Gay Iranians increasingly fleeing their country after June's crackdown

Since protesters took to the streets following the Iranian presidential election, dissidents are escaping the country, human rights groups say, fleeing to Europe and neighboring Turkey. Among those experiencing pressure from the Iranian government are student groups, journalists, human rights activists, artists and gays.
By Anthony Faiola
Friday, April 2, 2010

As Hassan walked -- well, more like sashayed -- through the market in this southern Turkish city, the population on the sidewalk -- elderly women in dark veils, men behind stalls selling Turkish pears five to a bag, children in woolly striped sweaters -- all gawked.

"Yes, look! Look all you want," Hassan said with a flourish, opening his arms in a benevolent gesture, as if their stares were rooted in adulation and not curiosity bordering on disgust. A portly, middle-aged woman narrowed her eyes and curled her lip at him.

"What?" said the 34-year-old Iranian refugee. "Is this the first time she's seen a man wearing makeup? Maybe she should take notes. She could use a few beauty tips."

Behind him, Farzan giggled. The slight 25-year-old sporting a shoulder sack that would be labeled a purse even in the male-bag capitals of Tokyo and Paris offered up a quick tale in his feminine lilt. "The other day I was buying some eggs, and the man would not even take the money from my hand," he recounted. "He looked at me and said, 'Put the money on the table,' and spat on the floor. He gave me no change."

"You should have thrown the eggs in his face," lectured Hassan, anger flashing in his eyes, their color hazel by the grace of contact lenses. "We're out of Iran now, and you will not take that kind of treatment anymore. Not in Turkey, not anywhere. You stand up for yourself. One life being less than human was enough."

Applied for asylum

Freedom is relative. But for Hassan, mother hen to a gaggle of gay Iranians fleeing a nation where their sexuality is punishable by death, relatively secular Turkey is one step closer to a life less shackled.

He is one of more than 300 gays who have fled Iran since the rise of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who infamously proclaimed in 2007, to guffaws from his audience at Columbia University, that there were no gays in Iran. Most have crossed the border into Turkey, joining 2,000 Iranian refugees -- largely political dissidents and religious outcasts -- facing waits of two to three years as the United Nations processes their applications for asylum. Those who agreed to be interviewed asked that their last names be withheld for fear of reprisals against their families.

Turkey grants the refugees sanctuary just until the United Nations can find them homes in the United States, Canada, Western Europe or Australia. To avoid a critical mass in any one Turkish city, the refugees are dispersed to two dozen locations. The list does not include more progressive Istanbul, gem of the Bosporus, but rather, smaller metropolises such as Isparta that remain influenced by Islam in the same way Christianity influences the Bible Belt.

In Turkey, where the party that won the national elections in 2002 has sought to foster better ties with Tehranthe movements of the refugees are strictly limited. They can engage in no political activity, cannot work and must check in at police stations at least twice a week.

Human rights groups say the number of gays taking flight has jumped in recent months as some came out of the shadows for a fleeting moment around the time of the tainted elections last June. They attempted to join in the anti-government campaigns that have sparked a brutal crackdown against dissidents by the Iranian government. It marked the first time, gay activists say, that a reviled underclass in Iran poked its face to the surface. It stayed there just long enough to get slapped.

"The bravery that has come out of the gay community in Iran since the elections has been inspiring, but the government has not taken it lightly," said Saghi Ghahraman, an Iranian exile who helps operate a Canadian-based organization providing guidance to gays trying to escape Iran. "They have come down harshly and violently. They've made it more difficult than ever to be gay in Iran."

Driven underground

On the outskirts of Isparta, a southern Turkish city, the door opened to the living room of a recently rented basement apartment. Taymuoury emerged in one of the covering gowns of conservative Islamic women. He repeatedly bowed, praising Allah with fast-rolling trills off his tongue. Then, comically, salaciously, he opened his garment to reveal a blood-red bra, grabbing his stuffed chest to bursts of laughter from the gay Iranians in the room.

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