Arsham Parsi is the head of the IRQO (Iranian Queer Organization). Parsi was born in 1980. As he tells it, he grew up in Shiraz with no contact with other gay people until he found queer communities on the Internet. Following that, he worked on HIV issues, until rumors of his sexual orientation began to spread and he feared persecution. According to Human Rights Watch, “Iranian law punishes all penetrative sexual acts between adult men with the death penalty.” Reports indicate that women and lesbians also endure lack of access to equal rights and persecution. Parsi fled to Turkey and then to Canada, where he applied for asylum. Today, according to Parsi, IRQO works for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Iran, and to increase awareness about queer issues among Iranians.
Parsi spoke with Windy City Times in a phone interview.
Windy City Times: You’re here for the International Day against Homophobia, which began in 2005 and which was also connected for a while to the hangings of two men, Ayaz and Mahmoud, in Iran that same year. I’m curious about your thoughts on that incident. In a 2006 interview, you disputed the characterization of them as gay. Have you changed your mind?
Arsham Parsi: This case is very complicated. As a human-rights organization, we have to be responsible about our mission. We didn’t know those people and we don”t have access to their case files through the Iranian Ministry of Justice. So how do we know under which circumstances they were arrested by the government, and what happened to them in prison? Maybe they said they are gay. You know, we have no idea. I know many guys in Iran who have same-sex relationships but are not homosexual. You can’t say they’re homosexual or gay. So the truth is we don”t know if they were gay or not. It’s not Black or white.
We had a hard time with the international journalists [and activists who insisted they were gay]. The Western media sometimes doesn’t know what’s going on. In May 2007, 80 men were arrested in Ishafan—and most media insisted they were gay men. And we had a hard time, because that gave the courts evidence about their sexuality. So the western media helped the judge prove their homosexuality. The Western media doesn’t know what’s going on.
The most important thing is: in Iran, people are executed on account of their sexuality and sexual behavior and sexual acts. In Iran, having sex between men and [women] is illegal before marriage.
We have many cases we can stand by, where people were executed on the basis of their sexuality, regardless of their sexual orientation. If you read the Islamic Code, it’s difficult to know whether they’re punished for rape, pedophilia or homosexuality. You can’t find out what they’re talking about.
WCT: What do you think about the threat of war on Iran?
AP: I believe that war is not about democracy and human rights. If the United States attacks Iran, it won’t be about democracy. I’m anti-war.
WCT: A lot of your work rests on the idea that there’s a universal gay identity. Your own story about coming out via the Internet seems very Western-influenced and about class access. As you know, many feminist and queer scholars have been critical of the idea of a universal gay identity, Joseph Massad’s book Desiring Arabs being the most recent among them. How do you respond to that?
AP: About sexual identity: many Iranians say we don’t have to have a label. But sometimes that story is just on paper—it’s not real in society. Many say we don’t need the Western lifestyle of gay men. But we use “gay” and “lesbian,” the English words. There’s a professor of sexuality who recently said that homosexuals in Iran are okay as long as they identify as gay in the Western context. But we don’t accept that. In Iran, people are arrested because of their sexual orientation.
WCT: I don’t think most people would argue that there’s no persecution of gay people, but they do have questions about what it means for an Iranian queer to have to declare a particular kind of identity in order to get help. On Iranian.com, Choob Doshar-Gohi writes about her interview with an American asylum officer: “He engages me in a patronizing conversation about veiling and the oppression of women in Iran. I cannot argue, or I will lose the asylum case.” How do you feel about what people have to go through to gain asylum and what that might say about adopting Western ideas about gay identity?
AP: I didn’t have a problem. But in the U.S., they have more problems than in Turkey. In Turkey, all the questions were around the facts of my case, not whether or not I was gay; I didn’t have to prove I was gay. When I told them I’m gay, they said fine. But I know from friends in the U.S. and Canada that they’ve been told by officials, “You don’t look like gay people.” In Western societies they [asylees] have more challenges than in other countries.
WCT: In a 2006 speech to Egale Canada (Canada’s national gay-rights group) you said, “These lonely shivering hands are the representatives of all of the Iranian LGBTs’ hands. Take my hands as their representatives and support us. Do not norget Iranian LGBTs, do not leave us alone.” Some might argue that such language reduces Iranian queers to pathetic creatures pleading for help, rather than political agents.
AP: We don’t use that literature any more. That was part of the early activism when we first started in Canada, but we no longer use such language.
WCT: We don’t hear much about lesbians in IRQO.
AP: Lesbians, unfortunately, are more invisible than gays; they have more problems. They prefer to hide their sexual orientation because, in Iranian society, they have two negative points against them: being women and being lesbian. I know many feminist activists who are fighting for women’s rights, but who don’t accept lesbians. I know a couple of lesbians who are active in the feminist movement; they decided to work for the women’s movement first, and after that the lesbian-rights movement. They’re not out because, as they told me, “Right now, our priority is women’s rights, and when we have equality, we can come out as lesbians.” We do have some lesbians working and blogging in Iran, and others outside of Iran who are active with our organization.
WCT: What about feminist support for your group? You’ve spoken about Shirin Ebadi [a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian lawyer and human-rights activist] .
AP: We talked to Shirin Ebadi through one of our members in London and she told us, “I accept your rights, but I couldn’t support you in public.” At first, I thought she was being homophobic. But now I believe that because Shirin Ebadi [and others] are fighting for women’s rights, their support of gays or lesbians [will mean that] those people will be in danger. Because the Ministry of Justice and the Iranian government will deny them all rights: “No” for women, “No” for lesbians.
WCT: One of your main issues is to increase Iranian awareness about homosexuality. But you’re associated with people like Peter Tatchell, with whom you’ve appeared on an interview, [and who has] been accused of making Islamaphobic comments. How might that affect your work with Muslim Iranians?
AP: I’ve done many interviews, and sitting at the same table doesn’t mean we accept each other’s agendas. One of our issues is with the level of information about homosexuality in Iran, and the other is Islamaphobia. Islamaphobia and homophobia are both hate-based. We have many problems with some activists who campaign or speak about LGBTQ Iranians —they sometimes make problems for us because they don’t know exactly what’s happening in Iran. They have their agenda, they have their political issues, and sometimes they create problems for us, as happened in May 2007.
WCT: How do you feel about being the representative of all Iranian queers as the head of IRQO?
AP: I should clarify: I’m not an elected official. It’s my personal responsibility, and I became an activist because of the situation [for queers in Iran] . Some people refer to me as “Arsham Parsi, leader of Iranian LGBTs” but I don’t like that title. I don’t identify myself as a leader, but as an activist. Right now, we’re talking about and for those who identify as LGBT, because we’re dealing with this community [that doesn’t get spoken about]. I try to address all their concerns.
WCT: We know about your history as a queer Iranian, but not much else of your political history. What would you like to see in Iran?
AP: I don’t identify myself as a political activist. I hope that we have a democratic government, that the people can decide about their rights and their laws. We don’t have safe elections. When we have a democratic party, I believe everything will be okay.
WCT: But does that mean that you don’t see queer activism as political activism?
AP: Human-rights activism is part of political activism. So I prefer to identify myself as a human-rights activist, not as a political activist. I know some parties are active, but their work is not about human rights—it’s about power.