Edison wasn’t home the first time Iranian police came to arrest him. He had been photographed during the mass demonstrations that rocked Tehran following last year’s seemingly rigged presidential election.
When police couldn’t find Edison, they took his computer and scoured its hard drive. Sifting through his emails, photographs and Internet search history, they discovered he was gay. When the police returned to his house three days later, they were no longer interested in his politics. Edison’s mother answered the door. “The first thing we have to do is stone your faggot son,” they told her.
Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran, and young men have been hanged for the supposed crime. Edison’s mother didn’t know he was gay. The police slapped his elderly father about his face and detained Edison’s sister. When Edison (who asked that his full name not be used) reached his mother by phone, she begged him to get out of the country. Edison first tried sneaking across the border into northern Iraq, without success. He spent four days wandering in the mountains before returning to Tehran. With the help of his partner of five years, Milad Mahdavi, who had recently immigrated to Canada, Edison paid thousands of dollars to a people smuggler and an airport security official who agreed to look the other way. Edison flew to Cuba, and, eventually, to São Paulo, Brazil, where he secured refugee status.
Mahdavi, who was studying mechanical engineering at Ryerson University, has flown to São Paulo to be with Edison. “He’s my family. I want to be with my family and support my family,” Mahdavi says. He has a tourist visa and is not allowed to work in Brazil. Edison doesn’t speak Portuguese. They’re living on Mahdavi’s student loan. Mahdavi is trying to sponsor Edison to come to Canada as his partner. They lived together for years in Tehran and now must prove their relationship to the Canadian government. It’s a lengthy and difficult process.
For now, Edison and Mahdavi are two among thousands of gay Iranians in exile. Arsham Parsi, who founded the Toronto-based Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, an organization that helps gay Iranians find refuge outside Iran, is working on some 250 active cases. Since 2006 he has helped more than 100 gay Iranians come to Canada.