Sep 24, 2007
News: Arsham Parsi Spoke at Gozar Panel in Toronto
By Danny Sonnenschein
(Canada) - Arsham Parsi, Executive Director of the Iranian Queer Organization, delivered a speech at Gozar Panel 'Silenced Voices' in Toronto on 16 September. He spoke of stonings and executions of Gay people in Iran, of the injustice and inequity, and manifold problems Iranian Gays face in exile. Sadly, many refugees are confronted by almost the same situation they met inside Iran since they are pressured by the Iranian diaspora community to live in a social ghetto. The GRD publishes here the transcription of the speech in its full length.
To begin with, I would like to thank Gozaar – A Journal on Democracy and Human Rights in Iran - and its editor Sasan Ghahreman for inviting the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO) here today so we could be with you.
After spending a five-year period in Iran and Turkey, IRQO was registered in Canada in 2006 under the directorship of Arsham Parsi, Niaz Salimi, Victoria Tahmasebi, Saghi Ghahraman, Raha Bahraini and Sam Kosha. Cheraq Magazine is the official organ of IRQO and 32 issues have been published so far. Our work focuses on cultural and social issues as they apply to queer identity. In addition, in cases where a queer individual is forced to leave Iran, we support their asylum and resettlement process.
The title of this program is an interesting one: silenced voices. The inherent paradox of this phrase accurately describes the lives of Iranian queers - homosexual, bisexual, and transgender Iranians whom, as a result of societal pressure, are forced to deny and censor themselves, put on masks to appease the people around them, and live deprived of their human rights.
A century has passed since the times when people feared using the word 'democracy'. If someone spoke of universal suffrage, they would face condemnation. Talk of democracy and individual rights had to take place secretly. But once these discourses rose up from attics and basements and became publicly discussed and acknowledged, no one could censor or suppress them any longer. Liberty, democracy and equality became recognized as legitimate human aspirations.
Queer rights are no exception. To this day speaking about sexuality is considered immoral. Talk of sexuality and sexual orientation is taboo; it is banned and considered as crossing a red line. Yet if we are honest with ourselves we recognize that in our private lives there are unspoken things we have all either suppressed or hidden; falling in love, being loved, sexual orientations outside social norm, attractions and sexual preferences outside convention, particular interests, friends who were not only friends, who were companions and confidants yet we said nothing. Perhaps because of fear, fear of being driven to isolation and groundless convictions, or perhaps it was because we were not informed about our rights.
The current discourse about queer rights, like other rights-related issues, is like spilled milk which cannot be gathered up once it has been spilt. This spillage is only a few years old. Radio and television programmes, newspapers and more recently even official media outlets from inside Iran have paid attention to this topic. Many still do not want to accept that when they speak of equality and rights for all, queer individuals are amongst the 'all' they speak of. They do not want to accept that their society, like a radio, is a wave that can shift with a slight change of position from "This Is Tehran" to "The Voice of America" or "The Voice of New Delhi". In listening to the radio, we easily traverse multiple cultures, languages and borders, experiencing this change and variety as completely natural. This variation in wavelengths manifests itself in society as the differences that exist amongst people. I like the colour red and you like the colour blue. One person is homosexual, another heterosexual, and another asexual. It is that simple. Yes, the variety of tastes is a simple matter.
In most Western societies today, no one can deny the existence of queers or deprive them of their rights. They see queers amongst their families, friends and acquaintances and become acquainted with their lifestyle as it stands against the framework of social norms. Many individuals have come out of the closet and decided not to surrender to people’s attempts to silence them. They have decided to write, speak, be present in social gatherings, shake hands with people, participate in religious ceremonies of their choice, get involved in current social and political affairs, participate in political events, become politically active, asses and analyze current news, and not allow anyone to deprive them from social activity because of their sexual orientation.
Even though in previous years stoning and execution were the verdicts issued for homosexuality, today such sentencing cannot be issued as easily. The injustice and inequity directed at Iranian queers has been felt. They have one organization and six publications. They report the news. They have become aware of their rights and will not allow others to condemn or silence them. They do not seek war, uprising or revolt but they are protesting. When the British government decided to deport Pegah Emambakhsh, a 40 year old Iranian lesbian, back to Iran IRQO publicized this news extensively. The queer community did not react with hostile slogans. Instead within forty eight hours more than six hundred bouquets of flowers were sent to her detention centre with notes that said “from Pegah’s friends - she must stay in England”. If a few years ago Western governments could deport queer refugees back to Iran without the public knowing, today they cannot.
But the life of Iranian queers is still difficult and this is not necessarily limited to the geographic region of Iran. In Western countries queer Iranians face almost the same situation they face inside Iran and are pressured by the Iranian diaspora community to live in a social ghetto. How many queers do you know who participate in your community events, and how does that number compare to the number of queer Iranians who live in your city? By taking into account the number of people I know, I can roughly estimate this number to be near 2 or 3 percent. The situation is more difficult in Iran. Their visible presence in society can trigger their arrests and persecutions and in the best circumstances if they are not flogged as punishment, they are charged with heavy fines.
Suppression of queer identity in Iran is pandemic and does not only involve the government. The people also have a role to play in societal pressures directed at queer Iranians. There are reports of family members being responsible for the murder of queer individuals due to their sexual orientation. The local newspaper Golestan that is published in Gilan province reported last year that in the provincial village of Ageh Bisheh a father lit his son on fire by spilling gasoline on him and then proceeded to burn himself. The article explained that once the father became aware of his son’s homosexuality, he took this course of action to preserve familial honor. To save face his 18 year old son died and the father’s face and hands suffered burns. These harrowing incidents occur in high numbers in Iranian cities and villages and the motives are usually never clarified in newspapers. Three years ago, a 20 year old homosexual committed suicide by drinking rat poison as a result of family pressures directed at him after his sexual orientation had come to light. No newspaper reported the incident and in his funeral it was announced that he had killed himself because he had been in love with a girl whom his family disapproved of. These acts of suppression have painful consequences which the families are usually not aware of.
In the year 1384 (2005) two transgenders were murdered in their respective private residences in Tehran - one stabbed by a knife, the other strangled with a curtain draw-back. Again no newspaper reported the incident. In the process of investigating amongst their close friends we came to know that their suitors were infuriated after discovering that these two had previously been male and had changed their sex. The suitors decided to murder them because it was a disgrace to their families and they wanted to remove the stain so it would not pollute others.
Many existing documents prove these human rights violations. There are also many unconfirmed reports under investigation. Queer rights are a new issue, and many human rights activists and intellectuals have not yet found an effective way to address it. In an interview published in Cheraq’s 28th volume, Kaveh, a 25 year old gay man says:
“In my opinion another problem that exists in Iran is that people don’t know anything about homosexuality. Many people are gay but don’t know it. They get married and after a couple of years they realize that their marriage is not working and they get divorced. Or they are scared to be gay; they hide it and don’t give any value to the feelings they have. In Iranian families, if a child is mentally challenged the family takes care of him with everything they have and don’t allow anyone to even mildly insult him. They don’t treat their mentally challenged child any different than their healthy one. If anything they pay more attention to the mentally challenged child because they accept his situation as a normal social reality. They say “just as one person can be healthy, another can be challenged, it is God’s will.” But they don’t accept homosexuality and tell themselves that their child is not gay. He is merely a pleasure seeker who has become morally corrupt and does immoral and lascivious things, but will eventually come to his senses and end this behaviour. They don’t see homosexuality as a normal social reality but a matter of choice. Yet they don’t see their own heterosexuality as a choice, they recognize it as an instinctive quality. They say: we were heterosexual, we didn’t become heterosexual. Well, we haven’t chosen to be gay either; we were born gay so we are gay. Many people ask us: why did you become gay? In response we can only ask them: why have you become straight? What other answer can we give?”