Friday 22 May 2015 Nargess Tavassolian
“I was born as free and equal as others”
For many years, there was no mention of homosexuality in either the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In 2008, the UN passed the Declaration for the Global Decriminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) Activity. But it was only in December 2010 that the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, in a landmark speech on LGBT equality in New York, called for all countries to abolish discriminatory laws against homosexuals. Finally, on July 17, 2011 after widespread debate, the UNHRC adopted its first resolution on homosexual rights, “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” The taboo was broken.
Today, LGBT people are considered a minority under human rights mechanisms. Despite this, LGBT people continue to face discrimination in many societies, and within the legal systems of many countries around the world. To raise awareness about this and encourage active participation in combating discrimination, a coalition of campaigning groups launched the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia on May 17.
To mark the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, I talked to Iranian lesbian Nadia Zabehi about her active role in defending the rights of LGBT people. She has faced discrimination in all three countries she has lived in — Iran, Canada and Sweden — and, after a particularly bitter experience at her place of work in Sweden, came to the decision to go public about her sexual orientation and defend the rights of LGBT people around the world.
When you understood and recognized your sexual orientation, did you talk to anyone about it? How did others react?
I realized that my sexual orientation was different from others when I was a child. But because of the lack of education available, I did not know what it was called. I did not disclose my sexual orientation to others because neither was I ready to go public about that, nor did I think that my family and friends were ready to hear about it. During the time I was in Iran, I had secret relationships. I avoided having any relationships with boys. My mother, who is a feminist herself, thought that I avoided boys because of my feminist beliefs; she had no idea that my avoidance of having a relationship with the opposite sex could have to do anything with my sexual orientation.
I did not disclose my sexual orientation when I lived in Canada either, even though some of my friends became suspicious about it and some broke off our friendship and even harassed me. Some of them even threatened to tell my family about it. When I moved to Sweden, I experienced severe harassment at my workplace because of my sexual orientation and also because of my nationality. As a result of these continuous harassments, I ended up taking sick leave. While I was on leave, I went to The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (RFSL) and, at the age of 36, I decided to go public about my sexual orientation and also get involved in defending the rights of LGBTs.
Can you say more about the harassment at your workplace in Sweden?
I am a communications engineer. I did my Master’s in Canada and in 2011 I moved to Stockholm to work at the headquarters of Ericsson in Sweden. At my workplace, my manager and my colleagues constantly asked me about my sexual orientation. They would ask if I was gay. When I rejected their curiosity without giving them any explanation, they began harassing me. When I spoke to my boss about all this, she said that I should have thick skin, and should not be so sensitive. She also questioned me about my sexual orientation. Eventually, I asked for help from my union. An outside company investigated the working environment, but no one dared to back me, they stuck together. The result was that their investigation did not show enough evidence that I had been harassed. When I felt the worst and was on sick leave in March 2013, I was fired. I was the only one in my department who had to go! When I lost my job, I decided to go public about my sexual orientation, because I believed that I should not be ashamed of my sexual orientation, and I believed that I was born as free and equal as others; I became determined to help other LGBTs to recognize themselves and their sexual orientation. I did whatever I could to reach this aim.
Can you provide details about your activities to promote the rights of LGBTs?
After I went public about my sexual orientation, I became a member of the RFSL in Sweden, and I founded two working groups in RFSL. One of these working groups focuses on helping LGTBs in the Middle East and the other supports lesbian women who either study engineering or work as an engineer. Also, I collaborate with an NGO called Sudwind by taking part in UN side events and discussing the issues of LGBTs.
What kinds of problems have you faced in your advocacy work?
Today, LGBTs face discrimination and harassment even in a modern and advanced society like Sweden. Because there have been many fake asylum cases based on homosexuality, I was accused by many that I was trying to make up a case in order to claim asylum in Sweden. The LGBT society lacks knowledge about their identity and many times harassment comes from within the LGBT society itself. Even some of the activists who claim to be supporters of LGBT rights do not act properly towards the individuals who have gone public about their sexual orientation. These hardships are extremely difficult to explain and talk about.