No Man's Land


By Tim Murphy

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 ( 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.

Learn more about and how to help LGBT Iranian refugees at We will follow their progress periodically at

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