Toronto’s gay mecca a refuge for persecuted Iranians

While other Muslims pay homage to the holy city of Mecca, Elina Azari worships Toronto, the gay mecca for queer Iranians.

A month ago, the 26-year-old native from Tehran followed the treks of other queer refugees stranded in Turkey and joined the growing Iranian LGBTQ community for a new life in what some of them call “Tehranto.”

Since 2012, more than 200 queer Iranian refugees have resettled to Canada from Turkey through Ottawa’s government-sponsored refugee program — most of them in Toronto for its diverse LGBTQ community and growing Iranian diasporas at large.

“I’d heard a lot of good things about Toronto and how it’s better than any other countries in welcoming LGBTQ people,” said Azari, a former translator and photographer, who self-identifies as a lesbian.

“Iran is not a safe place for gay people. I’d stayed in Turkey for two years and two months. Canada has adopted gay marriages for many years. It speaks a lot about how it treats gay people. I’m so happy to be here, to be who I am.”

In fact, Toronto’s reputation among the Iranians was so good that Hasti Khalilian, a transsexual woman from the Esfahan province in Iran, passed an opportunity to be relocated to the United States and picked Canada instead.

“There is a lot of support from the Canadian government to help refugees integrate. The (LGBTQ) community here seems to be more supportive to trans people,” said Khalilian, 29, who spent two years in Isparta, Turkey, before she was issued a permanent resident visa to Canada in 2012.

According to the Toronto-based Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, there are hundreds of queer Iranians who have fled discrimination and persecution to neighbouring Turkey to get refugee designations by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and be resettled to other countries.

“In Canada, there are more financial support, allowances and health care to assist these newcomers. Now, we have a more established Iranian LGBTQ community here. People are drawn to Toronto and it has this ripple effect,” said Arsham Parsi, who launched the advocacy group in 2008.

“I only knew two other gay Iranians when I came in 2006. You know a community has grown big enough when you have one group not talking to another group,” he added with a chuckle.

Parsi’s organization, funded through private donations, offers guidance to help queer Iranians find safe houses abroad, fill out forms, manoeuvre the asylum system and settle in Toronto. Since its inception, the group has received 950 cases from Turkey and resettled 450 people, half of them to Canada.

Homosexuality is a crime in Iran and still warrants public executions by the law, he said.

Khalilian, who also dressed as a woman in Tehran, had been charged with “organizing party for immoral behaviour” and jailed in Iran.

“I had to pay a $1,000 fine for putting on makeup and cross-dressing. You are not even safe in your home, behind the door.”

While they are happy to taste the freedom and liberation they never had before, a new life in Toronto isn’t without its challenges. Unemployment is a big issue for many of these newcomers because of their language barriers; sometimes they are also ostracized by the local Iranian community.

Khalilian says she was let go by a Toronto bakery after two months when the employer found out she was actually a man. “It is not easy to have to start your life from scratch,” she said.

Ehsan, 24, who was resettled to Toronto in July via Denizli, Turkey, said newcomers could also face discrimination by others in the gay community. (He asked his last name be withheld because he is not out to his parents and has lied to them that he is without status in Canada.)

“People don’t want to see you if you don’t speak a lot of English,” added Ehsan, flicking his nose with his index finger, gesturing the snobbish attitude he has received from some Torontonians.

Their newly found freedom in Canada could also jeopardize relationships for gay Iranian couples who went through their struggles and came here together.

“My boyfriend broke up with me because he now has the freedom and choices that he never had before. He said he wanted to explore a new life in Toronto,” said Amir, 35, a computer engineer who came here from the Kermanshah City in Iran three years ago. He is still in the closet and asked to be identified by his first name only.

“But coming to Canada is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I don’t have to hide who I am. I can live a peaceful life that I didn’t have in Iran for more than 30 years. I don’t face threats and fears anymore.”

by Nicholas Keung, Immigration reporter, Toronto Star
Source – IRQR