Fate of Gay and Lesbian People in Iran

Source: ‘Iranian LGBT and Mental Health’ - Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), December 2014

This year, the Iranian Islamic Parliament Research Center announced that 17.5% of high school students are homosexuals [1].  It is important to note that this figure was announced in the attempt to argue that temporary marriage could be possible way to end so-called “moral corruption”.  In February 2013, Gallup announced that there are between 1.7 to 10% people identifying as LGBT in different states across the U.S [2].  Gallup concluded that an average of 3.5% of the population identify as LGBT in the United States.

Considering the population of Iran is 77 million, 3.5 to 17.5% may be gay or lesbian.  Therefore, according to Iran’s laws, 2.7 to 13 million people do not have the right to live!
In light of this information, we wish to study the status of mental health of LGBT people in Iran.

Ali, now a 32-year-old gay man living in Iran, recalls that he was taken to a psychiatrist since the age of 15.  He was prescribed medications used in the treatment of schizophrenia.  He had a bad relationship with his father and faced constant humiliation from him.  In spite of all the hardships he has endured, he has succeeded in finishing his undergraduate studies, and hopes to continue his education and gain his independence.  Hootan, a 40-year-old gay man, had been accepted to study medicine; however, he chose not to attend the university because of the complications he would experience as gay man.  A number of psychiatrists had seen him, but none of them could help him to understand his same-sex orientation or to resolve his inner conflicts.  He continues to suffer from loneliness and depression, and does not look forward to his future.  Mohammadreza was 26-year-old gay man who eventually committed suicide by taking poison after years of abuse and insults by his father, because of his sexual orientation.  

Although homosexuality is not a disorder, the social pressure on gay men and women can cause tremendous difficulties for them.  In the following section, different sources of stress and pressure on people of same-sex orientation in Iran will be reviewed.  

Inner conflict and internalized homophobia

In Iran, derogatory terms are used to refer to LGBT people in order to ridicule and mock the gay and lesbian community.  This produces an especially damaging outcome for children, who tend to seek the approval of others; thus, when facing abusive and derogatory name-calling, they tend to internalize society’s negative view of same-sex orientation and may themselves become hostile to LGBT people.  If they are gay, they become afraid to accept themselves as normal and healthy human beings.  As a result, gay and lesbian people who grow up in societies like Iran tend to have serious inner conflicts when they discover their sexual preference.  They also suffer from internalized homophobia, as a defense mechanism to the hatred received from other people.  While they want to have loving relationships with people of the same sex, internalized homophobia and pervasive negative views of homosexuality can result in individuals who are very unstable in their relationships.

Hostility from Parents and Others  

Parents form their expectations based on their own hopes and dreams, instead of on their child’s abilities.  Parents expect their children to behave according to an ideal image.  When children behave differently from their parents’ expectations, parents begin to distance themselves from their children and treat them with hostility.  LGBT children might exhibit very different behaviors than those ascribed by societal gender roles.  As a result, other members of society may treat them poorly, and parents may develop an unloving attitude towards their children.  When these children and teenagers face the constant hostility of others, it causes them to wonder what is wrong with them; this negatively affects their self-image, and adds to the stress they endure.

Feeling of Guilt

Iran is a religious country in which children are exposed to religious teachings from an early age, at home, and in school.  Muslim clerics believe homosexuality is an unforgivable sin that is punishable by death.  When LGBT youth are inculcated with these ideas, they may choose to either turn away from religion, or decide that the clerics are ignorant, and reinterpret the religious texts for themselves.  However, because these teachings often become entrenched in their minds, they may continue to suffer on an unconscious level.  

The Constant Fear of the Government

Considering the anti-gay laws in Iran that allow for the mistreatment of LGBT people by state agents, they constantly live in a state of stress and anxiety, fearing  an uncertain future, and not knowing what is going to happen to them next.  This chronic fear and stress causes serious psychological damage to members of the gay community in Iran.  Many have reported developing severe depression, and suffering from insomnia, as they are afraid of having nightmares while sleeping.

Uninformed Specialists

Although same-sex sexual orientation is no longer considered a disorder, and has not been for many years, large numbers of psychologists and psychiatrists in Iran continue to consider it a disorder and try to treat it.  Such attempts at treatment include prescribing medications used in the treatment of schizophrenia, or shock therapy.   As a result, their patient suffers from irreversible psychological and physical damage.  In one case, the psychologist had told his client he should believe in god in order to be cured.  However, it is the responsibility of the specialists to be aware that their clients’ same-sex orientation is not a disorder and give them the necessary information to better understand themselves and come to terms with their sexual orientation.  When a specialist says to a gay client that they are “suffering from a disorder”, it adds to their stress level and reinforces their negative self-image.  It should be noted that even those specialists who are updated, informed, and are aware of how they should help their LGBT clients may not be able to do so out of fear of the government’s regulations and punishments.

Therefore, in Iran, gay and lesbians suffer not only from internalized homophobia and their own inner conflicts, but also face the hostility of their families and society, live in fear of government agents, and are unable to seek professional help.  As a result, they may develop depression and paranoia, suffer from lack of motivation, and become suicidal.  They may also develop psychosomatic disorders such as heart problems.  

A country’s progress depends on the mental health of its population.  In Iran, increasing political and economic problems are causing stress for the heterosexual population, but it is important to remember that the LGBT population (which makes up a large and important group in Iran) must face additional forms of trauma and stress in addition to these.  In a situation when the government does not take action to improve the mental health of the society, what are the responsibilities of the society to improve its own mental health?


1 http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2014/06/140611_hort_marriage_majlis.shtml

2 http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/research/census-lgbt-demographics-studies/gallup-lgbt-pop-feb-2013/