12/04/2010 | Writer: KAOS GL

Washington Post
April 3, 2010

Freedom is relative. But for a 34-year-old refugee named Hassan, mother hen to a gaggle of gay Iranians fleeing a nation where their sexuality is punishable by death, relatively secular Turkey is one step closer to a life less shackled.

More than 300 gay men have fled Iran since the rise of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who infamously proclaimed in 2007, to guffaws from his audience at Columbia University, that there were no gay men or lesbians in Iran. Most have crossed the border into Turkey, joining 2,000 Iranian refugees - largely political dissidents and religious outcasts - facing waits of two to three years as the United Nations processes their applications for asylum. Those who agreed to be interviewed asked that their last names be withheld for fear of reprisals against their families.

Turkey grants all refugees sanctuary only until the United Nations can find them homes in the United States, Canada, Western Europe or Australia. To avoid a critical mass in any one Turkish city, the refugees are dispersed to two dozen locations. The list does not include more progressive Istanbul but rather smaller metropolises, such as Isparta, that remain influenced by Islam in the same way Christianity influences the Bible Belt.

In a nation where the party that won the Turkish elections in 2002 has since sought to improve ties with Tehran, the refugees' movements are strictly limited. They can't work or engage in political activity, and must check in at police stations at least twice a week.

Human rights groups say the number of gay men taking flight has jumped in recent months as some came out of the shadows for a fleeting moment around the time of last June's tainted elections, trying to join the anti-government campaigns that ultimately sparked a brutal crackdown.

It marked the first time, gay activists say, that a reviled underclass in Iran poked its face to the surface. It stayed there just long enough to get slapped.

"The bravery that has come out of the gay community in Iran since the elections has been inspiring, but the government has not taken it lightly," said Saghi Ghahraman, an Iranian exile who helps operate a Canadian-based organization providing guidance to gay men trying to escape Iran. "They have come down harshly and violently. They've made it more difficult than ever to be gay in Iran."

Most say they have been subject to gay bashing in Isparta. One neighbor tossed a rock through the window of the squalid apartment where Hassan lives with five other gay Iranians, and Turks shout gay epithets when they venture outdoors. Hassan said a shopkeeper and his son punched and kicked him, then urinated on him.

They now stay inside as much as possible, their lives in some ways more secret here than in Iran, a nation harboring a complex relationship with homosexuality.

Sex between two men in Iran is punishable by death after the first offense; sex between two women carries a penalty of 100 lashes, with the death penalty applicable on the fourth violation. In 2005, two gay teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, were famously hanged in the city of Mashhad. Yet the government offers financial assistance for sex-change operations - the idea being, apparently, that if they change sexes, their desires would no longer violate religious law.

Original Link of this News Article: Gay refugees flee to Turkey, seeking freedom

Tags: human rights