Unconventional youths who call themselves "emos" have reportedly been threatened or killed in a recent round of attacks in Iraq, where some see their long hair and alternative style as gay.
Though "emos" are known as a specific subculture that mixes goth and glitter in the West, the term has become a catchall phrase for all kinds of nonconformists in Iraq, said Samer Muscati, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch. Gay and effeminate men have been lumped into the category.
"They are grouping us all together, anyone who is different in any way, and we are very easy targets," a 22-year-old gay man in Baghdad told Human Rights Watch after getting death threats on his phone.
The Iraqi government has dismissed the problem; the Interior Ministry has characterized emos as "Satanists," according to human rights groups.
A coalition of international organizations is pushing the Iraqi government to take the problem seriously, calling for an investigation to bring the killers to justice.
"We’re not sure exactly what’s behind the latest round of attacks," Muscati said.
It is unclear just how many people have been killed. Iraq is mired in everyday violence that can make it difficult to tell why people are killed. Fear also stops people from reporting the slayings, said Roberta Sklar, communications director for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
"Youths in Iraq and their parents are very, very terrified," Sklar said.
Activists say one sign decorated with two handguns in Baghdad's Sadr City threatened 33 people by name, warning them to stop their "dirty deeds" or face "the wrath of God." Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr issued an online statement calling emos "a lesion on the Muslim community," the Associated Press reported.
Men believed to be gay or not being "manly" enough were tortured and killed in an earlier wave of violence, Human Rights Watch found in 2009. An Iraqi man said his partner had gotten an envelope with three bullets wrapped in plastic and a note saying, "Which one do you want in your heart?"
The killings spread fear among Iraqi youths. Two years ago when The Times profiled an Iraqi teen who called herself emo, "a goth with a fondness for sparkle," she insisted on not using her last name.
"The ayatollahs go overboard. Everything is haram [forbidden]. Nail polish. Makeup. Everything is no, no, no," the 15-year-old said in the interview in 2010.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Ban, a teenage girl in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf in 2010, rebelled by dressing as an emo under her head scarf and robes. Credit: Ned Parker / The Los Angeles Times