In Iran this is not a “women’s issue” — we are fighting for choice, by Mallika Viegas

Arsham Parsi is an Iranian LGBTQ human rights activist living in exile in Canada. In 2001, under an alias in Shiraz, he began covert efforts toward advancing queer civil rights in Iran — until he attracted the attention of the Islamic authorities. 

He was forced to flee the country on March 5, 2005 due to fear of persecution and possible execution under Iran’s Islamic legal code of Lavat, by which gays in Iran can be sentenced to death. He escaped to Turkey, where he registered as a refugee with the UNHCR. In April 2006 he arrived in Canada to start a new life. He is now the founder of the International Railroad for Queer Refugees.

“If you asked me a couple of months ago, do you think that Iran will be free and you're gonna have LGBT rights? My answer would be yes, but maybe not in my lifetime,” says Parsi. “But right now I can say with confidence that it will happen; and in my lifetime. Because it's close. We are getting close. They can't take it back.”

In early September, 31-year-old Zahra Sedighi-Hamedani and 24-year-old Elham Chubdar, both members of the LGBTQ community, were sentenced to death for “human trafficking” and “corruption on earth” and remain on death row. Around the same time, on September 16th, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, died being “tortured and insulted” following her arrest by morality police in Tehran, supposedly for violating Iran’s law that women must wear head scarves fully covering their hair. Since then, protests have been raging through the streets of Tehran, in cities around the globe, and on the internet. What we’re witnessing is a historic uprising against government repression in Iran — and the entire world is paying attention. 

“While they obviously cannot be shown in Iran, I'm very happy that in a lot of administrations outside of Iran, you can see rainbow flags as well,” says Parsi. “It’s a good thing, to see that support and allyship. It’s a reminder that in any future governments, we should have a place and we do exist, and we want our rights as well. I'm quite optimistic that if we have a new government in Iran, which will be a Democratic government, we're gonna have LGBT rights.”

Despite Western media largely framing the uprising solely as a women’s issue, LGBTQ Iranians have long faced severe repression. In fact, two gay men were reportedly executed for “sodomy” in Iran earlier this year. Advocates have also long spoken out against the phenomenon of “honour killings,” wherein LGBTQ Iranians are killed by their own family members. Yet despite the deadly consequences of being out in Iran, the country’s LGBTQ community remains on the frontlines of protest.

“It's sad,” says Parsi. “Everyone has someone who they love and [in Iran] right now, when they leave in the morning, you don’t know if they’re going to come back or not. A lot of people are saying they are very brave women and young people, yes, they are brave, but at the same time they don't have anything left to lose.”

In October, former US President Barack Obama said that he made "a mistake" by not supporting the Iranian people's 2009 Green Movement against the Islamic Republic. Speaking on a podcast, he described the lack of public support for the 2009 protests as a missed opportunity to back the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people, saying, "In retrospect, I think that was a mistake. Every time we see a flash, a glimmer of hope, of people longing for freedom, I think we have to point it out. We have to shine a spotlight on it. We have to express some solidarity about it.”

While it’s been near impossible for LGBTQ groups to speak out within Iran, the protest from international groups has been visible. In 2007, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University and declared, “In Iran, we do not have homosexuals like in your country.”

Parsi’s organization has been providing sponsorship and financial and resettlement assistance to LGBT refugees in Turkey who have fled because of persecution for their sexual orientation or gender identification. This kind of uprising has prompted so much more than civil unrest.

“I don’t want to keep using this as a divider and for this to be a women’s fight, LGBTQ fight, etc. For 43 years in Iran, they’ve tried to divide and conquer. You're Kurdish, you're Bardu, you're Lor, you're Arab, you're Persian. And yet you can see we’re united. You can see Arabic chanting in Kurdish parts of Iran and on the other side of Iran they’re chanting in Kurdish. And it shows the solidarity — that we all are Iranians,” says Parsi. 

“We have an expression in Farsi, by one of the famous Persian poets, and they said, All souls are from the same body. If one part of your body is in pain, the rest of your body cannot refrain from the pain. And the international community, we are part of the same body. If our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, in Uganda, in Sudan, in Iran, in Turkey, in Washington, it doesn't matter. So we have to, as people, we have to speak up.”