by Doug Ireland
Arsham Parsi, the well-known Iranian gay activist, has announced the launch of the Iranian Queer Railroad (IRQR), a new organization designed specifically to help the growing number of LGBT Iranians forced to leave their country by the violently homophobic policies of the ayatollahs' theocracy. Homosexuality is a capital crime in Iran.
Parsi, 28, founded the first Iranian gay group, the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (PGLO), in 2004 while still living in Iran. With the police on his tail for his gay activism, Parsi fled to Turkey in 2005, where he continued his work to publicize the plight of LGBT Iranians, and eventually was granted asylum as a sexual refugee by Canada, where he moved two years ago and changed the name of the PGLO to the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO).
Earlier this year, Parsi and the IRQO were honored by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission with its Felipa Award for pioneering gay activism.
Parsi traveled to Turkey in August to meet with Iranian LGBT refugees and plead their case with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that is located there.
The UNHCR must grant these queer exiles official refugee status before they can be accepted for asylum in gay-friendly countries. As the result of that trip, Parsi concluded that a new organization dedicated exclusively to helping sexual dissidents flee persecution in Iran was necessary.
"I decided to call our new group the Iranian Queer Railroad after the Underground Railroad in the 19th century, which was an informal network of routes and safe houses helping black slaves in America to escape to freedom in Canada," Parsi told Gay City News by telephone from Toronto, where he now lives. He said a board of directors and an advisory committee for the new organization would be announced soon.
Parsi said he and his organization are now in contact with 145 LGBT Iranian refugees currently in limbo and seeking permanent asylum - 85 of them are in Turkey, which shares a lengthy border with Iran and where cultural and political homophobia is rampant, while the rest are scattered throughout Europe, including in the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, and Norway. Some 22 are in the United Kingdom, which has been extremely reluctant to grant permanent asylum to gay Iranian refugees, and where in the last several years two Iranians have committed suicide after receiving deportation orders back to certain torture and possible death in Iran.
But, said Parsi, "there are many, many more queer refugees from Iran who haven't yet been in contact with us and who also desperately need help.
"One of our goals with the Iranian Queer Organization was to increase the level of awareness about the Iranian queer situation and the horrible persecution that goes on daily in Iran, and to provide a steady stream of information about homosexuality and the transgendered via Internet into Iran, and I think we've had great success in doing that.
"But after several years of working with PGLO and IRQO, I have a lot more experience now, and it was clear to me we needed a new organization with fresh blood and a structure dedicated solely to helping queer refugees, to help them flee Iran, to support them while they are still in transit countries like Turkey, to assist them in finding their way through the harrowing bureaucratic maze that faces them in order to gain asylum, and to help them get settled and cope with setting up a new life in gay-friendly countries."
Since being granted asylum in Canada, Parsi has been able to make a number of trips to Turkey to help gay refugees and has built a relationship with the UNHCR office there.
"I'm so happy I've been able to build a strong relationship with the UNHCR, who are now aware of the Iranian queer situation, and of our organization, and on each of my trips I've been able to secure international refugee protection status for more and more Iranian LGBT refugees in Turkey, which is the necessary first step to being granted asylum," Parsi said. "After my last trip there in August, we now have 20 more refugees who've been newly granted this status and are now awaiting flights to gay-friendly countries like Canada and Australia."
Parsi told this reporter of a 29-year-old Iranian lesbian refugee he was able to help get an early legal interview with the UNHCR
"She had a terrible life in an abusive situation," he explained. "Her family forced her to marry with one of their relatives, and her legal husband raped her every night, and she could do nothing about it because one of the first duties of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran is sexual delivery to their husbands.
"This poor girl went to a doctor after all the rapes, and the doctor told her, 'You appear to have been raped by an animal, and you need urgent health care now.' But her family ordered her to be patient and stay at her husband's home. She was severely beaten repeatedly by her husband and eventually escaped and went to a friend's house.
"But while she was there, her brothers came while she was out and told her friend they were going to kill her to save the family's honor because she left her husband and has suspicious connections with other women. That's when she fled Iran to Turkey, where she was put in touch with us by one of our members in Iran. When she told me her story, she cried, and I lost control, too. I told her, 'Don't go back to Iran, we don't want to lose any more members of our queer family.'"
Parsi's dedication to these refugees is fueled by his own experience as an exile in Turkey.
"It was the hardest experience in my life," he said. "To suddenly find myself in an unexpected situation in a hostile country without money, with no personal safety or security for 13 months wasn't easy."
Parsi added, "I cannot forget the day in Turkey when I was walking with Amir, another gay refugee who had been tortured and flogged in Iran. We were chased in the street by a homophobic crowd, who beat us hard and tried to kill us. Nobody helped. There were no police who came to our assistance and people were just standing around watching as we were beaten, simply for being gay refugees in their country. I'll never forget my refugee life in Turkey, and that's why I've decided to dedicate myself exclusively to making queer refugees' stay in Turkey as short as possible and to help them get to freedom in gay-friendly countries."
Parsi told this reporter, "I just received a phone call from Turkey. Two of our refugees - one who is 28 and one who is 29 - who had rented a room together, were visited by the mother of the landlord who told them, 'We just found out you are gay, and you have to leave because you are gay.'
"Our two refugees, who didn't speak much Turkish, called the police, who instead of admonishing the landlord arrested our refugees. While in custody, one of them, who is diabetic, went into diabetic shock, but was not allowed by the police to take his insulin. The police insulted them and told them, 'If you're not happy here, go back to Iran.' Turkish police are very hostile to gay people in general and to gay Iranian refugees in particular. Beatings are very common. That's just another illustration of why it is so urgent to get these refugees out of Turkey to a safe country."
Parsi provided Gay City News with translations from Persian of several short statements left on the IRQO and IRQR websites from Iranian queers giving their personal histories. The stories were posted as part of their applications for assistance in finding asylum.
Ali, who is 30, escaped from Iran to Turkey in December 2007, where he is now awaiting resettlement.
"I was caught when I was having sex with a guy by his father, who was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard," Ali wrote. "As a result, I lost my job and I and my family were threatened with death. I was arrested several times in Iran, the last time was in the summer of 2007 while I was on vacation in the north of Iran, and the Islamic Guard arrested me simply because I was wearing a T-shirt and jeans and had spiky hair. I don't feel safe even here in Turkey because the father of the guy I had sex with is in the Revolutionary Guard and has the ability to find me here and have me killed so he can cover up the scandal of his queer son.
"I didn't do anything, I'm just a gay man who was born in a country in which my existence was forbidden, just for being gay, just for having a special feeling which is not that of a majority of society. I love guys. It is my right to be free, but I have to live in exile for it. I need help."
Hossein, 22, escaped from Iran to Turkey in September 2006, where he has been languishing while awaiting official refugee status and the granting of asylum in a gay-friendly country.
"I am a musician," Hossein wrote, "and I used to perform at various celebrations, including weddings and parties. These gatherings were often raided, but usually the host would pay the authorities a bribe and that would end the matter. I am homosexual. I had my first relationship at age 12 with the son of a neighbor, it lasted two years. In September 2006 I was playing along with other musicians at a private gay party in a home. The party was raided and the police attacked us viciously. One person was beaten so badly that later I learned he had died from it. I was beaten for ten minutes and lost consciousness for about ten hours. I was later arrested while I was in hospital.
"Eventually my mother and a friend of mine came to the hospital, my friend was dressed in the uniform of a sergeant in the disciplinary forces, and pretended to relieve the soldier who was guarding my room. I put on a hospital worker's uniform and was able to escape. After I was smuggled into Turkey, my family's home was raided and my mother and father arrested for three days on charges of helping me escape for being gay. My father was detained and tortured for a year and later died. I'm waiting to be granted refugee status by UNHCR and I need your help."
Parsi told Gay City News that he financed his August trip to Turkey out of his own pocket from money he'd saved while working in a Toronto restaurant. Now, Parsi said, he's planning another urgent trip to Turkey in November to try to get UNHCR refugee status for still more Iranian queer refugees, but has no personal resources left and is raising money for the trip.
"I know you gay Americans are preoccupied with your elections," Parsi said, "but I beg you to spare a thought for these poor queer refugees in Turkey, who are living in terribly squalid conditions, unable to work because they don't speak Turkish and because of queerophobia, and who are stateless and without hope until they can be granted legal, international recognition of their status as refugees by UNHCR.
"We also need money to begin English language and computer courses for them to prepare them for new lives in freedom and to help them pass the time and escape those feelings of hopelessness. Please, spare us a few dollars for your queer brothers and sisters who are victims of religious persecution."
Donations for Parsi's urgent November trip and to support LGBT Iranian refugees may be made in two ways - via credit card on the secure PayPal "donate" button on the Iranian Queer Railroad's web site at http://www.irqr.net/, or by check to Iranian Queer Railroad c/o Arsham Parsi, PH4-150 Graydon Hall Drive, Toronto, Ontario, M3A 3B3 Canada.