“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you we have that.”
When ex-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spewed forth those words during his disastrous 2007 speaking tour of the United States, it confirmed what many of us had long feared for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. Not only were these women and men being hunted, tortured, imprisoned and executed, but apparently their very existence was to be obliterated from the country of their birth.
To imagine living under such horrific conditions is nearly impossible here in relatively tolerant Canadian society. It would be easy to shy away from these disheartening stories were it not for the brave queer voices shouting above the homophobic din.
Saye Sky is one of those voices. This astonishingly talented poet, spoken word and rap artist is making waves internationally with both her music and her activism on behalf of the oppressed in her home country of Iran.
Sky was just 13 years old when she began writing about the rights of women, children and the LGBT community — a veritable trifecta of punishable offences in a land ruled by men.
In 2009 she released her first single, a blistering song about lesbian rights in Iran called “Shadow of an Iranian Woman.” Of course, this didn’t go over well with authorities, forcing her to seek refuge in Turkey before she was finally granted asylum here in Canada.
“I didn’t want to leave Iran,” says Sky, who now makes her home in Toronto. “I had a girlfriend from Vancouver who was supposed to come and live with me, but everything changed after I released my first song.”
Until then, Sky had enjoyed a relatively safe life as a university student in her home city of Tehran. It was there that she took her first steps out of the closet and found that there were others who bucked Iran’s official position on homosexuality.
“When I was in university we had a lot of lesbians, and no one would care or say anything. But in the older generation you never hear about it, like it doesn’t exist. In every single family there’s someone who’s gay, woman or man. The LGBT population in Iran is extremely high, and it’s so funny that the government says there are no lesbians or gays or transgender in Iran. It’s so ridiculously funny.”
Sadly, Sky’s parents weren’t as supportive as her university friends. Her mother and father remained clueless until Sky took the final step of publicly stating her sexuality. In front of a camera.
“I came out on TV,” she says. “There is a program called VOA Persian. It is so famous in Iran, and everyone watches it. It was the first time somebody showed up as a homosexual. I’m pretty sure they saw it.”
She’s had no contact with her parents since leaving in 2009, something that makes her sad despite the dramatic improvement in her personal safety.
“You have to sacrifice to get something more important and bigger in your life, and I sacrificed a lot for my freedom. Now I have the microphone in my hand, and I’m so free. When I go to bed I’m not afraid of any noise. I’m not afraid of the government any more and I can sleep at night.”
Sky was recently awarded the inaugural Telus Newcomer Artist Award, a distinction that recognizes her work both as an artist and an activist. The prize was $10,000, but for Sky the real reward was in the validation and increased visibility of her work.
“I think I want to be a role model for a lot of girls who live in the Middle East,” she says. “Those countries where women are so oppressed and they’ve been told they can’t do anything.
“The freedom that I have here is priceless, absolutely priceless. I can walk on the street holding my girlfriend’s hand, and no one would care. I’m not afraid any more.”