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Transgender Iranian Refugees Are Struggling to Outrun Prostitution and Violence

Though sexual reassignment surgery is legal in Iran, those who undergo it often face violence and exploitation. So they flee the country — only to experience more of the same.
Photo by Shuka Kalantari

When Sepi cries, she's careful not to ruin her makeup. Folding a tissue into a triangle, she gently dabs under her eyes and looks into a hand mirror to ensure everything is still in place: thick black eyeliner, bright green eye shadow, fuchsia lips, bleach-blond hair. Satisfied, she puts the mirror away.

Sepi is a pro at this — she wears a lot of makeup, and she sheds a lot of tears.

She lives in a dilapidated fourth-floor walk-up in Kayseri, a city in central Turkey. A small window is covered with mismatched sheets to hide the congested street below. Sepi sits on a worn-out mattress on the floor of her bedroom, a tattered suitcase next to the bed. The suitcase is always packed and ready to go, because Sepi shares the room with a man named Mehdi, and he has kicked her out several times since she moved in with him a few months earlier.


"He may kick me out again today," Sepi says through tears. "He tells me he wants to be with a real woman. But I tell him I am a real woman."

Sepi is a woman — but she was born a male. She's one of dozens of transgender Iranian refugees who flee to Turkey every year to escape the dangers they face in Iran.

When Sepi first arrived in Turkey, she rented a hotel room for a couple of nights. After her money ran out, she was homeless. She stayed with people she met through refugee organizations or mutual friends, but a lot of the men with whom she stayed wanted sex in exchange. When she declined, she says, some beat her. This lasted for six months.

Then Sepi met Mehdi, another Iranian refugee, through a friend on Facebook. After a few months of chatting online, Mehdi told Sepi he wanted to be her boyfriend. He knew she was a transgender woman, and he was fine with it. Sepi could move in with him rent-free, he said. She accepted his proposal.

"I live here, but I don't have a home," Sepi says. "I may be here tonight, but tomorrow, I won't. Tomorrow I may be forced to have sex with someone else just so I have a place to sleep. And he could have 1,000 different kinds of diseases. Or he might try to kill me."

* * *

When she was 22 years old, Sepi escaped Iran, where she had been living with her parents in Tehran. As a young boy, she would secretly dress up in her sister's clothes and wear her mom's makeup. As a teen, she bought estrogen hormones on the black market, causing her facial hair to fall out and her breasts to grow. She wore big sweaters at home, hoping her parents wouldn't notice. Once they inevitably did, Sepi says they often beat her.


But life in Turkey, she says, is worse.

"In Iran, even if my father would hit me, and my mother would hit me, and the police bothered me, if nothing else at least I had a house to sleep in at night," she says. "Now I get the beatings, the verbal abuse, and I have to have sex with people. Each day just gets worse."

Sepi isn't alone. Many transgender Iranian women turn to prostitution to survive in Turkey.

Like Aynaz. I'd met her outside of a large mosque in Ankara earlier that week. She immediately stood out in her short white jumpsuit, matching high heels, and heavy makeup. Turkey, like Iran, is a religiously conservative country, and most others at the mosque covered their hair with a veil.

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Aynaz fled Turkey in 2012 because two of her transgender friends got killed in their homes, and the murderers were never caught. Aynaz feared she'd be next, so she sold her car and bought a one-way plane ticket to Ankara. Iranian refugees tend to flee to neighboring Turkey because no visas are required, and Turkey will temporarily host them. The first stop is always Ankara, the capital, because the United Nations refugee agency is housed there and all refugees must make formal cases with the UN when they arrive.

As we walked to her apartment, Aynaz told me about her life in Iran: She was kicked out of school at the age of 15 for repeatedly wearing makeup, plucking her eyebrows, and doing other acts deemed feminine and homosexual by school administrators.


Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death in Iran, but it's legal to get a sex change. In 1987, Iran's religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa allowing sexual reassignment surgery. (The surgery is the subject of "Transsexuals of Iran" on tonight's episode of VICE on HBO.) Nearly 30 years later, Iran is the second most-popular destination country — behind Thailand — for people seeking a sex change.

But transgender people are far from accepted in Iran. Most get harassed, arrested, kicked out of their homes, and expelled from school, like Aynaz.

"The Iranian government didn't let us study," she says. "In Iran they say, 'Oh, we are a government that accepts you.' That's all lies. If we had a government that defended us, that let us study, that let us get a degree, and didn't bother us, then I would have become a person with an education, and my life would have been different."

Aynaz says her parents agreed to pay for her sex change as long as she promised to leave their small town so she wouldn't bring shame to her family. She was 17 years old. First, Anyaz had to get psychological evaluations, hormone tests, and genetic testing — routine steps taken by the Iranian government before authorizing sexual reassignment surgery. After healing from the surgery, Aynaz moved in with some transgender friends in Tehran, hours away from her hometown. For several months, she lived rent-free with friends and tried to find a job. But she couldn't. Most of her friends in Tehran, including her roommates, worked as prostitutes to support themselves. And so, eventually, that's what Aynaz did.


"I'd see my friends doing it and I'd say, 'What are you guys doing?' I wouldn't even be seen walking down the street with them," Aynaz says. "But my life became like their lives, little by little. When people like us moved to Tehran, we all came alone. And we weren't in the position to get jobs. It wasn't possible. We didn't have the education, and we wouldn't have been able to get any real jobs either way. So we would find men that wanted sex."

* * *

Sepi grew up in Tehran. She also says most of her homeless transgender girlfriends ended up becoming prostitutes because they had no other means of financial support. That's why Sepi took the hormones, but didn't have the surgery — her parents threatened to kick her out if she did, and she didn't want to end up like her friends.

But her parents weren't the reason why she left Iran. Instead, she says, it was the basij.

Iran's plain-clothes "moral" police act as a volunteer militia and report to the country's Revolutionary Guard. They patrol the streets and can arrest people for "inappropriate" appearance and activities, which is anything not in accordance with Islamic law: women wearing nail polish or bright lipstick, men having long hair, unmarried couples holding hands in the street. Sepi was an easy target for the basij; without the surgery, she wasn't legally allowed to dress like a woman, but she always did. She admits she was easy to spot.


"A lot of the basij would touch my penis with the excuse that they wanted to see if I was a girl or a boy," Sepi says. "Then they'd say, 'Pull down your pants so we can see what you are.' I'd tell them that I wouldn't, so they would hit me."

'When they rape you, it's better to not fight back, because they'll do it either way. So I would close my eyes and try to calm myself until they were done so I could get away.'

Sepi says the older she got, the more she got harassed by authorities. The final time she was arrested, she was sentenced to 40 lashings in prison for wearing makeup. Sepi's friends helped her pay bail to get her out of jail. Her trial was set for the following month, but instead Sepi packed a bag, said goodbye to her family, and took an overnight train from Tehran to Ankara.

Saghi Ghahraman runs the Iranian Queer Organization, a Canadian group that fights for LGBTQ refugee rights in Turkey. She says it's common for transgender refugee women to report that the basij, and sometimes the police, harass and rape them. This is due in part because they're such easy targets.

"There is no support system for transgender people in Iran," Ghahraman says. "No support system at all — not their own families, not their friends, and not authorities."

* * *

Aynaz, the transgender refugee in Ankara, was particularly coveted by the basij because of her beauty. She has long, jet-black hair, high cheekbones, and large hazel eyes.


"They'd corner us with their motorcycles and either expect us to sleep with them or worse, gang-rape us," Aynaz says. "When they rape you, it's better to not fight back, because they'll do it either way. So I would close my eyes and try to calm myself until they were done so I could get away from them… [and] just try to not get killed."

When Aynaz first arrived in Ankara, the UN Refugee Agency connected her with other Iranian refugees. She rented a room with some and began to look for a job, but again, nobody would hire her. A few months later, Aynaz ran out of money and was kicked out of her apartment. She packed up her one suitcase that night and went to a local nightclub where she sat at the bar, ordered a drink, and started to cry. A middle-aged Turkish man sat down next to her, and she told him about fleeing Iran. At the end of the night, he told Aynaz she could live with him under one condition: She had to have sex with him whenever he wanted. She agreed.

"He wanted so much sex from me all the time that I couldn't handle it," Aynaz says. "Sometimes he'd force me. It got so bad that I told the UN, and they asked if I wanted to take him to court. I told them that I couldn't, because even though he was taking advantage of me, he never threw me out of the house, and he didn't leave me homeless. The UN wasn't going to give me a room to sleep in."

Sepi made a similar plea to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). She begged them to give her small monthly income.


"I just want somewhere I can be alone," Sepi says she told the UN. "Just money for rent. I don't want anything else. I just want a small place to live, so that I don't have to have sex with people because I don't have money to rent a room."

But the UN says it doesn't have the resources to support the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Turkey.

"We have a financial assistance program, but it's extremely limited, unfortunately, because UNHCR as an organization works on voluntary donations," says Annika Sandlund, a senior protection officer at UNHCR in Ankara. "Turkey is seen by many countries as relatively affluent, so amongst many states there's a slight reluctance to fund UNHCR operations here."

Bureaucratic hoops make it extremely difficult for refugees to find work legally, so most asylum seekers get off-the-books jobs that pay enough money to pay rent for a small, shared room.

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"I know only two refugees who have managed to obtain a work permit," says Veysel Essiz of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly Refugee Advocacy Support Program, a refugee advocacy group in Istanbul. "Two out of the 50 we have worked with, so it's nothing. And this clearly shows that the access to the formal labor market is almost impossible to the overwhelming majority of refugees in Turkey, and therefore, they end up doing informal work."

But transgender refugees, Essiz says, often can't even find off-the-books jobs — and if they do, they usually get fired once they're exposed as transgender.


In the one year Sepi has been in Turkey, she has worked at two restaurants, a plastic-making factory, and a photography store. She found each job while living in various men's apartments, hoping she could save enough money to leave them. But after a few days or a few weeks at each job, somebody outed Sepi as a transgender woman, and she got laid off.

"It was usually another Iranian refugee trying to get my job," Sepi says. Kayseri, where Sepi lives, is one of the most religiously conservative cities in the country. It's also home to thousands of Christian and Baha'i Iranian refugees. They all know each other, and they aren't kind to their transgender compatriots.

"I go somewhere and they start whispering, 'You know she is really a guy,'" Sepi says. "And so the news spreads that way, and it becomes a bad situation for me. Now, if I try to work in another restaurant, an Iranian customer will eventually come in and know that I'm transgender, and she'll tell the owner."

As a result, Essiz says, most transgender refugees are eager to leave Turkey after a few weeks in the country.

"The main complaint raised by the LGBT refugees, most particular the transgender, is harassment — physical and verbal violence," he says. "Unfortunately, the violence is coming from everywhere, not only from the conservative, or Islamist locals, but also the refugee community itself."

According to a 2012 report by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, crimes against LGBT people often go unpunished because Turkey has no specific legislation to protect them. A report by the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration found many LGBT refugees in Turkey are afraid to leave their apartments because of targeted violence from locals and other refugees.


Essiz says the Turkish government sees all Iranian refugees as a short-term problem, because they can't ever permanently live in Turkey. Though the country is one of the original signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is considered the backbone of the international asylum system, Turkey doesn't accept permanent refugees from Iran or any other part of the Middle East, Africa, or Asia. These asylum seekers can only stay in Turkey until they get resettled, typically to the US, Canada, or Australia. For LGBT refugees, that tends to take anywhere from two to five years — which is actually less time than other refugee populations because of the hostile environment for LGBT people in Turkey.

* * *

Aynaz got approved to resettle as a refugee in Canada a few months after we met. She moved to Vancouver, where she is receiving financial assistance from the government until she can support herself. Aynaz says she's focusing on doing what she couldn't do in Iran — getting an education. She's taking English classes, and plans to eventually become a licensed beautician.

"I just want to live a good and normal life," Aynaz says. "In Iran I was able to take care of myself, so I know I can take care of myself in any other country too."

Related: Turkey's first transgender shelter offers a haven from abuse

Sepi is now in Toronto, where she has connected with the city's growing LGBT Iranian refugee community. Most transgender Iranian refugees prefer Canada over the US because the country's national healthcare system supports their needs. Toronto has a hospital specializing in sexual reassignment surgery, and even has psychological services geared specifically for LGBT Iranian refugees.

Sepi says she's also studying English, and plans to head back to school to study graphic design, which is what she studied in Iran before she was kicked out of her university at the age of 20 for wearing makeup.

"I would have loved to get my degree in Iran," Sepi says. "I loved my studies and was broken when they kicked me out of school. Now I get another chance."

Follow Shuka Kalantari on Twitter: @skalantari