British Columbia

Iranian transgender refugee struggles for acceptance

Tanaz Mehraban faced unimaginable hardships as a transgender woman in Iran — and she still struggles for acceptance in her new home in Canada.

Eight months ago transgender woman Tanaz Mehraban came to Canada to start a new life

Tanaz Mehraban takes a break from shopping at Metropolis at Metrotown in Burnaby, where she now lives after coming to Canada as a refugee from Iran eight months ago. (Gavin Fisher)

This article is part of a series focusing on the challenges experienced by LGBTQ people of colour, which aired on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition. Links to the audio segments from the series are included with this story.

Tanaz Mehraban woke in the middle of the night to find her brother standing next to her. He told her they had to leave the house — immediately. Her family was going to kill her the next day. 

Mehraban, who was only 13 at the time, had recently been kicked out of school for being someone who looked like a boy but dressed as a girl. 

  "Because this was a great tragedy for my family — I had destroyed my family's reputation in the community  — my family wanted to kill me," Mehraban said, speaking in Farsi through an interpreter.

This was just one of many hardships that Mehraban had to face as a transgender woman in Iran. After being persecuted her whole life Mehraban, now 38, arrived in Canada as a refugee eight months ago. She currently resides in Burnaby.

Challenges in Canada

  Her struggle for acceptance still isn't over — she faces discrimination even here in Canada. Mehraban said people avoid sitting next to her when she takes the bus.

"Especially when I don't have my sunglasses on, they see that I am a transgender person, and they leave the seat and sit somewhere else," Mehraban said.

  The Iranian community in Metro Vancouver hasn't been welcoming either. 

"During the eight months that I have been in Vancouver I have walked in every community, in every neighbourhood... and I see Iranians look at me with disgust, they call me really bad names, and they don't accept me as a human."

It's a challenge for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender refugees who come to Canada, says gay activist Mo Kazerooni. 

"Even though they left Iran behind they still feel they won't be able to be a full participant in the Iranian community or the Canadian mainstream community," Kazerooni said.

"It could be language barrier, access to resources, not feeling accepted by the mainstream LGBTQ community, or not feeling acceptance from the mainstream Iranian Canadian community. So they will feel doubly or triply marginalized."

A struggle for many LGBTQ people of colour

It's a challenge that's not unique to the Iranian-Canadian community — it's experienced by many LGBTQ people from different ethnic communities in the Lower Mainland.

  Dr. Wallace Wong, a psychologist who works with LGBTQ people from diverse backgrounds, said LGBTQ people from ethnic communities often feel like the "minority of the minority." 

"A lot of the time when they come out they have to abandon their ethnic group, the community they come from," said Dr. Wong.

He said part of the problem is the lack of awareness of LGBTQ issues in some of these ethnic communities, which leads to the misconception that being gay or transgender is unique to Western culture and doesn't exist in their communities. 

Optimism towards the future

  Despite all she's been through Mehraban remains hopeful about her future in Canada.

"One of my biggest hopes and dreams in Vancouver, in Canada, is to continue to learn English, to have a good career so I can contribute to society, to get married, to get a dog."

She added that she also wants to be an advocate and help give a voice to other transgender people.

Mehraban is by no means worn down by life — and she wants to see how society will continue to transform in the future.

"I'm so curious to know, how are we going to evolve? How are we going to change?" she said.

"I would love to live for thousands and thousands of years, because that's how much I love life."