As gay people and transsexuals flee Iran for Turkey in search of a better life, it is questionable whether they find it upon arrival. And, yet, what they want above all else is the United Nations' permission to remain there, says Reza HaghighatNejad. But how long will it be until they get it?

The Iranian LGBT community has lived in Kayseri, a large city near the Turkish capital of Ankara, for many years. In the summer of 2014, I went to Kayseri to investigate their living conditions, and that of Iranian asylum seekers more generally.

Currently, many Iranian LGBT people living in Turkey are waiting for the United Nations’ decision regarding their asylum application. In the past, the LGBT community lived scattered in different Turkish cities but was forced to move when Muslim residents from some of the smaller, more conservative Turkish towns reacted angrily to their presence. The UN and Turkish police therefore ordered that they be sent back to Kayseri, although some have refused and remain in Istanbul today.

During my time in Kayseri, I spoke with three asylum-seekers belonging to the Iranian LGBT community, including one transsexual and two lesbians. All three of them had lived in Turkey for three years in cities such as Kayseri, Istanbul and Mersin, a large port on the Mediterranean but are all now based in Canada.

During his time in Turkey, Saman, a 20-year-old Iranian transsexual, was forced to work illegally for some time at a plastics factory. This is because it is prohibited for asylum seekers to find work and so they are often forced to find jobs underground to sustain themselves. That said, Saman was quickly fired because, according to his boss, he was not strong enough.

Nazanin, who is a lesbian, worked at the same factory. The combination of a tiny wage and an uncertain future meant her life was a challenge for her and the people she lived with, including her gay friend Helia. Despite this, though, they looked back on their time in Turkey nostalgically.

Both Saman and Nazanin are from the Islamic republic of Iran, a country where homosexuality is officially banned and is punishable, at least legally speaking, by death.

Contrary to when former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an audience at Columbia University in New York in 2007 “Iran didn’t have any gay people in Iran,” here are two real-life examples of Iranian people belonging to the LGBT community and how their rights as homosexuals are so frequently violated in Iran.

Saman looked back on his time as a transsexual in Iran bitterly. He recounted memories of horrifying social pressure, government refusal to support him and the medical procedure he needed and the added difficulty he encountered trying to find work.

It is currently unknown how many people from the Iranian LGBT community are living in Turkey. The UN has, thus far, refused to tell the press if they even possess the information. It is, however, commonly accepted that the majority of them choose to live away from other asylum seekers in order to lead quiet lives away from the media.

At the end of June, I attended the annual gay parade in Istanbul, where I met around 10 Iranians who were either gay or transsexual. This was a noticeably smaller following than in 2014 when Iran’s LGBT community walked in a large group carrying Iranian flags and slogans in Farsi. This year, numbers were drastically reduced and members did not walk together as a unified group.

This year’s gay pride in Istanbul also took place at a tentative time — it coincided with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, when Muslims fast and pray. As a result, Istiklal Street, where it was held, was awash with police, both secret and in uniform. During the rally, some participants chanted slogans against the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which led to a quick reaction from the police, who used tear gas, rubber bullets and water hoses against protesters. 


Afraid to Talk

While at the parade, one gay Iranian told me that a number of gay people and transsexuals had traveled from Iran to Istanbul to attend the rally. It was, he told me, his first time at the event and that he had suffered a lot because he was gay in Turkey.

I wanted to ask the people I met more questions but many of the Iranians I spoke with were afraid to talk to the press fearing there would be repercussions, in particular that it would affect the outcome of their application for asylum. They were also concerned that I might be an undercover agent working for the Iranian government.

The Iranians I met didn’t trust me — they had carried this fear and distrust of Iranians all the way from Iran. Many of the Iranian LGBT community are both refugees escaping the government and their own families - more traditional and conservative families can be even more hostile towards gay people and transsexuals than the government is.

The very same culture exists in Turkey. In the past three years, there have been numerous reports in the media about Turkish people attacking Iranian homosexuals. Even some Iranian asylum seekers have harassed the LGBT community living in the country.

Before civil war broke out in Syria, when gay people were persecuted, they were granted asylum faster. Know as the “golden cases,” asylum seekers were jealous of how fast their cases were handled. But in the past three years, the situation for Iranian homosexuals and transsexuals living in Turkey has massively deteriorated. It is now Syrian refugees, including gay and transsexual people that are getting priority. They too, however, have bitter stories to tell.

A number of the Syrian transsexuals living in Istanbul have become sex workers. From my time in Turkey, I never met an Iranian transsexual that lived in the same neighborhoods that Turkish transsexuals lived or worked in as sex workers. One Iranian transsexual revealed to me that customers looking for sex tended to be either Turkish or Arab and were rough and paid as little as 20 to 40 dollars.

It goes without saying that this is a risky way of making a living. And this won’t change anytime soon. For the moment the Syrian civil war weighs down heavily and the Iranian LGBT community has to struggle, like everybody else. Iran’s gay and transsexual people are truly fighting for their future, be it in Kayseri or in Istanbul.

This blog was originally published in June 2015

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