In the UK, we often take for granted just how lucky we are when it comes to equality. I for one often forget that, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I am afforded the rights and privileges that I am. In many countries today, many of whom were colonised by the British Empire back in the day I might add, being LGBTQ+ is a literal death sentence.
As we persevere with our list of Queeroes past and present, my continued research has come across a man who has truly overcome adversity and come out on the other side as a fighter. In day 13 of LGBTQ+ History month, we’re shining a light on LGBTQ+ human rights campaigner and civil law reformer Arsham Parsi.
Arsham Parsi was born in September 1980 in Shiraz, the 6th largest city in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Like a number of countries around the world, same sex activity is illegal under Iranian law and is subject to the death penalty. From a young age, Parsi was aware of his sexual identity but would remain silent in order to remain safe. Though he remained private about his sexual identity, he was part of numerous underground operations to support LGBTQ+ civil justice.
In 1999, Parsi would assist a local doctor with HIV research in gay and bisexual men as part of the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organisation, and in 2001 would begin underground advocacy for LGBTQ+ civil rights.
In 2005, Parsi would discover that local authorities were zoning in on him and his activities. Under fear of death under the Lavat code within Islamic Law, on March 05th Parsi would flee the country as a refugee to Turkey. He registered at the United Nations High Commissioners Office for Refugees where his case, unlike many, was accepted. Though he was safe and free from Iranian tyranny, he was not safe from Turkish individuals.
While in Turkey, Parsi and another refugee, who had previously been subjected to torture, would experience horrific abuse from locals. One day, the two men were chased and beaten in the streets while residents would watch and do nothing. Parsi would never fully recover, mentally, from the experience.
Thankfully, in April 2006, Parsi would relocate to Canada as a free and safe man. With the freedom of his new home, Parsi decided his work must continue, and set about his next mission: saving LGBTQ+ Iranians from persecution and reforming Iranian law.
With the hopes that he and many others may “one day return to a free, open and democratic Iran”, Parsi set up the Iranian Queer Organization in Toronto a year later and would go on to found the International Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR) the year after that.
“My dream is that one day the rights of all queers will be recognised and respected everywhere. That one day no one will be executed, tortured, arrested, imprisoned, isolated or disowned by their families and communities merely for the “crime” of being gay.” – Arsham Parsi
At the time of writing this there are currently more 2,200 LGBTQ+ refugees in Turkey of which the IRQR aims to support and rehome into Canada and the US. Today, Parsi has successfully supported numerous LGBTQ+ Iranians as part of the IRQR, guaranteeing asylum from persecution. The foundation has supported over 1,800 refugees and continues to support thousands more across the globe.
The International Railroad for Queer Refugees success rate of refugee applications
In 2016, following the death of hopeful trans activist Marjan Mohammadi, Parsi founded and later became CEO of the Marjan Foundation. The non-profit organisation helps raise awareness and provide education of HIV and AIDS. Within 18-months the charity raised more than 1-million Canadian dollars, and in 2019 has assisted with sponsoring Turkish LGBTQ+ victims become refugees into Canada.
Parsi with the Marjun Foundation’s first sponsors
Parsi’s impact on the political scene is making waves with western civilisation gaining awareness of the plight of LGBTQ+ Iranians. In recognition for Parsi’s work in human rights, he has received the Felipa de Souza Award, the Pride Toronto Award for Excellence in Human Rights, the Sepas Award for Best Dedicated Activist and has a permanent feature at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. In 2015, the LGBTQ+ TV network Logo awarded Parsi with the International Trailblazer Honor. In accepting his award, he would say:
“sometimes an enemy can be the cause of great. When former President Ahmadinejad denied the existence of gay people in Iran back in 2007, he brought much needed attention to the persecution we faced there. An enemy can defeat us or make us stronger. I’ve gotten stronger and will continue to fight because I know that everyone deserves to live without fear”
Parsi continues to work tirelessly in the fight for LGBTQ+ and human rights, taking a stand against tyranny. Even during the period of recent US history which forbade Iranian travel into the US, Parsi and his team would work with LGBTQ+ individuals who were in danger and in need of asylum.
It was this continued determination that will empower future generations with the knowledge that anyone can make a difference from anywhere in the world no matter the obstacles in your way. You are a true Queero indeed.
I, and hopefully many of you, are excited to see where Arsham Parsi and the International Railroad for Queer Refugees and Marjan Foundation go next. You can continue to monitor and support their progress via Parsi’s website for IRQR and the Marjan Foundation, and via his Twitter.