MELISSA BLOCK, host:
When Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University yesterday, a student submitted this question: Why does the Iranian government execute homosexuals? Ahmadinejad dismissed the question.
President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Through translator) In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country. We don't have that in our country.
(Soundbite of crowd laughing and booing)
Pres. AHMADINEJAD: (Through translator) In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it.
BLOCK: Under Iranian law, sodomy, or lavat, is punishable by death.
Arsham Parsi fled Iran in 2005 after he founded the group now known as the Iranian Queer Organization. He lives in Canada and joins us from Toronto.
Mr. Parsi, welcome to the program.
Mr. ARSHAM PARSI (Executive Director, Iranian Queer Organization): Hi. Thank you very much for your invitation.
BLOCK: What was your reaction yesterday when you heard those words from the president?
Mr. PARSI: At first time I was laughing and in few minutes, I just thinking okay, what he said. And I'm sure that he knows about everything in Iran and I'm sure that he doesn't have lack of information. And it's actually a strong statement. It's not just a joke. And when he say we don't have any homosexual in Iran that means don't talking about these issues. We don't accept their rights.
BLOCK: How would you describe the gay scene that you knew as a young man in Iran?
Mr. PARSI: Gay people in Iran - the best way that I can describe the gay people in Iran - actually, the queer people in Iran, you can imagine a person that they have a mask on their faces 24 hours, seven days. They are gay people, they are queer people, but they have to play these heterosexual roles in the society, in the school, in their work, everywhere.
BLOCK: Would there be places where gay people would know they could congregate safely?
Mr. PARSI: They have a networking in Iran and it's actually through Internet. We don't have any club, of course, in Iran for gay people. And we don't have any places they can go in public or cinema or somewhere else. Usually, they have a private gathering in their homes.
BLOCK: How much of a climate of fear is there would you say among gays in Iran now?
Mr. PARSI: Imagine that you don't have any rights, and if anybody attack you, if anybody discriminates against you, you cannot go to court, you cannot protest anybody and you have to be quiet. It's very dangerous situation. And it's not just by government. If police arrests a queer person in Iran, they might be trial for jail or execution, stoned to death and et cetera. But before the arrest, and they are - they live in their society and they're living a homophobic society.
BLOCK: Mr. Parsi, when you came out, how did your family react?
Mr. PARSI: I didn't came out for my family. I'm a out person, but for my family - because my family is one of the Iranian family. I just told them I'm a human rights activist.
BLOCK: But they must know now.
Mr. PARSI: Mothers knows everything.
BLOCK: Your mother knows everything.
Mr. PARSI: And all mothers knows about their children.
BLOCK: Do you think, Mr. Parsi, when you think about the comments of President Ahmadinejad in New York yesterday, do you see that being any sort of moment for change in Iran or do you figure that Iran will go on as it has before -criminalizing homosexuality?
Mr. PARSI: No, it doesn't change, it become worst. Because they know about our activities and about our queer movement. And my question is if Mr. Ahmadinejad say that we don't have homosexuals in Iran, so why the court sentenced to execution or torture or anything for being homosexual? And I don't know what Mr. President Ahmadinejad has answer for me.
BLOCK: Mr. Parsi, thanks for talking with us today.
Mr. PARSI: You're welcome.
BLOCK: Arsham Parsi is executive director for the Iranian Queer Organization. He's based in Toronto.
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