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Gays from Iran carve out a refuge in Turkey

By SCHEHEREZADE FARAMARZI, Associated Press

KAYSERI, Turkey -- The salmon-colored building has seen better days. Paint peels from the moldy facades. Pieces of cardboard, newspaper and plastic cover the many missing windows - not worth replacing, because the neighborhood kids, who know this as "the gay building," will just smash them again.

The two-story building in Kayseri's Fez Kichak neighborhood has become an informal halfway-house for Iranian homosexuals fleeing torment in their homeland and hoping to make it to the West.

Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran, and human rights groups estimate some 4,000 gays have been executed since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

The atmosphere has only gotten more tense since the arrival in power five years ago of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who famously proclaimed in a 2007 speech at Columbia University that there are no homosexuals in his country. An official memo sent to government departments last year called on employees to either marry or resign - a step seen as aimed at seeking to weed out homosexuals.

Alireza Naimian is one of the lucky ones. After 2 1/2 years in Turkey, he has won acceptance through the U.N. for resettlement in the United States. Sitting in his ground-floor apartment he describes the event that eventually led to his flight: One day in 2007, a group of paramilitary Basijis who noticed his long hair as he traveled in a cab in the northern Iranian town of Roodehen detained him, took him to his home and brutally raped him.

"All I wanted was death from God, to die and be free of them," said the 42-year-old Naimian.

As Naimain speaks, rocks clatter against what's left of one of his windows. Outside, four teenagers run off.

"This building has gained a bad reputation," he says.

Naimian is one of nine gays living in the shabby apartments, which have frequently changed hands, along with belongings sometimes, as new arrivals hear of the place by word of mouth.

A trickle of gays and lesbians have made their way out of Iran - most through neighboring Turkey, which doesn't require Iranians to obtain a visa. Currently, 92 Iranian homosexuals have refugee status in the country, according to Saghi Ghahraman, director of the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization which tracks homosexuals fleeing Iran.

Many are placed by the Turkish government in Kayseri and nearby towns, where they form a precarious community, overshadowed by a larger influx of thousands of Iranians fleeing the political crackdown since June's disputed presidential election. In this conservative region of Turkey, they try to lay low, fearing harassment as they wait in hopes of resettlement.

"Police here tells us to stay indoors when we report violence against us," said Roodabeh Parvaresh, a 32-year-old lesbian who has been in Turkey for over two years.

Parvaresh, a nurse, said even staff at a human rights organization that is supposed to care for refugees told her, "' Don't make a fuss, you're already enough in the public eye.' Why? Because I am lesbian."

Another lesbian, Hengameh, who refused to give her full name to avoid publicity, said she was severely beaten by two Turkish youths soon after arriving in the country a year ago.

Still, Turkey provides an escape from their lives in Iran, where homosexuals can face threats from every direction - from the state, from co-workers or security officials who harass them or try to blackmail them into sexual favors.

There is no authoritative figure for the homosexual population in Iran. However, recently published data based only on psychological reports of recruits for compulsory military service or for sex change operations put the number of gay men at 200,000 in a country of 66 million, Ghahraman said. Sex changes are legal in Iran, and many gays resort to them as the only way to live with their partners or avoid the harsh penalties.

Last November, authorities said they were preparing to execute three men guilty of homosexuality, but did not give dates. No report of their execution has been made. Over the past three years, 12 minors have been sentenced to death for sodomy, one of whom has already been executed, according to human rights groups. The whereabouts of only four of the remaining 11 are known.

In the summer of 2005, two teenagers were hanged in public in the northeastern city of Mashhad for having homosexual intercourse. One of them was underage at the time of the offense.

Under Iran's Islamic law, the punishment for same-sex intercourse between two men is death and between two women is 100 lashes for the first three offenses and the death penalty for the fourth. Often convictions are based on forced confessions, human rights lawyers say.

Some judges, though, are more lenient. They "send the accused to be examined for sexual encounters, and then release them," said Ghahraman. Religious guidelines issued by clerics say that "self-inserting a zucchini for pleasure" is not considered homosexuality - so gay men often claim to have done so to escape prosecution on sodomy charges, she said.

But beyond the law, homosexuals face a deep hostility from authorities and, often, their families.

In her first year at university, Hengameh sought help from a student counselor. "I thought this phase would pass," she said. "I thought if it was serious I could do something about it."

But when she told the counselor she was attracted to women, the official snapped at her, "It's not advisable that you sit with other students in class" and reported her to the university administration. Hengameh was banned for life from further education.

Her mother tried to push her into an arranged marriage in hopes of "curing her," but relented when Hengameh threatened to kill herself. After she was caught with a woman, Hengameh left the country.

When Ahmad Sajedi, 22, told his mother he was gay, she took him to a psychiatrist who promised to make him "normal" after 10 therapy sessions. The psychiatrist told him his sexual orientation was a sin and the "cost of redemption very high."

After only the second visit, Sajedi was on the run, not from police but from his father, an army colonel who saw his son's homosexuality as an affront to his religion and a shame to his reputation.

Even in Turkey, the guilt hangs over him.

"When I was a kid, my mother always talked about having a grandchild, a daughter-in-law, talked about my future, that we would live alongside each other, about happiness. ... I've never had a single happy day in my life," Sajedi said, bursting into tears.

"I wonder if it would make any difference to God if I were in this world or not," he said.

Ghahraman, the gay activist in Toronto, says "every gay and lesbian I know has tried at least twice to commit suicide."

Naimian, the gay man in the apartment building, agrees. Death is what he longed for while being raped.

He was in a car coming back from the supermarket in the afternoon when a green Peugeot cut him off and two heavy young men pulled him out of the car. They taunted him, calling him "pretty woman," then took him to his house, where one of them threw him to the ground and forced him to perform oral sex on him. "I felt sick and threw up. He started hitting me." Then one of them slammed his leg in a metal door until it bled as they raped him.

Naimian eventually was forced to sign a document confessing to sodomy. But when he later decided to sue, the men threatened to harm him and his family. Six months later he came to Turkey.

Now he's hoping to make his way to San Diego, where he has relatives and friends.

Looking back at his life as a gay man in Iran, Naimian said: "You have to be a full-time actor to survive there."

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