Interview: Arsham Parsi of Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees Special

Posted Oct 5, 2009 by Johnny Simpson
Arsham Parsi, a gay Iranian activist, fled Iran for his life in 2005. He settled in Canada in 2006 and founded IRQR, an NGO that helps LGBTs flee Iran or fight their deportation back to certain death.
Arsham Parsi of IRQR
Mr. Arsham Parsi, founder and Executive Director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees
Mr. Arsham Parsi of IRQR
In early 2005, Arsham Parsi was engaged in perhaps the most hazardous profession in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Then a 24-year-old native of Shiraz, Iran's sixth-largest city, Mr. Parsi was working secretly in the city of his birth as a gay activist promoting LGBT rights in the Islamic Republic.
In that capacity, Arsham operated a clandestine Yahoo chat room called Voice Celebration, counseled suicidal gay teens online, and had been assisting a doctor since 2002 with a study of HIV among local gay and bisexual men. In 2001, Mr. Parsi had formed a small LGBT Internet group called Rangin Kaman, or the Rainbow Group, which was renamed the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization in 2004. As the PGLO would not be recognized in Iran, a friend of Mr. Parsi's officially registered PGLO in Norway. The PGLO later became the foundation for Mr. Parsi's Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO) in 2006. IRQO would later be reinvented and renamed as the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, or IRQR, in 2008.
Arsham knew the risks inherent in his many activities on behalf of Iranian LGBTs in the Islamic Republic, and he had plenty to fear. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979 the theocratic Shiite Islamist regime, founded by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had codified the persecution of homosexuals into Iran's Islamic penal codes. Just being gay in Iran became an offense punishable by death. Human rights groups such as AI, Human Rights Watch and ILGA estimate that over 4000 Iranian gays have been exterminated by the Islamic state since the Revolution. Many LGBT advocates are calling Iran's state-sponsored pogrom a gay holocaust not unlike that perpetrated by Hitler's Germany during WWII, now symbolized by the pink triangles gay men rounded up by the Nazis were forced to wear in death camps such as Auschwitz.
Because of those very real dangers, Mr. Parsi was always most discrete in his activism. He operated under aliases both online and in his assistance with HIV research in his native Shiraz. In early March of 2005, Mr. Parsi received the news he had long dreaded: a friend who had been arrested and released informed him that the authorities were seeking out a gay activist named Arsham. They knew him by name. On March 5, 2005, Mr. Parsi fled the country and sought refuge in neighboring Turkey. Mr. Parsi was eventually granted asylum by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and resettled in Toronto, Ontario in 2006.
The situation remains gravely desperate for LGBTs in the Islamic Republic. Yet even when Iranian LGBTs do manage to flee the country, the danger is far from over. Many LGBTs flee Iran only to face violence in Turkey. Ten have been murdered there so far this year. And even should Iranian LGBTs make it to more tolerant Western countries like Britain or Holland, asylum is not guaranteed. Many refugees now in the West, well-known to the regime they fled in fear of their lives, face deportation and certain death in Iran.
Because of dire situations like these for Iranian LGBTs both within and without Iran, the horrors of which Mr. Parsi knows all too personally, he founded the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO) in Toronto in 2006. In 2008, IRQO was restructured and renamed the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees. Modeled on the US Civil War-era Underground Railroad, which smuggled slaves in the South to freedom in the North, Mr. Parsi has been tireless in his efforts on behalf of Iranian LGBTs, seeking safe havens both within and without Iran, assisting with asylum applications, providing housing and financial assistance to those in desperate need, and petitioning Western and other governments of behalf of Iranian LGBTs facing deportation back to Iran.
Mr. Parsi is also co-coordinator and cultural ambassador to the Stockholm-based International Lesbian and Gay Cultural Network (ILGCN), an official member of the Brussels-based International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), the Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad group, and the Berlin-based Advisory Committee of the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation for LGBT Human Rights. In April 2008, Mr. Parsi's former Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO) received the Felipa de Souza Award by the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). Two months later, Mr. Parsi's work was recognized with the Toronto Pride Award for Excellence in Human Rights.
IRQR, of which Mr. Parsi is both a founder and Executive Director, is a federally incorporated international not-for-profit human rights organization based in Toronto, Canada. IRQR also has European branch offices in the Netherlands, and operates secretly in Iran where it is banned.
Mr. Parsi also plans to register IRQR in the United States as a 501(c) non-profit NGO in order to get more support for IRQR from the Americans. I first became aware of Mr. Parsi and the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees when I began researching and reporting on the horrific human rights situation for LGBTs in Iran for Digital Journal back in March of this year. Mr. Parsi recently took time out from his hectic schedule to grant an interview for Digital Journal.
DJ: Given Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's notorious statement at Columbia University in 2007 that "there are no gays in Iran," I would like to start with a question that I'm sure is on many of our readers' minds. Has life for LGBTs in Iran become even worse under Ahmadinejad's presidency?
Arsham: That is the first question many people ask me. The truth is, the situation for LGBTs in Iran has always been very bad, as far back as I can remember. While I was still living in Iran, I secretly began working for the advancement of LGBT rights back in 2001 because the situation was so terrible. That was long before Ahmadinejad took office (in August 2005). I would like to add here that in late June of this year, when Ahmadinejad was being charged by the opposition with election fraud, he accused his opponents of officially pandering to "thieves, homosexuals and scumbags" in exchange for their votes. So as you can see, the cat is out of the bag now. Even Ahmadinejad admits there are gays in Iran!
DJ: Speaking of the opposition, has the Green Revolution changed the situation for LGBTs in Iran? If so, for better or worse? Or has nothing changed, given that Ahmadinejad is still President?
Arsham: Life still remains very bad for LGBTs in Iran. In some ways, it is a little worse. LGBTs were very prominent in supporting Mir Hussein Mousavi and the Greens. As I mentioned previously, Ahmadinejad lumped homosexuals in with "thieves and scumbags," so gays remain a very easy target for the government. And they are still being persecuted and sentenced to death in Iran. So to answer your question, nothing has really changed much. Life for LGBTs in Iran is still as bad as it ever was.
But the Iranian LGBT community is very angry today and is taking a stand, in addition to minorities like the Baha'i who are also persecuted by the regime. These are the people you see in the streets of Iran. They are all unhappy with the discrimination and being targeted by the government. They are saying, "Enough is enough!" They’re taking to the streets to support the Green movement and saying, "We do exist, we didn’t vote for you and we want our votes back."
DJ: You emigrated to Canada in 2006. Can you tell us how life has been for you here in the West? Any particularly memorable experiences, good or bad, that you would like to share with us?
Arsham: One day in early 2008 I was riding the subway in Toronto. I was on my way back from college and very tired. Somebody called out to me in Persian and said, "Are you Arsham Parsi?" When I said yes, he slapped me in the face and said, “I hate you and the organization for which you work, and all the lies you say about the situation of queers being bad in Iran!" I just knew what he was going to say next. The first thing I told him was, “I can call the police, and I hope you know that to slap someone for their sexual orientation can result in imprisonment here. So I hope you have a good reason for doing it!"
He then asked me, “Have you ever heard of the tribe of Lut, who were stoned by God for committing sodomy?” We wound up standing and talking in the subway for nearly two hours. It might surprise you to know that afterward he hugged me, kissed my face, apologized and said, “If queers are the people you are talking about, I have no problem with them.” We are now friends, and speak over the phone every few weeks, and sometimes treat each other to coffee.
That experience taught me a very important lesson. In order to fight homophobia we can't just write articles, post news items, publish books or run campaigns. We have to roll up our sleeves, stand on the streets, and fight against the hate it even if means we get slapped, because there is no guarantee that homophobic people will see or read these materials. There is no substitute for direct human communication. A homophobic person changed who never would have without that direct human exchange of ideas.
Someone with lack of access to information about queers had been brought up as a homophobic person. It was interesting to see his attitude change when I gave him a key chain as a small gift and asked him, “How old are you?” He said, “In two days I will be twenty.” So I took a gift out of my bag that I had bought for one of my friends and gave it to him. He asked me, “What is this?” I said, “Isn't it your birthday? Happy birthday, take it!" In response he said, “I do not have a problem with real queers. My problem is with those who sell their bodies.” So now friends who work in support of sex workers had to give him a gift!
DJ: If you'll pardon the pun, what else has struck you profoundly since coming to the West?
Arsha,: One of my most personally moving experiences was seeing the movie about Harvey Milk last year. Of how he even had to fight other homosexuals in his battle for gay rights for all. I myself have confronted some of that same resistance and hostility from the Iranian queer community, so I greatly identified with that. But what struck me most of all in the film was when he (Milk) was shot. The first thing that popped into my mind was, "Is this what is going to happen to me?"
DJ: Have there been any threats that lead to believe you are in danger?
Arsham: Of course I get hateful emails from people who do not understand either myself or gays in general, but they are in the minority. The public's support for myself and IRQR has been overwhelming positive and supportive. I know that my very public activism may attract attention from some bad people who don't like what I do, but to answer your question, no. I don't feel like I'm in danger. And I cannot let such feelings interfere with my work. Too many other Iranian LGBTs are in far greater danger than I today. All I am saying is that watching Harvey Milk get shot affected me very personally as a gay rights activist.
DJ: Back to Iran and IRQR for a moment. After researching many of the refugee reports in the IRQR files, the case of Mehdi N. really stood out from the rest, and that's saying a lot. Your thoughts?
Arsham: A terrible situation. As a young gay man in Iran, Mehdi had to hide his sexuality from his friends and family. He was raped by his boyfriend and sexually abused by his boyfriend's friends. Mehdi was then forced to have sex with his boyfriend while the friends recorded it all on a cellphone camera without Mehdi's knowledge or consent. That video of Mehdi being raped was emailed to all of Mehdi's friends, even to his family. Such a thing would be horrible even in the West. You can't imagine how bad it was in Iran.
Mehdi fled to Turkey in 2007 when he was 28 years old. He stayed there for six months, very lonely and always afraid that he would be deported back to Iran. He didn't know about his ability to apply for asylum with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Turkey, nor did he know about us (IRQR). Eventually someone helped him get a flight to Germany. From what Mehdi told me, when he landed he told the police he was a gay man from Iran seeking asylum. A police officer shouted at him, "What are you doing here!" Mehdi feared for his life and began to cry.
Even worse, the judge at his asylum hearing in Germany ridiculed and disparaged him, and told Mehdi he didn't even believe he was gay. Think about that. In Iran, Mehdi had to deny he was homosexual. In Germany, he had to prove it to keep from being deported back! Shortly after the hearing, Mehdi received a letter informing him that his asylum petition had been denied, and that he would be deported back to Iran. The government reduced his subsistence payment to 135 Euros a month while he awaited deportation. At the time, he was living in a home with about seventy other refugees. The police came every few days to deport some people back. Mehdi feared death every time there was a knock on the door.
That was all back in March. I flew over to Germany myself to petition the government, and started an online campaign at IRQR on his behalf. Fortunately, we were able to find an excellent sponsor for Mehdi who paid all of his legal fees during his appeal. On September 17th, Mehdi was finally granted official status as a refugee in Germany. Nobody was happier than I at the news, except for Mehdi of course. Even today he can hardly believe it himself. But it wasn't just me or even IRQR. We all received a tremendous amount of support in the way of letters from all over the world, both to Mehdi personally and petitioning the German government on his behalf. And of course from his generous sponsor who paid all his legal expenses.
Yet of all the terrible things Mehdi had to endure, the rapes, the graphic video clips sent to friends and family in Iran, the hiding, the doubts, the fear of deportation and death at every knock on the door, Mehdi's is a story with a happy ending. Had Mehdi been deported back to Iran to face arrest, imprisonment, torture and most likely execution, it would have saddened me beyond measure. Knowing all the horrible details of Mehdi's life story as I do, it would have broken my heart. But today we can declare at least one small victory in a much larger war. There are still so many Iranian LGBT refugees in similar situations to Mehdi's. Some are even worse, if you can believe it. But we are doing our absolute best to help them.
DJ: Unbelievable story, Arsham. How many refugee cases are you and IRQR working on right now?
Arsham: IRQR is working on about 250 Iranian queer asylum cases worldwide at the moment. As you can see from Mehdi's case alone, each individual seeking asylum or fighting deportation back to Iran requires a great deal of work, a lot of petitioning and, in the best case scenarios like Mehdi's, some generous sponsors who can assist with living and legal expenses during the often long and arduous asylum and appeals processes.
DJ: How can those who wish to help with yours and IRQR's efforts to rescue Iranian LGBTs like Mehdi?
Arsham: There are many ways ordinary people can help. Even just signing petitions or writing letters on behalf of Iranian LGBT refugees can help more than you know. Though IRQR has no paid staff, we have a great success rate. More than 70% of IRQR's refugee clients have gained asylum status or are in the middle of the resettlement process. IRQR is currently the only progressive Iranian NGO working on behalf of the Iranian LGBT population around the world. Of course, any contributions help greatly, no matter how small. We also offer membership in our IRQR Refugee Sponsorship Plan, through which contributors can sponsor refugees directly. You can find a lot more details on all of our current refugee cases, active petitions and letter-writing campaigns at our main web page and on Facebook.
DJ: Let us look to Iran's future for a moment, Arsham. The political situations are very complex both within and without Iran. There is certainly no shortage of worst case scenarios to go around regarding your homeland. But as both an Iranian national who loves his country and people, and as an Iranian LGBT, what is the best case scenario for Iran in your mind?
Arsham: You may not know this, but Iran may have been the first country in the world to have performed a same-sex marriage, way back under the Shah. It was even covered in the news, can you believe it? In the late 1970s, there was even a lot of talk among Iranian LGBTs about starting a gay liberation movement like those in the West. Of course, Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution changed all that.
I think the best way is for Iran to become a democratic country, not just in name as a Republic but a real one. When we have a democratic government in which people can choose the lives they wish to live for themselves, and everybody respects each other rights, most of these issues will be resolved. We all want to be respected as citizens of Iran. That is all. If all we Iranians can understand, recognize and accept democracy and freedom, we can solve most of our problems. I am happy that many Iranians know about their rights now, but we are just starting our movement and we need global support, and of course global alliances. If I respect your rights and you mine, there should be no major challenges as there are today.