The Iran Railroad for Queer Refugees leads to Toronto

VAN, TURKEY—After standing for six hours with his nose pressed hard into a grey concrete wall, Farzan Shahmoradi started to hyperventilate. He was in a Tehran detention centre along with 50 other young men arrested at a house party in the city’s suburbs.

A police officer sidled up behind the frightened 19-year-old and told him to look straight ahead. The officer left the interrogation room often, but always returned with the same command: “I know everything about you, but I want to hear it from you. All of your friends have told me everything.”

Shahmoradi had been anticipating the party, but knew no one there. There was the tantalizing promise of music, frowned upon by the country’s strict Muslim government, and alcohol from a bootlegger. It was a rare chance to have fun, perhaps to meet someone.

The officer dug his chin into Shahmoradi’s shoulder and shouted into his ear. Who were the other men at the party? Who owns the house? Why was he there?

But fear had locked Shahmoradi’s jaw.

Shahmoradi is gay in a country where it is a sin to have sex with anyone other than your husband or wife.

Homosexuality is a crime so grievous it is punishable by death.

Head shaven and wearing prison-issue clothes, Shahmoradi shared a cramped cell with 13 other men he described as “drug dealers and murderers.” When they asked why he was there, Shahmoradi said he was arrested for avoiding military service.

“They made fun of me. They said I talked like a girl,” he says in a voice high in pitch and soft in timbre.

Everything about Shahmoradi is meek. He has no edges. His shoulders are rounded and his deep-set brown eyes have a persistent, vacant gaze.

“I couldn’t tell them why I was there,” he says quietly. “They would have killed me.”

After six days, Shahmoradi’s father handed over the deed to the family home as a guarantee his son would be available for further questioning.

“That’s how he found out I was gay.” Though he continued to live with his parents and three sisters for another decade, “We never talked about it again.”

He had always been quiet and sensitive. Now he was mute. And paranoid.

Following his arrest, Shahmoradi felt like a target. The police knew who he was. He had a criminal record. He believed even a minor infraction of the country’s strict Islamic laws could lead to imprisonment, flogging, even death by hanging.

While six other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Somalia, have the death penalty among punishments for homosexuality in their criminal codes, they rarely use it. Iran does. In 2005, pictures of two young men sped around the world on the Internet. The pair was blindfolded and fitted with nooses by hooded executioners. They were hanged in the holy city of Mashhad after being convicted of raping a 13-year-old boy, although it was widely believed they were having a consensual relationship with each other.

Amnesty International estimates 400 people were officially executed in Iran last year, but there’s no way of knowing how many were homosexuals or how many “secret” hangings take place each year. The 2005 election of ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president marked a clampdown on information entering and leaving Iran.

Amnesty’s 2008 figures indicate Iran, with a population of 70 million, led the world in executions per capita. It was  second only to China in total executions.

SHAHMORADI GREW UP in a loving family, with his father — a member of the Iranian army — mother and three sisters. As the only boy, he was adored.

Shahmoradi was about 14 when he realized he was gay. Once a good student, his grades began to falter and he was teased for being a sissy.

He considered suicide, but wasn’t brave enough to take his own life.

“I know they loved me and wanted to protect me,” he says of his family. “They brought up the subject of marriage many times, but in Iran men are getting married later in life, so I just told them I wasn’t ready.”

His mother introduced him to a girl, whom he dated for two months. He had two sexual relationships in Iran, both with straight men. Shahmoradi was in love, “but the love was just from me,” he says.

After his arrest, the family moved from Tehran to a nearby city of Karaj, where they still live. Shahmoradi, then in his early 20s, opened an Internet café and lost himself in a routine life, occasionally cruising for sex or companionship online. Shahmoradi dreamed of a genuine love affair like the ones he read about on the web. He stayed away from sites like, a global hookup site for gay men known in Iran for its decoy profiles of handsome police officers, posted to lure lonely gay men on dates that end in humiliation and arrest.

He also stumbled upon Iranian gay rights activist Arsham Parsi in a Yahoo chat room. Parsi was looking for information on two young men who were about to be executed in Arak on sodomy charges.

Parsi, who had already fled to Turkey, was happy to include Shahmoradi in his informal network of eyes and ears in Iran. Shahmoradi went on to contribute stories to Parsi’s Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization website.

Parsi had registered the website in Norway to avoid the attention of Iran’s government, which wages a war against its cyber citizens, who are overwhelmingly young and web savvy. It monitors web traffic and tries to control the information coming in and out of the country, suppressing any voices it deems unpatriotic and keeping tabs on anyone who questions its authority. Just this year, Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who spent more than a decade training pro-democracy activists in blogging and podcasting, was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.

For that reason, Shahmoradi and his friends would talk and text on cellphones that could not be traced, and when they planned a party, they would change locations two or three times to throw off police.

Unlike most of his gay friends in Iran, Shahmoradi doesn’t use an alias. His birth name is so common he doesn’t fear relatives will be harassed.

Annika Sandlund, a senior protection officer at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ankara, Turkey, where a lot of gay Iranian refugees seek asylum, confirms the threat of backlash is very real.

Shahmoradi was 28 when Ahmadinejad was elected. That year, the regime’s ruthless Revolutionary Guard and its roving gang of paramilitary volunteers — the Basiji — began his moral crackdown. Gay men were rounded up in big cities such as Tehran, Shiraz and Mashhad. Two years later, in a speech to Columbia University in New York, Ahmadinejad proclaimed there were no gay people in Iran, a statement that shocked and scared gay Iranians.

In 2009, dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators died and thousands more were arrested in bloody protests that followed the widely contested election that returned Ahmadinejad to power.

And this summer, human-rights lawyer Mohammad Mostafai — who recently represented Iranian widow Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, sentenced to death for adultery — fled to Oslo. He had been arrested last year for “conspiring against state security” and “propaganda against the system,” and was released from prison after paying a fine equivalent to $102,000 (U.S.).

Mostafai, who works to abolish the death penalty for juveniles, feared another arrest was imminent: He had been defending Ebrehim Hamidi, 22, one of four young men accused of physical and sexual assault. Hamidi had been sentenced to death on charges of sodomy. The accuser has since withdrawn his complaint.

Shahmoradi’s second brush with the law came three years ago, when he was in a car in a parking lot with a friend who was playing loud music. A member of the Basiji took them in to the police station for questioning. When Shahmoradi was released the next morning, he knew his luck was running out.

For three months Shahmoradi ignored letters asking him to appear before the court. He was worried. He didn’t know how much information they had on him, though they certainly knew about his previous arrest.

Had the morality police taped his telephone calls to his gay friends? Did they have records of his Internet activity, his visits to gay chat rooms or websites?

Leaving Iran was always an option. Shahmoradi decided to get his papers in order, but when he tried to renew his passport, he was ordered to court.

“My father went to see them but they said they wanted me to appear in person,” says Shahmoradi.

He took as a sign the government would not be easy on him. So he turned to the one place he knew could help him, and that was Parsi’s Iran Railroad for Queer Refugees.

SINCE THEY MET online, Parsi had immigrated to Toronto and set up the railroad from his one-bedroom co-op apartment on Sherbourne St. Now a U.S. benefactor foots the bill for a small office on Bay St. Parsi has helped 50 gay, lesbian or transgendered people get to Canada, and estimates he is advising another 250 who have either fled Iran or want to leave.

Just as the underground railroad helped move thousands of black Americans to Canada 150 years ago, Parsi’s group relies on a network of contacts who provide information, housing, meals and moral support to those who leave Iran, often with nothing more than a knapsack.

“They are lost,” says Parsi, “because the country is so cut off they don’t know what to do.”

Parsi put Shahmoradi in touch with someone who knew how to find a smuggler. For about $1,400 (U.S.), the passer would get him across the border into Turkey. He was 30 years old.

On Oct. 23, 2007, Shahmoradi’s father gave him the equivalent of $2,000 in U.S. dollars and Iranian rials, and put him on the train to the northwestern city of Tabriz, fearing he would never see his son again.

Shahmoradi took a bus to Khoy, where he met the first of many smugglers who would guide him through the three-day journey, divided into short trips to avoid detection.

“I tried to remember everything I saw out the window because I knew if I go through with this, I could never come back.”

Shahmoradi spent 40 minutes in a car, waited in a village until dark, then travelled for just an hour in a truck before riding through mountains on the back of a horse smuggling barrels of cheap diesel into Turkey.

The sun was rising as they dismounted. As the sky brightened he was surrounded by hills next to a shallow, meandering river. The smugglers instructed him to crouch down in the bushes by the water, keep quiet and wait for yet another passer, this time the person who would sneak him across the border.

Shahmoradi was wet and cold, and he was shivering. Exhausted, panicked, his mind raced back to the Tehran prison where his life changed forever. That arrest marked the beginning of this journey. If he was caught, it would be the end.

Those terrifying nights are burned into Shahmoradi’s memory. He can still feel the pain in his shoulder, smell his interrogator’s stale breath and hear the sharp bite in his voice.

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