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The frustration of living without being able to be who he is brought Reza to Lisbon. Here this Iranian found refuge. And Bruno, with whom he now dreams of building a family. Something impossible in Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death.

Today, Reza fights from Portugal, because “the Iranian revolution has women as its main figure, but it is for everyone.

Although he has been living in Lisbon since 2017, Reza’s history with the city began two years earlier, when the Iranian attended a conference on Marketing at the New University of Lisbon/FCSH, as a master’s student at the University of Tehran. At the time, Reza still considered studying in Portugal, but plans came to a halt when his younger brother found out he had cancer. “I couldn’t leave my family,” he justifies. 

But Reza didn’t forget the image of Lisbon he kept from those days, especially “the sun.” “In Tehran, there is also a lot of sun.”

When he returned, this time to stay, as a refugee, in 2017, this Iranian Lisboner, found something more similar: the Avenida da Liberdade is very reminiscent of Pahlavi street, one of the biggest roads in the Middle East that runs through the Iranian capital, Tehran, and that the Islamic Republic renamed Valiasr street, a reference to the Shiite tradition. 

Whether in Lisbon or Iran, there are Platanus Trees. Reza picks up a brown leaf lying on the ground. The 38-year-old Iranian, still working in Marketing – knows what symbols are, and this leaf is one of the symbols of the city he left behind. Somehow this brings him closer to home.

He closes his eyes and thinks he is on Pahlavi Street in Tehran. “They say that the regime cut down most of the trees on the street,” laments Reza. It is not only the trees on Pahlavi that the Islamic Republic has castrated.

The Platanus trees on Liberty Avenue remind Reza of Pahlavi Street. Photo: Inês Leote

Liberty Avenue. Pahlavi Street. In 1979, men and women passed by both places, free, without the mandatory use of the hijab. Everything changed in Tehran with the Islamic Revolution. Nothing was guaranteed.

Besides the Avenue, Reza often takes refuge in Monsanto and Caxias. “When you remake your life in another country, you always have nostalgia. We say in Iran that we are made from the land where we were born, and I can’t go back to mine. But there is also a Persian saying that the sky is the same anywhere in the world. But I think that’s a lie. The Lisbon sky is more beautiful, bluer. It gives me peace and happiness.”

This is the “sky of freedom,” says Reza.

For Reza this freedom is twofold: to be free, but also, more deeply, to be who he is. In Lisbon, she can assume his sexuality and guarantee that it was in Portugal that she learned to love.

This is even though it was in Lisbon that he received a warrant from an Iranian court accusing him of “sodomy” and “promoting homosexuality” – which is forbidden in Iran. Reza believes he was reported to the Iranian embassy for this.

He was tried in absentia, and the indictment came a week later: “If I set foot in Tehran airport, I will be arrested and could be killed,” he says.

The United Nations puts Iran on the list of the three countries in the world that most violate human rights, along with Syria and North Korea. And LGTQIA+ rights simply do not exist: the Iranian Civil Code dictates death for homosexual men. For women, the penalty is 100 lashes. “Kissing or touching as a result of lust,” between people of the same sex, is punishable by up to 74 lashes.

The Human Dignity Trust and the United Nations have denounced the execution of two Iranian LGBTI+ activists later this year on charges of “corruption in the land.”

Being gay in Tehran “is an exercise in self-flagellation.” This is the best way Reza finds to describe his life until he fled to Portugal. 

Today, Reza sits cross-legged next to the D. Maria II National Theater. The times when, as a boy, he used to run home to Tehran to practice with an old chair the “most masculine way” to sit are behind him.

“Five years after being here, even if I could, I couldn’t go back to Iran. I feel relieved and have lost all control over my body,” says Reza Photo: Inês Leote

“I would sit this way, cross-legged, and they would say this was how it was for women. Everything was made fun of,” Reza recalls.

In his memory, he still keeps one of his favorite jackets, in a bright red color, which he stopped taking to school because it was a “bright” color. “Men are expected to wear dark shades, like brown, black, gray,” he says.

In Lisbon, Reza learned to let go of his fear. 

“Five years after being here, even if I could, I couldn’t return to Iran. I feel relieved I lost all control over my body. I couldn’t go back to that logic that made me think about how I should sit or eat, for fear that they would find out I’m gay.”

In 33 years, Reza says he has never had a boyfriend or relationship with other men. “I was afraid of losing everything – my family, my job, my friends, my position, my job in marketing.”

A bird waiting to fly

But the bird wanted to fly… One day he found the courage to install a dating app that, despite everything, works in Iran. “I was always afraid because I heard that the police would go undercover to find out who was gay.”

In one profile, a man said he liked to have coffee with someone. Reza took a chance. “Until then I had never approached a man because I knew I wouldn’t be able to control what happened afterward. I will never forget that man because he changed my life.”

For two months, Reza and his new friend made it a habit for the two of them to take walks through the streets of Tehran. In one of those moments, the friend told him about a depression he had, which forced him to seek psychotherapy. The psychologist, “reliable”, related this depressive state to the inner prison he felt. That’s all lgbtqi+ Iranians feel.

Then the man gained the strength to “come out of the closet” in front of his family, who vowed to protect him. “I was shocked at how normal he gave all this. I felt like there was someone just like me,” Reza confesses.

The friend convinced Reza to attend psychology appointments and pave the way to release. “At first, I was forced to go. By the fourth session, I was going of my own free will. I didn’t want to live locked up anymore.”

“The day came to talk with my mother. We had always been very close. She grew up in London, before the [1979 Islamic] Revolution. She knew I’m gay and I always saw sadness in her eyes, that things had to be this way. I told her I felt like a bipolar person, that I wanted to have my own life, to have a husband and adopt children. The first thing she replied was, ‘Then you have to get out of here’.”

Reza’s first Christmas

And so it was. Since 2017, Reza has made Lisbon and its streets home. “I feel like a Lisbon Iranian, I have the same feeling for Portugal that I have for Iran. When I am home for more than three days, I need to go out. I miss the streets of Lisbon.”

In Rossio, the market and the Christmas tree excite Reza, who is preparing to celebrate, 2022, his first Christmas.

“This is a religious and Christian holiday, so it is not celebrated in Iran, except for some communities in Tehran with Armenian origins. Even then, they are Orthodox, so it’s a little different,” he explains.

Reza had never celebrated Christmas before because it is “a time to bring the family together. And is all in Tehran – his father, mother, and younger brother.  

2022 will be different. Reza will spend it with his boyfriend, the Brazilian Bruno. Although it will be an untraditional Portuguese Christmas: his boyfriend’s sister and brother-in-law are vegans, “so we will have to eat something unusual,” she says jokingly.

This is a love that crosses borders and cultures, for, in the same way that Reza is preparing to celebrate Christmas, Bruno has also met the Persian New Year, the main Iranian festivity. 

“The most important Iranian festivities are not religious,” comments Reza. “This says a lot about our culture. In Europe, Iranian women barely arrive to take off their hijab, while Arab women don’t.” Photo: Inês Leote

The Persian New Year is celebrated on March 20 or 21. By tradition, Iranians gather the family around the table, where they place seven important objects of Persian culture.

This is called haft-sin. Some are spices and local products, while others are more common, like vinegar, apple, or garlic. Everything represents well-being and health to face the year that begins.

“The most important Iranian festivities are not religious,” comments Reza. “This says a lot about our culture. In Europe, Iranian women as soon as they arrive take off their hijab, while Arab women don’t.”

But the truth is that Iran is a country that has been subjugated for 43 years by a Shiite clerical dictatorship, sustained by a harsh view of the Qur’an and Sharia, Islamic law.

Unfulfilled dreams

“What is happening in Iran gives me hope that one day I can come back,” admits Reza.

All the Iranian Lisboans have in common a deep love for their country. And if Saudade is a Portuguese word, nobody feels it better than the Iranians: “There is something special about Tehran, so much so that when you think about the city or talk about it, you can’t stop your eyes from getting moist.

So Iranians scattered all over the world are fighting for human rights and freedom. And Reza is at the forefront of the protest in Portugal, in the name of LGBTI+ rights.

lgbti+ marcha lisboa
The fight for LGBT rights is one of the struggles of Reza’s life. Photo: Inês Leote

“The main figure of this revolution is the woman, but this revolution is for all Iranians,” Reza considers. “It is a revolution because people have changed, thanks to education. We can’t go back to the way we were. If this regime disappears, can we have a gay parade next summer in Tehran? No. Everything needs time. This is a chance for us to show people that the only difference I have from my cousins is that I don’t want to sleep with a woman. And that’s personal.”

Together, Reza and Bruno bring to life the dreams that the Iranian brought in his suitcase from Tehran. “We want to adopt,” he confides.

You can read this article in Portuguese.

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