He spent time in an Iranian prison as a gay opposition activist and drag queen, suffering both torture and lashes as punishment. Now Yavar lives in Berlin, where he helps other refugees - and talks to them about HIV.

When Yavar puts on a dress and his black-and-red wig - a mane draped with a chain of glowing rose-lights - and gives his hand fan a sensuous flutter, the 34-year-old Iranian turns into Miss Salaam.

The first Iranian drag queen sees himself as a campaigner against discrimination, intolerance and violence. "Miss Salaam builds rainbow bridges within the fractured Iranian society," her Facebook page declares in its trademark florid style.

The character has almost 500 fans on the social media site, and Yavar wants to use her to promote understanding, "for everyone in the dark and doesn't have a voice."

"If you grow up in a country like Iran, then risk is part of life."

Yavar himself blossomed in the dark for a long time. Even in Tehran, where he lived until he was 26, he went to parties as a drag queen - in a place where homosexuality can cost you your life. 

"There is a saying in Iran: if you're in the fire, you don't understand the fire," says Yavar, explaining his bravery at the time. "If you grow up in a country like Iran, then risk is part of life. We wanted to have fun and we didn't think that it was that dangerous."

One night, the police stopped the car that Yavar was in with his friends, and arrested him in his drag outfit. He was sentenced to 70 lashes and a fine.

"When I think back, I think it was super-brave, what we did," Yavar says now. "I wouldn't do it today." 

It wasn't the first time that Yavar ended up in jail. As an art student at Tehran University, he was a part of the student movement, and was arrested during a demonstration. Yavar was tortured for a month, the police confiscated his computer and found more evidence of his homosexuality.

"People knew I was gay," he says. "I was a political activist. There were several reasons why I had to get out of there."

Yavar fled to Europe in early 2008 together with his family, and ended up in an asylum seekers' home near Bonn. He lived there for two years, and encountered more hostility for being gay. "I tried to spend as little time there as possible," Yavar says with a shrug.

It was only years later that Yavar found a place where he could be who he was: today he lives in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin and works as a counsellor in Germany's first refugee home for lesbians, gays and transsexuals in nearby Treptow.

He's needed here, because he knows only too well the problems of the Iranian residents - and speaks their language. Anyone walking through the house with him soon gets used to stopping every few metres so that Yavar can answer someone's questions. It's not unusual for him to stay longer than his shift requires.

"You can have sex every night. That's why you have to know about HIV."

Yavar is a calm conversation partner - reserved, even a little shy when being interviewed. But he knows exactly what he wants to say. There's a Frank Zappa quote that sums it up for him: "A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it isn't open."

In personal conversation, Yavar often brings up HIV, and he knows that the refugees here are in a very peculiar situation. "We come from a completely closed society, and in Berlin there are so many clubs and parties," the Iranian explains. "You can have sex every night. And of course you want to live it up. That's why you have to know about HIV."

A lot of the refugees don't know anything about HIV and at first aren't interested in hearing about safe sex. Yavar can understand that, and he knows there's a lot of fear lurking behind this attitude. "If you've had unprotected sex your whole life and no one's told you there's such a thing as HIV, then you just don't want to think about it," he says.

"I had a long coming-out trauma, but everything is alright now."

In Iran, he explains, everything that has anything to do with sex is taboo. Even in his family, which Yavar describes as intellectually and politically left wing, talking about homosexuality was always a problem. "I had a long coming-out trauma, but everything is alright now. That's the most important thing."

Through Miss Salaam, Yavar has found a way to break the silence and find as wide an audience as possible. In little YouTube videos, which he films at home on his phone, he explains homo- and transphobia, talks openly about HIV, or makes jokes about racism. "It's a good strategy for addressing the Iranian community," he says.

And as a drag queen he can combine his two big passions: art and politics. He aim is to bring political substance to the lives of the party girls and boys - and a little beauty to the lives of the activists.

"I don't have a message," says Yavar. "I am the message."


Frauke Oppenberg

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