Iran is one of several countries that allows the execution of individuals for homosexual conduct. As a result, some LGBT citizens choose to leave with help from an "underground railroad" spanning from Iran to Turkey and then across the globe, from Canada and the United States to Europe and Australia. Turkey, the first stop for many on this underground railroad, is a strange limbo for refugees. Refugees don't know how long it will be until they're assigned a new country by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and they don't know where they'll go next. After an initial interview that grants them refugee status, they wait for a second interview. After the second they wait for a third. Finally, if all goes well, they're assigned a new country and a date of departure. The average waiting time is 18 months.
KAYSERI, Turkey — It is sizdah bedar, the thirteenth day of the Persian New Year, in March. Shervin is speaking by telephone while on a bus returning to Kayseri, the industrial Turkish city where he is temporarily living. He and 30 other LGBT refugees have spent the last day of the Norooz celebrations picnicking in the city's suburbs and tossing sabzeh — newly sprouted grasses and legumes — into flowing water.
The tradition, a cherished part of the thirteenth day, symbolizes a release from sickness and sadness.
Shervin, 20, left his hometown in Iran, a Kurdish majority city near the Iraq border, in October 2011. As a gay man, it wasn't only imprisonment or execution that he feared, but the possibility that he might be forced to become a woman.
Some reports have suggested that some of the gender reassignment surgeries performed in Iran are the result of pressure from the Iranian government for homosexuals to undergo surgery in order to become legal — that is, heterosexual.
A few months later in the still heat of summer, Shervin is willing to be interviewed in person at the apartment where he lives with his boyfriend. The apartment is on a high floor, breezy and light with a view of snow-topped Mount Erciyes. On a low table in the living room, there are almonds and incense, cherries and plums.
One of the first things Shervin asks is that his real name not be used. He's worried about protecting his privacy — both from people back home and from other refugees in Turkey.
Shervin's problems with the Iranian government began when he applied for a passport. He hoped to leave the country to escape his boyfriend's family, who resented Shervin's relationship with their son and was becoming increasingly threatening. Some months earlier, several family members had shown up at the university where Shervin and his boyfriend were students and threatened the two with knives. The public scene left Shervin fearing for his safety.
"It was so terrible I had to stop going to school," he says.
In order to be issued a passport, Shervin had to provide proof of military service or, alternatively, military exemption.
"In the medical center where I went, the doctors had checked [on the form] that I was transsexual," he says, adding that this was grounds for military exemption. "I had six months in order to start my hormone therapy and start dressing like a woman, otherwise military forgiveness would be withheld."
In 1967, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa sanctioning sex changes. The fatwa didn't have significant legal or political reach until after the revolution in 1979. It was re-issued in 1985, declaring sex changes legal for "diagnosed transsexuals."
Psychological counselling is required prior to sex reassignment surgery. Shervin, struggling to live in a society that rejected his sexual orientation, had already seen three therapists. "All of them were very unfriendly," he says. "The first two made me want to die."
Shervin's first trip to therapy was at the age of six. "My mother knew I was different so she took me to a doctor," he says. "[He] pulled his hair and said, 'What's wrong with this child?'" The sessions lasted only six months. Shervin returned to therapy at 15 and again at 17. "The second one wasn't good either but my third one understood — he tried to change me for the first three months so I wouldn't be homosexual, then he gave up."
Shervin saw this third therapist for about a year and a half, and it was he who ultimately encouraged Shervin to leave Iran. "He had been working in the field for thirty years and he said that he had come to the conclusion that the only option [for me] was to get a sex change — regardless of whether or not it was wanted — or to leave Iran."
Shervin left, flying to Ankara from Tehran. His boyfriend came four days later, illegally crossing the mountains into Turkey with the help of human smugglers.
Life isn't easy in Kayseri, but they are among the lucky ones: they have each other and they have financial support sent from Iran each month.
Shervin's boyfriend's family — the knife-wielding one — is relieved that he is in Turkey. "They think he's come here as a student and they're sending him money to help. They think I'm still in Iran and they're very glad — they think he's here surrounded by girls and that he might change," Shervin says.
"I had problems with my family as well, but my mother was very supportive. She didn't want me to have a sex change and said I needed to go," he continues. "[After I left] she informed me that they had received another letter from the court asking where I was and why I hadn't shown up."
After lunch — rice flavored with Persian lemons, crisp slices of potatoes and a pungent stew, a specialty of Shervin's hometown — we drink tea and smoke fruit-flavored tobacco, listening to music by Googoosh, a popular Iranian singer and actress.
Shervin shows photos on his Facebook page: friends and family, a pile of bloody puppies. Dog ownership is considered immoral by Islamic clerics, Shervin tells me, looking at Bobby, the scruffy dog romping around the living room. Other refugees I had talked with had shown me even grislier photos on their Facebook pages, footage from the latest public hangings back home.
"I can talk about all of this easily now as though the nightmare is in the past, but that period was very difficult for me," Shervin says.
Though uncertain about his future, as he has no idea when he'll leave Turkey or where he'll go next, he is adamant about one thing: "Iran is still my country," he says. "If it ever changes, I'll go back."