'In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country...we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it.'
-- Remarks by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a speech at Columbia University, September 24, 2007
Nima, a lanky 29-year-old artisan from Tehran, doesn't exist. Neither does his shaggy hair or scruffy beard nor his brown eyes, anxiously tracking the February snow falling onto the lunar landscape. Sitting on this night bus heading to Ankara, the only thing next to me is a big, fuzzy sweater, a faded pair of jeans, and sneakers. Although they retain the shape of a man, in the eyes of Iran, there is no man there. Even here, in Turkey, where Nima and other gay Iranians have fled, they are refugees, caught in perpetual dawn. Passing through or, at any rate, not really there. The only thing that is clear is the sound of Nima's voice as he tells his story.
Nima and I talk frankly about being gay, since our fellow passengers are all Turkish and seem unlikely to share Nima's facility for English. But we still say 'g' for gay just in case. Nima's stories are stretched as taut as a bowstring between the past and the future. They exist as memories and as hope, but few of them are in the present tense. In Turkey, Nima is in a holding pattern. He hasn't had sex in a year and a half, longer than he's been in Turkey. 'Just a lot of jerking off,' he chuckles. Nima likes bears. For the past few years, he's been chatting with a guy in New Hampshire, and when he pictures where he'd like to end up, he thinks maybe Boston. Like any exile, he misses his family, though he's terrified of his father, a retired bank manager. He tells a story of bringing his father tea in a vessel he'd made, only for his father to turn on him, shouting, 'Don't bring me tea in that fucking thing!' We laugh at the story -- it's so awful it's funny -- like two schoolboys telling horror stories late into the night. But this one's true. If Nima's dad knew he was gay he'd try to kill him.
Around 10 p.m., we pull into Ankara's bus depot. It's still snowing, and Nima is nervous about his appointment in the morning. As an asylum seeker, he must convince investigators for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that his homosexuality and his government's persecution entitle him to refugee status. It's an audition for salvation. 'My friends told me to shape my eyebrows to look more 'g,' ' he says, 'but that's not me.' He pauses and asks me anxiously, 'Do you think I should?' I tell him he should just be himself and tell the truth.
Over the past several years, hundreds of LGBT people have escaped the repressive autocratic regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, forming a small but colorful jetty in the stream of fleeing religious minorities and political dissidents. Many are resettled in Kayseri, a religious, dull, flat city in the middle of Turkey, sort of the Turkish equivalent of Topeka. The town, overlooked by snow-capped Mount Erciyes, is an expanse of mostly new blocky buildings whose pastel colors barely relieve their monotony. It's a prosperous city, religious and frumpy -- far from the sexy, nightclubby flash of Istanbul. Thousands of refugees live in dingy flats behind the pastel facades, hoping to find a permanent home in this or another country. Among them, there are a few dozen LGBT asylum seekers who, even among these exiles, are exiled.
Life in Turkey is better, but not good. The state -- though blessed with a secular government -- is almost entirely Muslim. Outside the main metropolises of Istanbul and Ankara, the country is, in some places, more conservative than parts of Iran. In Kayseri, though head scarves aren't mandatory, many women wear them anyway. If everything goes smoothly, refugees will spend two or three years in this semi-existence before moving on to the United States, Canada, Australia, or Europe. It's an interminable wait. Leery of an influx of foreign labor, Turkey won't give refugees work papers or financial or social assistance, even while making them pay taxes. Refugees are corralled into smaller cities where, perhaps, they are easier to monitor. LGBT refugees are doubly vulnerable. They are discriminated against by merchants, landlords, and employers not only for being Iranian, but for being gay. Yet, in comparison to Iran, Turkey is a square deal.
To most Americans, Iran is a Saturday Night Live punch line of Muslim backwardness. Since 1979, it's been ruled by clerics with beards and gowns who enforce the draconian strictures of Sharia, or Islamic law. But for Iranians, especially gay Iranians, there is little to be laughed at. Being busted having gay sex or simply being at a gay party is punishable by arrest, flogging, or death, depending on the whims of the basijis, the country's loathed paramilitary morality police, and of the Islamic courts. Some human rights groups estimate that more than 4,000 LGBT people have been executed in Iran since the late 1970s. In 2005, international outrage flared when two teenage boys were hanged in the Iranian city of Mashad; the state claimed it was for raping a younger boy, but it was widely believed to be because they were gay. (Similar horror stories have emerged out of Shiite enclaves in Iraq, such as Sadr City in Baghdad, where two dozen men or boys believed to be gay have been murdered by death squads or family members enacting 'honor killings.')
But for Nima and the other refugees here, Iran is still home. It's not just a place of persecution and fear, it's the land of their friends and families and of the rich Persian culture of poetry and art that predates the ayatollahs by millennia. Nostalgia and memories for the texture and fabric of the lives they left behind make life in Turkey even more difficult. 'We're in a twilight zone,' Nima says. 'We're not in our home, and we're not where we want to be. It's so hard.'
'O you who've gone on pilgrimage --
where are you, where, oh where?
Here, here is the Beloved!
Oh come now, come, oh come!
Your friend, he is your neighbor,
he is next to your wall --
You, erring in the desert --
what air of love is this?
-- The 13th century Persian poet Rumi,
I Am Wind, You Are Fire
On Valentine's night in Kayseri in an apartment filled with secondhand furniture, cigarette smoke, and house music, a dozen gay refugees drink beer and smoke a hookah. There are five gay men -- Nima, Babak, Arad, Payam, and Parsa -- five lesbians -- Sahar, Diba, Sara, Setarah, and Elnaz -- and two trans women, Sheyda and Artin. They are all in their 20s and 30s, and have been in Turkey anywhere from a few days to well over a year. Artin -- who calls herself trans and wears long, dark hair and a five o'clock shadow -- entertains us with her tale of the 'straight' Turkish boyfriend she met on the street here, not such an unusual occurrence despite Kayseri's overall chilliness toward LGBT people and refugees. Artin's sexcapade is hilarious. 'I've realized I'm a transsexual who's a top,' she concludes. Everybody laughs. For most of these refugees, primarily middle-class and from the big cities of Tehran and Shiraz, Turkey is their first time outside Iran -- and their first time publicly socializing with the opposite sex, something forbidden in Iran. Still, even at this private gathering of friends, the men and women sit apart. There is something still clandestine and uneasy about the party. Despite the 180-bpm music and the chatter in their native language of Farsi, there are long spells of silence. Displacement hangs like hookah smoke in the air. It could be because I'm there and any attention could bring danger to the families of these men and women. I can't even say Nima's real name without endangering him. They remain as nameless as they are homeless.
According to its website, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, based in Geneva, helps 'people restart their lives. Today, a staff of around 6,500 people in more than 116 countries continues to help 31.7 million persons.' Among the 31.7 million refugees are victims from Darfur and Iraq whose plights make the Iranian LGBT community's situation look tame by comparison. So here they sit, in limbo in Kayseri, for who knows how long.
After fleeing Iran, refugees begin the glacial process of applying for refugee status. The first stop is Ankara, where they register with the UNHCR. After registering, they'll receive an initial interview date that's often months away. After their first interview, they must wait several more months to see if they've been granted asylum. Once asylum is granted, they wait months more for an interview to determine which country they'll go to, then months more for a second interview, plus medical exams. Finally, most seem to fly to Los Angeles, Toronto, or Vancouver -- all cities with large Iranian communities. The whole process takes, on average, two years.
Meanwhile, they sleep and chain-smoke and do their best to slow down their lives so they don't miss too much of them. On cable TV, they watch salacious flesh- and booty-filled Iranian music videos, produced in L.A. but familiar from Iran, where they're watched on illegal but common satellite dishes. My handsome translator, Babak, has managed to secure a laptop and Internet connection -- a rare commodity for the refugees, who usually come here with not more than $1,000. Babak goes to the gym and earns money teaching English to Turks a few days a week, but his busy days are the exception. 'Payam and Arad sleep all the time, and it's not normal,' he tells me.
Danger and depression collude to hem the refugees in a claustrophobic stasis. Few bother trying to get jobs -- they're usually turned away when they inquire, they say.They don't like to leave the house because they're hassled in the street. Artin says she was with another trans person and a few gay guys one night when they were jumped by Kayseri guys. The day I arrive, apparently, Sheyda -- a stylish post-op trans woman who wears spiky platinum hair pieces in her red, curly hair -- was carted to the police station by laughing cops who tried to take cell phone pictures of her. She resisted, and they let her go. But Babak is especially worried about crop-topped, glum-faced Sahar, who had her initial UNHCR interview five months ago and still hasn't gotten asylum status. One afternoon around lunchtime, she cries quietly, afraid she'll be left behind.
Mostly the refugees stay at home, hidden from sight, up until 4 or 5 a.m. watching downloaded movies, then crashing until mid-afternoon in one bedroom packed with twin mattresses, where all five housemates sleep to save on the heat.
The long detailed stories that led to their exile pursue them, teeth bared and terrifying. Babak -- who, like most young Iranians, was still living with his parents -- was in bed with his secret boyfriend when his boyfriend's father, a member of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard military corps, walked in and found them. He furiously threw a vase at them and hounded Babak from Iran: Using his connections, he got him fired from his medical job, sent cars following Babak on his walk home, and finally called and threatened to kill him. Since leaving, Babak has asked friends about his boyfriend, but hasn't received any news.
Parsa was caught by his dad's friend having sex with his boyfriend in a car near his home, and locked in his house. After escaping to a friend's, his sister brought him money and a passport and told him not to come home again. Payam's boyfriend was secretly videotaping them having sex, then blackmailed Payam, saying he'd show it to the basijis, until Payam, terrified his family would find out, fled.
The stories in the small cramped bedroom are astonishing in the scale of their tragedy. Sheyda, the stylish trans woman, says she was engaged to a man whose family forbade the wedding because she was trans. So her fianc' killed himself and the family swore they'd kill her in revenge.
Kasra, a baby-faced, diabetic 31-year-old, was kissing his brother's friend at night in a Tehran park when they were confronted by two basijis. The friend ran, but Kasra, his sugar-level dropping, tripped and fell. The basijis took him to a house, raped him for 20 minutes, noticed his diabetic ID card, gave him some sugar water, then dropped him off at his home. A few days later, they showed up there to take him to be raped by three more basijis. Kasra asked for a moment to get ready, escaped out the back door, and grabbed a taxi to the bus station. 'I called my family and told them I'd left for a better life,' he says. 'They think I left for medical reasons.' He wants to go to Sydney, train as a psychologist, and build a pitched-roof house on the beach, like those in northern Iran. 'I'm thinking about the day I'll be in a better place, with a partner with his head on my shoulder.'
'Self-identification as LGBT should be taken as an indication of the individual's sexual orientation....In the assessment of LGBT claims, stereotypical images of LGBT persons must be avoided, such as expecting a particular 'flamboyant' or feminine demeanour in gay men, or 'butch' or masculine appearance in lesbian women.'
-- UNHCR Guidance Note
Outside the UNHCR building, Nima and I join a motley crew of about 30 other refugees. Theirs is a catalog of cruelty. While a group of veiled Somali women chat nearby, I talk with a family of Christians who fled persecution in Iraq. After Nima and the others are let in the high-security portal for refugees, I meet Eduardo Yrezabal, a Spaniard who heads the department that interviews refugees and decides their cases.
'We're overwhelmed,' he says. The number of refugee cases has spiked from about 4,000 a year to more than 18,000 last year due to a surge of fleeing Iraqis, but his staff has barely grown. Meanwhile, Turkey refuses to help its temporary refugees, leaving all the work to UNHCR. From 2008 alone, there are still 7,000 unresolved cases, and so days turn to months, then years. I take out Sahar's letter, and he pulls up her case on the computer. Will she be granted asylum soon? 'Inshallah,' he says -- Arabic for God willing. What about Arad, waiting so long to fly to Canada? He pulls up Arad's case. 'He's had bad luck,' he says. Apparently Canada's taken its quota for the year and won't consider new cases until 2010.
Yrezabal says that his interviewers have become more savvy and more sensitive about interviewing LGBT cases. Ultimately, they don't need to hear a horror story; they just need to believe the person -- especially a straight-appearing, straight-acting person, like Nima -- is truly gay and at risk of harm if he returns. They err on the side of caution; up to 90 percent of such cases are granted asylum, long waits in Turkey notwithstanding.
At 1 p.m. we go downstairs to check on Nima, who's been sitting for five hours in a locked, guarded cage with the other refugees. Yrezabal gets Nima into an interview within the hour while I leave UNHCR and go wait in a caf' where we had agreed to meet at day's end. Four hours later, Nima arrives, too worked up to be hungry. His interview was three hours long with one cigarette break.
He retells the story he told the interviewer: He had a secret boyfriend who, unbeknownst to Nima, was a cleric -- or mullah -- being trailed by the secret police after they were spied having sex in a car. The police came for Nima first and made him sign a statement identifying the mullah as his sex partner. They let Nima go with a few slaps and a warning against gay sex, but a few weeks later he got a letter calling him to appear in court. Fearing the consequences, Nima fled.
The prosecutorial questions of the UNHCR investigator made recounting the ordeal even more traumatic. 'The interviewer kept interrupting me,' he says. ' 'What was the color of the car you had sex in? What was the exact name of the court to which you were called to appear? What was the name of the police officer? How did you know you could come to Turkey?' He kept asking me for dates, but I can't remember exact dates.' Then the questions became explicit. ' 'Are you a bottom or a top?' How was your first intercourse?' I told him, 'It was painful, but I enjoyed it.' He said, 'I don't understand how you can enjoy when you have pain.' I said, 'If you want me to explain that, you're really getting into details,' and he said, 'You're right.' '
The interviewer also asked how he and the mullah met in the first place. 'I told him we made eye contact on the street,' Nima tells me. 'And he asked, 'You guys are able to talk with the eyes? I don't understand that. Explain it more.' But it was difficult because what I was talking about was 100 percent gay. If I explain it to you, you understand,' he says, 'We know how easy it is to communicate with the eyes.'
The next morning, Nima took a bus back to his Turkish village to await word of his fate. For him, North America wasn't just a destination but a necessary existential state. In Iran, he didn't exist. In Turkey, he was but a phantom. But in North America, perhaps he would finally be a man.
'Two Iranian[s]'who claim they face death in their homeland because they're homosexuals touched down [here] last night after being granted refugee status in Canada. Ali, 32, and Mohammad, 25, arrived'after a long trip from India' 'It took them three years to get here,' said Arsham Parsi, of Iranian Queer Railroad, which helped bring the men here. 'Canada is a gay-friendly country and they will be successful here.''
-- Toronto Sun, February 12, 2009
Saturday night in Toronto is everything Valentine's Day in Kayseri isn't. Toronto is huge, global, progressive, gay-friendly. On the main drag in the charming, brick Victorian district called Gay Village, a few blocks bristle with bars, bathhouses, and boutiques. Gays of every stripe -- skinny fashionistas, burly bears, trans punks -- strut and chatter in the street.
I'm headed to Woody's, a gay-pub multiplex, with four Iranian gay refugees who've made it to this promised land: Arsham Parsi, 28, the face of the gay Iranian refugee movement, has been here for nearly three years; his friend Soroush, 30, arrived 16 months ago; and Mohammad, 25, and Ali, 32, arrived less than two weeks ago. Though all four are Iranian, they came to Woody's via vastly different routes. Ali fled Iran after he and his colleagues at a newspaper criticized the government in the press. First, he went to the Netherlands, then -- depressed and seeking spiritual counsel -- to an ashram in southern India. There, he met and befriended Mohammad, who had fled Iran after being arrested at a gay party in Shiraz.
Ali and Mohammad are staying with Arsham, a boyish-looking, bespectacled computer whiz who started PersianGayBoy .com in 2005 while still living in Iran. When the site appeared on the state's radar, he fled for Kayseri. A year later, he arrived in Toronto, where he started his own nonprofit to help refugees, Iranian Queer Railroad (Irqr.net). Funny, charming, and just grandiose enough to frequently liken himself to Harvey Milk, he is constantly on the computer or his BlackBerry fielding pleas and queries from LGBT Iranians. He is virtually the only Iranian gay refugee who has gone public, even among those in the West.
Our evening started nearby at Arsham's cozy one-bedroom apartment, for which he pays $100 a month thanks to assistance from Canada, which gives refugees housing and financial support their first year here. As we drank tea and smoked, the boys gossiped, but the usual gripes came with added undertones. Soroush said he was depressed because his butch-top Iranian boyfriend here had left him for a woman, and he didn't know where he was going to find another butch-top Iranian boyfriend who'd treat him like the Iranian wife he wants to be. 'I've met some guys who said they were only a top, but then when we had sex, they wanted me to fuck them,' he complained.
'I'm taking Soroush to a psychologist,' Arsham interjected. 'But I'm not sure if we'll go to an Iranian one, because he might want to try to cure him.' Most straight Iranians in Toronto -- as elsewhere -- have remained homophobic, Arsham said, and the gay ones live in a state of heightened anxiety lest word about them make its way back to Iran and bring shame and perhaps danger to their families.
The next stop was a T.G.I. Friday's'type place for dinner where Mohammad and Ali marveled over the nachos. Arsham and Ali, intense and politically minded, discussed at length whether Iran would ever become more open. 'I don't care about Iran anymore, if it becomes a utopia or not,' Ali finally said bitterly. 'It's behind me. All I care about is my family.' He hadn't seen them in eight years.
Finally, at Woody's, a black drag queen does the requisite 'Single Ladies' lip-synch and dance as the boys gawk. Though Ali lived in Amsterdam, this is the first time long-haired, gentle-voiced Mohammad has been to a gay bar. He watches the goings-on with unblinking incredulity. 'Why do people want to watch men dressed up as -- what do you call them?' he asks me. 'Drag queens? That sounds like drug queens.' As the queen wraps up her Beyonc' act, Mohammad says, 'I lived 20 years of my life in a Muslim country and then three in India. I'm not comfortable with this.'
A bare-ass contest is the next act up. Arsham watches with mild amusement, but Mohammad, Ali, and Soroush look on joylessly. Suddenly, a spectacle I would usually consider trashy fun feels like an unsexy, joyless embarrassment. Is this what these guys have waited so long for? Is this the best that freedom can offer?
Mohammad is quiet and moody after the show. Ali says, 'I know how he feels, coming from a closed society. I felt that way when I first got to Amsterdam. This guy on the street said to me, 'French-kiss me.' We did it with people passing, and nobody even looked! I couldn't believe it. I thought sex was wrong and all that mattered was emotion. I had handsome, rich Dutch men who loved me and wanted to have sex all the time. I couldn't understand it. But now I know they were right. You can have sex and emotion together.'
Mohammad, Ali, Soroush, and Arsham weave their way through Gay Village, an odd quartet in the late night.
'Arriving in the U.S. or Canada is the start of a new phase of a different struggle,' explains Hossein Alizadeh, the Middle East specialist for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. 'There is a huge vacuum in your life. You are not equipped with what it takes to survive in Western society. The bar culture, the dancing, the language -- people can feel very lonely and isolated. LGBTs aren't accepted by the Iranian community in those cities, but gay society doesn't think you're one of them either.'
Six weeks after his interview, Nima leaves me a Facebook message. He's still in his rural Turkish village, where he practices his craft but makes no money at it. Steve, his online friend from New Hampshire, had come to visit him. Otherwise, he wrote, 'Nothing from U.N. I'll wait another week.' Another week in no man's land.