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Saturday, 20 February 2010

How to Save a Life: Arsham Parsi and The Iranian Queer Underground Railroad

Source: Out Impact - Feb 9

By Lorette C. Luzajic

Which would you prefer- to be chopped in two with a sword, or beheaded by the same weapon? Maybe it sounds like more fun to be thrown from a mountain or high building, or, go out with the good old fashioned Old Testament stoning.

It’s not the kind of thing I spend my days mulling over, not when there’s a new-ish Pet Shop Boys album and Cheap Martini Wednesday at Lola Lounge.

But what if, upon leaving the martini festivities tomorrow, everyone at the party is executed?

If you’re queer in the theocracy of Iran, none of the above scenarios are far-fetched at all. They happen all the time. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Columbia University, “In Iran, we do not have homosexuals — not like in your country.” But Iranian minister Mohsen Yahyavi told British MPs that he thought “Homosexuals deserve to be executed or tortured and possibly both.” Still others don’t think the sodomy laws are really much of a threat. Harvard professor Afsaneh Najmabadi says that because Islamic law requires five witnesses to the act, the death penalty is not easily carried out.

Whether gays ‘deserve’ torture, or don’t exist at all, or if the laws are difficult to, well, execute, the fact remains that over four thousand Iranian homosexuals have been put to death in the past three decades, ever since Ayatollah Khomeini moved to power in 1979. The country then became the fundamentalist Islamic Republic of Iran.

The death penalty is official, but unofficially, countless queers commit suicide, unable to face a society that would rather they don’t exist, a culture that believes they are better dead than alive.

Arsham Parsi was a bright and handsome Iranian teen with a secret. When some people in his community committed suicide, Arsham knew why. People were dying because they were gay, like him, living with the terror of imminent torture, whipping, drugging, and exile. Lesbians were also facing rape, hormone treatments, and enforced marriage.

Arsham bravely started an internet site called Rainbow Group, where LGBTQ people could learn more about themselves and find solidarity. He then started Persian Gay Boy, along with some connections in Norway. His work was done anonymously, of course. “I started to work underground,” Arsham tells me. “No one knew about this, not even my closest friends.” There was also Voice Celebration, which brought together about fifty gays and lesbians, discussing in code names ways to achieve civil rights in a government that didn’t even afford them human status.

Arsham’s websites were among the first efforts for gay civil rights in Iran. Earlier efforts in the 1980s to set up an LGBTQ organization meant 70 people were put to death. When officials started closing in on this anonymous community leader, Arsham fled his city of Shiraz for Tehran. Several gays had been arrested in Shiraz, and he feared for his life. “They were looking for me, too,” he says. “I didn’t want to stay there if I couldn’t continue my cause.” But it was too dangerous to stay in Iran at all, so he escaped into Turkey. “I left my family, my friends,” he says. “It was so hard. They didn’t know what I was doing. I told them I was a human rights activist and had to go to Turkey to continue some education.”

In Turkey, it was only marginally safer. Arsham and a gay friend were beaten nearly to death while crowds just stood and watched and no police came to their assistance. It was this incident that cemented in his mind a burning desire to help save others, through education, advocacy, and activism. Originally, he had wanted to be a veterinarian. He could hardly have imagined he would become the world’s foremost activist for Iranian queers. Three short years ago, Arsham landed safely in Canada as a refugee through the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. Today the young hero is the courageous founder and chief executive of the Iranian Queer Railroad, the only active NGO for gay Iranians.

It’s not just about internet chatting and educational brochures, though Arsham says a little education could go a long way. “In Iran, the lack of information is what drives animosity. It’s not just Islam- according to most religions, they do not agree with homosexuality. It’s not ‘natural.’ But in Canada, we have resources to learn more about people and science and equality. In Iran, there are no books, no publications…we have…denial.” And so, informing friends, families, networks, and educators both here and abroad is important work. But the IRQR is a railroad in the same way that the Underground Railroad brought African American slaves to safety in our continent’s more troubled times. It’s a hands-on freedom fighting organization.

“We help Iranian gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered refugees all over the world. We help when Iranian queers are threatened with deportation back to Iran. We also assist Iranian queers in obtaining asylum in friendly countries. IRQR helps these refugees through the process and, whenever possible, provides funds for safe houses from donations, because most of queer people are not physically safe in their transit country either.” The IRQR “documents human rights violations, Iranian queer persecution on base of their sexual orientation, provides letters of support for Iranian queer asylum seekers and refugees, and supports anti-homophobia/anti-persecution efforts.”

Arsham’s railroad has moved almost 100 queers out of Iran into Turkey, where they await asylum in gay-friendlier nations. There are more than 100 others whom he is working to free from Iran right now. The IRQR has had a positive impact on 69% of the cases they’ve worked on. Many have now made it to safe countries where they can begin a new life.

A few short years ago, if you Googled “Iranian Queers” or “gays in Iran” hardly anything came up. Now, thanks in no small part to this young hero’s fearless efforts, you’ll get thousands. Arsham is proud “that I could bring this taboo issue out of the closet and say queer rights are human rights.”

Of course, there’s never enough money to go around, and it takes a lot of money to bring just one person to freedom. From simple telephone expenses to airfare to food for refugees to legal expenses, saving a person from deportation, or bringing them out of Iran into safety is expensive. But every donation or sponsorship the IRQR receives literally saves the life of an LGBTQ Iranian.

Arsham hopes eventually the railroad will pick up enough steam to pay him a living wage. So far, he lives courageously on faith, without a salary. He and his partner occupy a tiny cooperative in Toronto, in a somewhat unsavory part of town. It’s clean and bright, and they welcome me with a nice pot of spiced tea. For a man whose mission is saving lives, it’s a surprisingly humble, normal atmosphere. There’s a Sodoku puzzle book and a yellow table and abstract artwork, but the trappings border on spartan. They have no money, because every cent goes into Arsham’s rescue work.

But there’s no time to worry. He’s active in the democratic Iranian communities in Canada. He’s a keynote speaker at conferences for human rights all over the world, flown here and there by generous donors who know the gifted and passionate speaker can change the world. He’s in panel discussions, and on first name basis with Canadian members of parliament. He’s in documentaries like Jihad of Love and in newspaper and magazine articles about gay rights, including last month’s Out Magazine feature on Iran. He is writing letters to governments and news agencies. He is petitioning potential donors to help him support his refugees, afford them food and shelter and medical care as needed, and pay his legal fees. He is also cultural ambassador for Stockholm-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Association, advisory boards for umpteen world gay rights organizations, and a recipient of excellence and pride awards for his unwavering commitment to human rights.

Petitioning, lobbying, paperwork, legal documents is no small task. Arsham works with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but it’s an arduous process. Iranian queers awaiting asylum, safety, refugee status, hope- well, there’s a long line up and they can be waiting for years. Without advocacy, they are waiting in vain, and some will be deported back to a world where they will pay with death for their love. There are nearly 32 million refugees from around the world right now, and only so many U.N. workers to go around. Arsham works tirelessly to bring attention and immediacy to desperate Iranians, many who are homeless, hungry, and in still in danger.

It’s determination that fuels Arsham to bring Iran’s “gay problem” out of the closet, and he has made extraordinary strides already. He has reconciled with his family, who now know why he had to go, and though it took them awhile and a lot of education, today they accept him as gay. He can’t go home, but he is so grateful to Canada for his freedom from oppression and death. “After four days in North America, I said ‘I have freedom!’ You are born here, you don’t know what freedom is. I’m sad to see so many youth in Canada and the U.S. who are narrow-minded, who have no idea what is happening on the other side of the world. They don’t know about the torture.”

Arsham’s determination comes from his faith. “I’m not religious,” he tells me. “But I have faith. It’s not just about Islam. There’s an energy and I’m part of it. I studied spirituality in Iran, and I don’t agree with how religions define God. Once, I had that feeling that I was a sinner and had to become normal…but now, what I’m doing right now, helping other people, that is my spiritual practice.”

Like another legendary human rights leader who risked everything to advance equality, Arsham Parsi also has a dream. It’s a dream he almost died for, and he’s not out of danger yet. But his work is just beginning, and already, he has saved hundreds of lives. “I, Arsham Parsi, a queer activist who must live in exile say, ‘I have a dream, too.’ My dream is that one day the rights of all queers will be recognized and respected. That one day no one will be executed, tortured, arrested, imprisoned, isolated by society or disowned by their family and community for being queer. A day when our sexual orientation will not deprive us of our rights. That is my wish and the wish of all those who cannot speak for themselves.”

How you can help:
Washington TV: Changing Sex to Escape Death: Homosexuals Dilemma in Iran


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