When Ali escaped Iran and arrived in Turkey in 2012, he had already decided where he wanted the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to place him. “I told them I’m choosing Canada because I’m going to go to university [and] Canada is cheaper than U.S.; Australia is too far; and in some states in America gay marriage is not allowed and never will be allowed — so I don’t want to go to a country where they don’t give me my rights.”
Ali (not his real name) picked Toronto because he heard it was big and easier to find work. The 27-year-old arrived there at the end of May 2014 and spent 10 days in refugee housing before moving into his own apartment and logging onto Grindr to connect with others in the LGBT community — an ease of networking he never would have in his homeland. Before long, Ali began dating a Syrian man he met via the dating app and they plan to move in together soon.
In the past few years, Toronto has emerged as the mecca of Iranian gays in exile. Hosting both the second-largest Iranian population outside Iran and a reputation as LGBT-friendly, Iranians fleeing persecution in their native country have built a budding community in a city some call “Tehranto.”
Iran, on the other hand, is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be gay. Homosexual acts are punishable by flogging or death, and members of the LGBT community go to great lengths to evade police detection. Even arranging a small get-together with a few friends takes precise planning because suspicious gatherings could land attendees in jail with charges of moral corruption and prostitution. An untold number of gay Iranians, like Ali, tire of the harassment, fear and hiding, and leave Iran permanently.
Ali is one of an increasing number of LGBT Iranian refugees who have sought out the Canadian metropolis for a better life, opting not to relocate to the United States due in part to the comparative lack of rights and protections for gay citizens and a dearth of social services.
“All of Toronto is a gay village,” says Arsham Parsi, executive director of the Toronto-based Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR). Like-minded Iranian refugees have been settling down in the center of the city’s scene, in the well-known “gay village” of Church and Wellesley — a downtown area described by an online guide as “world famous for its homo-rific nightlife, inclusive community center and fabulous restaurants.” Many incoming Iranians are already well versed in the neighborhood before landing thanks to a vibrant online community of message boards and recommendations for refugees.
The city is nothing if not proud. This year, Toronto’s city magazine put “Because We’re a Beacon for Gay Refugees” as one of the top 10 reason to love the city. And last year, in a scene that would have given former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad an aneurysm, a towering Iranian in a tube top, black skirt, heels, and neon pink wig proudly waved an Iranian flag to guide the group of marchers in Toronto’s gay pride parade. The city even has a gay-friendly mosque.
Its openness has been a point of pride for politicians. In 2012, Canada estimated it was bringing in 100 LGBT Iranians a year (a small sliver of the 5,403 government-sponsored refugees brought in that year). "Canada has indicated to the United Nations that we are ready to accept anyone, if they're a gay Iranian refugee," former Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said.
Parsi believes he can trace the origins of Toronto’s growing reputation. When he first arrived in 2006, he only knew two or three others in his predicament. “It wasn’t a sense of community,” he remembers. Already an activist in the Iranian LGBT expat world, the assistance he offered fellow refugees began attracting those filling out applications in Turkey. Now he says, he has helped to bring more than 100 LGBT Iranians to Toronto.
“Now you can start your life,” he tells new arrivals over a welcome lunch of chelo kabab, Iran’s national dish of saffron rice and meat skewers.
Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees operates in the tradition of its 19th century namesake that shepherded African-American slaves to freedom. Since launching in 2008, Parsi says IRQR has assisted nearly 1,000 LGBT Iranian refugees with the process of getting asylum, encouraging them to push for placement in his adopted country.
For refugees who struggle to make ends met with small government stipends, Canada’s socialized health care and public education are a vital safety net. And for LGBT exiles who have long kept their sexuality under wraps, tolerant Canada is seen as better than its southern neighbor to build a new, open life.
“Life for LGBT in Canada is totally different than life for LGBT in the U.S.,” says Parsi. In a PEW poll last year, Canada came in as the third most accepting country in the world for LGBT people, while the U.S. lagged 10 notches below.
When Parsi was applying for refugee status himself, he told the agency of his relatives in Los Angeles, typically a surefire way to be placed there. “I told them I’d never been [to the U.S.], but I’m a gay activist so send me somewhere I can live as LGBT.” They sent him to Canada.
The amount of refugees taken in by the United States dwarfs that of Canada, but case workers and refugees alike are aware that tolerance is higher up north than in the U.S., where battles for gay rights are still bitterly divisive. Same-sex marriage has been federally recognized by Canada, while laws in the U.S. — where many states still ban it — is more volatile.
Earlier this year, as the U.S. debated a number of state laws that would allow businesses to refuse service to patrons based on sexual orientation, exiled Iranians smelled hints of their homeland. “For me, this is unacceptable, this is going back to the past,” an LGBT refugee living in Pennsylvania told The Daily Beast at the time.
Of course, few countries treat homosexuals as poorly as Iran. Just last week, Iran carried out public executions of two “miscreants” for the crime of sodomy. An official local report dubbed them “immoral villains,” and wrote that justice had been carried out in order for people to “feel peace and promotion of security in society.” It’s unclear if sexual orientation was justification for the execution, but Iranian activists say they believe the government is trying to send a warning message.
Filmmaker Rick Flynn remembers hearing a similar story in the news when he was struggling to come out as a gay teenager in the U.S. “It made me think while I’m here worrying about social pressures, gay teenagers in Iran worry about being killed.” Compelled to shed light on their struggles, Flynn has spent the past two years working on a documentary called Golf Alpha Yankee, which follows gay refugees leaving Iran and seeking asylum abroad. He spent months in Turkey following two subjects as they battled a state of limbo in a country that is, while safer than Iran, not welcoming to gays. The movie title is homage to the code one character came up with to describe himself because the word “gay” is too dangerous to use in Iran. The film, which is waiting on the cash flow from a current Kickstarter campaign to finish production, should be released for next spring’s festival season.
Flynn likens the journey of gay Iranians refugees to “eternal purgatory.” First is the trip to Turkey, which easy to get to from Iran with a passport. Then begins the long process of registering with UNHCR in the capital of Ankara, and being assigned to a town where they must remain as their application is processed. Refugees are barred from working, so many find under-the-table jobs that offer little pay and poor conditions. Their biggest fear, though, is becoming targets yet again. Turkey has been criticized for not doing enough to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees, placing them in small villages where their presence is obvious.
“Most people who say they’re gay are accepted and given resettlement,” Flynn says. “From what everyone has told me it’s the quickest way, because the group at the most risk in Turkey are gay people.”
This has created a ripple of distrust within the refugee agencies — because being gay can be advantageous for expedited asylum, there’s a concern that someone may fabricate their sexual status to move ahead. “It’s bizarre, the way they have to prove themselves,” says Francisco Rico-Martinez, co-director of the FCJ Refugee Center, which assists with the process from Toronto. “Some [officials] they say, ‘You don’t look gay to me,’ or ‘You don’t look that feminine to me.’ How do you prove you're gay?”
Rico-Martinez says a growing number of LGBT refugees are coming to Canada, but there are still major issues with the process in Turkey, where officials may hold their own prejudices or not have an understanding of LGBT issues.
“Basically it’s a roulette,” he says refugees tell him of the interview process. “When you manage to get to someone who says ‘Yes, I understand, welcome,’ you have passed at least nine or 10 people along the way.”
By the time they are assigned a country — either the U.S., Canada, or Australia — and can pick a city, it could be years since when they left Iran. For some, it’s all worth it when their International Organization for Migration plane touches down on the tarmac of an accepting city like Toronto.
Hamed Jabbari, a 31-year-old gay refugee from Tabriz, was immediately impressed with the diversity in Toronto when arrived in mid-July. He surfed the web and pored over articles before settling on Toronto to be his new home because he felt he could live without the fear that followed him in Iran. This was exacerbated by two years in Turkey where he says, “the only option is to live underground and survive.”
He’s sold on Toronto: spending the weekends with other gay Iranians in the gay village district, going to coffee shops and restaurants, and says he’s “100 percent” ready to recommend the city to friends waiting in Turkey. “I am so happy because it was my dream to be somewhere no one bothered me and cared ... how I live, and I think I can get that life and freedom in Toronto,” he says.
But, even in a city like Toronto that boasts a bevy of support groups specifically for LGBT refugees — everything from grassroots to government-funded to church-hosted — building a life from scratch is grueling. Iranians struggle to find steady employment and battle loneliness, thousands of miles from their friends and family with little hope of ever being able to return. Now Jabbari is eager to get involved with the community of LGBT Iranians, and pitch in for the people still in the uncertain situation he endured.
But for some, even the struggles of resettlement aren’t enough to draw them into the LGBT community in their new city.
A number of incoming gay Iranians want nothing to do with their fellow countrymen and reminders of the society they fled from. Whereas other refugee groups stick together, LGBT individuals sometimes isolate themselves with distrust and paranoia, says Ariel Shidlo, a psychologist specializing in LGBT refugee mental health. With Iranians in particular, he says, there is “a lot with strong internalized homophobia and a lot of other psychological issues that create barriers from reaching out and really accessing the community resources.”
Both of the central characters of Flynn’s documentary, Golf Alpha Yankee, say they have chosen to have no contact with other gay refugees.
“I've had so much trouble with Iranian gay people gossiping, being judgmental, fooling around with my life. … As a gay refugee from Iran, I already have so many things going on on my mind. I don't want to struggle with those things too,” one of them, Reza (not his real name), writes in an email. “There are many gay Iranians here in Toronto. I just don't like the way they are living. They restrict themselves to just the iranian [sic] community, and not the rest of toronto. [sic]
“For me, it's important to forget that painful time in my life. I have goals. I have to move on. And like some other people too, it's easier for me to do that with a new life, with new people, without other Iranian gays.”
Ali has also eschewed the Iranian LGBT population and instead has a group of LGBT refugee friends from other countries. After Turkey, where the culture of gay Iranians was toxic, he says he promised himself he would never make friends with the community in Canada.
“I’m homophobic about homosexuals, I’m really scared of them. I don’t know why,” he says, and then asks, “You know when you have really bad experience with some people you just want to stay away from them?”
But Ali’s newfound freedom is making him bold in his personal life. He recently came out to his sister, who told him it was she loved him no matter what. Now he’s looking forward to moving into an apartment with his new romantic interest and no fear of draconian punishment that haunted him Iran.
Meanwhile, Jabbari is waiting for his boyfriend, whom he met during his last months in Turkey, to finish the refugee process and join him. It could still be more than a year before he’s cleared to come, but Jabbari is already planning a life together for them in Toronto. “Of course I want us to live together,” he says. “And, who knows, maybe we’ll get married.”