I am very pleased to be in Jerusalem or in Farsi, Urshalim. Although I am not a nationalist, there is an historical story associated with Jerusalem for me as an Iranian. Around 540 BC Cyrus the Great claimed the city of Babylonia as his own, and in short order repatriated displaced peoples, restored temples and cult sanctuaries. Indeed his infamous “Cyrus cylinder” is thought by some to have been the first declaration of human rights. As one who has dedicated my life’s work to the cause of equal and human rights for my fellow man, I am humbled to visit this place where my ancestral countryman first envisioned a world of equality for all.
I believe is the issues we face today are as important or more so than what we dealt with a few thousand years ago, but for academic purposes I learned the history. Studying these stories at school raised significant questions for me that I am still struggling with. Who am I and what are my responsibilities towards other people? What should I do, not only for my wellbeing but also for others? What must my priorities be?
As you can see from your program, my name is Arsham Parsi; I am an Iranian queer activist. But what you might not know is that I have two birthdays. One is my date of birth, September 20th. I was born into a middle class family but as a full citizen of Iran. However, my rights and freedom were denied in my country of birth due to my sexual orientation. My second birthday is on May 10th, 2006 the day I arrived in Canada as an Iranian homosexual, finally complete with the right to freedom and ability to pursue my goals and dreams and ultimately contribute my efforts on behalf of my fellow Iranian queers.
I went through many difficulties and challenges in between my two birthdays but I think all of these obstacles helped me to become stronger and ready to face other challenges especially as an activist.
I lived most of my childhood and adolescent years in silence and fear. Like many gay men, I felt from a very young age that I was different from my peers. As a teenager I began to associate this sense of difference with my attraction to men. I had limited access to information about homosexuality but soon I realized that in order to survive I would have to hide my true feelings and conform to the social norms of my culture.
A friend of mine loaned me a book that had a short chapter about homosexuality, it was the first material I had ever read regarding homosexuality. It described the sin of sodomy and stated that it was punishable within major religions.
I tried to become a so called “good person”. I prayed and practiced a lot more than other religious people. I felt that I was the only person in the world with these feelings and God hated me. I placed many restrictions on my daily life in order to punish myself whenever I felt guilty or that I was a sinner. After a while, I started to challenge my God. Why did you create me like this if it is wrong since it is known by believers that God is a just God and never makes mistakes? I could not see any justice when some people are legal and free, while others are condemned to death or other punishments and discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender, nationality, political opinion, religion or any other personal attribute or belief
In Iran, homosexuality is illegal. Punishment for engaging in sexual behaviour with a person of the same sex includes imprisonment, flogging and execution. Socially, the stigma attached to homosexuality carries the consequences of isolation, forced heterosexual marriages and exclusion from one’s family. It means a life lived in fear.
As my circle of friends grew, however, I became increasingly concerned about the stories I was hearing. People forced into loveless marriages to preserve their family’s honour; gay men entrapped through the Internet or in person. When two of my friends committed suicide out of desperation, I felt I had no choice but to act. I started by tackling the social isolation felt by many queer Iranians and then began to challenge the culturally and legally sanctioned homophobia impacting their lives.
Relying on the relative anonymity of the Internet, I started Iran’s first underground queer organization, Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization or PGLO. Starting with the email addresses of my queer friends, I began to send positive information about homosexuality.
It started small. Mostly it was me sending encouraging emails and information to my friends and subscribers. As I learned more and I saw how important it was for these people to find a connection with others, I expanded my work. We developed a website and finally, with the help of a friend in Norway we registered the organization there. I started to give interviews with international media to share our stories. I tried to accept as many invitations to speak on behalf of those who were unable to as I could. I wanted others to know that we existed and that we were struggling. However with limited access to resources, I began my work through the Internet in order to reach all Iranians worldwide. I decided to create a new form of organization and activism online. Even with no funding and the risk of being caught, I was able to establish large network for my cause. I believe it is proven that we can accomplish many things without funding and with limited resources, sometimes with a much greater effect on people’s lives than through large, well-funded organizations.
The organization continued to expand, providing support and opportunities for connection for the Iranian queer community. My international media profile increased as I strove to educate those outside of the country about the Iranian situation. I understood the risk I was taking, but my fear was outweighed by the sense of responsibility I felt to my community.
It wasn’t long, however, before the risks became too great to ignore and my life and the future of my activities were in danger.
In 2004, Iran’s secret police raided a party attended by members of Shiraz’s queer community. Several of my friends were arrested, tortured and “outed” to shamed family members. Capitalizing on the detainees’ fear, officials collected additional information that led to a series of raids over the next several months. The police harassment and intimidation drove the community further into silence and isolation. I was able to learn from those arrested that I was a target and that my organization was a topic of many interrogations. As the days and weeks went by I could feel them getting closer. I knew that if I was to protect myself and my family I had no choice but to flee.
I was an asylum seeker in an unjust situation and poor conditions but my activism was the first priority for me. I remember my Iranian queer roommates and I struggled to eat a meal once a day but I never gave up and instead became more active in my cause. According to a psychologist, sometimes this level of activity can be a sign of displacement and depression. . I never felt that I was depressed but if that was the case, I used my depression to bring change to my community. I felt I was a survivor and as such I wanted to fight back.
My newly established organization was my companion during my long journey from Iran to Canada via Turkey. I did not have an academic degree or acquire abundant experiences. I was very young to take leadership of my organization and deal with serious life threatening issues. However, I had something that I felt would compensate for my lack of formal training and experience I had hope and I already decided to act. I knew that nothing could stop me and moreover, I knew myself. I knew I could do whatever I decided and I felt strong about it. So, I was able to meet the challenges that lay before me.
In Canada, with the help of a few supporters, we established the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees which is actively working on behalf of more than 480 Iranian refugee claimants living in limbo throughout the world as well as those who live in Iran. We created Neda Magazine. Neda means “Voice” in Persian and it is an online monthly magazine for Iranian queers. We also launched an online radio station with help of a number of Iranian queers called Raha, which means “Liberation”, where queer individuals have the opportunity to share their stories to others in order to raise awareness and also as a way to be heard. Our organization not only aids refugees but has expanded to help parents, families and friends of queer individuals through an Iran PFLAG project. Furthermore, we have recently launched the NIQHA project which provides information about HIV/AIDS and Sexual Transmitted Infections in the Persian language to raise awareness about different STIs and prevention methods. This work has been very important and it is what I feel I am meant to do with my life but our work is still not finished and we continue on our mission
We have been quite successful in helping Iranian queers who needed support. However, we have limited resources and are restricted to helping only Iranians. This does not stop me from thinking about other countries and communities. In the last few years IRQR has managed to provide support and help to three Afghans, two Palestinians and one Iraqi queer refugee who escaped their homes and sought asylum in Turkey through the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.
Speaking of the UNHCR, one of my challenges was to establish a professional relationship with international organizations as well as individual activists from all around the world in order to use their experiences and have their support. In the last eleven years, I learned that through dialog and communication with other allies or even those who are in disagreement, we can find solutions for common interests.
I was able to meet the prominent international officials including senators, ministers and members of various parliaments worldwide. It was stressful for me to speak publicly at the 2nd session of the United Nations Human Right Council in Geneva, or meet the UN Human Rights Commissioner, and others, but I knew that I had to do it regardless of any fears I had. I was there to learn and move the Iranian queer human rights cause forward.
Long story short, I learned that I could meet the challenges and have no fear of them. I believe that when we become united and work together, we can overcome all challenges and take the next steps.
Because of the choices I’ve made, I know that I can never return to Iran. Although I suffered many hardships there, it is still my beloved home country where I was born and raised. I would like to share this with you because I believe in your future of activism and leadership in the global queer cause, although you will certainly encounter dilemmas where you must make difficult decisions. Most times, decision making is not an easy task. You are responsible for your choices and you should be ready to respond to those with opposing views. But the best decision is made when you know the situation and the circumstances and choose what the least harmful decision to all is. And it is a big challenge.
I remind myself of the promise I made to myself eleven years ago when I decided to do something for my community just after the tragic incidents of my two friends’ suicides. I decided to speak on behalf of those who cannot, and where ever and whenever possible to break the silence. I left all my belongings in Iran including my family, my job, my school and everything I had ever known just to do what I felt I had to.
Speaking here today, I chose to continue my mission to support my Iranian queer fellows and to speak on their behalf.
I am here today to talk about peace, love and human rights. I want to speak on behalf of all groups who are unable to be here with us today. We all know that there are many things going on in this world that we do not agree with or are not happy about. Discrimination still remains around the world especially towards queer communities. We all know that homophobia exists in almost all countries, even in my new home Canada, known as a land of human rights. In many countries being a queer individual can lead to some sort of criminal punishment. But I am optimistic. I continue to believe that, we can start a new approach for our global queer family’s future toward diversity, respect, tolerance and freedom.
I would like to suggest a one minute of silence with the peace “V” sign to wish for a day of peace, freedom, equality and justice for all citizens of the globe regardless of their sexual orientation, nationality, religion, gender, political opinion and other differences.
— one minute silence —
I am looking forward to that day with you and tomorrow’s queer leaders.
Thank you so much.