party, but rather point out that they function as a collective, which doesn’t enter conflict zones with the intent to command, but rather to fight alongside other armed groups against oppression, exploitation, and annihilation of certain peoples.

The IRPGF has furthermore stated in their announcement that they see in international solidarity the most powerful weapon of the oppressed and that they believe that peaceful methods support, rather than confront and destroy, the state, capitalism and all forms of kyriarchal power.

Coincidentally, the creation of this LGBTQI+ military unit in Syria was announced right after Trump’s announcement. The official reason for this ban is the medical costs, which, however, are estimated to be $8,4 million a year, at most, which makes up 0.001% of the annual military budget. The costs, therefore, seem like an invalid reason to ban a whole community on the basis of their sexual orientation.

An LGBTQI+ unit fighting ISIS

TQILA, pronounced as “Tequila”, was created as a response to violent homophobic attacks on queer communities all over the world, and specifically the connection of Islamic extremism to these attacks.

However, they clarify in their statement that they are aware that not only ISIS but also Christian conservatives in the global northwest have encouraged and participated in attacks LGBTQI+ peoples in “an attempt to silence and erase their existence”. As they emphasize in their statement, it is important to clarify that queerphobia, homophobia and transphobia are not inherent to Islam, or any other religion. They, furthermore, declared themselves against any kind of fascism, tyranny and oppression.

The formation of TQILA also comes in reaction to the rise in the targeting of queer people all over the world, and in particular by ISIS terrorist groups. Last year at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a gay club, a homophobic attack killed 49 people. This incident is cited to be among the factors that motivated the creation of this unit.

Their location, Rojava in the Kurdish area in North-Syria, has also greatly influenced their focus on struggling against authority, patriarchy, oppressive heteronormativity, queer/homophobia and transphobia, especially by the revolutionary advances and gains of the Kurdish women’s struggle. This has deepened their desire to strengthen the gains of the women’s revolution while advancing the Queer struggle that has motivated Queer members of the IRPGF to form TQILA, as they explain in their announcement.

The Kurdish area in north-Syria seeks to create an autonomic Syrian Kurdistan, which is what the IRPGF refers to in its statement as “the revolution” and which they participate in  smashing the Caliphate.

In a Communique they published last night, they emphasize that the ongoing revolution in Rojava is one of the greatest beacons of self-organized militant revolutionary praxis in the 21st century, which is currently threatened “not only [by] Assad’s forces and Daesh, but also by the fascist forces of Turkey; the imperialist forces of the United States, NATO, Russia, Iran and China; the collusion of the Kurdish Regional Government (Iraq); and both internal and external counterrevolutionary, nationalist, bourgeois and rightist forces.”

Its worth pointing out that the military unit is made up of “international volunteers”. Any international fighting in these conflict zones necessarily has to go through years of thorough training in order to understand the sociocultural setting they are operating in, as well as the languages spoken in these areas. Apart from that, these volunteers also clearly need to be militarily trained and experienced. This raises the question how TQILA finds and selects their recruits. From the information offered in the announcement, it seems that the new military unit was mostly put together by individuals who were already members of IRPGF.

Local reactions

The presence of a specifically LGBTQI+ military unit in this region can be expected to cause a certain backlash from the local society and military, which was reflected in social media reactions, which ranged somewhere between homophobic comments to insults and death threats. Some reactions claim that they will go against the local moral standards – “It’s not compatible with the values of the Kurdish and Syrian community. Please do not place them among us” – or that they should be thrown off a rooftop. Some suggest that they might do it to get more funds from international organizations, as well as media attention. Other reactions, however, take a stand for TQILA, such as one reaction that claims that “[in] democracy you have to accept differences”. Those, however, were far fewer.

The official statement on social media by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is the following: “We in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), while emphasizing our deep respect for human rights, including the rights of homosexuals, we deny the formation of such a battalion within the framework of our forces and we consider this news to be untrue.”

This suggests that the situation for this particular military unit might be an especially complicated to work in. It will be interesting to see their development.

Human Rights
Magdalena Mach

Magdalena is a Middle East Studies and Philosophy graduate from Austria currently working in as a Trainee at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tunis, a German foundation linked to the Green Party with a focus on ecology, democracy, gender equality and peace. For the past 3 years, she has focused her work and studies on the Maghreb. Based in Tunis, she has been working in a gender research project, as a Freelance Researcher, Translator, and for NGO projects focused on themes such as: art and intersectional feminism, and discrimination of minorities in the MENA region. As a polyglot, she has previously spent time living and studying in Australia, France, and North Africa. In her free time, she experiments with music, and mixing of sounds.
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