Born in Iran, Arsham Parsi says he felt alone in the world until, at age 15, he found the Internet and an understanding of what it means to be gay. Soon he was volunteering for local queer organizations, and by 22 he was working for the Persian Gay And Lesbian Organization (PGLO).
“In Iran the work we did had to be hidden. I didn’t even tell my friends,” says Parsi, whose underground advocacy work in Iran included networking with doctors to get access to HIV testing as well being the sole representative for PGLO within the country.
According to Iran’s Islamic penal laws, homosexual acts between men are illegal and punishable by death. In a country where being found out as gay can get you killed, homosexuals in Iran are in hiding, as are local advocacy efforts.
“We would get e-mails from people saying they were going to commit suicide because their families had found out they were gay,” says Parsi. “I would travel to their towns and speak with the families who were having problems and explain to them that we are not abnormal and I would show them articles. We get many letters about people wanting to kill themselves or being beaten and tortured.”
After four years of keeping his activist life a secret, Parsi’s role as a queer advocate placed him in jeopardy.
“Police were going undercover on the Internet, pretending to be gay and arranging dates in chat rooms and then arresting the men who showed up,” says Parsi. “The people arrested said the police were after a man named Arsham. I understood that the police were searching for me and that I would be arrested.
“I escaped to Turkey and one week later the police were in my home,” recalls Parsi, now 25 and living in Toronto.
“I cannot return to Iran, even though my family is still there. Homosexuality is forbidden and if I went back I would be arrested at the airport or border and in a couple days they would kill me.”
On Jul 19, PGLO held an event at the University Of Toronto to create awareness around the human rights violations in Iran and to commemorate the anniversary of the executions of two young men in the Iranian city of Mashad. Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, believed to have been 18 and 17 respectively at the time of their deaths, were hung. Initial reports claimed that they’d been put to death for their homosexuality, but later reports indicated the two young men had been convicted of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old.
“Unfortunately, what happened in this case is not black and white,” says Parsi. “In Iran court proceedings are closed. We cannot rely on the press to report the truth. They write what the government tells them to write. At the moment, more than a year after they were hung, we still have no documents to say whether or not they were gay. We are however sure that one, if not both, were under 18.”
Iran is a signatory of UN?s children’s rights declaration, which prohibits the use of the death penalty for offences committed before the age of 18.
One guest speaker at the Jul 19 event was professor Victoria Tahmasebi who left Iran 20 years ago because of political persecution. She now works as a sessional instructor at U of T; she recently taught the course Gender And Islam.
“Iranian people are peaceful,” says Tahmasebi. “There is however a culture of homophobia and a systematic violation of homosexual rights. The current laws are very harsh. Persons caught having same-sex sexual acts are executed, either hung or stoned to death. It is about life and death. The law is about killing.”
Tahmasebi says she fears for the younger generation of Iranian queers.
“Iran is a very young country. There is a large population of Iranians under 25. They are more daring than my generation and they will start to come out and the regime will start killing them in masses. I am scared of that day.
“It is our urgent demand to end the discrimination of homosexuals in Iran,” adds Tahmasebi. “It is a very urgent task and we appeal to the international LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] community to help us with this.”
Because of the danger associated with being openly homosexual in Iran, the three main representatives of PGLO live abroad, in the Netherlands, France and Germany.
“In Iran right now we have a secretary of health and a secretary of social affairs,” says Parsi, “but they must keep their identities hidden for their safety.”
Currently PGLO has 4,363 members internationally who receive its newsletter and radio show via e-mail. The group’s website is blocked within Iran.
Parsi says Iranian queers are counting on homos in the rest of the world for support.
“Don?t forget the Iranian people,” he asks. “Don’t leave us alone. I believe we are a global family in the world, especially the LGBT community. If we cannot support each other who will support us?”