Farzam Dadashzadeh, who is now 32, lived a relatively hidden life as gay in Iran until footage from a Canada Broadcasting Corporation documentary using hidden television cameras dubiously captured his image, without his permission, thus outing him to Iran’s fearsome Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps.
“Immediately my life fell apart. Family and friends disowned me; I was shunted to jail,” he opens up while painting his left eyebrow for an evening drag show. “My situation was punishable by death until I fled to Turkey in 2011, but on arrival I didn’t have any rights in Turkey and could be deported back to Iran anyway.”
Iran is one of the world’s riskiest locations for sexual minorities. According to Human Rights Watch, Iran’s sexual minorities, especially those who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), are victimized both by state and private actors in part because those actors know they can get away with it.
So, this was such a harrowing experience for Farzam that on arrival in Canada he sued the state-owned Canada Broadcasting Corporation (CBC TV) in British Columbia Province´s Supreme Court in 2016. He told the judges that a 2007 documentary titled Out in Iran was shot in a Tehran coffee shop where gay men gathered. Farzam told the court that he didn’t know that filming was underway because the producers were using a “hidden camera” and he had never granted consent to be included. His case was compelling acknowledged the judge. However, the case was thrown out on technicalities. Too much time had passed since the documentary had aired, the judge reasoned.
“They knew they were wrong,” Farzam gripes about the damaging consequences of a CBC TV camera crew outing him in a dubious manner. “They were afraid of the court case. They didn’t even say sorry. Think of it, that’s disappointing.”
What followed in the aftermath of CBC TV outing him and subsequent jail time was a flight of his life. Farzam ran away to Turkey to seek asylum protection. But Turkey is just a stone’s throw away across the border from Iran. “You don’t have any rights in Turkey. No ID. No school, nothing apart from deportation,” says Farzam.
Determined to get as further away from danger, Farzam finally made his way to Canada, curiously the country whose state television brought him into harm’s way. “Canada is good for LGBTQIA freedoms but has a long way to go,” he chuckles about the country that gave him refugee protection and ultimately citizenship.
Today Farzam finds himself in Canada, using his salon hairstylist skills to perform drag poetry and theatre in Vancouver’s thrilling drag scene. Farzam has established a new life in Vancouver where he works as a cosmetician and hairdresser on weekdays, and on weekends, he often performs in drag shows. Farzam has no training as a drag artist. “I am automatically an artist with lots of drama. You have to play along to your heart and emotions,” Farzam laughs he builds up “CLEO” which a he calls: “a ritualistic outer-body theatre performance to explore what it means when I say that I don’t hate myself as a guy. CLEO is once-a-week, one-seventh part of me and I love her equally too.”
In CLEO performances, Farzam teases the audience as the feminine part of himself to ask: “Am I beautiful?” When she puts on makeup, dazzling wigs, perfume-scented hair and glitter costumes. He replies, “Yes.” And CLEO says emphatically, “I know.”
Farzam says he doesn’t want to sound boastful but he feels CLEO is truly magical. Actually, he credits his formative years in Iran for planting inside him the spirit of wanting to perform CLEO as a drag artist. In Iran, Farzam began dressing in drag but only braved to do so inside his bedroom for fear of being victimized. “Surviving Iran? Yes, they will kill you for being queer. However, as a person, you get used to it if you are born and live in a closet that you will stay in a closet. When you live hidden in Iran you realize that as your normal.”
In Canada; performing CLEO, or raising funds for LGBT charities and Trans Prides, these are his methods to explore his emotions, past trauma and figuring out his evolving self. “I feel Canadian, it’s an amazing community here. I have an identity, a good one. Canada is doing just good but we have a lots and lots to do.”
About the Author:
Ray Mwareya is a freelance journalist in Canada whose work is published in Reuters, Guardian, Remedy Health Media, and others. He was the Reporters Without Borders Rest & Refuge Scholar in 2016.