Arsham Parsi is an Iranian LGBT Human Rights activist who lives in exile in Canada. He is the founder and head of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR), an advocacy group on behalf of LGBTs fleeing Iran. We had the chance to speak to Arsham Parsi during his visit to Berlin in early May.
Mr. Parsi, you are a well-known human rights campaigner. What is your cause?
I am an Iranian queer human rights activist. My goal is to decriminalise homosexuality with regard to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s law and fight against homophobia within the Iranian culture.
What is the situation of LGBTs in Iran?
The short answer is we don’t have LGBT rights. According to Iran’s punishment code homosexuality is punishable by death. Regularly inflicted sentences are lashes and imprisonment. But there is more to this than just official denial and persecution. Some people are being abandoned by their family members. Some people lost their job because of their sexual orientation. There is lot’s of discrimination, abuse, rape and some people can not put forward their cases to the judicial system because they have no rights.
So it’s not only political oppression but also societal pressure that you are facing?
Exactly. Stigmatisation is quite common. Being homosexual in an Iranian family is difficult, because it’s not only about disclosing homosexuality towards your parents. It becomes a concern for the family at large. ‘What should I say to your aunt/uncle? What should I say to your grand-mother?’ This is an all too frequent reaction. I talked with many parents of homosexuals and their main concern is not so much about their child but about how he/she will be perceived by the extended family and society. It is appears to be a shame to have a gay son or lesbian daughter.
How can you help to change this?
Lack of accurate information is a huge issue. Besides assisting those in need, namely refugees fleeing Iran due to sexual discrimination and persecution, one of our main goals is to provide people with information. All what people read and hear in books and the official media is hostile towards homosexuality. But regardless of all problems related to official condemnation, the Iranian LGBT community suffers from a lack of accessible information as well. I talked with one of my friends, a homosexual and he said ‘we are sick, we have problems, Arsham. What do you do? Why are you fighting and for what? We are the ones who have a problem’. I was surprised that he, as a gay man, believes it is him who has a problem. It’s all about bad education and a fight against ignorance.
After fleeing Iran via Turkey you went into exile to Canada in 2006. How does sexual discrimination look like in the West?
Sexual discrimination and homophobia doesn’t have any geographical boundaries. It exists everywhere. We know many people in the West, in Canada, the United States and in Europe that are opposing homosexuality. Recently we heard that more than half of all Americans are against gay marriage. Last year we had the vote in California and voters disapproved of gay marriages. Discrimination really doesn’t know any borders.
Nevertheless, the ways how societies deal with LGBTs totally differ in east and west. I think that the Iranian situation nowadays is similar to the ‘60s or ‘70s in Western countries. The West overcame this period and right now is ahead of us. In Iran we are struggling to avoid execution or punishment. You don’t have this kind of punishment in the West. There the fight is about adoption, school curricula, sexual education in elementary schools. They are fighting for sperm donors, inheritance issues or legal marriage. But in other countries like Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Afghanistan and even sometimes in parts of India or countries like Russia LGBTs are fighting for their basic rights.
Seeing into the future, what it is your dream with regard to Iran?
Martin Luther King once said ‘I have a dream’ and his dream was about freedom and equality. In May 2008 I was in Chicago and I said ‘I have a dream, too’. My dream is that one day we will have no discrimination, persecution and torture on the basis of sexual orientation and queer people can easily live in Iran or elsewhere. Right now – like the Green movement that claimed their votes back – we want our rights back. I am sure that one day change will become reality. We just have to work for it.
Interview by Christian Eichenmüller