Exiled Iranian LGBT activist inspires
New gay-straight alliance at the U of M launches with award-winning speaker
Arsham Parsi has two birthdays: one when he was born in Iran, and the other when he arrived in Canada on May 10, 2006.
His first birthday in 1981 marked the beginning of a life of fear and hiding as a gay person in Iran, a country where homosexuality is forbidden and punishable by death.
“In Iran, life for LGBTs is underground, full of fear, and you don’t know what will happen in the next few hours,” says the human rights activist, who was at the University of Manitoba on Monday to deliver a lecture on his life and work.
“Anytime the police could knock at your door, or you could be arrested, or someone could out you in front of your family, or someone could blackmail you.”
Parsi’s second birthday followed his escape from Iran to Turkey and eventual asylum in Canada. Two years later, Parsi created the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR), a Toronto-based foundation devoted to supporting gay Iranians seeking asylum in other countries.
It was the fulfillment of a promise Parsi made to himself when he was 19 – after the first, fellow gay Iranian he met committed suicide.
“[Her death] was difficult for me, and I decided to do something,” he says. “At that time, I didn’t expect to become an international Iranian gay activist, travelling all around the world … I just wanted to do something, and so far, I’ve kept my promise.”
IRQR has since helped over 500 LGBT Iranians achieve refugee status – an arduous process that often leaves applicants without food, shelter or employment.
Parsi’s lecture was one of a series of events hosted by Arc Education – a new gay-straight alliance within the Faculty of Education that aims to create a safe space for LGBT people and their allies at the U of M.
“Faculties, staff and students of various sexual orientations and gender identities can come together and feel comfortable about being who they are, as well as engage in an educational process,” says Robert Mizzi, an assistant professor in the department of educational administration and one of the founders of the group.
The need for LGBT support within education has increased since the Manitoba government’s passing of Bill 18, legislation that requires schools to accommodate anti-bullying groups and gay-straight alliances. Arc Education hopes to provide new educators the skills and resources to facilitate such programs.
“There’s some real potential here for us to engage in some meaningful dialogue around sexual and gender diversity,” says Mizzi.
Parsi also stresses the importance of LGBT education at universities, including it among the “three As” he says are necessary for social and legal reform: activists (to lead change), academies (to research solutions) and artists (to spread the message).
“We have to invest,” says Parsi, “we have to somehow export our freedom to other countries, and we have to think about some possible reforms that might happen in Canada as well.”
Although the prospect of that freedom in Iran appears bleak, Parsi remains hopeful of returning to the country he still considers home.
“Iran for me is just a dream right now that maybe tomorrow something can happen, and I have to invest for that tomorrow,” he says. “I’m quite an optimistic person. I believe in people’s power, and I believe that I can change my future.”
Click here for more information on future Arc Education events.