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Gay Iranians increasingly fleeing their country after June's crackdown

By Anthony Faiola
Friday, April 2, 2010; C01

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.

Muslim drag.

For Farzan, as with the 10 other gay Iranians assigned to Isparta as they await passage to cities where they have connections -- San Francisco, Sydney, Paris, London -- such moments of humor are a release from grim lives. On any given afternoon, they'll put on an impromptu drag show, donning, for instance, belly dancer outfits made from cheap tablecloths. They slather on cosmetics brought from Iran by the one true transgender person among them. That cross-dresser -- 26-year-old Farhad, the self-proclaimed "Queen of Isfahan" -- spirited over the border with a trunk of women's clothes and 200 shades of lipstick.

Most of the men say they have been subject to gay bashing in Isparta; one neighbor tossed a rock through the window of the squalid apartment where Hassan lives with five other gay Iranians. Turks shout out gay epithets when the Iranians venture outdoors. Hassan said he was punched and kicked by a shopkeeper and his son, then urinated on.

Yet almost all refuse to hide their more effeminate affectations, finding it hard to believe that in the West such behavior is considered extreme in gay culture. Their half-drag styles -- men's clothing mixed with finely groomed eyebrows, man-jewelry and rouged cheeks -- became what Hassan describes as a form of civil disobedience in Iran.

"Every time I went into the streets with shaved eyebrows in Tehran, I felt it as a small victory," said Hassan, a former hotel clerk who speaks fluent English. "If we could get away with it in Iran -- well, almost -- then there's no way we're going to butch it up in Turkey."

They now spend as little time as possible outdoors, their lives in some ways more secret here than in Iran, a nation harboring a complex relationship with homosexuality.

Sex between two men in Iran is punishable by death after the first offense; sex between two women carries a penalty of 100 lashes, with the death penalty applicable on the fourth violation. Two gay teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, were famously hanged in the city of Mashhad in 2005. Yet for those with severe gender disorders, the government actually offers financial assistance for sex-change operations -- the idea being, apparently, that if they change sexes, their desires would no longer violate religious law.

Still, the refugees describe a certain don't-ask, don't-tell policy in everyday Iranian life. At his front-desk job at the Simorgh Hotel in north Tehran, Hassan wore light foundation to work, openly telling his boss and co-workers about his sexuality. A few teased him. " 'Hey, lady,' they would sometimes call when they needed me," Hassan said. But for the most part, he said, he was accepted.

He and others were part of an underground scene at cafes, parks and private homes. In Tehran, where Hassan and Farzan lived until last year, dozens of gay men would gather on Thursdays at Laleh Park. Some would wear makeup and sport silver rings, a telltale sign of their sexuality.

After Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, however, the campaign against gays intensified, according to international gay organizations. In Isfahan, authorities raided gay parties, with photos circulating on the Internet showing revelers badly bruised following their arrests. Three refugees said they were raped in prison. Both Hassan and Farzan said they received 10 to 25 lashes on repeated occasions.

The pressure, the men here say, led them to hang their hopes on the June elections last year. A change in leadership, they believed, might help restore a greater degree of tolerance.

Brief moment of protest

Last April, Farzan was among those who joined a budding gay rights movement. He and hundreds of other gays in Iran linked up using social networking sites, posting political messages supporting Ahmadinejad's opponents. They spread the word about rallies being organized by anti-government dissidents and student groups.

When those groups took to the streets to protest Ahmadinejad's claim of victory a month later, Farzan connected with gay men and lesbians via cellphones and the Internet to join in. During the protests in Tehran, some identified themselves as gay by wearing thumb rings, or toting small rainbow flags, a symbol of the gay movement in the West.

"For a moment, it felt so powerful," Farzan said through an interpreter. "We were marching in the streets. There were not that many of us -- maybe 150 in a crowd of thousands. But we were gay, and we were together, and we were calling for freedom."

Gay refugees in other cities, such as Shiraz, said student groups welcomed their participation. But after several days of protests in Tehran, Farzan said, gays were being discouraged from returning to the streets. "They did not want us to stain the reputation of the anti-government movement by joining in," he said.

Ultimately, Farzan said, their brief movement was broken up not by the demonstrators, but by the government crackdown in response to the protests. Gays were targeted, with dozens arrested. Several cafes where gays would gather were shut down. Worse, he and others here said, the government began tracing the profiles on gay social networking sites, informing their families and employers of their "crimes against religion."

In November, Farzan was expelled from his dental school in Tehran. He went home to his family in a town in Iran's north only to find out they had also received a call from security agents. His parents kicked him out.

He contacted Hassan, his friend who had fled to Turkey months earlier. As Hassan has done with a number of gay refugees, he offered to help put Farzan in contact with U.N. officials, and secure housing for him in Isparta as he waited -- like the rest of them -- for asylum. In late December, Farzan boarded a bus to the Turkish border with his life savings of $800.

"I have no idea how I'm going to make it here for two or three years on that," Farzan said. "But I keep telling myself that this is for the best, and I'll find a way. I once thought things could change in Iran, but now I know they won't. I did the only thing I could -- I got out."

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