By Sima Sahar Zerehi
The Iranian Queer Organization better known as IRQO is likely the name that most people remember when it comes to organizing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and transsexual Iranians in Toronto. The group was formed in the summer of 2006 by Niaz Salimi, Arsham Parsi, Sam Kusha, Roshan Borhan, and Saghi Ghahraman. Since its genesis IRQO has spearheaded an aggressive agenda of educating, mobilizing and advocating on behalf of LGBTQ Iranians.
Today, although short one of its founding members, IRQO continues to be an active queer rights group working on multiple fronts.
Niaz Salimi and Saghi Ghahraman continue to lead the organization with the assistance of a team of dedicated volunteers including Hamid Parnian, Yegane Dudi, Parastoo Rahmani, Mahiar Fatemi, and Ramin Jafari,
“We work to combat discrimination against homosexuality within the penal code of Iran,” begins Saghi Ghahraman.Ghahraman a slight almost girlish figure with shocking silver hair is a well-known personality in the Toronto Iranian community. She’s the kind of trailblazer that creates controversy wherever she goes, a true iconoclast. You can even say that she has a talent for provoking people and making them question the very things they take for granted as essential truths. In short, she’s exactly the kind of person you want standing next to you when you’re fighting a battle to create change.
While today she is known by most people as a queer rights advocate, she is remembered by the founders of 'Tehranto' as a poet and writer with three published books of poetry and a collection of short stories; literary achievements that helped to give a voice to a generation’s experience with migration to Canada.
Ghahraman continues by noting that “Raising awareness about LGBT human and civil rights” is another key goal for the group.
While IRQO is based in Toronto, the organization also advocates for LGBTQs who fled Iran to claim refugee status in Turkey or other transit and or host countries.
“We provide assistance via legal and financial support until they’re granted refugee status and are resettled in a safe country,” Ghahraman explains.In speaking about how the organization’s work has progressed since it’s foundation, Ghahraman states:
“We started with a little bit of contact with few LGBT refugees in Turkey, and a monthly magazine which was very limited. But the need was great and we had to expand the work we were doing, and we expanded according to the need of refugees and the community inside Iran. We also started to work a great deal more in Toronto and for the LGBT who resettle in Canada.”Today, IRQO has become a bridge between Iranian queer refugees and international bodies such as the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.
Ghahraman unpacks this process:
“We normally communicate on behalf of refugees with the UNCHR in Turkey and verify asylum-seekers’ life-stories.”She adds that IRQO also communicates with the various embassies of countries that accept refugees via UNHCR in order to assist in the resettlement process. In addition, the group arranges for medical treatment and assessment via a network of volunteers.
“For newcomers in Toronto we do mostly referrals, interpreting, translating and also advocacy according to the needs of the individual. We also collaborate with settlement agencies and explain specific needs.”She notes that the organization receives a great deal of support from health and settlement agencies when they provide assistance that can help these Canadian entities gain greater insight into the needs of Iranian queers.
“We accompany them to lawyers’ offices and courts, and hospitals and we often explain to counsellors when there are cultural barriers. IRQO works out of the community centre at 519 Church Street, which means we are able to have access to the expansive services that are available in the center,” recounts Ghahraman.
Some of the work by IRQO involves doing what they have coined as cultural interpreting.
“Cultural interpreting, means explaining why a transsexual person coming to Canada from Iran needs much faster services like hormone therapy,” says Ghahraman.While advocacy takes up a great deal of the group’s time, the organization has also been able to secure a niche for itself within the literary community; merging Ghahraman’s love of literature with the group’s campaign for public education.
Ghahraman explains that by publishing the literary works produced by LGBTQ writers, poets, and essayists the group is able to introduce the obscured talents and abilities of this community to the mainstream culture. She points out that oftentimes people from outside the queer community are shocked at the calibre of talent among LGBTQ Iranians.
To her literature is an ideal medium for breaking down barriers and building bonds of connectivity.
For Ghahraman IRQO’s literary projects are all about creating a voice for LGBTQ Iranians. She states:
“That’s what we are doing via our publishing; we create a voice for the LGBT community. We Write, therefore We Are. That was the strategy behind the vigour for publishing works by the LGBT for the LGBT.”Ghahraman explains that being able to create trust among the community in Iran has been among one of her proudest achievements. She recounts:
“By establishing trust we have managed to discover a wealth of works produced by gay bloggers, which have helped to wash away the illusion that the LGBT community’s heroes live outside of Iran. The heroes of the community actually live inside and work inside, and all actual and real achievements have been made inside by those who’ve lived and worked there.”Speaking critically about the activism in Canada, Ghahraman notes, “What we have here, in the form of LGBT NGOs is only a tiny part of the work that is being done inside of Iran. The LGBT movement, for the last decade, has been wise, peaceful, courageous, persistent, and creative, and has come a long way. It deserves as a thriving community movement to be celebrated and appreciated.”
She adds, “Some of the work IRQO has done is to bring out the many names of gay bloggers, activists and writers and make the point that the LGBT community in Iran is active, objective, thriving, and hardworking, and has been active since 1997, before the weblogs were created.”
In addition to their online magazine Cheraq (Light) IRQO has recently launched an online library project.
Ghahraman recounts how the project was conceived:
“In 2008, at the time of Tehran’s International Book Festival, a small circle of gay writers initiated the idea of publishing works by the LGBT writers in protest. We discussed the idea, and I approached Afra publishing, and sent them a list of manuscripts. Afra accepted almost all, with the exception of two or three. The works published at the time, as Afra didn’t have an online gallery, were distributed on a weblog titled Namayesh’gah’e Beynolmellaly’e Ketab’e Degarbash-88.”When the weblog was shut down a year later for containing so called immoral content the texts were transferred to another site at ketabkhaneh88.blogspot.com where they are still housed.
“Some of the works where then mentioned in Radio Zamaneh and one of the writers was interviewed on the occasion of his book’s publication and the interview appeared on Radio Zamaneh as well,” adds Ghahraman.
In 2009 the online library project was expanded. Ghahraman states:
“I registered Gilgamishan publishing, after the Khanek Honar team asked me to register it for the purpose of publishing exclusively LGBT works. Kkhaneh Honar wanted to make sure to have an open hand in publishing works without having to go through all the trouble of lobbying to non-LGBT publishers.”According to Ghahraman to date thirty titles have been published and distributed on the on-line library.
“Now, a team of three receive works by writers in the community, and edit and publish the pieces. I am one of the three, and I do my part in creating connections and outreaching to new writers,” states Ghahraman.She explains the symbiotic relationship between the work being done by activists like her outside of Iran and those inside of Iran.
“It’s as I’ve mentioned in other interviews, a kind of give and take between family members who have relatives that live abroad. I am kind of like an extended family member that lives abroad and can for example walk into a ministry and register a publishing company in order to publish poetry and fiction that cannot be even sent as a manuscript to a publisher in Iran."As part of their commitment to connect literature to social change IRQO organized a poetry reading at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre on August 25. Works by various artists including Hamseresht, Barbod Shab, Khashayar Khasteh, Hamid Parnian, Kourosh Zandi, and Elham Malekpour were shared with audiences in both English and Farsi. Ghahraman also spoke about Iran’s gay literature and the works shared during the evening in order to provide insight and contextualize the pieces.