Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR) is an activist organization that assists Iranian Gay people who seek refugee status. Inspired by the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, the IRQR provides refugees and would-be refugees with information, contacts, and advice from people who have already left.
The IRQR is an example of Gay activism with a strong internet component. In countries and societies where the threat of violence against LGBTQ is pronounced, the internet serves as a means by which different activist groups can more safely build their communities and alert the rest of the world about the plight of their people.
Iranian attitudes toward same-sex love and gender diversity have not been uniform over the 4000-year history of Persian culture. Although homosexuality is condemned in Zoroastrianism and later in Islam, there is evidence of same-sex love being celebrated in poetry and literature of Islamic Persia, including the works of Omar Khayyam and mystic Sufi poets such as Jalal al-Din Rumi and Hafiz. Union with God is sometimes described in men’s homoerotic terms. Little, however, has survived concerning same-sex love between women. Ambiguity in secular and spiritual ghazal (love poetry consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain) as to whether the lover and beloved (including the soul and God) are of the same sex is enhanced by the lack of gendered pronouns in Farsi (Persian).
When the Pahlavi government began a program of modernizing Iran in the 1950s, more tolerant attitudes towards homosexuality in the West made their way to the country, including the notion of Gay liberation. Shah Pahlavi was overthrown during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and any expression of same-sex love was forbidden as the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Trans-Queer movement was erased.
Legally-Sanctioned Sexual Reassignment
Due to laws against consensual same-sex romance and strong societal norms against orientation and gender diversity, LGBTQ people in Iran were forced into silence for fear of assault, arrest, incarceration, torture (including flogging), and even death.
Exceptions are made for transgender people because of a fatwa (theological opinion concerning jurisprudence) issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini, a hero of the Islamic Revolution who ruled in favor of sexual reassignment surgery since it does not undermine the strict gender rules of Iran’s Islamic theocracy. Nevertheless, it is more acceptable for a female to become male than for a male to become female because it is considered demeaning for a male and his family if he goes from masculine to feminine, while a female who goes from feminine to masculine means the family gains a son. Pressure to undergo sexual reassignment has been a cause for suicide since many who choose to undergo the surgery and hormone treatments do so to avoid government persecution, not because they feel as if they are born with the wrong kind of body. In addition, state-sanctioned sexual reassignment is no guarantee of social acceptance. Many transpeople in Iran leave the country even though their identities are acceptable within the theocratic laws of the Islamic Republic.
The enforced silence on LGBTQ issues outside of transpeople (who would be presumably Straight after undergoing sexual reassignment) has been so thorough that, during a visit to Columbia University in New York in September 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad declared, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, We do not have this phenomenon. I do not know who has told you that we have it.”
In 2010, Iran was one of seven nations that advocated the death penalty for homosexuals because of Islamic law, along with Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and those portions of Nigeria under Shari’ah law (Muslim law). But Islamic extremism is not the only source of homophobia in the African continent. In 2010, some nations besides Nigeria were considering instituting the death penalty because homosexuality was considered un-Biblical, in part due to the influence of homophobic American Christian evangelists.
The IRQR was founded in 2008 by Arsham Parsi who left Iran on March 5, 2005. Parsi began his vocation as a clandestine Gay activist in 2001. He helped organize a Yahoo chat group for Gay Iranians in 2003 called Voice Celebrations. The group consisted of about fifty participants under false names for fear of violent reprisal should they be discovered, but nevertheless were reaching out to each other and discussing how Iranian LGBTQ folks could get more rights. In 2004, he formed the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (PLGO).
He was eventually discovered by the authorities, and immediately fled from his hometown of Shiraz to Tehran, then from Tehran to Tabriz (he had missed the train from Tehran to Istanbul, and he did not have time to wait), and from Tabriz across the border to Turkey the next morning. “As I passed the border out of Iran,” he said, “I promised myself and my country that I would one day return to a free, open Iran. Until that time, I would work to achieve that goal.”
He registered as a refugee at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UHNCR) in Ankara, Turkey. His case was accepted, and he was invited to the Canadian Embassy to seek asylum. Eight months later, he arrived in Canada.
When he arrived and settled in Toronto, Parsi founded the IRanian Queers Organization (IRQO) in 2006. He traveled to Turkey in August 2008 to meet with Iranian LGBTQ refugees and plead their case with the UNHCR. As the result of that trip, he created a new organization dedicated exclusively to helping LGBTQ people flee persecution in Iran. Initially, he had named it the IRanian Queer Organization, then the IRanian Queer Railroad, and finally Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees. The name is inspired by the Underground Railroad, an informal network to help nineteenth century Black slaves in the United States escape to Canada.
There are two routes by which Gay Iranians seek asylum. The first is to leave Iran for Turkey, Malaysia, or other transit countries, apply at the local office of the UNHCR to claim refugee status based on sexual orientation, and then wait until granted permanent asylum somewhere else. This puts refugees in a state of legal limbo because they have no citizenship status in the transit country and are expected to eventually leave, despite a tendency for the process to take years. Other nations, such as Central Asian ones, may grant temporary status, but may also be unsafe for Gays and should be avoided.
The second route is to leave Iran directly for a refugee-friendly country, then seek asylum on arrival. Although preferable, the second route may not be possible if there is immediate danger of arrest or lack of funds.
Operations and Networking
The IRQR functions as a support system to help LGBTQ Iranians looking for asylum, and assist them as they settle into new lives in new countries. Volunteers help them with advice as to the best way to seek asylum and the corresponding paperwork, acclimatize themselves to a foreign environment, and deal with family at home in Iran who may not know or approve of their orientation and/or gender expression. Parsi has called refugees’ families himself if asylum seekers were afraid to do so, and enlisted members of his family to call those families in Iran. The other major function of the IRQR is to represent Gay Iranians in international conferences and in the media, and coordinate with other organizations. Parsi is affiliated with the Stockholm-based International Lesbian and Gay Cultural Network (ILGCN), the Brussels-based International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), the Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad group, and the Berlin-based Advisory Committee of the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation for LGBT Human Rights.
Dispute with Maryam Hatoon Molkara
Maryam Hatoon Molkara is a transwoman and activist for transpeople in Iran. She successfully appealed to the Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa in favor of sexual reassignment. The IRQR’s stance is at odds with Molkara, however, because she has stated publicly that homosexuality is immoral behavior. Her position is identical to that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which holds that the real cause for homosexuality is gender dysphoria, a sickness that can be cured by surgery. Molkara has also said that transpeople must avoid any contact with other members of the LGBTQ community. “I do not agree with what she says because we all suffer from the same thing and we should be united,” said Parsi. “What she says is exactly what government wants her to say.”
Iranian Gay Rights Awareness
The IRQR has a twofold strategy for Iranian Gay rights. Members confront the issues concerning LGBTQ Iranians directly by informing the general public outside of Iran about the oppression of Gay people in Iran, and challenging Straight Iranians to support Gay people as a matter of universal human rights. The other strategy is for Straight scholars to speak on behalf of LGBTQ Iranians in terms of Iranian culture and religious beliefs because Straight Iranians would not listen to a Gay scholar. Parsi believes that education through dialogue is the key to changing a homophobic person into an ally. “They are homophobes because they have no true information about homosexuals,” he said. “It is absolutely possible for them to change when they have proper information.”
“Fighting for Tomorrow: An Interview with Arsham Parsi.” Homan: The Iranian Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Organization. 6 August 2008 http://www. Homanla.org/New/Arsham_oct06.htm.
Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University, 2007.