The Toronto Star reminds us that Canada remains a beacon of acceptance, dignity, and hope to people who are still persecuted throughout the world.
Arsham Parsi had barely crossed the border into Turkey when he received the email. It was shattering.My great friend Alan With One L sent me this people-profile, also from my local paper, about a man who has really made a difference in the world. AWOL (wow, I never realized what a terrible acronym that made!) attended a conference for gay Muslims in Toronto in 2003, and came back raving about the city and the people.
Two gay teenagers, it said, had been tortured and publicly hanged in his homeland of Iran. Mahmoud Asgari, 16, and Ayaz Marhoni, 18, were executed because they had contravened strict Islamic morality laws that command the death penalty for gay sex.
"I had never met them, but I cried and cried," says the small, immaculately groomed gay activist, who won refugee status in Canada last month.
Parsi, 25, fled Iran in March 2005, the moment he learned through friends that government officials were looking for him. He was in Ankara and applying for asylum in Canada when he learned about the teens' fate, which could very well have been his own. "The judge has four choices," explains Parsi with remarkably little emotion. "You can be hanged, stoned to death, beheaded or pushed from a precipice."
In the mid-1990s, an exiled Iranian gay-rights group, Homan, estimated that 4,000 homosexuals had been executed by the government since 1979.
As Toronto Pride Week reaches its culmination with today's Pride Parade, one could easily forget that in many parts of the world, it is extremely dangerous to be gay.
In some cases, it's not just the state that harasses and sometimes executes homosexuals, but the intolerant citizenry as well. So, for some foreign-born celebrants and their loved ones, Pride Week's theme of "fearless in 2006" strikes a particularly resonant chord.
Because it arguably sets the gold standard for gay rights around the world, Canada is the new home of choice for many homosexuals fleeing repressive countries. Only a few other nations (Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain) can match our record of legalizing gay marriage and adoptions by gay and lesbian couples, or our strong anti-discrimination laws.
"I think Canada is a beacon of hope for a lot of refugee claimants," says immigration lawyer and gay community activist Michael Battista, who has represented many gays and lesbians seeking refugee status.
As a devout Muslim who is gay, El-Farouk Khaki knows what it is like to be an outsider. The Toronto lawyer and human rights activist, who founded the Salaam support group for queer Muslims, was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and came to Canada with his parents in 1974 at the age of 10.
"I was in my mid-teens when I spoke to my parents for the first time about being gay," says Khaki, 42. "They were wonderful, but they said it was a natural part of puberty to be questioning your sexuality and it was something I would grow out of."
He says he first dealt with isolation as a young freshman at the University of British Columbia, but it wasn't until law school that he became openly gay.
"I think my coming out had a lot to do with the stress and pressures of law school," he says. "I really hated law school, as a bastion of social conservatism and elitism that was predominantly white, particularly in the middle '80s."
Khaki moved to Ottawa in July of 1988 and came to Toronto the following year, setting up his legal practice here in '93. "I didn't know anyone in Vancouver who was Muslim and queer," he says. "But when I came to Toronto, I started meeting people who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered - and Muslim.
"One of the difficult parts of coming out as a Muslim - or in any religious tradition - is the religious condemnation and the religious interpretations of text, which demonize same-sex relationships," he says. "As a believer, that was a problem for me, so once I moved to Toronto and began meeting other people, I started the original Salaam in 1991."
He says the original purpose of Salaam, which means peace, was social and support, "just to know that you're not alone."
At this year's Pride gala, Khaki is being honoured for his spirituality and his contribution to queer life through Salaam.
"I think Salaam is very important, both locally and internationally, in terms of creating a safe place for people of Muslim tradition to be able to come together both socially and spiritually," says Rev. Brent Hawkes of Metropolitan Toronto Community Church.
"There are Jewish synagogues that are open; there are Christian places that are open, there are Buddhist places that are open. But progressive Muslims, particularly gay and lesbian Muslims, don't have many options. The work that El-Farouk has done as to help to make sure there is an option there."
Khaki says the original Salaam disbanded in 1993. "This was pre-Internet, and communications were much more difficult.
People would say, 'If you call and my mother picks up the phone, don't tell her your name; don't say this or don't say that.'
"After a series of incidents, including a nasty letter from Islamic Jihad, I decided it wasn't worth my life, it wasn't worth the angst. So I shut it down."
Salaam was reborn in 2001 after years spent reorganizing and establishing ties with sister groups such as Al-Fateha in the United States.
"Salaam is a unique organization because we have a true diversity in gender, as well as a diversity in orientation," Khaki says. "Our co-ordinators, as well as our membership, come from diverse racial backgrounds: We have Iranians, Indo-Pakistanis, Turks, Ismalii, Shiite, Sunni, people who are religious and people who are not, people who are believers, people who are not. We've also had non-Muslims or people who don't identify as Muslim.
"A lot of our members are newcomers, so a lot of what Salaam has been doing is providing support for queer refugees, as well as for the whole body of Canadian queer Muslims, a group that we have some difficulty in reaching."
There are several reasons for the inaccessibility of queer Canadian Muslims, Khaki says. "There is the degree to which people are out to their families and communities. For example, there is a very large Somali community in Toronto, yet Salaam doesn't have any members from the Somali community. My understanding is that a lot of them are very concerned about visibility. You won't see them on Church St. or in other groups or organizations.
"We're not interested in debating or challenging or confronting the larger Muslim community - that's not our goal," he adds. "Our goal is to provide a sense of community and safety for people who come to us. Bringing people together is the cornerstone of Salaam's work.
"Every Ramadan, we host a fast-breaking dinner, called an iftar, for about 150 people. It's an interesting event, because it's 50 per cent Muslim, 50 per cent non-Muslim, 50 per cent queer, 50 per cent not queer.
"I think it's very important right now for Muslim organizations to be building bridges," he says. "We need to recognize that there is a fringe element at the present time within the Muslim community that resorts to violence; for reasons that are multi-level.
"We need to isolate this element and identify what leads to this sort of alienation and this psychology of violence."