Izad Etemadi, a 23-year old Iranian-Canadian, will be featured at this year’s Calgary Fringe Festival with his one-man play, Borderland, August 3 – 10th.
Contemporary Iran is a dangerous place for queer people. It is one of a handful of countries currently with the death penalty for being a convicted homosexual, and has conducted widely condemned public executions in recent history. Not surprisingly, homosexuality is driven deeply underground in Iran, and many flee the country to seek refugee status in the West.
Although Izad grew up in Canada, he grew curious about how his life might have been in Iran. “My parents often remind me how lucky I am to live in Canada, not only being gay but even working as an artist would not have been possible,” he explains.
Borderland tells the story of Navid, a gay Iranian man running from himself and his home. He arrives at Borderland – a secret hiding place – in search of acceptance. There he meets Leila and Zia (also played by Izad) and the drama unfolds. Borderland has received critical acclaim, described as a Tour De Force in its current run at the Hamilton Fringe Festival.
“Many audience members have been quite moved by the play, at least the ones I have talked to. When I started researching the play online, I found people living like me in Iran had really horrifying lives. Yet many people do not realize how scary and dangerous it is over there,” Izad remarks.
Although Canadian audiences might feel relief that they do not suffer these indignities, similar threats, incarceration and legalized discrimination of homosexuals is part of our collective past as late as the 1960s. Similarly there were executions of gay men in the British common law system, which included the Dominion of Canada until the death penalty was removed in 1861.
Izad remains hopeful that progressive social change can spread, noting the changes that are occurring in the United States. He also wants to sensitize his audiences to the fact that Canada is playing an important role in the resettling of those who are fleeing Iran.
A Toronto-based charity, the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR), exists to support Iranian queers around the world. The organization supports Iranian queer refugees from when they decide to leave Iran until they resettle in a safe country, and have affected the outcomes of hundreds of lives. IRQR’s name is inspired by the underground railroad: an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th century black slaves in the United States to escape to Canada with the aid of abolitionists who were sympathetic to their cause.
Izad says, “One of my biggest fears was the response to my play from the Iranian-Canadian community, but I have been overwhelmed by their support and their pride in my work. One day, I would love to go to Iran myself, but currently it is not possible: I would have to do three years military service and if [the government] Googled me they probably would not like what they’d see.”
He concludes, “This has been my first time writing anything, and I have produced and put together the whole play myself. It has been the biggest growing experience for me as a person – and one of the coolest summers I have had.”
Iran is not a friendly place if your sexual orientation isn’t conventional. I’ve been to the place, and the laws in place scared to quite a bit. So if you’re gay, avoid visiting or avoid letting anyone know.