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Unveiling the Iranian Queer Organization
An Interview with Arsham Parsi

Arsham Parsi

By Mahnaz Salami
Source: Gozaar.org
April, 2007

The Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (PGLO), now called the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), is a non-profit organization working for the rights of sexual minorities in Iran, including homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals. The activities of this organization, whose headquarters are in Toronto, Canada, are outlawed in Iran. As a result, most of its administrators reside outside Iran and use the internet to communicate with their counterparts inside the country. The IRQO has branches in the Netherlands, the United States, Germany, and France, as well as an underground office in Iran. The IRQO is a member of the following groups: the International Committee Against Execution and Stoning, the Organization for Trans-Iranian Refugees, the Women’s Liberation Organization, the International Lesbian and Gay Association, and other world-wide organizations. The IRQO is non-partisan and strives for the rights of sexual minorities regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. Saghi Ghareman is the current editor-in-chief of the IRQO’s monthly internet journal Cheragh, or “Light.� She is an Iranian poet and writer and resides in Canada.

In the following interview, Arsham Parsi, one of the founders and the secretary-general of the organization, describes the formation and activities of IRQO and the existing challenges surrounding sexuality issues in Iran. He also shares his own experiences fighting for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights in Iran.

When was the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization founded?

We began in 2001 as a small internet group called Rangin Kaman (Rainbow). After about two years, we developed our own website and decided to become an official organization. Because we were unable to officially register the organization in Iran, a friend registered it in Norway. In 2004, we officially became Sazman-e Hamjensgerayan-e Irani, in English,“Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization,� or PGLO. This turning point allowed us to connect with numerous human rights organizations around the world in order to address the situation for gays and lesbians in Iran.

Why was the establishment of this organization necessary?

Establishing a structured and goal-oriented organization for the Iranian queer movement – which had, in fact, started long ago – performed the essential function of finding lawful ways of ensuring the rights of queer citizens. In Iran, the majority of people do not support minority rights and believe minority interests are incompatible with their own. Interestingly enough, however, in some cases when you gather together the minority groups, they make up a majority. For centuries, Iranians have consistently denied certain groups their civil liberties by labeling them a “minority.� Queers – like other ethnic, linguistic, and religious minority groups – are one of these minorities who have given up their rights. In the last 50 years, it became clear that an active, organized queer movement was necessary. Measures were taken to increase visibility of gays. But after the 1979 Revolution and the ensuing crack-downs, increased pressure, and the execution of gays, the formation of this organization become very important. In the five years since its inception, the organization has demonstrated how important it is.

What need did the Iranian queer community have for this organization?

Like women, members of sexual minority groups come from all levels of society: queer men, queer women, religious homosexuals, bisexuals serving in government, transsexual artists, queer laborers, and so forth. Being queer is neither a belief nor a school of thought that a particular group promotes, or to which it adheres, but rather a natural sexual tendency. Unfortunately, Iranian society is facing many cultural problems and “sex-bashing� is one of the most significant; all sexual issues are considered taboo. However, this is not a problem limited to the queer community – the straight community is also confronted by it. People are unable, or unwilling, to speak about their sexuality. At best, conversation about sexuality appears as hurled insults or jokes.

We must educate the public about sexuality. We must challenge the long-standing ideas about sexuality until its ugliness is destroyed. For years, the excuse that sexuality is ugly, dirty, and shameful kept us quiet; we were perpetually threatened by a big “hush!� from mainstream society. But what was not supposed to happen did happen. We have learned how to overpower shame with truth; in this way we begin the unveiling. Many members of the Iranian queer community live with everyday taboos, just like everyone else.

There must be an organization that not only educates and dispels myths about queers, but also teaches the queer community that they are not sexually deviant, and that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. Such an organization must work to dispel the idea that “active� is superior to “passive� – a patriarchal concept that also maintains that men are superior to women – and 1,000 other incorrect things that have their roots in our cultural, moral, and religious beliefs. In the end, I consider the queer community’s need for such organizations to be as great as women’s need for organizations that defend women’s rights.

The present social conditions in Iran have caused many in the Iranian queer community to feel guilty about their sexual orientation and thereby fight against what is natural. They have joined society in their own condemnation. This situation must change. Our organization provides information, respects and supports the queer identity, and strives to rewrite the present laws to accommodate the queer lifestyle and ensure the rights of gays and lesbians. These efforts enjoy enormous support from the queer community. Today, the organization is needed both within Iran and abroad, and the fact that queer people join and support it is testimony to the necessity of its existence.

What led you to become involved in this work? How old were you at the time?

I was 20 at the time. The biggest factor that led me to start an organization for lesbians and gays was, in fact, my own homosexuality and my awareness of the difficult conditions in which we live. Just as we cannot grasp the difficulty of farming until we plow the earth, until we are fired from our job because of our sexuality we cannot claim to know sexual discrimination. And until you have been a member of a banned community, you cannot comprehend the psychological damage that Iranian gays and lesbians suffer because of their lack of public identity.

Anytime the subject of lesbians and gays came up in conversation, people would react very badly and call them deviants, predators, and a danger to children. But I, who was on the receiving end of these insults, could not find the reasons for their fear within myself. I had neither assaulted anyone, nor was I a pedophile. I was not cruel or oppressive; rather, throughout my life, I had been the one who was hurt by predators. I always felt lonely. It took ages for me to believe that I was not sick. I am a person who feels joy and psychological and sexual peace alongside someone of my same sex – that’s all. I do not have words for all the difficulties and pressures I have faced. But after all the bitterness, I tasted self-confidence and vowed to share that with others. In 2001, Rainbow (the organization) appeared out of the Shiraz sky, inspiring us to continue the work for citizens’ rights that Dr. Saviz Shafaii had begun under the same sky when he lectured on homosexuality at Pahlavi University approximately 35 years earlier.

Please describe the environment in Iran when you first decided to create an organization to support Iranian gays and lesbians?

I do not remember the 60s because I was not born yet – this was when the pressures and killing were at their peak – but I know and have heard what people endured. Lesbians, gays, and transsexuals were not spared by the press. The Houman Group (one of the groups which defended LGBT rights in Iran) has reported many executions for the “crime� of homosexuality between since 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution. Being gay was equivalent to Mofsed-e fel-arz (someone who preaches against the teachings of Islam, who spreads corruption throughout the earth, and who should be executed.) Maybe there were no daily executions when I decided to organize the LGBT community and form the organization, but the jails, the Office to Combat Moral Corruption, Basiji stations, committees, and clergy offices were full of gays or transsexuals who had been arrested. Even at private queer get-togethers where people were just sitting together and chatting, officers would pour in and make arrests. The worst part about it was that no one ever heard about what happened, and even if news had gotten out, shame and horror would have prevented its dissemination. That aside, the fate of those who were arrested, beaten, who committed suicide, or who were forced into marriage made this organization a necessity. Uniting together is the only way we can withstand the pressure of being defined by our sexuality.

Were lesbians a part of the organization from the beginning, or did they join later?

In the beginning, there were no lesbians in our group, and, unfortunately, there are still very few. Contrary to lesbians in western societies, Iranian lesbians participate very little in the queer movement. This can be traced back to the condition of women in Iran. For years, the women’s movement has been working to establish women in society, not as inferior creatures, sensuous fools, or something holy and heavenly, but as women, humans, and citizens. Unfortunately, being a woman in Iran is not easy and being a lesbian is even worse, because not only are you a woman, but you are also gay. Women in Iran who adhere to the patriarchal culture are not small in number, and even women who fight against it ostracize lesbians because of their sexual orientation. In other words, women condemn sex discrimination, but when they are confronted with lesbianism, they themselves discriminate based on sexual orientation.

How has the organization grown in the last few years?

I am happy to report: very well. Right now we have more than 5,000 members, and a monthly publication called Cheragh that presents queer art and literature, as well as research on sexual orientation issues. In an effort to synchronize the queer community with the rest of society, Cheragh has started to publish contemporary literature, so that now straight readers are equal in number to its queer readers. A weekly radio program Raha (“Liberation�) will begin broadcasting within the next few months.

In a very short period of time, we have been able to form very close relationships with human rights organizations, including the United Nations, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the new Council for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the Commission for International Homosexual Human Rights, and the European Parliament. Furthermore, as an Iranian member of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), the IRQO has been able to prevent the deportation of many gay refugees back to Iran, so that they may have the right to live freely. Additionally, IRQO has received considerable attention from the international press. Last October, we earned a seat at the second gathering of the new UN Council for Human Rights. It was the first time in history that an organization representing the Iranian queer community presented their concerns at the international level. Also, ILGA is applying for membership in the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) so we can have a consultative voice as an Iranian queer organization and address the concerns of our community.

Tell us about the last few years. Describe your daily life.

My personal life has pretty much merged with my professional life. Because of my activism, I had to flee Iran and am now a United Nations refugee. The Canadian government accepted my file from the UN, and in 2006, I immigrated to Canada. I am content with my life, and I love my friends and family.

Describe the people who become members of the IRQO. From whom does the organization receive support?

We do not have exact statistics. For safety, many in the community use aliases and usually withhold full details. You know that we are illegal citizens in our country, and this makes it difficult to gather statistics. Moreover, queers usually select a name for themselves that reflects their gender identity which does not necessarily match their given names as recorded on their identification cards. Occasionally, we may work years alongside a coworker and not once see his face or know his official name. The virtual space of the internet has made it possible for us to maintain our safety and work to destroy the conditions that have made the internet our only option. On the other hand, because of the emails that we receive from all corners of Iranian society, I can say that they cover the full spectrum. They are of all ages and classes and are everywhere. They need only to become more organized.

Why did you change the name of the organization from the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization to the Iranian Queer Organization?

For several reasons. First, the word “Persian� in the English version of our name caused a number of Iranians who did not consider themselves as ethnically Persian or “Fars� to complain. Unfortunately, this issue, which had not been taken into consideration when the organization was being registered, caused certain people to cite ethnic differences as an excuse for not supporting the organization. We changed the word “Persian� to “Iranian.� Likewise, we used the word “queer� instead of “lesbian� and “gay� in an effort to be more inclusive, and to show that we also include bi- and transsexuals. The registration of the organization in Canada was a good opportunity to change the name to the Iranian Queer Organization, or IRQO.

What is done for queer refugees? What can they expect from the organization? How do they contact IRQO?

The organization makes every possible effort to help queer refugees receive asylum. In order to accomplish this, we work with many organizations such as the Human Rights Watch. We help with interviews and send letters, reports, and papers to the appropriate people. We help inform officials of the true situation for Iranian queers and influence their decisions regarding applications for refugee status. For this reason, asylum-seekers must complete the appropriate form and send it to us to complete the necessary steps. Contact is usually through email and sometimes by telephone. In the last two years, the Iranian Queer Organization has been successful in helping more than 40 asylum-seekers navigate this process.

Tell us more about the publication Cheragh and the radio program Raha. How can one receive the publication or tune in to the radio program?

Cheragh was first published in April 2006. We did not have specialists at first, so we started with nothing, or less than nothing. Our first issue was eight pages, and we decided that, until we could bring the journal up to the desired quality, we would call them “pre-issues.� Since then, Cheragh has improved dramatically. Today, thanks to the efforts of our editor-in-chief, we not only publish real issues (as opposed to pre-issues), but the publications has been transformed into an authority on gender and sexual orientation, referenced in many intellectual circles. Today, several literary and cultural internet sites advertise our new issues and occasionally reprint some of our articles. One of our goals was that society accept the presence of queers, give them a place in society, and pay attention to their issues. Cheragh is an electronic publication that can be found on our website as well as in PDF format. Our readers in Iran are unable to access this site, because it is blocked, so we began creating PDF files and sending the issues via email. Those interested in receiving the publication can send a subscription application to member@irqo.net.

Radio Raha is also on the internet. Its URL is also sent out via e-mail. As I mentioned earlier, it will begin in a few months. Allow me to thank Gozaar for giving queers and the IRQO this opportunity. Providing members of mainstream society – who are in fact our family and fellow-countrymen – with information about our organization is extremely important. Our connection with the media and the heart of society brings us closer to our rights as citizens.

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