"I grew up with religious and Islamic ideas," Parsi says. "'Well,' I thought, 'I'm a sinner.' I was trying to become a good person by practicing religious rites, including by praying a lot and fasting. Becoming good was one of my main concerns, and because of that, I entered a very difficult period. I decided to get to know myself. Now I'm glad that I know myself. I have my beliefs, I believe in my God, and I have my sexual orientation."
Gay and lesbian groups are marking International Day against Homophobia today, celebrating the day 17 years ago that the World Health Organization (WHO) removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Since then, the situation for homosexuals has improved in many parts of the world.
But they still face discrimination and harassment in many countries -- including Iran, where a strict official interpretation of Islam threatens homosexuals with the death penalty.
Pressure...And More Pressure
Parsi now lives in Canada, and is secretary-general of the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization (formerly called The Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization). He says homosexuals in Iran live in fear.
Under Islamic laws as applied in Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death. But in recent years, there have been only a few reported cases of individuals being officially charged with homosexuality.
Yet Parsi says the specter of the harsh sentences casts a shadow on the life of homosexuals.
"There is pressure on all [people] in Iranian society," Parsi says. "But if they arrest women, they don't execute them for being a woman; if they arrest [unmarried] couples, they don't execute them for being together at a party; they put them under pressure. But in the case of homosexuals, even if nothing happens, they always face fear. Many believe that the punishments for homosexuals are only on the books and they are not being applied. But we don't accept this -- we think homosexuals are being sentenced, but perhaps [these cases] don't get reported."
Sexual issues are considered taboo in Iran, and there is widespread misinformation about homosexuality. Many Iranians consider it a disease or sickness. For some, homosexuality among men is synonymous with pedophilia.
As a result, gays and lesbians in Iran cannot be open about their sexual orientation. Many suppress their feelings. There are also reports of sex-change operations or hormone therapy to escape persecution. Some also face arranged or forced marriages insisted on by their families.
Parsi claims a lack of knowledge and homophobic culture that rules Iranian society puts enormous pressure on homosexuals.
"Execution and flogging are punishments [that homosexuals can face], but these sentences are not being applied only after arrest," Parsi says. "Before the government detains and flogs someone, the families, friends, and acquaintances [harass] that person, they ostracize him and create many problems for that person."
Parsi says social forums for homosexuals -- whether online, at private parties, or in cafes -- are accompanied by fear.
Police frequently raid private parties and detain young Iranians who have been socializing, dancing, and sometimes drinking alcohol. Such raids target more than just the homosexual community.
In 2001, when Parsi was still in Iran, he launched a small Internet group that later became known as the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization. The aim -- through connections with human rights organizations around the world -- was to address the unique hardships of lesbians and gays living in Iran.
He left Iran in 2005 in large part out of fear of arrest and sought asylum abroad. He has lived in Canada since 2006, increasing his activities in defense of Iran's homosexual community.
He says his group informs the world about violations of the rights of gays and lesbians in Iran.
"We have created a link between the voices inside the county and those outside [the country]," Parsi says. "We try to be a platform for informing others in case there is an arrest in Iran, in case someone has been flogged or another similar incident -- because today in Iran no one is really interested or cares to listen to the problems of homosexuals."
Trying To Inform
The Iranian Queer Organization also tries to increase awareness about homosexuality through a monthly email magazine, "Cheragh" (Light).
Parsi argues that many people act homophobic owing to a lack of knowledge.
"Fighting homophobia means treating the person who sits next to you properly; it means that if your son is homosexual and his [brother] shouts at him for it, you have to defend him," Parsi says. "You who are his mother, father, or brother -- you have to support him."
As his and other gay rights groups celebrate International Day against Homophobia -- with this year's emphasis on education -- Parsi urges tolerance.
To mark the day, Human Rights Watch (HRW) named Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to its annual "hall of shame." The list includes leaders who have undermined human rights by actively promoting prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, or people who have undergone sex changes.
HRW says Ahmadinejad has overseen a creeping campaign to "counter public immorality," arbitrarily arresting thousands of Iranians for dressing or behaving differently. It accuses Ahmadinejad of using religious vigilantes to raid homes and other private places in search of "deviant" behavior -- including homosexuality.