The closet or death: peace activist James Loney knew he would be killed if his Iraqi captors found out he is gay. So did his partner, Dan, back in Canada, who had to go back into the closet.
"James turned to me and said, 'What would you do if this was going to be our last night together? How would we spend it?'" Hunt remembers.
Earlier that evening they'd played "500 Miles" by the Proclaimers and danced together. They thought of it as their song, and the next day they played it in the car on the way to the airport. "I realized that the present was all we ever have," Hunt says, "and that it was beautiful."
Loney was making his third trip to Iraq as a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams--an ecumenical Christian organization opposed to violence and dedicated to spreading peace. The couple had talked about the possibility that Loney could die over there. "But, I said, 'My worst nightmare would be if you got kidnapped and I saw videos of you on television,'" Hunt recalls.
On November 26, 2005, Loney was ambushed near the Umm al-Qura mosque in western Baghdad and kidnapped along with three colleagues. Their kidnappers, a previously unknown insurgent group calling themselves the Swords of Righteousness Brigade, demanded the release of a]] Iraqi prisoners being held by coalition forces. Otherwise, they said, they would kill the hostages.
Back home Hunt was forced into a kind of captivity all his own. Should Loney's sexual orientation become known by his captors, he would almost certainly be killed. It had to be hidden. Officials handling the kidnapping, including Canada's external affairs department, asked Hunt to stay out of the story. A widely reproduced photograph of a handsome, smiling Loney appeared in print with Hunt cropped out. Hunt couldn't talk about the pain he was feeling. Outside a small circle of close friends, he couldn't tap in to the kind of public sympathy and support that the spouses and families of the other captives were getting. "I called Dan right away," says Loney's brother Matt, a meteorologist in Vancouver who was traveling in Ecuador when he first heard the news. "I knew Dan would be affected very deeply by what was going on."
Loney's roots as an activist run deep. Eschewing any traditional aspiration to wealth or success, Loney has lived a near-monastic life, working with underprivileged children, the poor, the homeless, and the sick. "In the Christian life we're called to live according to God's imagination," Loney says. "The bottom line, for the Christian, is a life of love, and of self-giving."
Hunt and Loney met at 16 when they were both counselors at Columbus Boys Camp for underprivileged boys in Orillia, Canada. Hunt fell in love with Loney when they were in college together, but Loney was focused on his life in the church and his desire to help others. After nearly joining the priesthood, Loney discovered the Catholic Worker Movement when his friend William Payne invited him to a "house of hospitality." Founded in 1933, the CWM is predicated on voluntary poverty and communal living. Members organize in houses, where they welcome, feed, and shelter people who are homeless.
Loney had found what he was looking for all his life. In 1990 he joined Hunt and Payne in renting a house in Toronto's east end. Dovetailing passionate antiwar activism with frequent protests against homophobia in the church, Loney spent the next 10 years living in, and co-founding, CWM houses.
But the communal living arrangement was not without its stresses on Loney and Hunt. Hunt moved out in 1993 but stayed close by. By then the two men were a couple. "Those commitments that we share in common, those values are the foundation of our relationship," Loney says of the Catholic Worker experience. "I would describe it as an anchor for us."
Joining the Christian Peacemaker Teams in 2000 was a logical next step for Loney. Like the CWM, CPT is a pacifist organization, founded on the notion that no Christian should, in any manner, participate in acts of war. His 2005 trip to Iraq was to be a 10-day fact-finding visit. Ever suspicious of the media, Loney wanted his own answers. "The purpose was to try to understand the conflict from a grassroots point of view and bring that news home with us," he says.
Four days after his arrival, Loney and three colleagues had just finished a meeting with the Muslim Scholars Association when their vehicle was nearly hit by a white car. Four men with guns got out and climbed into the Peacemakers' vehicle. They drove for 20 minutes to a compound behind a long wall. "We were taken one by one into the living room of the house, and we were searched," Loney says. "They took our cameras, my cell phone, notebooks, our money, passports, my belt, all of our belts. They handcuffed us behind our backs."
Although none of the Peacemakers spoke Arabic, they were able to make rudimentary conversation with one of the captors who spoke some English. They nicknamed the man "Number One." "We have this piece of paper we call 'magic sheet,' and it's an Arabic-English explanation of what we are doing," Loney says. He gave it to Number One, who seemed frustrated by what it said. To Loney, his reaction indicated they might have abducted the wrong men. "He told me, 'You are a peaceful man, and I love the peaceful man, but this does not change anything,'" Loney recalls. "'We must fight the Americans who have invaded our country.'"
Number One showed Loney photographs of his young nieces and nephews whom he said had been killed by American soldiers at a checkpoint. The man told Loney that he was actually sympathetic to the American soldiers. "He said, 'Why are [American] parents sending their children to do this?'" Loney told the man about the work of peace activist Cindy Sheehan in the United States. "Number One said, 'Yes, we know this story, it's very famous. But it doesn't change anything. What are we going to do? We have to fight to get the Americans out. This is our country.'"
The next day Loney began to fear that his sexuality might be discovered. The kidnappers told him that they would be checking into the backgrounds of the hostages to see if they really were peace activists. Loney thought of the Internet articles he had written about gay life and worried that his partner would come out to the media. "It was a really big fear for the first couple of weeks," he says. "Really big."
Back in Canada, Loney's friends and family--including Hunt--were one step ahead. They managed to have several of his articles taken off the Internet, and the cone of silence regarding his homosexuality was proving effective, if excruciating for Hunt. In a cruel twist of fate, Hunt had no legal standing as Loney's partner and thus could not demand to be kept informed by authorities.
"Dan and I kept in touch by cell phone," says Matt Loney, who acted as a family spokesman to the media. "He was telling me things like the [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and foreign affairs weren't keeping him in the loop."
There was also a measure of tension within the Loney family regarding James's relationship with Hunt. "There was tremendous pressure on my family," Matt Loney explains. "This caused a lot of behind-the-scenes tension. My parents come from another generation. They're intensely Catholic and very conservative, and they haven't been able to put my brother's sexuality in a context that works. They were forced to confront that as part of this, and come to the realization that Dan was a much bigger part of James's life than they had previously been led to believe, or wanted to believe."
All the while, Hunt was trying to process the thought that his partner might never come home. "The first 24 hours were like moving through molasses," he says. "The second week I was laying in bed and I started thinking about Jim's funeral. I started to think about what I would say in a eulogy. And then, basically, I spent the whole day crying."
Several weeks passed, and Loney noticed that the kidnappers seemed to know very little about him. They were still asking rudimentary questions about his life. This meant that his secret might be safe. "I thought about Dan a lot at the beginning and wondered what he would be doing and how he would be coping," Loney recalls. "I wondered that about all of my family. I had this profound feeling of gratitude, and then that sort of gradually ... I just stopped doing that. The desire to think about people at home just evaporated."
As the months rolled on, a routine took shape inside the Baghdad house. Loney prayed, using his fingers to count off the decades of a rosary. At night the captives slept handcuffed to one another, and they were individually handcuffed throughout the day except when they went to the bathroom. Three times a day they would receive a piece of pita bread with some cheese, or a few french fries. Loney would eventually lose more than 30 pounds.
The captives shared their life stories, including the story of Loney's painful struggle with his homosexuality. For his part, Loney tried to remain human to his captors, and even in his vulnerable state he attempted to minister to them in the same non-proselytizing way he had ministered to the homeless as a Catholic Worker.
"I treated them with respect and with a certain amount of care," he says. "Part of that comes from the Christian gospel idea of 'Love your enemy.' " Loney was particularly interested by the kidnapper they had nicknamed "Junior," who claimed he had lost both his parents, his sister, his best friend, and his fiancee in a bombing by coalition forces. Near Christmas, the young man confided to Loney that he was considering becoming a suicide bomber to avenge his family. "How do you reach somebody who wants to use his body as a weapon because he was so consumed with hatred and despair?" Loney muses. "I didn't know, but it profoundly disturbed me. I wanted to pray for him. But I wanted it to be a prayer that he could feel in his body somehow, in a tangible, physical way. So I thought, Maybe I could give him a massage?"
One morning Loney offered, and Junior accepted. "I had this feeling that he had never been touched that way before," Loney says. While he acknowledges the danger he might have been in had Junior known he was being massaged by a gay man, Loney was determined to reach him--to heal some of his pain and bring him a measure of peace. Later, in halting English, Junior told Loney that he no longer wished to be a suicide bomber. "We'd had conversations about this, and he would ask me about it. I would tell him, "No, no, no. Not good.' In our last conversation he said, 'Me no suicide bomb.'"
On February 12, fellow hostage Tom Fox, the only American in the group, was taken to another part of the house. Weeks later, according to Loney, the kidnappers told the rest of the hostages that they were going to make an announcement that Fox would be killed but assured them that it was only a ruse to put pressure on the Canadian and British governments, because, the captors said, the American government didn't care about him. That night Loney caught a brief glimpse of an Aljazeera broadcast. Fox's bound body had been discovered in western Baghdad on March 10 and had been recovered by U.S. forces. He'd been shot in the head and chest.
"After Tom was murdered and his body was found, I knew Jim could be next," Hunt says. "We had not been able to communicate [with the captors]. We'd had no communication, and they had killed someone. Our response--which had been to try to raise the profile of the case, to contain the issues, to be available, everything we could do---had failed. They had killed Tom."
On the morning of March 23, Loney and his fellow hostages heard the sounds of a tank, of breaking glass, and boots on the ground. A contingent of British, American, Canadian, and Iraqi forces stormed the house and freed the hostages. One of the soldiers pushed forward a dirty, blindfolded man. When the man's hood was removed, Loney saw that it was the captor they had nicknamed "Medicine Man."
"I guess he had been found or had been captured," Loney says. "He may have been detained earlier and had brought the troops to the house." Loney walked through the door of the house. Noticing Medicine Man, blindfolded and facing the wall, Loney reached over and touched his shoulder in a gesture of compassion and empathy. The man flinched. "I wish now that I had said my name to him or something," Loney says. "I wish I could know who he was as a person, and he could know me."
James Loney landed at Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport on March 26, 2006, a Sunday. He was met by his family, who had come with Hunt. Unable, perhaps, to shake off the bends of that temporary closet, Hunt asked Loney if he was ready to come out to the press. "James just said, 'Dan, no more prisons,'" Hunt remembers. "'We've suffered enough.'"
Months later, Loney and Hunt are sitting in the living room of the spartan but comfortable communal house they share on a shady street near Lake Ontario. Dressed in faded jeans and a T-shirt, Loney looks sunburned and rested, having regained most of the weight he lost during the four months he spent in captivity. Although he bears only a nominal resemblance to the emaciated captive with the wide, haunted eyes whose image was broadcast on Aljazeera, the ordeal is never far from his thoughts. He says the war in Iraq was predicated on lies, and while acutely aware of the paradox inherent in a peacemaker being rescued from captivity by soldiers, Loney is resolute and unapologetic.
"Our captors would say to us, as time dragged on and on, 'Be patient. When you are free, we will be free,'" Loney says. "I don't know if I would have had the strength--maybe by God's grace I would have--but if it meant that the violence could have stopped, I would have offered my life."
For Hunt too the wounds have been slow to heal. "People don't know me," he says. "I was sitting around with people who were hearing the story of Jim's kidnapping. These weren't close friends, they were acquaintances. They spoke of Jim's family and coming to terms and what they did, and how strongly they must have missed him. But nobody said to me, "What was it like for you? How did you endure that?' It's only queer people who have recognized that. That's how powerful the myth was, and that is how deep the wound is. The closet is the place of debasement, diminishment, and suffocation. We cannot be in there. During the kidnapping I felt every form of homophobia out there, including the kind that lives in ourselves."
Rowe is an award-winning Toronto-based journalist and the author of the essay collection Looking for Brothers.
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|Title Annotation:||KIDNAPPED IN IRAQ|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Aug 29, 2006|
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