The queer communities of Iran have been very much covered in the foreign press over the past few years. From the outside, the relationship between Iranian society and queer people is very tricky to understand. But it isn’t more limpid from the inside either.
As an Iranian gay man coming from a wealthy family, I must say my perspective is that of gay male coming from a liberal, queer-friendly environment. For me, it hasn’t been much of an issue to come out, neither to my parents nor to my friends.
So when I settled down in Tehran as a young adult, I got along pretty well with its hectic underground way of life. Every week, I was invited from ten to twenty parties, mostly in private houses owned by some friends of friends. Gay parties were not complicated to catch either. The information used to circulate quite easily via gay apps, or through word of mouth in cafés known to be frequented by queers. The most legendary queer celebrations of all were the ones thrown by foreign diplomats in the backyards of their embassies. While there, hundreds of Iranians and immigrants would enjoy the warm safety offered by extraterritorial buildings.
Outside of these safe places though, being a homosexual was a complicated situation. Since the 1979 revolution, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transexual rights have become quite non existent. The Islamic Republic has started to enforce laws relying on Sharia. Being homosexual in Iran became punishable by death by the criminal law system. Paradoxically, in the health law, being gay is considered as a mental disorder. Yet, Iranians are not supposed to receive the death penalty for a mental disorder.
As far as I was concerned, this tension between the criminal system and the health system was a way to escape obligations. For instance, my so-called mental disorder allowed me to avoid the obligatory military service. Nevertheless, most of the time, I had to hide in order to have a normal life. For instance, I wouldn’t have been able to be a pharmacist — which I was back in Iran — with an official mental disorder.
Within the Iranians society itself, the queer issue was complex. Iran is made of multiple cultures, religions and ethnicities and public opinion in the country is very much divided. If in my neighborhood it was fine to be gay, I reckon being a gay man in a middle class family living in a village was probably another kettle of fish. This heterogeneous relationship to homosexuality is observed at the highest level of the state: In 2007, conservative President Ahmadinejad even claimed “there is no such thing as homosexuality in Iran” during a lecture given at Columbia University in New York.
Society’s perception about transexuality is even more tricky. Indeed, transexuals are not prohibited in the country. In fact, there is nothing about it in the holy book, and thus no reason to prevent Iranians from being transgender. And again, the perception of trans individuals is very heterogeneous. Some families will find it unacceptable, some others will be satisfied with the Sharia being respected. But most of the time, people will remain quiet about such issues and deal with them in private.
Now, there is always a thin line between confidentiality and denial. And a society in denial about queer issues is a society that is barely able to support its queer individuals. Deprived of information and social support, young LGBTQ+ people are often left to themselves. In this situation, self-acceptance as well as awareness about the queer community’s problems are not easy to grasp.
With a wealth of experience regarding this tricky situation, I committed myself to an NGO working on LGBTQ+ issues. We were a team of 25 people. For two years, we organized workshops on health and rights issues in Tehran and tried to bring a new zest to our Iran.
Nevertheless, during the Persian year 1388 — or 2009 for you non-Persian readers — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected. This election was considered fraudulent by a majority. It triggered a smooth but popular uprising among Iranian people. Millions of people held demonstrations in big cities, carrying signs that read, “Where is my vote?”
This so-called “Green movement” drove to an intense repression. Activists and opposition leaders to this “re-elected” government were arrested. Intellectuals and NGOs followed. My peers and I were arrested by intelligence service agents because of our implication in the NGO; they wanted to penalize us for acting against Abrahamic laws.
I was immediately imprisoned in Evin, in northwestern Tehran. It was a terrifying situation, but also one of the most stimulating moments of my life. Evin is renowned to house political prisoners, intellectuals, journalists, caricaturists, activists and so on. While there, I met individuals I knew from the media or from my classes at university.
I spent three months in Evin before I was released. Awaiting for my trial, I realized I had very little chance of avoiding jail again. So I took advantage of a five day holiday during which public services were essentially shut down; I packed a bag, said goodbye to my family, jumped in a train and fled to Turkey.
Now that I have been living away from home for a few years, I must say being gay was tough in Iran, but it doesn’t mean it is great elsewhere, including in Western countries. Gay villages, ” Pride” parades and gay marriage do not mean homophobia has been eradicated. The city Los Angeles, California, still has to deal with a massive community of homeless gay people that struggle with prostitution and drug addiction. In the same way, I have faced homophobic moments in Canada I never had to deal with in Iran. But something I never found again was the festive underground mood of the Tehran queer life.