As participants gather at U of T on a late-January Saturday for a symposium on gay rights in Iran, the clock is striking 7 pm in Tehran, where it's been a mild winter day, not too cold to go to Daneshjoo Park - site of many public events and just as much gay cruising.
But, as the world knows well, Iran is terra terror for gays and lesbians, as this conference in the splendour of the Hart House debates room hears in detail. Still, the proceedings tell as much about the Iranian diaspora here as about the queers over there.
This event is no small achievement for the main organizer, Arsham Parsi of the Iranian Queer Organization, who's been in Toronto only eight months after arriving via Turkey as a refugee from Iran. Significantly, it's attended by leading lights from the local Iranian community, many of whose members have brought their discomfort with homosexuality along with them to Canada.
Parsi tells me that he contacted the six Farsi-language publications in Toronto. "Five of them would not even talk to me,' he says. However, the sixth - the weekly Shahrvand, the largest of the papers - was entirely supportive and ran ads for free.
Indeed, there are more non-gay members of the Iranian community than queers in attendance. Parsi says he knows about 30 Iranian gay refugees in T.O., but only one other is here today. "They're still afraid to be out, even here," he explains.
The conference hears a report from Jessica Stern, a New York-based researcher with Human Rights Watch who's interviewed dozens of gays and lesbians both in Iran via e-mail and instant messenger and in countries where they have become refugees.
One interviewee, "Ali," had relocated to Tehran because of death threats in his hometown but was arrested one night in the cruising park. His friend confessed under torture that Ali and a third man were lovers. After being forced to endure rectal exams that came back "positive" for homosexuality, Ali's friends helped get him released from jail, and he escaped to the UK, where he now lives.
Sadly, this story is not unusual in Iran, where men have been executed for committing sodomy. It's those systematic violations that have occasioned this get-together, but oddly the situation of women gets the most airtime here, and organizers promise somewhat apologetically there'll be more gay content next year.
But it's fitting that the complete menu of human rights be on offer at this gathering, because rights violations in Iran affect just about everyone, and it's politically risky to make queers the star of the drama.
One reason is the information shortfall. Because of the shame attached to homosexuality, friends and relatives of those harassed or executed for being gay aren't motivated to speak publicly, and little can be gleaned from sentencing courtrooms, which are kept secret.
Gay groups have used the resulting twilight zone to put their own spin on facts. For example, one U.S.-based gay exile group has claimed 4,000 people have been executed since the ayatollahs gained power in 1979. "I don't really know where they get these numbers,' Stern tells me.
The perils of relying on uncertainty was brought home in 2005 when two teenage boys were publicly executed in the city of Mashhad - for sodomy, it was said at the time. The story appeared to be shocking confirmation of the gay pogrom underway in the Islamic republic. Trouble was, the boys weren't executed for consensual sex but for gang-raping a 13-year-old at knifepoint, according to a deconstruction of the episode in progressive U.S. magazine The Nation.
Stern, whose organization was part of the general outrage, now tells me that the case was "problematic." Still, she says, even if the facts were not what they first appeared, the death penalty alone was cause for concern.
But the other dilemma for gay activists is how to protect their own in a situation where there is no campaign against gays and lesbians per se, but rather a general repression whose reach extends to all those perceived by the regime as a threat.
As Kaveh Ehsani, an Iran expert at the University of Illinois-Chicago, tells me over the phone, it is the control of sexuality that is the key concern of the regime, in which real power rests with the ayatollahs rather than with the Holocaust-denying prez we see on TV.
"Sexuality is politicized in Iran," he says. "If you get to what is an Islamic revolution, in the end it comes to controlling people's bodies in public. In terms of economics and politics, there's not much there."
Those most frequently caught up in the regulatory net are women. And while gay house parties have been broken up by the religious police, so have heterosexual gatherings where police fear that drinking, sex or prostitution may be taking place, he says.
When it comes to the denial of human rights, gay people in Iran may not be so special after all.