Iran is one of several countries that allows the execution of individuals for homosexual conduct. As a result, some LGBT citizens choose to leave with help from an “underground railroad” spanning from Iran to Turkey and then across the globe, from Canada and the United States to Europe and Australia. Turkey, the first stop for many on this underground railroad, is a strange limbo for refugees. Refugees don’t know how long it will be until they’re assigned a new country by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and they don’t know where they’ll go next. After an initial interview that grants them refugee status, they wait for a second interview. After the second they wait for a third. Finally, if all goes well, they’re assigned a new country and a date of departure. The average waiting time is 18 months.
Resisting Unwanted Sex Changes
Shervin: “My mother knew I was different so she took me to a doctor. [He] pulled his hair and said, ‘What’s wrong with this child?’”
KAYSERI, Turkey — It is sizdah bedar, the thirteenth day of the Persian New Year, in March. Shervin is speaking by telephone while on a bus returning to Kayseri, the industrial Turkish city where he is temporarily living. He and 30 other LGBT refugees have spent the last day of the Norooz celebrations picnicking in the city’s suburbs and tossing sabzeh — newly sprouted grasses and legumes — into flowing water.
The tradition, a cherished part of the thirteenth day, symbolizes a release from sickness and sadness.
Shervin, 20, left his hometown in Iran, a Kurdish majority city near the Iraq border, in October 2011. As a gay man, it wasn’t only imprisonment or execution that he feared, but the possibility that he might be forced to become a woman.
Some reports have suggested that some of the gender reassignment surgeries performed in Iran are the result of pressure from the Iranian government for homosexuals to undergo surgery in order to become legal — that is, heterosexual.
A few months later in the still heat of summer, Shervin is willing to be interviewed in person at the apartment where he lives with his boyfriend. The apartment is on a high floor, breezy and light with a view of snow-topped Mount Erciyes. On a low table in the living room, there are almonds and incense, cherries and plums.
One of the first things Shervin asks is that his real name not be used. He’s worried about protecting his privacy — both from people back home and from other refugees in Turkey.
Shervin’s problems with the Iranian government began when he applied for a passport. He hoped to leave the country to escape his boyfriend’s family, who resented Shervin’s relationship with their son and was becoming increasingly threatening. Some months earlier, several family members had shown up at the university where Shervin and his boyfriend were students and threatened the two with knives. The public scene left Shervin fearing for his safety.
“It was so terrible I had to stop going to school,” he says.
In order to be issued a passport, Shervin had to provide proof of military service or, alternatively, military exemption.
“In the medical center where I went, the doctors had checked [on the form] that I was transsexual,” he says, adding that this was grounds for military exemption. “I had six months in order to start my hormone therapy and start dressing like a woman, otherwise military forgiveness would be withheld.”
In 1967, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa sanctioning sex changes. The fatwa didn’t have significant legal or political reach until after the revolution in 1979. It was re-issued in 1985, declaring sex changes legal for “diagnosed transsexuals.”
Psychological counselling is required prior to sex reassignment surgery. Shervin, struggling to live in a society that rejected his sexual orientation, had already seen three therapists. “All of them were very unfriendly,” he says. “The first two made me want to die.”
Shervin’s first trip to therapy was at the age of six. “My mother knew I was different so she took me to a doctor,” he says. “[He] pulled his hair and said, ‘What’s wrong with this child?'” The sessions lasted only six months. Shervin returned to therapy at 15 and again at 17. “The second one wasn’t good either but my third one understood — he tried to change me for the first three months so I wouldn’t be homosexual, then he gave up.”
Shervin saw this third therapist for about a year and a half, and it was he who ultimately encouraged Shervin to leave Iran. “He had been working in the field for thirty years and he said that he had come to the conclusion that the only option [for me] was to get a sex change — regardless of whether or not it was wanted — or to leave Iran.”
Shervin left, flying to Ankara from Tehran. His boyfriend came four days later, illegally crossing the mountains into Turkey with the help of human smugglers.
Life isn’t easy in Kayseri, but they are among the lucky ones: they have each other and they have financial support sent from Iran each month.
Shervin’s boyfriend’s family — the knife-wielding one — is relieved that he is in Turkey. “They think he’s come here as a student and they’re sending him money to help. They think I’m still in Iran and they’re very glad — they think he’s here surrounded by girls and that he might change,” Shervin says.
“I had problems with my family as well, but my mother was very supportive. She didn’t want me to have a sex change and said I needed to go,” he continues. “[After I left] she informed me that they had received another letter from the court asking where I was and why I hadn’t shown up.”
After lunch — rice flavored with Persian lemons, crisp slices of potatoes and a pungent stew, a specialty of Shervin’s hometown — we drink tea and smoke fruit-flavored tobacco, listening to music by Googoosh, a popular Iranian singer and actress.
Shervin shows photos on his Facebook page: friends and family, a pile of bloody puppies. Dog ownership is considered immoral by Islamic clerics, Shervin tells me, looking at Bobby, the scruffy dog romping around the living room. Other refugees I had talked with had shown me even grislier photos on their Facebook pages, footage from the latest public hangings back home.
“I can talk about all of this easily now as though the nightmare is in the past, but that period was very difficult for me,” Shervin says.
Though uncertain about his future, as he has no idea when he’ll leave Turkey or where he’ll go next, he is adamant about one thing: “Iran is still my country,” he says. “If it ever changes, I’ll go back.”
Leaving Without Time to Pack
AliReza: “You construct a future in Iran, you destroy it, and then you come here. If I wasn’t forced, I would have never left. It’s my homeland and I have everything there.”
DENIZLI, Turkey — Growing up in Iran, AliReza hid the fact he was homosexual from almost everyone. At one point, his sisters confronted him.
“‘What’s wrong with you? If there’s a problem, we can fix it,'” he recalls one of them saying. Finally he broke down. “I shouted, ‘I’m gay! What should I do?'”
His sisters cried and said they would do anything to fix him — bring him to any doctor to help him change. “I told them, ‘If you really want to know me, go and search: find out what gay means. It’s not sick, it’s not a disease.'”
In time, AliReza’s sisters accepted him, but much of Iranian society did not. AliReza now lives as part of a community of LGBT refugees in Denizli, Turkey, organized by the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees.
The Toronto-based organization founded by Arsham Parsi helps people leave Iran in search of somewhere safer. On this day, Parsi is in town and has organized an afternoon with refugees at a local park.
The city, located in Southwestern Turkey not far from Pamukkale, a mineral-rich town of hot springs and travertines popular among tourists, is also home to Pammukale University. The combination of university and tourists in the region makes life here a little easier for refugees, says Parsi.
The gathering in the park begins tentatively. The group finds a rare patch of shade in the grass and the two dozen or so men begin to go around the circle, describing what it felt like to leave families, homes and jobs; the strange mix of hope and hopelessness they feel; what it’s like to live in limbo.
Most of them don’t know how long they’ll be in Denizli and don’t know where they’ll go next. They don’t have the legal right to work in Turkey, so life is mixture of boredom and stress. They describe a daily routine of cleaning, Facebook, cooking, sleeping. Some are in touch with their family and friends back home, others are not. Some work illegally. Few speak Turkish, some speak English.
As evening nears, AliReza invites me to the apartment he shares with two other refugees the next afternoon. He didn’t feel comfortable telling his story in front of everyone, he says, but would like to share it.
He welcomes me the next day with tea and biscuits, a gesture that is repeated in every home I visit during my time in Turkey, and one that is all the more generous considering the precarious financial situation so many of the refugees are in.
AliReza, a 27-year-old photographer and graphic designer, begins by showing his artwork. He’s passionate about his career and ambitious. “I really hope I don’t waste my time here,” he says, adding that he has always thought of the decade between age 20 and 30 to be the most creative period of one’s life. “This is my biggest challenge right now, that I can’t do anything.”
Back in Iran, AliReza had a job he loved and his own photography studio. He left everything, from his favorite camera to his family and friends, in haste.
When I meet AliReza, he’s been in Denizli for only about four months. He misses home and dreads winter. His problems in Iran began about a year and half earlier, when he met up with a man he had chatted with over the internet. The man turned out to be an undercover cop.
AliReza was taken to jail and held for 10 days, assigned 170 lashings. “They gave me 70 lashings and said if they catch me again, they will give me the rest and then hang me.” AliReza returned home after he was released, still bleeding, and remembers that his father wouldn’t even look at him. For the next two months, he didn’t leave his room.
“Those were such bad days, the worst of my life. After that I wasn’t even a man, I wasn’t even a human. I was nothing in that time,” he says. “It took me a year and a half to construct myself again, to get stronger.”
During his ten days in prison, AliReza met two other gay men who had been jailed, also for internet activity. One had been whipped publicly. “If that had happened [to me] I think I would have really killed myself,” he says.
Things got bad again the next spring. It was AliReza’s birthday, and his family had left the house to him for the evening so he could throw a birthday party. Police showed up and arrested everyone. “I was really afraid after what had happened to me,” he says. One of his sisters came to the police station and posted bail, using her house as collateral. Not feeling safe, AliReza didn’t go home but hid at an aunt’s house. A few days later, he left Iran.
He didn’t have time to pack.
“It was like a blink,” he says. “It was so fast.”
He has never told his story to anyone else, he says, explaining that he doesn’t want to burden other people with his story or for people to feel sorry for him. “I try to keep everything inside of myself,” he says. The worst part now is waiting, worrying and missing home.
“You construct a future in Iran, you destroy it, and then you come here,” he says. “If I wasn’t forced, I would have never left. It’s my homeland and I have everything there.”
Now, the only link to home is other refugees, Facebook and Skype. “Thank God for technology,” he says, describing how intense the loneliness can be. “It’s hard and harsh.”
One of the photographs AliReza shows that afternoon is a picture taken of Hafiz’s tomb in Shiraz, an eight-pillared pavilion surrounded by orange groves and reflecting pools. The photo brings to mind a poem by the fourteenth-century mystic poet:
“Once a young woman asked me, ‘How does it feel to be a man?’ And I replied, ‘My dear, I am not so sure.’ Then she said, ‘Well, aren’t you a man?’ And this time I replied, ‘I view gender as a beautiful animal that people often take for a walk on a leash and might enter in some odd contest to try to win strange prizes.’ My dear, a better question for Hafiz would have been, ‘How does it feel to be a heart?’ For all I know is love, and I find my heart infinite and everywhere.”
From Activist to Outcast
Arash: “My friends tell me that if I go back to Iran, the government will welcome me home by killing me.”
KAYSERI, Turkey — Arash was part of Iran’s Green Movement, which protested against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom many considered to have been fraudulently elected. In his small room in the house he shares with another LGBT refugee in Kayseri, Arash shows the green T-shirt he wore during those days.
“Three years ago on this very day I was in the street near the University of Tehran, and they shot a guy next to me. His blood was on this T-shirt. I also saw the guy who shot him, who must have been 17 years old,”he says through a translator, adding that the shooter was working for the Basij, a paramilitary volunteer militia engaged in internal security and the suppression of dissident gatherings.
“I will never forget his face,” Arash says of the soldier. “He was too young.”
Arash, 27, was arrested during the protests, taken to jail and held for 48 hours. “They beat me and shocked me,” he says. It wasn’t the first time.
His problems with the government began four years earlier, about a year before the elections.
The father of one of Arash’s friends talked to his own father and expressed concern that he was gay. They reported Arash to the police as a homosexual — in Iran a capital offense.
The police came to the young man’s house and confiscated his desktop computer and other belongings. Citing a photo from a party full of gay friends, they arrested him and took him to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.
“First I spent a night at the police station, where they beat me and gave me electric shocks. I was forced to write a confession and I was sure that I would be killed.” As the police beat him, they asked Arash for the names of the others that were in the photos they found on his computer. “They beat me for an hour but I refused to say their names,” he says.
Arash spent two months in solitary confinement, wondering if he would be executed. “I talked to some of the people working in the prison and they were telling me I would never be free, that I was going to be killed,” he said.
During this time, Arash recalls two court hearings. At the second, a judge told him he would be in jail for 10 years unless he signed a paper saying he would never again engage in LGBT activities, and if the three people who reported him agreed to his release. “My mother went to them [the three men] crying, and they agreed,” he says. “I couldn’t believe I was free.”
For the year following his release, he stayed home, rarely leaving his room. “Being in jail for those two months was like two years to me. Once I got out I was scared of everything, even the wind. I couldn’t speak very well because of the shocking. I worked on getting my speech back for a year.”
Gradually, Arash regained his strength and his speech. He joined the Green Movement and became active in political protest once again. In May 2011, he recalls, he made the decision to focus on working alone rather than in a group. “Being in a group was too dangerous,” he says. “I started to focus on working on organizing LGBT Day in Iran.”
May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia and July 22 is the day a brave group of Iranians designated for their own celebrations. “In Iran many people think the psychological explanation of being gay is that it comes from the West,” Arash says.
During this time, Arash again encountered problems with the police. He wasn’t home but received a phone call from his sister: “She said, ‘Don’t come home. The police took your car and are looking for you.'”
He spent the next month at a friend’s house on the outskirts of Tehran before taking the bus to Ankara. “I was never thinking of leaving Iran. I wanted to stay and try to change things, both politically and for LGBT rights.” Now in Kayseri, he still dreams of returning. “My friends tell me that if I go back to Iran, the government will welcome me home by killing me.”
Since arriving in Turkey, Arash is doing his best to stay active, making films of other refugees, part of a series about LGBT Iranians that he had already started making in Iran.
Arash has also appeared on a Voice of America broadcast, speaking out about LGBT rights and the plight of Iranian refugees. Though a week after the broadcast, he says, two Iranian newspapers wrote that he was working for Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel, and for America.
“I do fear what would happen if I go back. My friends who are there tell me to come back, but my friends in Turkey say don’t go back,” he says. “If I were sure no one would hurt me I’d get a ticket and go back tonight.”
Since the time of the interview (summer 2012), Arash has moved to the US. He is currently living in Los Angeles, going to college and looking for work.
From Double Life to Greater Freedom Abroad
Danial: “Everyone looks at me like I’m a stranger. But there’s one thing that makes it better: I have the right to live here.”
TORONTO — Mohammad and Danial are at their new apartment in Toronto on one of the first warm days of spring. Sandals have replaced boots, and trees are redolent with blossoms. Shafts of light fall through gauzy curtains and day turns to dusk as they sit drinking tea.
This afternoon is the one-month anniversary of Mohammad and Danial’s move to Canada from Iran as LGBT refugees.
The living room has the new-home smell of a place that hasn’t yet taken on the scents of its inhabitants. Wheat grass sprouts in a small planter on the kitchen table. The sabzeh, bright and tender, is a sign of the coming Persian New Year, a symbol of rebirth.
Norooz, literally “new day,” is the most important holiday in Iran, signaling the beginning of spring. The year begins at the vernal equinox, the day when the Earth is tilted neither away nor towards the sun. The first 12 days of the holiday are marked by visits to family and friends. The 13th day, the end of the celebration, is usually spent picnicking.
The moment when the sun will cross directly over the Earth’s equator is still several days away. They both have yet to find jobs and are struggling to wrap their ears and tongues around a new language. They’ve left everything behind — families, friends, and livelihoods — in what may be one of the biggest trade-offs of their lives.
“Living in Iran was full of stress and worry,” Mohammad says. “I tried to solve the issues in order to stay because leaving all of your belongings and going into exile is not an easy thing to do. But at some point you can’t tolerate it anymore, and at that time I decided to leave.”
Back home, Mohammad, 29, lived a double life. At his job in a home-furnishings store, he feared his coworkers. At home, he worried his family would find out he was gay and turn him in to the police.
Danial, 26, has a similar story. After his second year of studying electronics at university, he was called into a meeting with the school’s security department because of rumors about his sexual orientation. Soon after, he received a letter of dismissal. A contact he had at the university told Danial he was lucky: “‘They are aware of everything, maybe more than you think. They mentioned your best friend’s name as well,'” he quotes his contact saying.
On the heels of getting kicked out of school, Danial’s mom told him it was best if he moved out of their family home. Years earlier, his mom had asked him to leave but an aunt had interfered on Danial’s behalf, saying he was too young to be on his own. “I don’t feel like I belong in this society,” he says of Canada. “Everyone looks at me like I’m a stranger. But there’s one thing that makes it better: I have the right to live here.”
Danial and Mohammad both left home by way of Turkey, a country that many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) refugees first flee to after leaving Iran. They did so reluctantly and with great ambivalence.
“I love Iran,” Mohammad says. “If ever I find out that society and culture is at a stage when they can accept me as a human being and not interfere in my personal life, I wouldn’t stay away.” Once they reached Turkey, they were in limbo for a year and a half before they were granted asylum by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and able to move to Canada.
“One of the good things I learned is to have patience. There were no other good things about that period,” Danial says, adding that he felt only marginally less precarious in Turkey than he did in Iran. “It is not a safe country. They pretend that it’s diverse and safe, but it’s not.”
Mohammad and Danial are two of the several hundred LGBT refugees who have left Iran in the last half dozen years with the help of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, an informal network of travel routes and safe houses that runs from Turkey to Toronto. Founded in 2006, the organization, originally under a different name, aims to provide protection and information to LGBT citizens of Iran and to help them leave, if they decide to.
Saghi Ghahraman, head of the Iranian Queer Organization, another Toronto-based organization that helps LGBT refugees, is also a refugee.
Ghahraman is at home in northern Toronto on a gray afternoon. Like Danial and Mohammad, she is preparing for the Persian New Year. Sprouts grow in shallow bowls on the bookshelf, next to a bright display of oranges. A poet and activist, Ghahraman left Iran in 1983 after sweeping arrests of Tudeh Party members and its women’s organization branch. In 2006, she and Arsham Parsi joined forces to help LGBT refugees; in 2008 the two parted ways and Parsi began a separate group, pursuing the same work under a different name. Today, both groups help similar populations within Iran and the diaspora.
Even today it remains difficult for outside or alternative information to reach many people in Iran, Ghahraman says, especially outside of the country’s urban centers. An experience that demonstrated the persistent censorship within Iran occurred in 2007, when the government shut down Shargh, a leading reformist newspaper, after it published an interview with Ghahraman.
Though the interview focused primarily on poetry and literature, it also included comments by Ghahraman stressing the importance of sexual freedom — the need for people to be themselves.
“Being gay is something I am and I can’t escape,” Mohammad says. “I know some people who decided to try the alternative, to live as a heterosexual, but they weren’t successful. It doesn’t work.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.