Islam and Homosexuality
Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (http://www.pglo.net/)
Gay Middle East Web Site: http://www.gaymiddleeast.com/
More information about Islam & Homosexuality can be found at: www.al-fatiha.org
Other articles of interest can be found at: groups.yahoo.com/group/al-fatiha-news
Queer Muslim magazine: Huriyah
Gay Islam discussion groups:
2 Gay Iranian desperate to stay in Japan 3/01 (see #7)
Badpuppy Gay Today (Gaytoday.com)
27 May 1997
Saviz Shafaie: an Iranian gay activist leader (Interview)
Interview by Jack Nichols
Saviz Shafaie and other exiled Iranians are currently pondering results from Iran’s recent presidential election, one in which a more moderate leader has been chosen by the overwhelming majority of a mostly youthful public. Shafaie, although he considers Iran’s electoral process an undemocratic sham, says the presidential vote is, nevertheless, a protest against Iran’s current regime and bespeaks his country’s widespread dissatisfaction with zealous sexual privacy-invaders who operate under "religious" trappings.
With this protest vote comes a major setback to hard-core fundamentalist clergy who, it is now clear, are beginning to lose the iron grip they’ve held since 1979 on one of earth’s oldest evolving and most fascinating civilizations, an exotic land once known as Persia.
As a university student in 1972, Shafaie, baffled by sociological questions surrounding sexual orientation, delivered a pioneering research speech, an investigative look at the treatment given same sex love that was prevalent in Iranian social patterns. Expecting a small turnout, Shafaie was astounded when several hundred of his peers at the University of Shiraz (formerly Pahlavi University) gathered to hear him. It showed, he knew, that fellow students were thirsty for knowledge about matters that had too long remained taboo, that a natural curiosity had been unearthed the moment he pulled aside the curtain of silence.
In Iran, he realized, same-sex love, though unspoken, was, nevertheless, prevalent in its own way.
In 1976, pursuing his education, Shafaie arrived in the United States, where he continued his studies of sexuality and gender. At Syracuse University he gradually became involved with the growing gay and lesbian liberation movement. He finally emerged–as a result of a conscious and deliberate decision– as an openly gay man, all the while earning his master’s degree in sociology.
Moving to Orlando, Florida in the early 1980’s, Shafaie turned his personal evolution into a series of ongoing political statements. He was quick to see that various social crusades—including the peace movement, the anti-sexist men’s movement, the feminist cause, as well as racial, ethnic, and human rights concerns, could be linked. He took an active part in these various movements, successfully urging—in the Orlando area—that they support civil rights and social acceptance of those who, like himself, felt strong emotional and sexual bonds with individuals of their own gender.
Shafaie opened a natural foods store, located in one of the city’s finer neighborhoods, where he provided materials relevant to the aforementioned causes, including gay and lesbian rights. He organized demonstrations and educational events, appearing on TV and radio, and receiving Central Florida’s Spectrum Award (1995) for his efforts at promoting a meaningful recognition of diversity among the area’s citizens. Again, on March 9, 1997, he received both the Spectrum Male Activist and Role Model (male) Award, the latter shared with Jim Ford, his life’s companion.
In 1993 Shafaie joined Homan, the international movement to defend the rights of lesbian and gay Iranians. Currently, he is enrolled at the University of Central Florida in an MSW program while remaining active organizing, and planning Homan’s agendas.
=Badpuppy: What brought you to make a deliberate decision to come out as a gay man?
Shafaie: While I was studying about homosexuality at school I felt that the information provided me with a better knowledge than is available through friends, family, and judgmental people around me. The combination of knowledge, self-confidence and growth provided me a chance to share my new insights with others. I was reading passionately and growing more solid, free and open. Public speaking, first under the safety of an academic roof resulted in dialogue and finally encouraged me to be more outspoken and honest. I eventually felt I knew enough to overcome my fear and insecurity. I had a sense that I owed it to myself to be open.
=Badpuppy: Weren’t social mores more open in Iran in 1972 than they are now?
Shafaie: Although legal punishments were not as harsh, still there was prejudice, misunderstanding and negative assumptions about gays and lesbians. Even then I had to face jokes and put-downs. But the more I became confident about my sexuality the more I could handle any negative slurs and challenge them.
=Badpuppy: My youthful experience in the 1950’s among Iranian adolescents in the United States found me surprised thatIranian boys could hold hands with me, kiss, recite poetry, hug, and, short of sex, be intimate. What’s the difference between what I experienced and the negative anti-gay Iranian male attitudes you describe?
Shafaie: Some degree of male bonding, close friendship and even physical touch is tolerated but there’s a negative response if you are labeled as having homosexual tendencies. You can be with someone that you love for a long period without daring to express your honest erotic feelings. Open sexuality might cause rejection, a loss of friendship. In that homophobic culture being at peace with your own homosexuality is challenging.
=Badpuppy: In other words, you can have passionate emotions, but they mustn’t cross the sexual border?
Shafaie: There is a conditional permission for erotic games or even rape as an exercise of male power. Pretend it is a joke, or a put-down and you can get by. But call it true love or honest and real sexual desire and you are in trouble. If you cross beyond traditional sex regulations and fail to prove that your ultimate desire is dominating a woman, you would be considered a suspect. If you act upon your passionate lust and disclaim it, you are safer than claiming an honest love. As Iranians we need to learn to be more honest, direct and welcoming of our own healthy sexual desires. Keep them natural, healthy, and real. We should not subscribe to the cultural bias which says that homosexuality destroys life, love or dignity.
= Badpuppy: There are heterosexually-identified men in Iran who maintain their acceptable credentials by being dominant and taking only the active sexual part. In a sexually-segregated society isn’t there a lot of this activity?
Shafaie: Is it a healthy activity? I have some problem with that. Such sex is not based on mutual agreement, mutual freedom of choice, mutual political power or mutual feeling and desire. When only one person controls an encounter by forcing another to submit, it sounds more like sexual exploitation and rape rather than a healthy sexual attraction. We cannot victimize somebody else, play with somebody, and unfortunately when rape has been rewarded and mutual affection has been condemned we are dealing with unhealthy and corrupted sex codes of conduct. I call it aggression, not sex.
=Badpuppy: What was your family’s response to your coming out?
Shafaie: My mother, who lived with me, had a chance to know a lot of my gay friends. Gayness had a face for her instead of being an abstract concept. It is easier to understand and accept people rather than submitting to your own irrational fears. I’m proud that after many years its not a pity or mere acceptance, but rather a conscious defending she does of the rights of gays and lesbians. Its not motherly acceptance but a social responsibility that she claims for herself. I asked my father to give me and himself a chance to delay any judgment before feeling fully informed. We agreed that he needed sufficient time. I told him I’d honestly answer any question and promised him to provide him with information. We did not label each other ignorant or sick. I didn’t want to start a conflict with him, rather I respected him and wanted to approach him through his most positive characteristics. I encouraged him to use his intelligence, his commitment to acting responsibly and reasonably. After a year and half of honest communication we find we can work together, trust each other and grow together. I’m glad that now he feels comfortable and safe enough to approach me and my companion as a truly valid member of the family. With my brother it was much easier. He was dating a feminist woman and was already in support of gay and lesbian rights. He could easily ally with me to openly critique homophobia. It fits his politics and matched his credentials as a supportive and outspoken person. He even encouraged other family members to better understand. In my family we knew that we were not each other’s enemies, but that we had a mutual enemy, homophobia, which we challenged together. When we work as a family we can have pride and self-respect that comes with solving a problem and growing together.
=Badpuppy: How are Iranians in the Orlando area responding to you?
Shafaie: Mixed. There were some Iranians that even participated in the homophobia workshop I offered. There are friends that feel comfortable being part of our circle of friends and come to parties Jim and I throw. However, there have been hostile and angry responses to me, my mother, Jim, and even my supportive Iranian friends. For example, a local Persian poetry reading group kicked out some of its members because they participated in discussion group I facilitated. An Iranian peace gathering I started asked me to leave because The Orlando Sentinel wrote about my active role in the gay pride celebrations. An Iranian woman who teaches in Orlando approached an Ayatollah asking to issue a decree to expel me from the Iranian community. There were several life-threatening calls to my mother, harassing her and insulting her for having a son like me.
=Badpuppy: You’ve had a long-going relationship. I was present at your commitment ceremony. What do you think about relationships?
Shafaie: I worked with Jim Ford for a year as co-activist, finding him a resourceful organizer and a committed, responsible person devoted to causes in which I believe. It didn’t start as love at first sight. Our friendship grew and finally we acknowledged our personal and emotional feelings. Being lovers for a while we decided that we were ready to redefine our relationship as a family unit. Commitment, trust, mutual support, care for each other’s extended families, mutual plans, sharing home, are aspects of our union. A deeper love continues to grow in us, rooted in respect and appreciation. Seven years have passed and we are still building on that love.
=Badpuppy: What are some of the most effective things you’ve done in the gay and lesbian community of Central Florida?
Shafaie: My present interest is in gay politics. There was a time I needed a support group to deal with my personal issues, a rap group to talk about gay and lesbian concerns, a chance to educate myself. But right now gayness is more than a personal concern. It is not any longer my problem, but gay and lesbian rights is part of my personal political and social agenda. I’m glad I was part of a growing gay and lesbian visibility and political activism in Central Florida. In the last few years I was able to organize a range of cultural events such as concerts, theater events, workshops, demonstrations, rallies. I lobbied city officials, worked with local peace and justice groups, PBS broadcasting, providing educational conferences and seminars, but most importantly being able to work in teams with local gays, lesbians, and peace activists. When Deputy Tom Woodard was fired by Sheriff Gallagher WE THE PEOPLE, the group I co-founded, was able to bring together progressive groups like the Coalition for Peace and Justice, the Unitarian Church, the Quakers, the ACLU, and gay and lesbian groups to critique that injustice informing Orlando through the media. This taught me that activism in the community is most possible through coalition-building and networking.
=Badpuppy: What difficulties do gay and lesbian Iranians face coming out?
Shafaie: Fear of persecution that could face them in Iran when they return. We are dealing with a very brutal government in Iran that promotes, justifies, and legalizes the execution of gays. Here, there’s homophobia in the Iranian community causing rejections and put-downs. We’re not facing rationality. Many Iranians carry the baggage of traditional religious hostility: the misjudgments, false assumptions and rigid pseudo-moral codes.
=Badpuppy: Kayhan Havaie, the official newspaper of the Islamic Republic of Iran, wrote about the Iranian gay lib group, Homan, and you. What did it say?
Shafaie: Kayhan Havaie made fun of Homan’s gay and lesbian demonstration and of my letter published in another Iranian newspaper in which I corrected a wrong term used to describe homosexuals. Although they ridiculed Homan and any rational comment about homosexuality it was interesting to see the existence of Homan affirmed in a press otherwise closed to such mentions. It is sad that the official Iranian press still can’t see homosexuality except through cheap jokes, insults, and a pornographic lens.
=Badpuppy: How have Iranian opposition groups in exile responded to Homan’s Iranian gay activism?
Shafaie: They flee from the issues. For many of them, homosexuality is dismissed as a purely personal or private matter. Of course, my private life is something personal, but my human rights are obviously political and social concerns. Some political groups find gay rights unsafe politics, claiming that the Iranian public isn’t ready to understand it. Isn’t it the duty of any progressive group to bring up significant human concerns, introducing them to the public? There is a claim that homosexuality is a reflection of the capitalist or corrupted West. Have they forgotten that there are many gay and lesbian Iranians in Iran victimized by stale traditions? Some groups simply claim that if they defend individual rights, it will include everyone. They still lack the courage to pronounce the word "Gay" and acknowledge our existence.
=Badpuppy: What kind of stereotypes exist in Iran?
Shafaie: Similar to the stereotypes that fundamentalists everywhere are spreading. Child molesting. Immorality. Promiscuity. Disease spreaders. Sex-obsession. Always passive. Rapists. If the assumption is that you are inferior, they feel free to assault you. If you are assumed dangerous they want to stop you. If they assume you’re a pervert they want to change you. They confuse the fact of sexual orientation with sexual aggression and violence. In such a patriarchal society where sexuality is considered a male prerogative, a man has a right to sexually abuse whoever he can dominate or control. A man assumes he possesses his sexual object only for his sole enjoyment. When woman is labeled and treated as inferior to man any woman or any person assumed to have woman-like qualities is devalued. The assumption that homosexuals are feminine and less than manly justifies a domineering man’s aggression against us. Sexual liberation would not be possible in Iran without challenging "masculine" values and tradition that works against equality between sexual partners. Stereotypes prevent us from understanding the healthy nature of sexual tendencies.
=Badpuppy: What do you mean by healthy?
Shafaie: Sex is healthy when it does not harm, hurt, or destroy. Sex is an instrument of aggression when somebody hurts the other physically, biologically, emotionally, socially, politically, etc. through the sexual act. One should not call that kind of behavior sex. One cannot pass the virus, cause physical pain, humiliate, abuse his political power, or emotionally hurt his partner and still call it healthy sex. Healthy sex creates joy, self-respect, and personal growth. It elevates. It provides safety and trust. It makes for good feelings like warmth and happiness. Healthy sex needs to be based on equality: on mutual desire, free decisions, and on knowledge of the rightness of one’s own motives. Such things, for me, are healthy.
=Badpuppy: What about religious beliefs and sexuality?
Shafaie: I am not a believer, but I do believe that we need to be very cautious how we let our religious beliefs determine our rational behavior. If religion promotes sexual exploitation, if it creates a negative feeling of "sin" self-hatred and guilt, those negative feelings should be considered dangerous, unwanted and unjustified. Codes from holy books should not holify what our minds and senses tell us is nonsense. We could learn about our heritage and our religion, but this does not mean a blind acceptance or being a prisoner of our pasts. Religion in Iran has played a destructive, unhealthy approach toward sexuality and has created painful, confusing situation for gays who otherwise deserve to respect themselves as sexual beings.
=Badpuppy: How does the Islamic Republic of Iran treat same-sex lovers?
Shafaie: According to 1991 Islamic penal law, article 110, I quote: "Punishment for sodomy is killing, the sharia judge decides on how to carry out the killing." Article 111 says: "Sodomy involves killing if both the active and passive persons are mature, of sound mind, and have free will." Harsh punishment is not only being used against gays but is used as a political weapon to falsely discredit opponents of the Islamic Republic. By discrediting homosexuality they can accuse and humiliate any opponent and apply a punishment. Recently, a well-known opposition writer, Sirjani, was labeled as gambler, drug addict, and homosexual prior to his suspicious death in prison. In 1992 Dr. Ali Mozafarian, a surgeon and leader of the Sunni branch of Islam, was labeled as an American spy, an adulterer and a homosexual. He was executed. Official anti-homosexual policy justifies public homophobia, fear, hate, anger, and aggression against gays. There is official discrimination and a vacuum of valid information. There are few, if any, role models. There are only dead ends for social, political and community gay life. As a result homosexuality in Iran has been narrowed to nothing more than the sexual act itself. Gays are characterized as being sex-obsessed while, ironically, affectionate same-sex relationships and gay social visibility are prohibited and made impossible.
=Badpuppy: What is Homan? (http://www.homan-iran.org/)
Shafaie: Homan is a worldwide coalition of groups and individuals working together to defend the rights of Iranian gays and lesbians. The group originated among gay Iranians in Sweden and by now includes branches and a membership in many countries including those on this continent and in Western Europe. Its basic goals are to educate Iranians about homosexuality, provide accurate images, create safe environments for political activism. Homan works through its publishing arm which puts out a magazine, Homan. Through local and international meetings Homan was able to create a network of activists, planners, and organizers. It has monitored Iranian media, provided seminars and workshops, and worked with gay and lesbian rights groups in many cities. We are collecting an archives of Iranian gay and lesbian literature and history.
=Badpuppy: What does Homan hope to accomplish?
Shafaie: It hopes to substitute information in place of gossip and false assumptions. It hopes to change the self-image of Iranian gays who might feel passive and desperate to that of responsible, confident persons able to live openly, joyfully, freely, and affectionately. Homan wants to provide encouragement and support for Iranian gays who wish to come out. Homan hopes to challenge and eliminate both gay-bashing in Iranian communities and that which has been officially sanctioned. Homan advocates political activism to these ends. Through Homan we hope to encourage healthy values, resulting in just behaviors and non-discriminatory policies.
March 24, 2001
Gay Iranian desperate to stay in Japan
by Harumi Ozawa, Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Shayda, an Iranian man who has been detained by immigration officials for almost a year at a facility in Ibaraki Prefecture, applied both for asylum and a special residency permit after he was arrested in April last year for overstaying his visa. He is desperate to stay in Japan because as a homosexual, he could face death in Iran, his home country.
Shayda (not his real name) came to Japan in 1991. Although he initially had tried to seek asylum in Western countries, which have granted asylum to homosexuals, his application was rejected due to his lack of English-language ability. The Justice Ministry turned down both his requests for asylum and special residency permit in July last year and gave the go-ahead to proceed with a deportation order. At the moment, Shayda is asking the Tokyo District Court to overturn the deportation order.
"This is the first case — at least that I know of — of a gay foreign national fighting for legal status in Japan and seeking protection from threats stemming from his sexual orientation," said Takeshi Ohashi, an attorney representing Shayda. Despite the unprecedented nature of the case, Ohashi stressed that Shayda should have had a good chance of gaining refugee status. "The fact that the Japanese government didn’t grant him asylum actually is surprising, because it should have done so in light of the fact that it has signed an international convention on the status of refugees," he said.
The government’s position
Representatives of the justice minister last week submitted to the Tokyo District Court a statement explaining why the government is deporting Shayda. The ministry’s argument can be summarized as follows: . No cases of gays being penalized in Iran solely on the basis of sexual orientation have been officially reported. Shayda has neither been prosecuted nor served an arrest warrant in Iran. Therefore, so long as he does not call attention to his sexual orientation, his homosexuality will not pose a threat to his safety in Iran.
But the ministry’s first point is debatable, because gays in Iran are often prosecuted for their sexuality, almost always incorporated with other charges. Ohashi, who specializes in cases involving foreign nationals, points out that the second argument is simply unrealistic because it implies that homosexuals can enjoy safety so long as they don’t partake in sexual activity with members of the same sex. Although cases involving the oppression of homosexuals in Iran receive little media coverage in Japan, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees recognizes the persecution of gays in Iran.
A UNHCR report on Iranian refugees and asylum seekers refers to homosexuals as one of five categories of vulnerable social groups in Iran. It reads: "Homosexuality is forbidden by Islamic law, and will be punished. Sodomy, defined as ‘sexual intercourse with a male,’ is punishable by death if both parties ‘are mature, of sound mind and have free will.’"
Members of TeamS, a Tokyo group consisting of friends and foreign labor union members supporting Shayda, have also researched cases regarding homosexuals in Iran through sources like Amnesty International, Homan — a magazine established in Stockholm by gays and lesbians exiled from Iran — an Iranian human rights group and Iranian daily newspapers.
According to the group’s research, at least 14 people have been killed for sodomy or sexual deviation since 1990, although their charges were often incorporated with other allegations, such as espionage. Nassim, who works with Homan, elaborated on the reality that gays in Iran must face. "If I tell someone in Iran that I am gay, my family will not wait for the government to kill me, a member of my own family, with almost 100 percent certainty, will kill me and no one will ask him why," he said via e-mail.
To Nassim, the Japanese government’s position on Shayda’s case indicates "a typical Asian cultural view," and he condemned the passivity of the Japanese government and its people regarding the struggle of Iranian homosexuals for human rights.
"The question is not to have a secret place…but to have your sexual orientation, homosexuality recognized in the law, and your love respected by society," he said. "(This) is what we are struggling for, because sexual identity is an important part of your human identity and that is why gay rights is part of human rights."
According to Ohashi, Shayda has already come out as being gay and is actively involved in the Iranian gay movement as a contributor at Homan, which in effect nullifies the defendant’s second argument. "Even if he were to hide his homosexuality, which would save him from persecution, he would be denying himself the freedom of expressing love in public, which would silence an important aspect of his identity for the rest of his life," he said.
"It would be difficult for homosexuals in Iran to remain silent about their sexuality, but it would be even more destructive to revoke the freedom of sexual orientation from someone who already has begun a new life in Japan based on his true identity as a homosexual," he added. For Shayda, however, staying in Japan is more than just a matter of a self-identity, because he could face great danger, even death, if the government does not retract its deportation order. Nassim urged: "If Japan will not let our Iranian gay friend to stay in Japan, it should not send him back to Iran, but let the UNHCR help him to find a safe place elsewhere."
Caught up in legalities
Shayda came to Japan alone. He made friends, worked and became accustomed to his new life, which offered freedoms that were unthinkable in Iran. Still, it took about eight years for him to come out as being gay, because he found it extremely difficult to declare his sexual orientation to the Iranian community in Japan. "In retrospect, though, he should have applied for asylum before he was arrested," said Masaki Inaba, a member of TeamS.
But according to Inaba, Shayda chose to wait for the UNHCR to recognize him as a refugee, rather than risk having the Japanese government turn down his application, and in the meantime, he overstayed his visa. It would be easy to blame Shayda for allowing his situation to turn from bad to worse, to the point of overstaying his visa and being arrested. Sure, he would be in a better position today had he come out as being gay and appealed to the government for asylum the day he arrived in Japan instead of after being caught overstaying his visa. "If only he could have acted with reason," Ohashi said sarcastically, referring to the "reason" of people who do not need to escape their own country.
"Back in their home countries, asylum seekers consider government officials as people who are working against their interests. How can you expect people who cannot even consult with their own lawmakers to put faith in Japanese government officials?" Ohashi said. "Most asylum seekers are not high-ranking North Korean officials, just ordinary people. It is unrealistic to expect people like them to arrive in a new country and seek legal help immediately."
The next proceeding of Shayda’s case is scheduled for May 8 at the Tokyo District Court.
January 23, 2002
The Only Lesbian In Iran
Niloufar, 30, who has been living in the United States for two years, answers The Gully’s questions about what it’s like to be an Iranian lesbian and immigrant. She asked that her last name not be used in case attempts to extend her visa fail and she is forced to return to Iran.
=The Gully: What was it like growing up as a lesbian in Iran?
Niloufar: My family was actually living in Belgium when I began to realize I was a lesbian. I was 15 or 16 years old. Being in Europe didn’t make it any easier. I was still inside my Iranian family, and coming out was very difficult, mostly. The first time I heard about homosexuality was in the context of the AIDS crisis, when gay men were being blamed for the spread of the disease. I was really homophobic at the same time I was attracted to women. Because I couldn’t accept myself as a lesbian, I couldn’t even think about coming out to parents or family or anything, and it took me maybe ten years.
=Did you know other lesbians when you went back to Iran?
Yes and no, because there are many people there who are attracted to the same sex, but don’t identify as gay. They don’t understand what it means, or even have the words for it. They just imagine that some day they will get married anyway. That’s something that is really changing in Iran, almost everywhere really, as people have access to the Internet and to satellite dishes. People are beginning to believe that they can identify as gay or lesbian and be accepted some day. More importantly, lgbt people are beginning to accept themselves. I talked with someone who just came from Iran six months ago and she said she knows of a gay and lesbian community in Tehran. Hundreds of people. They socialize inside houses, or communicate on the Internet. Now that you can meet other people that identify as lesbian or gay, it makes a big difference. When I was there, I thought I was the only Iranian lesbian in existence. Is the coming out experience different for men and women in Iran (as much as you can come out, when being openly gay means the death penalty)? Men have much more freedom in Iranian society. For them, it’s easier to meet other gay men. In Tehran there are hangouts for gay men, but there are no such things for women. It’s easier for lesbians only because their existence isn’t even recognized.
=What about class difference?
In Franco’s Spain, lower class queers were thrown into prison, or worse, while some upper class queers remember it as the best time of their lives. There is a little more leeway if you have money and connections, in case you do get into trouble or get picked up by the police. At the same time, in higher class society being gay is less accepted. So, it’s not really better.
=You’ve been in the United States two years. Do you have much contact in general with the Iranian immigrant community?
No, because I know they are not very accepting, and because I know I look like a lesbian, and I don’t want them to stare at me. I don’t feel comfortable. They still have a lot of prejudice. Even if they live here. Many of them still believe homosexuality is a Western thing, and that we are imitating Westerners, that we’re not really gay, just acting. That’s why we have to be out. They can only believe we exist if they see our faces. Iran seems to be on the verge of change. Going by the foreign press anyway, there seems to be an increase in demonstrations… Society is changing inside Iran, even if the government stays the same. The important thing is having access to information from the Internet, satellite TV. And you’re right. There are a lot more demonstrations. Iran has a lot of economic problems, economic and political. People are tired and can’t take it anymore. Even though at demos the government arrests people, forces them to have "interviews," tries to make examples of them, I think the country has reached a point where they can’t do anything about it anymore. People are fed up. In Iran, civil society is very active, maybe more so than in other Muslim countries where people who do not accept the situation are maybe more passive. Despite the situation of women under the regime, they are still fighting back and getting back their rights. Women make up 53% of university enrollment, which is a good thing. Most of the Iranian reform movements, at least those visible in the Western press, are still Islamic-based, just differing in their interpretation of Islam.
=Do you think there will ever be room for lgbt people in Iran without a secular government?
It’s true that all reform movements in Iran are Islamic-based, but that’s simply because other movements are outlawed by the government. But I believe that Iran is shifting, slowly, towards democracy, and that Islamic democracy, as well as Christian, Jewish or any other religious democracy, is an oxymoron. I believe that Iran will have a secular government in the future. It’s simply inevitable. It will take a while, though! I don’t think with an Islamic government there will ever be room for lgbt people in Iran.
=What is the situation of lgbt people living outside Iran now?
Iranians living outside Iran don’t accept us. That’s why we have to educate our community. Homan [a lgbt Iranian group] has existed for 10 years, and it’s still mostly just a dozen people. In Los Angeles [during a recent meeting] we had only 10 people from different countries. Even at the meeting, no one wanted to have their picture taken. In San Francisco’s Gay Pride last year, the person holding Iran’s flag wasn’t Iranian. We talked about this during the meeting, that there should be at least one person willing to be out. But there’s fear of coming out for those who have family here, plus the other consequences. You couldn’t go back to Iran to visit your relatives. And if your visa expires, or you’re deported… It’s very risky. Especially now.
=How have the September 11 attacks and their aftermath affected you personally?
The September attack was a horrendous tragedy and came as a great shock. Still, I never predicted the events that would follow. I was appalled by the anti-Middle Eastern/Muslim/Arab atmosphere, and Middle-Eastern bashing and stereotyping in the aftermath of the attack. Ironically, it reminded me of the queer-bashing I have witnessed and experienced my entire life. I guess the question I have been asking myself as an "Iranian Lesbian" – and doubly marginalized – is if there will ever be a place I could call home. And if I will ever belong anywhere.
February 28, 2003
Returning home would mean death, says Iranian student
by Eric Resnick, Youngstown
A gay Iranian student is seeking asylum in the United States to avoid near certain death in his homeland. Reza (not his real name), 21, came to the United States as a student just over a year ago, and like many gay students from oppressive countries, discovered freedom to be himself. But once his studies end, Reza could be returned by the U.S. to his native Iran, where authorities or his own family would likely kill him.
Reza began studying information technology at Kent State University this fall. His visa allows him to stay in the U.S. as long as he is a full-time student and gets good grades. Reza said he knew he was gay while living in Tehran. His family began to suspect it, too. When he was 14, his brother, eight years older, beat him badly enough to break a finger, bruise ribs, and an eye because he did not return the affection of a girl with a crush on him.
Reza said he has also been raped because he was suspected of being gay. "I was always in the closet in my country," said Reza . "I hated myself for being gay, and I couldn’t change it. I just wanted to die or kill myself." Reza said he was always depressed in Iran, and attempted to kill himself. He even pretended to be straight by talking to girls in front of his parents. But he did not come to the U.S. to be gay. "I came to be a student at Kent State. They accepted me," Reza said. Once he got to the university, Reza made friends and soon felt comfortable enough to come out. Reza works for the university as a part-time student assistant, and he is currently the secretary of the school’s LGBT Alliance.
"At first, I was afraid people would not like me because I’m from Iran," said Reza. Now, his new friends are worried, and brought his situation to the attention of the Gay People’s Chronicle. Reza said that coming out as a gay man in the U.S. was not difficult once he felt accepted as an Iranian, and his new friends have become protective of him, encouraging him to seek asylum. Reza hired an immigration attorney and will file his petition for asylum next week. Once the petition is filed, the Immigration and Naturalization Service will schedule an interview in within 45 days.
Reza and Schiller will explain why he can’t return to Iran, and the INS will either grant the asylum or say they intend to deny it. If granted, Reza could get permanent residency within a year. If the INS intends to deny asylum, Reza and Schiller would then have to make the case that the asylum officer came to the wrong conclusions. Reza is also aware that any media attention on his case puts his life at greater risk if the INS denies his claims. Currently, there is no specific designation for asylum in the U.S. based on sexual orientation.
But it can be granted for membership in a "particular social group," persecuted in the home country. In the 1990s, this was interpreted to include sexual orientation. A 1990 Department of Justice decision in the Matter of Toboso-Alfonso granted asylum to a gay Cuban who demonstrated that his being gay was a criminal offense there. During her tenure as attorney general, Janet Reno issued opinions supporting inclusion of sexual orientation in the "particular social group." In the landmark 1997 Pitcherskaia v. INS case, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court overturned an 1995 INS decision saying Alla Pitcherskaia "failed to demonstrate well-founded fear of persecution" for being a lesbian in her native Russia.
The court was appalled that the INS claimed that the Russian government had "good intentions" when it used torture and electric shock to "force a lesbian to become heterosexual." Still, according to Schiller, only about 30 percent of those who apply for asylum protection based on sexual orientation are granted it. "This is a terrified individual," said Schiller of Reza. "But the U.S. asylum laws are there to protect him and we will work hard to file the strongest possible petition documenting what his situation would be in Iran." According to Reza, his family would not wait for the government to execute him. "They would kill me first." The Iranian embassy in The Hague wrote in 1987 that "homosexuality in Iran, treated according to the Islamic law, is a sin in the eyes of God and a crime for society. In Islam generally homosexuality is among the worst possible sins you can imagine."
Male sodomy is a crime, for which both partners are punished. The punishment is death if the participants are adults, of sound mind and consenting; the method of execution is for the Shari’a judge to decide. Lesbianism is punishable by 100 lashes for the first three offenses, and death for the fourth. "If you are lucky, they give you the right to choose how you are to die," said Reza. Methods include stoning, being thrown from a cliff, and cutting one to pieces with a sword and burning the remains. Reza described the situation in Iran as a witch hunt. "The police are always looking for homosexuals," he said. He said he doesn’t want to think about the possibility of losing the case. "Thinking about it is thinking about being killed," Reza said, "and I don’t want to get killed."
The epic quest of two women in 1939, who start out in search of a beautiful valley in Afghanistan, and end up on a road trip bursting with eroticism and self-discovery.
The true-life story of Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach (a cohort of Thomas Mann’s children Erika and Klaus), played by Jeanette Hain of THE TRIO, and ethnologist Ella Maillart (played by Nina Petri of RUN LOLA RUN) unfolds along an arduous route from Geneva, Switzerland through the Balkans and into the sultry bosom of Persia.
• WINNER BEST FILM ~ Locarno International Film Festival
Running time: 100 min.
German with English subtitles
Picture This films: http://www.picturethisent.com/dvdvideo/detail_journey.htm
February 19, 2003
Girls Find Safety Posing as Boys on Tehran’s Mean Streets
by Elaine Sciolino with Nazila Fathi
Tehran – For four years, from the age of 12, Hooman belonged to a tough gang of teenage boys who worked the streets of Tehran. They robbed passers-by, broke into cars and slept wherever they could find a bed. Perhaps to compensate for his small frame, Hooman shaved off his hair and eyebrows, a fashion statement that sent a clear message: don’t mess with me. It was only when the police arrested him recently for trying to steal a car stereo that they discovered that Hooman was not Hooman at all, but Tahereh. The boy was a girl.
In a country where girls and women are required to cover their heads and conceal the shape of their bodies from the age of puberty, some girls have taken to disguising themselves as boys. They cut their hair short, wear loose-fitting clothes and speak as little as possible. It is not an act of rebellion by Westernized feminists determined to buck the system and cast off the headscarf. Rather, it is a growing phenomenon mainly among lower-class runaways who believe that the disguise gives them a degree of freedom and protection they could not enjoy as girls.
Posing as boys on the streets makes it easier to avoid rape and falling victim to prostitution rings. In one sense, their very existence is stark testimony to the failure of the Islamic Republic to create a generation of humble, obedient, modest women dedicated to motherhood and Islam.
But in another sense, it is remarkable that the government has admitted the problem and is beginning to take steps to resolve it. ”All the girls we have seen who have disguised themselves as boys have done it to protect themselves,” said Mojgan Shirazi, the director of a shelter for runaway girls in central Tehran.
”When they’re on the streets as girls, men cause problems. We had one girl here who said that when she was on the streets at night even the street sweeper preyed on her. As a boy, she was left alone.” The patriarchal nature of Iranian society men also makes the disguise attractive. Many of these girls have cast off the traditional roles that society defines for them as women, according to psychiatrists who have treated them. ”They reject more than the obligatory veiling,” said Mahdis Kamkar, a psychiatrist who has treated such girls when she worked at a state-run welfare center.
”They not want to accept the traditional role of homemaker and mother which they feel makes them subordinate to men. This generation is confused and feels the need to defy what it believes has been imposed on it.” In the process, some girls turn to crime. ”They are not only dressing like men,” Ms. Kamkar said, ”but also sometimes acting like men, and getting involved in the kind of crimes only committed in the past by men.”
Both Ms. Shirazi and Ms. Kamkar said they believe that most cross-dressers are neither transsexual nor gay. The Islamic Republic allows people who have been diagnosed as transsexual to have sex-change operations, and the subject is openly discussed. But homosexuality is forbidden in Islam and is illegal in the Islamic Republic.
Dressing and acting like a boy can bring other benefits, like jobs. One runaway who dressed as a boy easily got a job as an apprentice at a car repair shop in Tehran, something that would never happen if she were a girl. ”When I asked her why she cross-dressed she said she was able to be successful in the workplace as a boy,” Ms. Shirazi said. ”This is the way our society thinks about boys.”
Runaway girls — whether they dress as girls or boys — often come from dysfunctional families crippled by divorce, parental abandonment, drug or alcohol addiction, child abuse and unemployment. Understandably, the girls often suffer an acute lack of self-esteem. After Tahereh was arrested, for example, it was discovered that she had mutilated herself by making cuts on her arms. She was sent to a hospital for a psychiatrist evaluation. There, she resisted the efforts of the male psychiatrist to question her. Her legs spread, her hands securely planted on her knees, she responded to most of his questions with a hard stare. She made up addresses for herself and invented stories about her family.
Before her arrest, she had drawn a faint moustache on her face with an eyebrow pencil, covered her head with a baseball cap and obscured the shape of her body under a baggy shirt and pants. Now she was dressed in an Islamically correct headscarf and long coat. When she rolled up her sleeves, she revealed scars that covered her forearms. ”Why did you do this to your arms, my daughter?” asked the doctor. ”My nerves were shot,” she replied flatly. ”Why did you dress like a boy?” ”I was more comfortable like this,” she said. ”No one bothered me. I wouldn’t have been able to survive in women’s dress. I would have been finished by now.”
The doctor explained that she would have to undergo some blood tests, a standard procedure in such cases to rule out transsexuality. There are no reliable figures on the number of girls disguising themselves as boys, only anecdotal reports mostly gleaned from newspapers. A recent article in the hard-line daily Kayhan reported that a barber was arrested in the city of Isfahan for cutting girls’ hair like boys’. In another case, a girl posing as a boy was discovered after she fell from a motorbike and broke her leg while trying to snatch a handbag. Only after she was undressed at the hospital did the doctors discover her gender.
Cross-dressing has become so common that the girls-as-boys phenomenon has even been inserted into films. In the movie, ”Women’s Prison,” for example, the director, Manjieh Hekmat, intertwines the stories of political prisoners, common criminals and women arrested on morals charges. Before she is executed, one political prisoner gives birth in prison to a daughter who returns to prison years later dressed like a boy. In one humorous scene, the girl, in boys’ clothes, tries to play with a child who lives in prison. ”Come to me,” she says in a girls’ voice. ”Come, come to your uncle.”
February 26, 2004
Japan refuses refugee status for gay Iranian
Tokyo – A Japanese court yesterday rejected a request for refugee status from a gay Iranian man who claimed that his homosexuality would be grounds for the death penalty if he was sent back to his homeland. It was the first case taken by a Japanese court dealing with a person who had sought refugee status citing homosexuality. The Tokyo District Court said the 40-year-old man’s sexual orientation was not grounds enough to grant refugee status. "In Iran, he has been concealing his homosexuality. Therefore, the possibility is slight that he would be persecuted at home," presiding judge Yosuke Ichimura said.
The man came to Japan in 1991 because of fears that he would be persecuted in his native country, according to court documents. The man was arrested by Japanese authorities in 2000 as an illegal immigrant, the documents said. Various international organisations, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, have asked Japan to accept more refugees. Japan accepted 10,919 refugees between 1975 and 2000, according to foreign ministry figures, equivalent to less than 437 people a year.
June 20, 2004
Ayatollah’s Hidden Gay Art To Go On Display
London – A Francis Bacon painting that spent three decades in the vaults of an Iranian museum went on display in London for the first time this weekend. The 1968 triptych, Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants, shows two naked men lying on a bed in the central panel. On one side, they are being watched by a naked man in a chair with a flapping bird. On the other, they are being watched by a monkey and a seated man wearing a suit.
The triptych is on loan from Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art to the Tate Britain gallery in central London, where it will be shown with other Bacon works for six months. It is one of scores of original paintings and sculptures by masters such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and Auguste Renoir that were ordered collected for Iran by the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his wife, Farah Diba, during the oil boom of the 1970s.
They were locked away at the Museum of Contemporary Art after the shah was overthrown in 1979, on orders from the Ayatolloh who proclaimed the art profane. For years, the collection remained in the museum’s basement vaults, the Ayatolloh’s secret collection of erotic art. Those restrictions now are being relaxed, and the Tate said Friday that Bacon’s explicit Two Figures painting will be shown to the Iranian public for the first time when it returns to Tehran.
Bacon was born in Dublin and moved to London as a teenager. The flamboyantly gay, hard-drinking Bacon was heavily influenced at first by Picasso, then by the surrealist movement that flourished in Germany and France after the First World War. By the time he died in Madrid in 1992 at the age of 82, Bacon was considered a major British artist of the 20th century, and his paintings have been exhibited around the world. The Iranian museum also includes works by Kandinsky, Monet, Pissarro, Braque, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pollock and pop art icon Andy Warhol, some of which also have been loaned to museums in Europe since the late 1990s.
August 2, 2004
As Repression Lifts, More Iranians Change Their Sex:
Maryam Hatoon Molkara, who was formerly a man known as Fereydoon, was an early campaigner for the rights of transsexuals in Iran.
by Nazli Fathi
Tehran – Everything about Amir appears masculine: his broad chest, muscled arms, the dark full beard and deep voice. But, in fact, Amir was a woman until four years ago, when, at the age of 25, he underwent the first of a series of operations that would change his life. Since then he has had 20 surgical procedures and expects another 4. And Amir, who as a woman was married twice to men – his second husband helped with the transition and remains a good friend – is now engaged to marry a woman.
" I love my life and I’m happy, as long as no one knows about my past identity," said Amir, who asked that his full name not be published. "No one has been more helpful than the judge, who was a cleric and issued the permit for my operation." After decades of repression, the Islamic government is recognizing that some people want to change their sex, and allowing them to have operations and obtain new birth certificates.
Before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there was no particular policy regarding transsexuals. Iranians with the inclination, means and connections could obtain the necessary medical treatment and new identity documents. The new religious government, however, classed transsexuals and transvestites with gays and lesbians, who were condemned by Islam and faced the punishment of lashing under Iran’s penal code. But these days, Iran’s Muslim clerics, who dominate the judiciary, are considerably better informed about transsexuality. Some clerics now even recommend sex-change operations to those who are troubled about their gender. The issue was discussed at a conference in Tehran in June that drew officials from other Persian Gulf countries.
One cleric, Muhammad Reza Kariminia, is writing his thesis on transsexuality at the religious seminary of Qum. " All the clerics and researchers at the seminary encouraged me to work on the subject," he said in an interview. "They said that my research can help change the social stigma attached to these people and clarify religious decrees on the matter." One early campaigner for transsexual rights is Maryam Hatoon Molkara, who was formerly a man known as Fereydoon. Before the revolution, under the shah, he had longed to become a woman but could not afford surgery. Furthermore, he wanted religious guidance. In 1978, he wrote to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was to become the leader of the revolution but was still in exile, explaining his situation.
The ayatollah replied that his case was different from that of a homosexual and therefore he had his blessing. However, the revolution intervened and men like himself or those who had already changed their sex were harassed, even jailed and tortured. "They made me stop wearing women’s clothes, which I had worn for many years and was used to," Ms. Molkara recalled. "It was like torture for me. They even made me take hormones to look like a man.”
It took him eight years after the revolution, in 1986, to get government permission to proceed with surgery. But he could not afford the surgery and did not have it until 1997, when he underwent a sex-change operation in Bangkok. The Iranian government covered the expenses. Four years ago, Ms. Molkara established an organization to help those with gender-identity problems. Co-founders include Ali Razini, head of the Special Court of Clergy, a branch of the judiciary that only deals with clerics, and Zahra Shojai, Iran’s vice president for women’s affairs. An Islamic philanthropic group known as the Imam Khomeini Charity Foundation has agreed to provide loans equivalent to about $1,200 to help pay for sex-change surgery.
To obtain legal permission for sex-change operations and new birth certificates, applicants must provide medical proof of gender-identity disorder. The process can take years. It also involves considerable expense. In Tehran, the initial male-to-female surgery runs about $4,000. So far, Amir has spent $12,000 on medical procedures.
The people who pursue this route come from many different backgrounds. Dr. Bahram Mir-djalali, one of Tehran’s few sex-reassignment surgeons, said one of his patients had been a member of the Revolutionary Guards who served five years in the war with Iraq. His operation was paid for by a Muslim cleric he had worked for as a secretary. After the surgery, the man-turned-woman divorced, and then married the cleric. " When she came to see me years later, she was wearing a chador," the doctor recalled, referring to the black head-to-toe garb worn by religious women. "She took off the chador, and there was no sign of the bearded man I had operated on." But many who cannot deal with the legal and financial obstacles to a surgical solution have to deal with humiliation in their daily lives.
One 27-year-old man said he ran away from home at the age of 14 because he did not dare tell his family of his urge to become a woman. He wants to be known as Susan and wears women’s clothes at home but only emerges dressed that way at night. He says the constant need for secrecy has left him severely depressed, and he has attempted suicide several times. " I have suffered all my life,” he said, constantly adjusting his long curly hair to cover his sideburns. "People treat me as though I have come from Mars. Women pull my hair and laugh at me on the street. Most men I am attracted to reject me." In a society where men enjoy a higher status than women, the stigma against any man who wants to be a woman is especially strong.
" They compliment a girl who behaves and dresses like a man as a strong person, but they look down at us and despise us," said Assal, who was disowned by her father for having surgery to become a woman. Dr. Mir-djalali said he had to fight on many fronts to help more than 200 patients who had consulted him in the 12 years he had performed sex-change operations. Even if Iran’s Muslim clerics are more understanding now of transsexuals’ needs, others lag behind.
" We have a problem even deciding at which hospital to do the surgery because society considers these people deviant," he said. "Hospital officials have reacted negatively because they say other patients do not like the looks of my patients." He said one patient’s father pulled a knife on him in his office, and threatened to kill him if he touched his son. "What we really need to help these people,” Dr. Mir-djalali said, "is a serious cultural campaign."
October 1, 2004
Iran’s transsexuals get Islamic approval, but face tough times at home
by Aresu Eqbali, Agence France Presse
Tehran – Javad says he never felt quite right in his body, and for the past two years he has risked having his "arms and legs broken" by a family that refuses to accept his efforts to sort the problem out. " I’d rather die than stay like this," said Javad, a fresh-faced young man who would rather be called "Hasti," a feminine name meaning "existence." The idea of a man wanting to become a woman, or vice-versa, is something of a taboo the world over. And Islamic Iran – with its conservative values and male-dominated make-up – is no exception.
Transsexuals face rejection and mockery in whatever state of gender they are in, and more often than not are simply branded homosexual – a criminal offence in Iran where the law allows for persistent offenders to be punished with death. But perhaps surprisingly in Iran, there now exists an accepted and religiously approved procedure for those wanting to change their sex – illustrated by the ticket to femininity Javad now proudly brandishes.
" A sex change operation for Javad D., 27, due to a disorder of gender identity, is authorized," states the permit from a doctor in the state medical office. And once several years of painful operations and hormone treatments are completed, Javad will also be able to start his new life as a "she" with an officially changed birth certificate and national identity card. The state health organization may also subsidise his operations. Hessam A. Khatir, a 76-year-old Tehran-based plastic surgeon, said a complete female to male operation costs up to $7,500 and a male to female op up to $3,700.
According to campaigners for the rights of transsexuals in the Islamic Republic, the first Iranian Shiite cleric to give the green light for such operations was none other than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, before he became the father of the Islamic regime.
Shiite Muslim clerics pride themselves on their willingness and ability to tackle a range of problems, and one such theologian from Iran’s religious nerve centre of Qom is even writing a thesis on transsexuality and how it fits in with the Sharia, or Islamic law.
" Teachers, colleagues and officials from the judiciary have been very encouraging towards my thesis on the legal-Sharia issues related to sex changes," Mohammad Mahdi Kariminia told AFP. " We have to differentiate between sex changes and homosexuality. If we say patients can change their sex, it should not be understood that we are authorizing homosexuality," Kariminia stressed. Instead, Kariminia’s thesis is dealing with issues such as whether the permission of a spouse is needed for an operation, what financial arrangements apply to divorce cases where one member of the couple changes sex, and do inheritance rights change along with the sex.
But while clearly sympathetic to those suffering from gender disorders, Kariminia acknowledges that he is under pressure from what is still a deeply conservative society – even where nose jobs and other forms of cosmetic surgery are something of a craze among the wealthy. " A very religious mother was in tears when she told me her 28-year-old son had become ‘something between a man and woman,’" the cleric recounted. " She was trying to persuade me to question in my thesis why there should be so much freedom allowing young people to get a sex-change permit."
Patients have also faced discrimination in medical circles. " There was an anaesthetist, who had even lived in Massachusetts, who was reluctant to touch these patients," recounted Bahram Mir-Jalali, a 65-year-old doctor who over the past 20 years has performed some 210 sex change operations. " Authorities of one hospital stopped me visiting my patients there because of the hospital’s image. My assistants were also harassed," he added, explaining that some would-be women are so frustrated with some doctors that they finish up cutting off their own organs and turning up as emergency cases.
But some of those who have gone through a change from being a woman to a man have found a much easier time gaining acceptance – as opposed to many male-to-female transsexuals who have cut off all contact with their past life. One man, who until six years ago was a woman, and who asked to be identified only as A., said his parents eventually accepted his gender difficulties and that he is now engaged to be married to a girl from his neighbourhood.
" It’s a male-dominated society, and becoming a man is not very difficult: you change your ID, while speaking in a husky voice, having a burly appearance and growing a moustache and beard come with the hormones," explained the 37-year-old, who has gained some wispy facial hair but still has a petite figure. " The parents of my fiance were shocked when I proposed to their daughter. They had already seen me dressed and covered up as a woman," A. added, but shrugged off any stigma. " If cancer is not a shameful disease, why should transsexuality be?"