Reasons to Love Toronto 2014: #7. Because We’re a Beacon for Gay Refugees
Toronto’s reputation for gay-friendliness has made the city a destination for LGBT refugees fleeing harassment, jail and even execution at home. Here, three recent arrivals and their stories.
Who: Rodney de Roché, 26, student at York University
Refugee Status: Claim pending
“In Trinidad, the derogatory term for a gay male is a ‘bulla man.’ I’ve been called a bulla man my whole life. My father, uncles and cousins used to berate me for being effeminate. When I was 19, I was accepted to a pre-med program at St. George’s University on the neighbouring island of Grenada. Homosexuality is illegal in Grenada, as it is in Trinidad, but the school had strict policies about gay rights. It was a liberating experience. I met my first boyfriend and co-founded an LGBT support group. But my mother developed breast cancer and I had to return to Trinidad to take care of her. After she died, instead of finishing my degree, I took over her business—a travel agency—and tried to make a life for myself on the island. For a few years, things were fine. Then one night, a neighbour noticed me come home with another man. Word went around, and pretty soon, a local gang was threatening me. They said they would beat me up if I didn’t give them money. I did for a while, but I couldn’t afford to keep it up. When I told them I was broke, they threatened to kill me. They gave me a day to come up with the money, so I decided to flee. It was New Year’s Eve, 2013. I packed three suitcases and just took off. I picked Toronto because I knew gay marriage was legal in Canada, and because I had an aunt who would put me up.
“Although I’ve only been here a few months, I couldn’t be happier. I can walk down the street holding another man’s hand and no one bothers me. This fall, I plan on going to York University to finish the degree I started in Grenada. Of course, nothing is certain. Refugee claimants get turned down all the time. If Canada says no, I’ll have to leave, but I don’t know where I’ll go. I just know I can’t go home.”
Who: Belu Gurung, 34, cook
Refugee Status: Accepted. Applying for citizenship
“Homosexuality has been legal in Nepal since 2007, but gay couples still don’t have equality under the law. Gay marriage isn’t recognized, and, culturally, it’s difficult to be a lesbian. I’ve been with my girlfriend for over seven years, but we’re ‘just friends’ to most of our neighbours back home. We can only be ourselves in private, not in public, otherwise we might get harassed.
“I came to Canada in 2008 because, to me, this is the dreamland. It’s one of the first and only countries on earth where my girlfriend and I can get married and have a family. Two months after I arrived, I applied for refugee status. Now I work as a cook at a support centre for battered women and do advocacy work for several LGBT groups, including the Blue Diamond Society back in Nepal. I’m about to move into my own condo at Don Mills and Eglinton, and I’ve applied for my citizenship. Most importantly, everyone here knows I’m a lesbian. Nobody cares; I don’t have to hide. The only drawback is that my girlfriend hasn’t been able to get a permit to come here herself. We Skype every day, text constantly and visit each other once a year. It’s difficult to be apart, but I’m hopeful we’ll be together again soon.”
Who: Arsham Parsi, 33, executive director of an NGO
Refugee Status: Accepted. Now a Canadian citizen
“I wasn’t technically out in Iran. My family didn’t know, just one or two close friends. In secret, though, I ran several gay-support websites. They were registered by a friend in Norway, so the police couldn’t trace them back to me. Then, in 2005, I was invited to call in to a radio news show in Stockholm to discuss gay rights in Iran. The program was broadcast internationally, and pretty soon, the Iranian police wanted to question me. In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment, beatings and sometimes death, so I fled. I first went to Turkey, where I appealed to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. From there, I was given refugee status to come to Canada. I didn’t know anybody here and barely spoke English. But I taught myself the language by trial and error, and quickly made friends—this city is so open and inclusive, I really never felt like a foreigner. Now, I run an NGO called the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees. I’ve helped 290 LGBT refugees get residency in Canada since 2008. I feel like it’s my duty to help people have the same opportunities.”