BABY STEPS. Arsham Parsi of the Iranian Queer Organization wants to get queer rights included in discussions of Iran's human rights offences.
A group fighting for the rights of homosexuals in Iran is holding a human rights conference in Toronto this month to draw attention to the country's nasty track record and to promote change there.
"Iranian law defines homo-sexuality as a crime punishable by death, denies women's equal rights with men, persecutes political dissidents and civil and human rights activists," states the press release from host group Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO).
Arsham Parsi, secretary-general of the group, says gay men and lesbians are not usually included when activists and politicians talk about human rights violations in Iran, an exclusion that led to the organization of the Sat, Jan 27 conference at the University Of Toronto.
"Never are they talking about LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] rights," says Parsi. "Right now, a queer organization is organizing a human rights symposium. We're showing that LGBT rights are human rights."
The keynote speaker will be Liberal MP Hedy Fry, speaking on the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms and its application to minorities. Other speakers include Barbara Hall, chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, representatives from Human Rights Watch and the International Gay And Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and El-Farouk Khaki of the queer Muslim organization Salaam Canada.
Parsi, 25, fled Iran in March 2005 after he learned that he was being hunted by the government for his work with what was then called the Persian Gay And Lesbian Organization. He had begun working for the organization when he was 22, after coming out in his teens. He was granted refugee status in Canada in May of this year.
Parsi says that when he first began realizing he was gay, he thought there was something wrong with him.
"When I was young, I couldn't tell my parents. I thought if I have these desires, I have problems with myself."
Parsi says he was saved when he began to find sites on the Internet about homosexuality. He says the Internet is still the primary way IRQO communicates with its 50,000 members, especially with those in Iran. He says members can access the group's website and receive electronic copies of its magazine.
Parsi says there is a long history of homosexuality in classical Iranian and Persian literature, but that for years there has been a reluctance to talk about it openly. He says that, contrary to most people's assumptions, the situation predates Iran's current religious regime which has been in place since the 1979 revolution.
Parsi says the last Shah, usually considered to be liberal, was responsible for tightening up laws that had allowed gay and lesbian couples to live openly together in essentially common-law marriages.
"The Shah added something to Iranian law about two people who wanted to live together. He added that it had to be between a man and a woman."
Parsi says it's not the intention of the IRQO to overthrow the religious authorities which now govern Iran.
"Right now, we aren't thinking of the regime. We have to work with LGBTs first, we have to work with society first. Imagine tomorrow if the religious government was replaced by the most democratic government in the world. We would still have problems. What about mothers and fathers? If the government says you have to kill homosexuals, the people support them, for the safety of children. They think LGBTs are rapists. They don't have any information.
"People don't like talking about our sexuality. We're not trying to promote homosexuality, just introduce it."
Parsi says these attitudes held by many in Iran help to fuel the country's high number of gender reassignment surgeries, as does the peculiar fact that gender reassignment surgery is legal in Iran.
"Homosexuality is illegal, but sex changes are legal. Many men are changing their sex. The one way you can sleep with men is to change your sex."
Parsi says it's also necessary to inform other countries about the realities of the situation in Iran. He points to a case involving a refugee claimant in Britain, a gay man who asked for refugee status after his boyfriend was executed in Iran in December of 2005.
"The British government didn't accept the boyfriend's refugee application. They said you have to prove the execution."
But Parsi says the Iranian government and authorities have learned to disguise their persecution of homosexuals. He says that because of international condemnation they now list other causes for arrests and executions, such as alcohol use or child abuse. He points to a 2003 case where police arrested 75 men.
"They didn't write in the report that they're gay. They wrote that they were drinking alcohol. And one of my gay friends was arrested recently in a coffeeshop, for meeting with two girls."
Perhaps the best-known case involving executions that may have been related to gay activity is similarly difficult to prove.
The case involves the 2005 executions of two young men in the city of Mashad. Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, believed to have been 18 and 17 respectively at the time of their deaths, were hanged. Initial reports claimed that they'd been put to death for their homosexuality, but later reports indicated the two young men had been convicted of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old. Parsi says it's impossible to know what really happened, as the proceedings were closed and no documents were made available.
But Parsi says that, despite the possibility of being executed, there are things happening on the ground in Iran.
"The people in Iran right now, they think the numbers of LGBTs are increasing. We have some members who are 70 years old. We're working more and we're seeing more."
Parsi says he also received some good news recently from a friend in Vancouver who had been planning to undergo gender reassignment surgery so he could sleep with men. Parsi says the man, after being in Canada, has come to accept his homosexuality.
Parsi says the daylong symposium is free to anyone who wants to attend. But he adds that the Iranian Queer Organization is solely dependent on donations to function.
"Donations will keep us alive. Don't leave Iranian LGBTs abandoned."