07/05/2013 09:29 EDT | Updated 09/04/2013 05:12 EDT

Fringe Festival: Playwright portrays the fear of being gay in Iran

For Izad Etemadi, if there's ever been a time to talk about being gay in Iran, that time is now.

The United States Supreme Court recently ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. Queer Canadians are freely getting married and divorced. The LGBTQ community is taking increasingly prominent roles in politics and entertainment.

It's in this climate that Etemadi is bringing his one-man show, Borderland, to the Hamilton Fringe Festival. The play by the Victoria, BC-based actor and writer is one of a record 47 performances showing during the 10th annual festival, which runs from July 18 to 28.

Borderland is a reminder that advances to gay rights aren't happening worldwide. The one-man play is a story about being gay in a country where homosexuality can be punishable by death. Arranged marriages are common, a consenting homosexual relationship can result in imprisonment and members of the LGBTQ community often live in fear.

Etemadi, a second-generation Iranian-Canadian, has never been to Iran. But he has learned from his parents, and done extensive research into how his life would be different if he wasn't born in Canada.

“There's always this fear and sense that you could get arrested and killed at any moment,” Etemadi said of being gay in Iran. “It's like growing up in the closet here, but to an incredible extreme.”

It's the 23-year-old playwright's first one-man show. He performed it at the Montreal Fringe Festival and at Toronto Pride. Hamilton will be his third stop.

Church initially turned down performance

“The fringe staff (in Hamilton) is so awesome, and super excited,” he said. “Hamilton is one of the ones I'm most excited about.”

Borderland is told through three characters. The main one is Navid, who falls in love with someone who experiences the underground culture with him. Borderland is a home for people who are trying to escape the country and apply for refugee status.

“I won't give away the ending,” he said, “but it's pretty intense.”

After publicly performing the play, Etemadi said it's unlikely he'll visit Iran in the near future. He was nearly locked out of the Calgary Fringe Festival, where he'll perform in August. The church where he was scheduled to perform rejected him from its venue.

Etemadi said the church not only changed its mind, but has since asked him to perform during a service.

'A glimmer of hope'

“There's a lot of momentum building,” he said in terms of gay rights. “A lot of small things are adding up to a huge outcome.”

When the Supreme Court decision happened in the U.S., it was “a glimmer of hope for the world,” he said. “More things like this will continue to happen if we keep talking about it.”

The fringe festival features playwrights from Hamilton and abroad. Performances range from comedies and magic shows to dramas and aerial acts.

“We're really proud to be able to showcase independent works, works that are finding an audience,” said spokesperson Denyse Terry.

The maximum ticket price is $10.

- The full Hamilton Fringe Festival lineup