Arsham Parsi is the the founder and Executive Director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR), an international queer human rights non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Toronto, Canada. ACTUPorg spoke to Arsham about the group and the current situation for queer people in Iran.
Q. You were forced to leave Iran in 2005 because the authorities discovered you were working to help others in the queer community. Have things improved in any way since then for queer Iranians?
AP: It did not improve but the situation is changed because of our activism. Many Iranian queers are still being forced to leave their homeland just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. At this moment we are receiving 5-6 requests from Iranian queers who escaped Iran to Turkey, Europe and North American countries and claimed asylum. Since 2005 we have received 528 cases and about 260 of them are already resettled in a safe countries like, Canada, the United States and Europe. We expect to finalize about forty cases by the end of 2012 as well. the rest of them are still in a limbo situation and we need to help them.
However, in the Iranian society we were able to bring a change and educate them about queers and queer human rights. We have a long way ahead of us but now many Iranian hetrosexual youth are aware about queer rights and support this cause.
Q. Is the hostility and violence towards queer people a reflection of the religious establishment or a general popular view?
AP: It could be and it is not just about Islam. Other religions like Christianity and Judaism are not supporter of queer rights. I believe any “religion” has some sort of issue with this cause. I am not talking about faith. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and others as faiths are respectable but when they become part of politics and law and governing people, we see the problems. Even modernity, as long as modernity does not limit people, is respectable but when it comes to making barriers, we will see problems.
Q. Many would say it is best for queer people to work for change from within a country – why are so many are forced to flee rather than
stay and fight?
AP: That is true, in some places the result of their activism will not be execution. Imagine, in many Western countries activists are fighting for equality while they have some sort of protection as human beings but in Iran things are different. Safety and security and being alive to work on “change” is very important. Jewish people in the Nazi era could not stay in their hometown and fight, they had to leave in order to survive and now after many years we could see that they built their community worldwide.
In my opinion, it is not important where we are living, but it is significantly important where our focus is and how we are connected.
Q. What are the main challenges in working from the outside to help those in Iran?
AP: Communication and countering censorship is our big challenge. We need to be in contact with our queer fellow in Iran but it is very difficult due to Iran’s restrictions and filtering. Iran blocked all our websites and people do not have access to our materials and we have to come up with some other traditional methods or old fashioned means of communications like telephone.
Another challenge for our organization is being an organization in exile. We applied for some grants or scholarships to participate at some international conferences like ILGA. But we were rejected because they consider us an organization in a high level income countries like Canada but they do not consider that we are an Iranian organization in exile and we need more support.
Q. Social networking has been credited as one of the tools that helped the Arab Spring spread so quickly, are Twitter, Facebook etc. closely monitored in Iran and are they safe tools for activists or those looking for help?
AP: The Iranian queer movement is a very modern movement since, from the beginning, we used all online media and tools like websites, weblogs, Orkut, MySpace, Facebook, Tweeter, Google Plus, Online Radio, Online Magazines and the Internet were our virtual offices. It is difficult for our fellow Iranian queers in Iran to have access to all social media tools
but we are connected.
Q. How many countries are currently welcoming to queer refugees fleeing Iran and what is the track record of countries neighboring Iran ?
AP: Canada and the United States of America are the two major countries which accept Iranian queer refugees’ files from the UNHCR offices and in Europe, I can name the Netherlands, Germany and France which usually support Iranian queer asylum seekers. Norway, England and Switzerland have a large number of rejections and ‘at risk of deportation’ cases.
Q. Is it possible for Western countries to influence the government of Iran in any way to change the hostile climate for LGBT people? Will the US Secretary of State’s “Gay rights are human rights” speech have any effect on the regime or will it result in a backlash?
AP: Of course all International solidarity works and we vote for politicians and put them in office to support our rights and will. Unfortunately, at this moment most of International focus and sanctions on Iran is because of its nuclear program and in my opinion these sanctions should be focused on human rights violation.
As Hon. Hillary Clinton said in her wonderful speech, positions needs to work on this issue more and more. It should be more than a speech or statement. It should take into account and create a system to respect people’s basic rights. The United Nations’ structures need to be changed since its resolutions and decisions are not binding and just recommending a country stop killing its citizens is not enough. In my opinion, members of the UN needs to be banned if they do not follow the UN regulations.
It is funny that Iran is violating women rights but it was selected as part of women rights committee of the United Nations Human Rights Council. How we can expect one state to promote a right
while it does not recognize it? However, we need to be optimistic and put more pressure on our officials elected to do what we, voters, believe.
Q. What advice would you give a young queer person in Iran – stay or try and get out?
AP: In last eleven years that I have been working on this subject I never ever advise anyone to stay or leave because it is a very personal choice. No one can take responsibility for what will happen. Being a refugee and seeking asylum is not an easy task and I do not recommend it. I always advise my fellow Iranian queers to decide. If they are at risk of any kind of persecution and they feel their life would be in danger, they could leave but if they know that they could change their situation and find a way to live a little more comfortably, they can stay.
I personally will go back to Iran one day that there is no persecution for being a homosexual because there are lots of things to do.
Q. Quite often you are working to save lives, it must be both rewarding and incredibly frustrating. What keeps you going?
AP: It is. It is the most difficult job and I faced a lots of difficulties. My family got problem in Iran due to my activism and they had to leave Iran and seek asylum as well and it was one of the hardest time that I ever had in my life to see my family became a target for my activism in order to stop me. I could not see how my family had to leave all their belongings and leave Iran just to support me. They never ever blamed me for what I am doing and they supported me in anyway that they could.
I was accused by some people who hate me. I was attacked by some homophobic people. I got slapped in the face and lots more but I did not gave up because I believe in this cause. I made a promise with myself in 2001 that I should help my queer fellows no matter what happens and I am happy to say that I kept my promise so far. I forget all difficulties, frustrations when some one is granted asylum and smiles, or comes to a safe country and walks with no fear and smiles. Their “smiles” keep me going.
Q. DO you ever foresee a day when queer people can live open and proud lives in Iran and what would it take to get there?
AP: Of course, because people’s rights might be taken over for a time but it cannot last forever. Sooner or later we can get our rights back. All that my fellow Iranian queer activists and I do are an investment for that bright tomorrow. our tomorrow might not be the next sunshine but for sure it is a day.
IRQR’s website can be found here.