At the age of 18, Yeganeh Dadui knew two things: one, that she was a lesbian; and two, even though she had just come to Canada from Iran, Toronto had a LGBT community she could join.
But it took Dadui a long time to connect her Iranian culture with her queer one.
“I just started finding more Iranian gays two years ago and I’ve been here since 1994,” Dadui said. “I was out, but I didn’t want to go into my own community because I didn’t know how they would react.”
Dadui’s reaction is far from naïve. In Iran, homosexuality is a capital offence punishable by death. In addition, a woman needs permission from her husband, (or if not married, from her father), to obtain a passport. Wearing a head scarf in public is mandatory.
But when Dadui found out about Ashram Parsi, an out Iranian gay man who works for the rights of Iranian queers, she began connecting with other queers from her culture.
Parsi is the founder and executive director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR). The organization does such things as co-ordinating English classes for queer Iranian refugee claimants in Turkey, and advocating on behalf of claimants at hearings. The small agency even manages to provide financial assistance to queer Iranians seeking asylum.
“We receive two refugees a month,” Parsi said. “That means two people leave Iran and ask (us) for help.”
For her part, Dadui volunteers with the IRQR. Right now, she’s working on a campaign to get refugee sponsorship for an Iranian couple in Turkey. The couple is straight. But IRQR has picked up their case because the woman, Mahtab Mirghaderi, is transsexual. She cannot return to Iran because people know about her gender identity. Her husband, Saleh Shahsave’s family rejected them because of it. The United Nations Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has denied their application twice.
“They can’t stay in Turkey because Turkey does not accept Iranian refugees,” Dadui said. “And they don’t have a income… We’re (trying) to get them out of Turkey. We’re trying to get sponsors here.”
Iran funds sex reassignment surgery as a way to “cure” homosexuality. Despite the legal sanction, Parsi says that transsexual and transgendered Iranians continue to feel the stigma. And Parsi says it’s particularly difficult for trans women, such as Mirghaderi. The reason is pure sexism, he says, because it’s easier to accept that someone would want to live as a man, than as a woman.
Many Iranian queers first end up in Turkey, because Iranians don’t need visas to enter the country. But Parsi says people will go anywhere they can to leave Iran.
“Most go to in Turkey, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines,” Parsi said. “We had one case who went to the UNHCR in Afghanistan.”
The English classes that the IRQR initiated in Turkey are located in one refugee claimant’s house. IRQR got him a white board, and some chairs. It’s makeshift, but getting results.
And it’s why Parsi relies on the settlement services in Toronto to provide direct services to the Iranians here.
“Taking care of the refugee process is very difficult,” Parsi said. “Right now our organization is dealing with almost 300 cases. Most of them are successful, and they are in Canada, the U.S. or Australia.”
Parsi says that IRQR volunteers help Iranian queers once they’ve arrived in Toronto with referrals to other settlement services. They may do things such as take a newcomer on a tour of Toronto or give advice. Otherwise, Parsi says the settlement services in Toronto are very queer positive.
Rebecca Butler, the youth worker at the settlement agency Culturelink, which has a program for queer newcomer youth, says it’s good to hear Toronto’s settlement agencies are queer positive. She gives some credit to a positive space initiative by Ontario Council of Agencies Services Immigrants (OCASI).
“The idea is … to make settlement services in general queer positive and make sure settlement services know about queer clients,” Butler said.
For her part, Dadui is seeing the changes in her Iranian community.
“I think a lot of people are coming around and learning about the LGBT issue,” Dadui said. “Parents are starting to get a little bit better with it, especially those ones that are here.”