For persecuted gay and trans refugees, getting together has given them a safe space as well as vital support. Edward Siddons hears how the group became family they never had

Maha was a final-year trainee at a police academy in Basra, southeast Iraq, when her phone went missing. It was summer 2011. Only 17, she was nervous about telling her parents, though not especially worried. Only when she was summoned to the dean’s office three days later did she realise she was in danger.

A dozen or so sheets of white paper were neatly arranged on the dean’s desk. One by one, he turned them over to reveal print-outs of intimate photos taken from Maha’s phone. In some she was naked, nestled in the arms of a man whose face remains just out of shot. In others she wears makeup stolen from her mother’s dresser. Female sexuality remains tightly surveilled in much of Iraq, but Maha’s predicament was altogether more complicated: a transgender woman, Maha was still a man in the eyes of her family and the state.

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