New Internationalist

An inauspicious anniversary

Issue 420

Scared for their lives, gay Iranians are fleeing the country as it marks 30 years as an Islamic Republic. Those arriving in Britain find that their ordeal is far from over, as Anna Webster reports.

The first of April 2009 marks 30 years since revolution in Iran resulted in the birth of the Islamic Republic and the adoption of sharia law. This strict penal code criminalized homosexuality and the gay community in Iran have subsequently suffered three decades of persecution. The punishment for lesbian sex is one hundred lashes, with the death penalty being imposed on the fourth offence. Sodomy, or lavat, between men is punishable by death on the first offence. The law is enforced by the Basij Secret Police and gay and lesbian Iranians live with the constant threat of being followed and arrested. For those who manage to escape, the 30th anniversary is a reminder of why they were forced to flee. ‘It’s because of the Islamic revolution that people like me are here’ explains Ayra, an Iranian currently seeking asylum in Britain. ‘The revolution is a really bad memory for gay and lesbian people. Before, they were free but now they can’t live in Iran and have to escape.’

Another long ordeal

Arrival in Britain is often the beginning of another long ordeal. Behrouz was with his partner one night when neighbours reported him. Seeing the police approach the house he escaped over the roof, and scared for his life, fled to Britain. He arrived in 2001 and was dispersed to accommodation in Wigan. Growing up gay in Iran, Behrouz felt extremely isolated, but alone in Wigan with little English and no permission to work, this loneliness was compounded. ‘In my country I had my family, my house, my education, but I had to leave all of them to be in a country where I don’t know anyone. I didn’t know how to live.’ After spending years desperately trying to hide his sexuality, Behrouz also found it difficult to be openly gay in Britain. ‘I didn’t want to go to people and say “I’m gay”. I kept it quiet. Still now when I see the police I’m scared and want to run away.’ This isolation was eventually broken when Behrouz was moved to Manchester. He was amazed to discover the gay village and see people openly expressing their homosexuality. ‘When I saw men holding hands I couldn’t believe it,’ he says. Through joining gay community groups, he met people who helped him to come to terms with his sexuality. ‘It was fantastic to socialize with people like me and not feel alone.’

The [anti-homosexuality] law is enforced by the Basij Secret Police and gay and lesbian Iranians live with the constant threat of being followed and arrested

Access to support networks can also make a big difference in the process of applying for asylum in Britain, as illustrated in February this year when Iranian lesbian Pegah Embakash was finally granted refugee status. Pegah fled Iran in 2005 following the arrest, torture and imprisonment of her partner. In Britain she was initially refused asylum, arrested and detained in Yarls Wood Detention Centre. In August 2007 she was hours from being deported to her death but was saved by a last minute reprieve. The Friends of Pegah was a campaign group from her local community that gained global support through the internet. It was this network of support that led to Pegah being released from detention and finally winning asylum after a hard-fought four year campaign.

Identity issues

Support groups can also help gay Iranians gain asylum through providing evidence to ‘prove’ homosexuality. ‘Almost everybody from Iran is initially refused asylum by the Home Office on the grounds that they are not believed to be gay or lesbian,’ says Sebastian from The UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG). The only group of its kind in Britain, UKLGIG helps people to ‘prove’ their homosexuality by providing witness statements at the court of appeal and referral to specialist solicitors. However, even if they are believed to be gay, a large number of Iranians’ appeals are rejected on the grounds that they can go back to Iran and hide their sexuality. ‘To me, telling people to go back and hide their sexuality is persecution in itself,’ continues Sebastian. ‘Being gay or lesbian is part of your identity, to have to hide it means you can’t live.’ Refusal on these grounds is even more likely for those like Behrouz and Ayra who don’t have access to UKLGIG’s vital support.

‘The idea that it’s safe to go back and live discreetly in Iran is totally untrue. I can’t understand what being discreet means. Not being able to be gay means living a lie, it means not having a life and pretending to be someone else. It’s just not possible.’

Arya was at a secret gay party in Tehran when a phone call warned him the police were on their way. He fled and was on the run when police came to look for him at his family home and, in a bid to save their son’s life, his parents paid for him to be smuggled to Britain. After claiming asylum, Arya was shocked to be refused on the grounds that he was not believed to be gay. A solicitor told him he needed evidence to ‘prove’ his sexuality and he gathered photos from the gay scene. His mum also sent him documents hidden inside a pair of shoes to avoid detection by the Iranian authorities. At the tribunal, the judge conceded that Ayra was gay but refused him asylum on the grounds that he could go back to Iran and ‘live discreetly’. ‘They want me to go back to Iran to hide in my house and always be scared’ says Ayra. ‘Even if I was lucky enough to avoid arrest at the airport, I’m sure they would find me.’

Four years ago Behrouz was also refused asylum on these grounds. ‘When that decision was made I was ready to commit suicide,’ reveals Behrouz. ‘The idea that it’s safe to go back and live discreetly in Iran is totally untrue. I can’t understand what being discreet means. Not being able to be gay means living a lie, it means not having a life and pretending to be someone else. It’s just not possible.’ For gay Iranians like Behrouz and Ayra the anniversary of Iran becoming an Islamic Republic is a reminder of the persecution that forced them to flee their country. Having been refused sanctuary in Britain, it is also a reminder of their uncertain future and the suffering they will face if they are returned. Behrouz found a solicitor who believed he had a strong case and put in a fresh claim for asylum. However, 18 months later he still hasn’t had a response from the Home Office and is living in limbo. ‘I want to live, I don’t want to hide,’ he sighs. ‘I want to live like everybody else’.

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