The conflict between two Toronto-based groups working to aid queer people in Iran has yet to be resolved completely, but both sides say they just want to put the squabble behind them so they can focus on more important work.
In April 2008 members of the board of directors of the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO) accused the group’s founder, Arsham Parsi, of trying to improperly seize control of the organization and its finances.
“He had purported to fire the two other board members and replace them,” Douglas Elliott, a lawyer representing the IRQO board, told Xtra last November. “This was not done in a legal way.” Elliott says Parsi also attempted to take control of IRQO’s bank account by telling the bank that the other two directors had been removed. “After he notified people on the mailing list that he had changed the board, he told the bank the same thing,” said Elliott. “Someone at the bank who didn’t understand proper legal procedure took his word for it and removed their signing authority.”
After the IRQO board regained control of its organization it called on Parsi to answer several questions about the group’s finances and to furnish complete financial statements. But Parsi, who fled Iran in 2005 and was unfamiliar with the intricacies and spirit of board governance, simply hadn’t kept appropriate financial records.
Parsi told Xtra the IRQO directors were spreading gossip and trying to publicize themselves at his expense.
But both sides say now that some of the issues have been resolved and, despite some lingering questions, they just want to move on.
Parsi formed a new group called the Iranian Queer Railroad which has since been renamed the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR). He is executive director of that organization and is accountable to an independent board of directors, of which he is not a member. The three directors in place so far are Gilles Marchildon, the director of communications at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and former executive director of Egale Canada; Johanne Gaudreault, executive director of the Chambre de commerce gaie du Québec; and Paul Durber, former director of pay equity for the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
“They are all well-known members of the LGBT community in Canada,” Parsi says. “They saw all the documents and saw everything was okay. They don’t lend their names to a bad person.”
“It’s important for a non-profit to have a good, solid board of directors to ensure to donors that the money they give is used wisely,” says Marchildon. “We’re vouching for the integrity of the organization. Eventually we hope to gain government or foundation funding.”
Marchildon says Parsi is learning quickly about board governance. “He was surprised at the formality of it,” Marchildon says. “He was interested in how we had motions and presentations and votes. Formally, he’s not a member of the board, which I underlined was healthy.”
“I consider this case and this issue closed,” says Parsi. “I’m focusing all of my time, work and energy on the new organization.”
Elliott says IRQO is also moving forward. “It’s an unfortunate diversion of energy and resources and that’s exactly what my clients are trying to move beyond,” he says.
Both sides agree that the matter of an undocumented $5,000 award to IRQO by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) has been resolved. Parsi returned the cheque to IGLHRC, which then issued a new cheque to IRQO.
Both sides also agree that Parsi furnished IRQO with the bank records he had. But Elliott says there’s no way to know if they are complete.
“There does not appear to be any financial discrepancies,” he says. “But these appear to be the only records. It may be that everything went in and out of that account. We don’t have anything except those bank accounts.”
“I hired a lawyer and we hired an accountant and we sent all the documents,” says Parsi. “They [IRQO] just wanted to make some noise to publicize their organization.”
“There was a serious attempt to resolve everything with Arsham’s lawyer,” says Elliott. “The negotiations broke down after we made some progress. IRQO had concerns about Arsham that remain unresolved and apparently he had concerns about my clients. A lot of it has to do with things that have been written, anonymously or in confidence, in Farsi and I don’t speak Farsi. It’s fair to say both sides are unhappy with the other’s conduct.”
Elliott says his clients think their organization is better positioned to help queer Iranian refugees than is IQRR. “They sincerely believe that people who want to help queer Iranian refugees should help IRQO,” he says. “They believe that is the better choice.”
But Parsi says IQRR is more in touch with queer issues than is IRQO. “People who claim to be board members never did anything before,” he says. “They are not members of the LGBT community because they are heterosexual.”