(All photography by Shuka Kalantari)

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Out of the Closet, Into Exile: An Unlikely Transgender Romance

Hounded by Iranian secret police and stuck in diplomatic limbo, Mariam and Ali find that time is running out.
Jun 23, 2014· 15 MIN READ
Shuka Kalantari is a freelance reporter covering health disparities in refugee and immigrant communities for the BBC, PRI, and KQED-San Francisco.

For centuries, the winter solstice has been celebrated in Iran as a holiday called Shab-e Yalda. Families snuggle into homes, gathering to say good-bye to the warmer seasons, and welcoming the winter by staying up late to read ancient Persian poetry and eating pomegranates, dried fruits, and nuts.

Ali and Mariam were apart from their families that night five years ago. Ali had picked Mariam up from work and driven her to Park-e Shahr for a date. The green plaza, in front of the Tehran municipal building, was quiet, a perfect place for young lovers. The couple walked along a dirt path through tall, centuries-old evergreen trees, and around the park's small lake, where tourists rent pedal boats.

Mariam’s parents thought she was with one of her girlfriends that night. If her religiously conservative father ever found out that she was alone with a man, he would have taken away her cell phone, forbidden contact between them, and monitored her every move. Conservative men and women don’t so much as shake hands with strangers of the opposite sex in Iran, where mosques, classrooms, and trains are generally segregated according to gender. The couple had never even held hands, because Mariam’s family had taught her that as an unmarried woman it would be sacrilegious to touch a man outside her family. So she and Ali kept close, but not too close.

To stave off the cold, Ali bought some hot black tea, spiced with cardamom, from a street vendor. The couple sat next to each other on a bench, sipping the tea through sugar cubes.

“Ali looked at me, and that’s when he said he wanted to be with me forever,” Mariam told me in August. “He said, ‘We’ll be like two trees standing tall next to each other, growing alongside each other but not blocking one another’s growth.’”

That night, Ali proposed to Mariam. She wanted to say yes immediately—she says it’s all she wanted to do—but first she needed to ask for her father’s permission. So instead of responding, Mariam quietly slipped her hands into Ali's hands.

That was the first time they had dared to touch outside of the martial arts class where they’d met.

Three years earlier, Mariam would never have imagined she and Ali, her kickboxing teacher, would fall in love and become engaged.

After all, Ali was a woman then.

In Iran, homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death. However, it’s legal—and in some cases financially supported by the state—for transgender people to get sexual reassignment surgery. The idea first surfaced as far back as 1963, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared there was no religious restriction against sex changes. A 1979 revolution ushered Khomeini into power, and in 1983, following a meeting with a transgender activist, he issued a fatwa allowing sex changes for "diagnosed transsexuals."

Saghi Ghahraman, who heads the Iranian Queer Organization in Toronto, said the Iranian government may provide small subsidies for sexual reassignment surgery, but once a person gets a sex change, he or she is often not protected by the law.

“The government is not actually trying to help the transsexuals by providing for them; they just try to do the thing that should be done by sharia law,” explained Ghahraman. “They want the person not to sin as a homosexual, so they put him in another gender’s skin.”

Even after sexual reassignment, transgender people in Iran are kicked out of school, arrested, harassed, and often not protected from discrimination. Many flee the country.

“In Iran, if you’re transgender, anyone can get away with doing anything to you,” Ali told me. “Sure, they give you the right to get a sex change—I now have a new birth certificate and a new passport. But I don’t have any legal rights. We are considered to be people who messed with God’s plan, so we’re considered worthless.”

They first met five years ago, when Mariam was 19 and Ali was a 29-year-old woman. (Names and certain other identifying details have been changed.) It was summertime, and Mariam had a few months to spare before university studies began. One morning Mariam put on her chador—the long black cloth favored by conservative women to cloak every part of the body but the face—and went to sign up for classes at the local women’s gym.

Mariam immediately stood out as the most conservatively dressed woman in the gym. Most of the women and girls were wearing loose-fitting headscarves and long coats that met the dress codes mandated by law in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Mariam didn’t care if she stood out; she was just happy that her father had allowed her to enroll in kick-boxing classes, as her family disapporoved of women engaging in sports. She was introduced that first day to Ali, who would be her teacher. She was instantly—and secretly—enamored.

“The first time I saw Ali, I really loved his personality,” Mariam said. “I loved his eyes, and the intense look on his face. But I would think to myself, ‘This is a woman; I can’t like her. This is wrong. I can’t like her like that. I can only like her as a student.’”

Mariam found the situation so uncomfortable that she only took three kickboxing classes with Ali. Her feelings for him frightened her, and the beginning of her university studies provided a convenient excuse to quit.

She stayed away from Ali's gym for two years yet thought about him almost every day. She convinced herself it was only because she loved his teaching method—the way he made her feel confident. Anything else, she thought, would be wrong.

After finishing her university studies, Mariam decided she had to see Ali again. She looked for him first at the gym where they’d met, but he wasn’t there.

“I went looking for him at a few other women’s gyms but I didn’t find him there either, so I started looking for him on the Internet,” said Mariam. No luck. At a loss, she tried their old gym again, asking staff members about Ali's whereabouts.

“I asked, ‘I’m looking for Ms. ---.’ And they laughed said, ‘Now its Mr. ---.’ I didn’t understand what they were saying. I asked what they meant and they said, ‘He got a sex change.’”

Mariam was shocked but pleased.

“I used to think that maybe there was a love between us. But I would tell myself it’s not allowed—I could only like him as a teacher. So I was so happy when I found out he changed. I thought, ‘Now I’m allowed to like him.’”

Mariam says she was even more determined to find Ali, but nobody would tell her anything. Finally the idea struck her to send a particularly attractive female friend to speak to the manager at Ali's former workplace. Although it was a women’s gym, she recalls, laughing at the memory, “The head of the gym was a man. She pretended to befriend him. She said she owed Ali some money and really wanted to pay him back.”

Her friend also pretended that she wanted to take private exercise classes with the manager. He took the bait, giving her Ali's phone number in exchange for a promise that she’d return for private lessons.

Mariam called Ali but hung up the instant he answered. She says she did that about half a dozen times before getting the nerve to speak.

When she eventually did, she says, “Ali didn’t remember who I was.” When she reminded him, “He asked if I knew about his situation, about his sex change, and I said yes, but that I didn’t care. I told him I wanted to take private lessons with him.” Mariam and Ali made a plan to meet in front of a busy theater in Tehran.

Mariam said she’d be wearing a blue head scarf and a long brown coat. She was nervous that she wouldn’t recognize Ali—the last time she’d seen him, of course, he’d been a woman.

Nevertheless, she says she recognized him immediately—because of his eyes. They talked awhile, and Mariam volunteered that she wanted to take more kickboxing classes. He began explaining his rates and other details, Mariam remembers, “but I wasn’t really listening to him. I was just looking at his eyes and thinking, ‘Wow, they’re so beautiful.’ Our eyes are kind of the same color.”

Mariam’s father gave his permission for her to take private lessons at her home with Ali, on the condition that her older brother also take classes with them so they wouldn’t be alone together. She didn’t tell her brother or her father that Ali was a transgender man.

After a month of lessons, Mariam broke Ali's leg. “He didn’t admit it at first,” she says. “He got up and said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing! I’m fine.’” A doctor told him differently the next day: He would be confined to a cast for two months. That was the beginning of their love affair. “Ali always jokes with me, saying, ‘I’ve had students three times your size, and they weren’t able to do what you did to me!’” Mariam said. Mariam began calling Ali to check up on him, partly out of guilt but mostly because now she had an excuse to call. After his leg healed, they resumed their classes and the phone conversations continued. They’d talk about their favorite literature or poetry. They began sharing love poems they’d written to each other. Soon it was winter, and the day came that Ali asked Mariam to go to Park-e Shahr with him, and he asked if she’d be his wife.

“She said yes,” Ali told me, smiling as he took a drag of a cigarette. “But before we went to get permission from her parents, I took her to the doctor where I got my sex change. I couldn’t tell her a lot of the things; I was too shy. So I took her to the doctor and said, ‘Please explain everything to Mariam.’ I didn’t want to start a relationship with her that would be broken later because she didn’t understand who I was.” Mariam understood and accepted, but they agreed not to tell her family.

After a workplace spat, though, a coworker of Ali's retaliated by contacting Mariam’s father and revealing that his daughter’s fiancé was transgender.

Mariam’s father, a retired banker, had given the couple his blessing, but when he found out, Mariam was forbidden to leave her room, her phone and Internet access taken away.

“And that’s how it started,” says Ali. From that day two years ago, their lives have been turned upside down. Mariam’s brother was a Basiji—a member of a volunteer organization, reporting to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that, among other duties, suppresses dissent and polices morals in accordance with the edicts of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei. The Basij amounts to a thuggish vice squad with free rein over Iranian citizens, and it is known to humiliate and punish women wearing nail polish, men who wear “too much” gel in their hair (deemed a Western and sacrilegious do), as well as citizens whose business interest might threaten the elite’s.

Mariam’s father and brother started searching for Ali. “They wanted to kill me,” he says.

Mariam’s father and Ali's mother, who disowned him after his sex change, both signed a legal document, similar to a warrant, stating that Ali was a criminal and had to be arrested and taken to jail if located.

Ali hid out at a friend’s house until he was able to buy a one-way ticket to Turkey. He immediately went to the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, to apply for refugee status. The plan was for Mariam to follow him a few months later. It was two months before their planned wedding day.

UNHCR resettled Ali in a town in central Turkey. There, he found an apartment and passed the time waiting for Mariam by fixing up old furniture given to him by his landlord, an elderly woman. (He points out a small wooden side table.) While Mariam was stuck in Iran, he spent a lot of time thinking about her, and the paths he had taken to arrive in a small town in Turkey.

Before Mariam, Ali had loved only one other woman. They met in tae kwon do class when he was 19, and fell in love. But his girlfriend’s mother found out and went to the police to report them as homosexual. They were sent to jail for a day.

His girlfriend’s family married her off, and Ali’s mother had him committed to a mental institution, where he says he was diagnosed as insane. Electroshock therapy was considered. “I could deal with the drugs they were forcing on me, but not that,” he says. Eventually he convinced hospital officials that he’d been “cured” of his homosexuality; thus, he was no longer “insane,” so he was released.

Years later, he read in the newspaper about Iran’s policy on sexual reassignment. He visited a therapist, who performed a psychological evaluation, genetic testing, and hormone tests, and authorized him for a sex change.

“It was a ray of hope,” Ali says. Before, “I wanted to kill myself. I even tried slitting my wrists. I couldn’t understand myself, because my feelings about who I was were one way, but my body was another way. I didn’t see myself as a woman. I never did, ever since I was a child.” Ali says he’s happy with his decision, though he never thought it would result in his needing to flee Iran. Even if Mariam’s father hadn’t found him, his life in Iran still would have been over, because he was now considered a criminal.

Under Iranian law, Mariam’s father had authority over her. When she tried to buy a plane ticket to Turkey, she was told her passport had been revoked. Her father took away her cell phone and computer so she couldn’t contact Ali. Mariam says she would secretly contact him online, at Internet cafés.

After a year of surreptitious correspondence, Ali found an Afghan smuggler to help Mariam cross the border into Turkey on foot. Mariam’s mother helped her escape.

“I left Iran with just my backpack,” said Mariam. She took some cans of tuna, bread, and water. The bag was stolen one night while she slept in a hideout. When she got to Turkey, all she had with her was Ali’s phone number and her birth certificate.

Following a long bus ride from the border to the capital, she announced herself at UNHCR’s Ankara office as an asylum seeker. A couple of days later, she was given a bus ticket and was reunited with Ali, 1,000 miles from home.

“I was so happy,” Mariam says, crying. “After all this hardship I got to see him. But wherever I go I have to face hardships. When I was with my father, I was hurting because I couldn’t be with Ali. But now that I’m here, I don’t even know what is happening in Iran anymore. I don’t know if my mom’s OK, if my dad’s OK. But I can’t contact anybody because I’m scared of them.”

Refugees are often alone in a country, with no language skills, no community, and no money. Life as a transgender refugee can be even more difficult. Turkey can be almost as conservative as Iran, and many of the same prejudices exist. A 2012 report by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in New York said Turkey lacks any specific hate crime legislation to protect the LGBT community. The Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration (ORAM) in San Francisco reports that LGBT refugees in Turkey often fear leaving their residences in their adopted countries due to targeted violence from locals and refugees.

Veysel Essiz is with Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, a refugee advocacy group in Istanbul that coauthored the ORAM report. He said that although Turkey is one of the original signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the backbone of the international asylum system, the country maintains a geographical limitation for who can be a permanent refugee. “The practical meaning of this is that Turkey states, ‘Yes, I will be providing you protection, but you will only be a refugee if you are coming from Europe,’” Essiz said. Iranian refugees—as well as those from elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia—can never be citizens or permanent legal residents in Turkey. Their best shot is to go to UNHCR and seek resettlement in the U.S., Canada, or Australia, which can take years. Essiz said refugees have trouble finding the means to get by while waiting in diplomatic limbo. He said people have to fend for themselves because they don't get much financial help from neither the Turkish government nor the UNHCR. Since neither the Turkish government nor the UNHCR provides substantial assistance to refugees, people are on their own. The only way a refugee can work legally in Turkey is to jump through several bureaucratic hoops, including providing an employer's affirmation that no Turkish citizen couldn be found to do the job. So most refugees find low-paid under-the-table jobs here and there to make ends meet. “You have to rely on yourself to arrange your accommodations or find a job,” Essiz said. “Getting a work permit is possible in theory, but impossible in practice.”

Annika Sandlund, a senior protection officer at UNHCR in Ankara, said there simply isn’t enough money to help all the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Turkey. “We have a financial assistance program, but it’s extremely limited, unfortunately, because UNHCR works on voluntary donations,” said Sandlund. “Turkey is seen by many countries as a relatively affluent country compared to many countries in Africa, so amongst many states there’s a slight reluctance to fund UNHCR operations here.”

Sandlund said LGBT Iranian refugees report being discriminated against in the public sphere—especially by other refugees and asylum seekers. She said the Turkish government temporarily assigns refugees to live in satellite cities, like the one where Mariam and Ali live now, until they get resettled in their new home country. According to Essiz, UNHCR feels it needs to disperse refugees from urban centers to prevent instability from developing in the host country. Unlike metropolises like Istanbul or Ankara, these are small, often religiously conservative towns where many don’t take kindly to LGBT individuals or communities. Refugees find discrimination in their everyday dealings with everyday people, said Sandlund, “even when they try to buy bread.”

Mariam says she was harassed by the local police the first day she arrived in her new town to be reunited with Ali. She said the police took her to a separate room and began asking inappropriate questions about her relationship with Ali.

One of the police officers kept asking me, ‘So you’re married?’ He asked me that three times. And he asked, ‘Are you satisfied?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m satisfied with my marriage.’ He said, ‘No, are you satisfied with that.’ He asked if I could get pregnant.” He also asked to see a picture of Ali when he was a woman.

Ali says the local police are bad, but easy to deal with compared with other Iranian refugees. The town is a refugee hub; most Iranian refugees there are Baha’i or Christian, and don’t take kindly to their transgender Muslim neighbor. Ali says in the few times he has managed to find under-the-table jobs, before long he is outed to his employers as a transgender person. He says other refugees do it so they can get the transgender person’s job; it’s already happened to him twice.

So Ali found a job that allows him to work from home: rolling cigarettes. He and Mariam lead me to their kitchen to show me a large pile of loose tobacco laid out on a white cloth on the kitchen floor. A small plastic cigarette roller and rolling papers lie next to the tobacco heap. Ali says they get 4 liras, about $2, for every 200 cigarettes they roll. A Turkish person, he says, would get 5 or 6 liras for the same work.

“Two hundred cigarettes takes at least an hour and a half for us to roll,” Ali says. “But thank God, so far we’ve been able to survive. Because I can’t get other jobs; they wouldn’t even give me a job cleaning bathrooms.”

Two months after our meeting, Ali and Mariam email me to tell me their luck has run out. Ali lost his job rolling cigarettes when an Iranian refugee outed him to his boss so his friend could take the job. Ali writes that he feels bad that he can’t provide more for Mariam in Turkey. “I made simple curtains with my wife,” he says. They found some rugs in town, and washed them. “I want our home to look beautiful,” he says, but Mariam was used to a much more comfortable life in Iran. Ali says that now he doesn’t have enough money to buy the testosterone he needs for his hormone therapy.

Ali was accepted as a refugee in Canada a few months ago, and can get a one-way ticket there, where the national health care system pays for hormone treatments for many transgender residents, whenever he wants. But because they weren’t married, and Mariam can’t wed in Turkey without a passport, Mariam wasn’t accepted under Ali’s case. Her case still hasn’t been approved by UNHCR, and Ali says he’s not going anywhere without her.

If they hadn't been chased out of Iran, they would have wed there, and “we would have stayed there,” Mariam says, crying. “If I was married in Iran my dad couldn’t have made it illegal for me to leave the country. Then Ali could have easily helped me leave. Our whole problem was that we hadn’t gotten married yet. And we only had two months to go before our wedding.”

Mariam has an appointment in January to plead her case with UNHCR. From there, it could take anywhere from a few months to a few years for her to be approved as a refugee in Canada.

Two months ago, Ali received a phone call from Mariam’s older brother. He had somehow got ahold of Ali’s number, and called to tell him they would be coming for her.

“Since then, I’ve been feeling terrible,” Mariam says. “I don’t want to leave the house. I’m scared. I can’t sleep. I just cry. Ali told me to go to a therapist; she told me she can send me to doctor to get antidepressants. Ali says it’s a problem with my spirit, not a chemical problem. But it makes me sick.”

Ali says they try not to leave their apartment unless necessary, but they’re worried they won’t have it for much longer. They haven’t paid rent for two months.

“But we’ve had God with us,” says Ali. “I have a small apartment for now, I have a good landlord.” A few friends recommended they convert to Christianity, telling him it would be easier to get resettled to the U.S. or Canada if they weren’t Muslim. Ali isn’t really religious, but Mariam considers herself a devout Muslim.

“Other refugees say if we become Christians then we could get help through church groups,” said Ali. “They say the groups won’t help you if you’re Muslim. But I told them even though I’m not religious, I won’t do it. My only belief is in God. But I won’t convert. I was born with this religion and I’ll die with it.” Mariam covers her hair with a veil and wears long sleeves and long pants when she leaves the house, even though she can dress however she likes in Turkey.

Almost as if on cue, the call to prayer interrupts our conversation.

In Turkey, as in Iran, loudspeakers echo the muezzin’s call throughout the streets five times a day. Ali stops talking and listens.

Then he whispers a prayer under his breath.