Arsham Parsi had just been accepted into an Iranian university to study to become a veterinarian when three of his friends who were either gay or transgender committed suicide.
He had previously worked with a doctor in his hometown of Shiraz in southern Iran who had been conducting research for a study on rates of HIV among gay and bisexual men, but he “decided to do something” after his friends took their own lives.
Parsi launched an online support group in 2001 that later became known as the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization. He formed another website for LGBT Iranians two years later, posting information under two pseudonyms.
“I just thought I have to do something,” Parsi told the Washington Blade during a June 12 interview at the Northwest D.C. offices of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank that focuses on national security and foreign policy, as he discussed his life as a gay man and Iran and his advocacy efforts. “At that time I didn’t know what I had to do.”
Parsi said local authorities in early 2005 began to follow him after they arrested two of his friends. He told the Blade that he decided to flee the country after learning about this surveillance.
Parsi took an overnight train from Shiraz and arrived in Tehran, the Iranian capital, the next afternoon. He said he had just missed the train to Turkey, so he took an overnight bus to Tabriz near the Turkish border.
“It was the most stressful trip that I had because I didn’t know what would happen,” he told Blade.
Parsi boarded a Turkey-bound train in Tabriz at 7 a.m. on March 5, 2005, knowing that he “couldn’t come back anymore.” He crossed the Turkish border less than six hours later.
“I just felt that I’m stepping into exile and I can’t go back,” said Parsi, noting he was crying when the train left Iran and entered Turkey. “It’s such a difficult feeling that you have to go and you have no rights to come back. If you go back, they may kill you.”
Parsi, 33, received refugee status from the U.N. Refugee Agency and received asylum from the Canadian government. He has lived in Toronto since April 2006.
He told the Blade the university that his two sisters attended expelled them because of his advocacy. Parsi said anti-gay graffiti appeared on the door of his parents’ home after he spoke with CNN, the BBC and other international media outlets — and local authorities soon opened a file on them titled “the promotion of homosexuality and corruption.”
His parents subsequently fled to Turkey before resettling in Toronto.
“It was very difficult for my parents to leave all their belongings in their 50s,” said Parsi. “They built their home, their situation. They left all their belongings just because of my work and my activism, and they never, ever blamed me for that.”
His organization, the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, has received nearly received 900 cases of LGBT people from his homeland who sought refuge in Canada, the U.S., Australia and Europe. Parsi told the Blade that 65 percent of them have been closed successfully.
“I have a really difficult job,” he said, noting his organization’s name reflects Canada’s role as a refuge for slaves who escaped the U.S. on the Underground Railroad during the 19th Century. “It’s not my job. It’s kind of my life and my passion.”
Parsi spoke with the Blade after he participated in a panel on Iran’s human rights record that took place at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.); Florida Congressman Ted Deutch and Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, vice chair of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and daughter of the late-former California Congressman Tom Lantos are among those who also took part.
Iran is a ‘paradox’
Iran is among the handful of countries in which homosexuality remains punishable by death.
Parsi told the Blade the Iranian government has executed more than 4,000 people under the auspices of their reported homosexuality between 1979 and 2000.
Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni were hanged in a square in Mashhad in northeastern Iran in 2005 after a court convicted them of raping a 13-year-old boy, although Parsi and other LGBT rights advocates claimed the authorities executed them because of their homosexuality.
Reports that emerged in March indicate that two gay men were executed in Rasht for “perversion.”
Parsi said the Iranian government does not highlight the sexual orientation of the people he said it continues to persecute because of the international outcry that followed Asgari and Maroni’s executions.
“I believe it’s going on right now, but we don’t know because the Islamic Republic of Iran is very smart right now,” said Parsi, referring to the executions of gay men. “Whenever I see a young man was executed, I said maybe he was an LGBT. I don’t know.”
Parsi noted to the Blade that gay men who can prove their homosexuality are exempt from serving in the military.
“It’s a paradox,” he said. “In one way they don’t want to have gay people in the military or in the camps — oh maybe they do something bad. They have sex and mess around. And in another way homosexuality is punishable by death and they have to prove that the doctors say this person is homosexual.”
Parsi also noted to the Blade and during the briefing that the Iranian government encourages transgender people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery — offering them financial assistance and other incentives to do so. He said nearly half of those who underwent the procedure were not trans, but gay.
Iran’s nuclear program is not ‘only issue’
Then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said during a 2007 speech at Columbia University that homosexuality does not exist in his country.
The United States and other countries greeted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election last year with cautious optimism, but Parsi told the Blade that he feels the new government in Tehran has changed very little.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the Iranian Queer Organization last December urged Iran in a letter to Rouhani to repeal the death penalty and other punishments used against LGBT Iranians. Parsi said the current Iranian president does not have “any authority” to stop this persecution because it comes directly from those within the Ministry of Justice whom Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directly appoints.
“I don’t support the Iranian government,” said Parsi. “We didn’t have a choice between a good person or a bad person or a good candidate or a bad candidate. It was just bad and worse.”
Talks between the U.S. and Iran over the country’s reported nuclear program are scheduled to resume this week in Vienna. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday signaled that Washington is open to potential military cooperation with Tehran to slow the advance of a group of Sunni extremists who have taken control of wide swaths of northern Iraq in recent days.
Parsi and others who took part in the Capitol Hill panel said the response to Iran’s nuclear program has come at the expense of efforts to highlight the country’s human rights record.
“Iran’s only issue is not its nuclear program,” Parsi told the Blade. “We have to focus on human rights.”
Parsi further noted the U.S. has one of the highest rates of executions in the world — only Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China execute more prisoner than this country as a 2011 Amnesty International report notes. He said that Washington “cannot blame” Tehran for executions because of its own policies towards capital punishment.
Advocacy is ‘investment for the future’
Parsi acknowledged to the Blade that remains unlikely he will be able to return to Iran.
He noted his organization continues to struggle to gain additional financial support and more volunteers. Parsi said he nevertheless remains optimistic that life for LGBT Iranians will someday improve.
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