Overview: LGBT People in Iran

“The most horrible thing I have ever seen.”

A former Iranian prisoner who was imprisoned on the basis of his Christian belief, and who faced torture himself, reported the following in 2015: "The most horrible thing I've ever seen, is how they treat homosexuals.  They were chained like animals, hand and feet.  Some of them spent years in solitary confinement. I myself was in solitary confinement, but never for longer than a month at a time.  Unimaginable, especially so chained! The guards kicked them worse them animals. They spat on them, yelled at, and insulted them. They were dragged to the toilet, like animals - with a dog leash. It was shocking."
In Iran, consensual homosexuality is punishable by death in men under Islamic criminal law. For women, it is punishable with 100 lashes.  Homosexuals are harassed, arbitrarily detained and mistreated. It is likely that several thousand people have already been killed solely because of their sexuality in Iran.
Living openly as a gay person is impossible in Iran; same-sex partnerships exist only in secret.  Women have even less freedom than men. They are at risk of forced marriage. If they are discovered, men and women face humiliation, abuse, arrest, torture and execution. Although part of the Iranian population has liberal views, very conservative social restrictions also exist. Particularly those who support the regime regard homosexuality as a violation of the “divine order”. 

Former Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinedschad, earned scorn and ridicule on the 27th of September in 2007 when he stated the following in New York: “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals (…) I do not know who has told you we have that.” Many commentators said that a likely reason that there are no homosexuals in Iran is that the regime has put them all to death.

Lashes for Interviews with People of Same-Sex Orientation

Obviously, there are people of same-sex orientation in Iran, and likely in similar numbers as in all other parts of the world.  Many representatives of the Islamic Republic believe that affection, partnership, love and sexuality are not private affairs. Even intimacy must take place according to the guidelines of Islamic law. Violations of these more than 1,000-year-old legislation was not only sin, but ‘crimes’ against divine right, which must be prosecuted by the state.  Anyone who questions this view, or even openly sympathizes with the gay community also faces persecution.  In response to the assertion made by the President (at the time) that homosexuality does not exist in Iran, Iranian journalist Siamak Ghaaderi interviewed several gay individuals in Iran.  He was then sentenced to 60 lashes and four years in prison for ‘propaganda against the (Islamic) regime’ and for ‘provocation’.

State Persecution

Privately, there is a slowly increasing, limited tolerance among the Iranian upper class and middle class intellectuals; however, this tolerance is primarily based on sympathy because gay people are still regarded as ‘ill’.  Among strictly religious people and traditionalists, homosexuality continues to be regarded as a sin, shameful and deserving of punishment. The leadership of the Islamic Republic has actively supported severe human rights violations against gay men and women since its founding in 1979, even though there have also been phases of great liberality in Iranian history.

In the Islamic Republic, the ideas of morality established in law are enforced by ‘moral guardians’ close the regime. Bands of the police force and of the Basidj militia who work under the Revolutionary Guards monitor compliance with “Islamic morals” and “ethics”.  First and foremost, this means that women and girls must comply with the dress code (e.g. the compulsory headscarf), and young couples cannot hold hands in public. Members of the Basidj and the Revolutionary Guard are not summoned in instances of arbitrary assault or violence.  Rather, if they suspect that someone is homosexual, the victim faces humiliation, violence, arrest and death threats as well as subsequent exclusion, mockery and other forms of humiliation. An open and free life in a same-sex partnership is unthinkable in the Islamic Republic.

Isolation, Despair & Suicide

Hence, gay men and women live in constant fear of discovery. Due to the pervasive state propaganda in schools and in the media, many young people despair at the discovery of their same-sex orientation.  They regard themselves as sick and abnormal.  They fear discovery by their families, friends, fellow students, colleagues and the regime. Therefore, many become increasingly withdrawn, become isolated, and develop depression and suicidal thoughts.

 Secrecy

In the big cities in Iran like Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz or Mashad, secret meetings and exchanges take place between gay men. Men enjoy far more freedom than women, and are less socially monitored; this allows them to create limited open spaces for themselves.  Some gay men marry to dispel the suspicion of their same-sex orientation, but secretly maintain same-sex relationships.

Lesbian women face double discrimination

The views and roles of women in the upper class and very large educated middle class are often far from the ‘Islamic’ ideal of the regime. Nevertheless, in addition to the laws of the land, large parts of Iranian society remain strongly patriarchal. In any case, girls and women in the Islamic Republic are strongly legally and socially disadvantaged.  Social control is much more heavily exercised over women than men. 

In conservative families, women are forced to marry at some point - even if she is a lesbian, and as such detests intimacy with men. A self-determined and self-reliant life is unattainable, especially for women coming from poor and strict religious families; without the support of their families, they must marry. Cases have been identified in which lesbian women have been abused and tortured by their relatives until they “consented” to marriage. For these women, marriage always means the end of a possible former same-sex relationship.

Escape

For many men and women in Iran, life becomes a living hell of humiliation and violence when their families or the authorities discover their sexual preferences.  For many victims who are still at large, escape to foreign countries is often the only option. Frequently, legal emigrations are impossible because the affected person does not have a passport (or it has been taken from them), or they were unable to get a visa, or they cannot afford the travel expenses.  An illegal departure via smugglers or traffickers is extremely expensive and thus prohibitive in most cases. Many seek asylum in neighboring Turkey. However, cases of abuse and contempt from Turkish authorities have also been exposed.  Many refugees in Turkey live in extreme poverty. Worldwide, Canada has taken an especially large number of gay Iranian refugees. Largely, this was enabled by the Canadian organization ‘Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees’.

[Website of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees …]

Transgender People: A Special Case 

Transgender people have an exceptional position in Iran. In contrast to gay individuals, they have been able to live a relatively normal life since 1987. This was made possible by the legal opinion of the “Supreme Leader” at the time, Ajatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He decided that men and women should be allowed to have an operation to change their sex. Furthermore, transgender individuals are allowed to marry after their operation. Meanwhile, Iran has the highest rate of sex changes, after Thailand.  The desire of transsexuals to have an operation is viewed as a mental and physical disorder that needs to be healed.

However, transgender people in Iran continue to face social exclusion, as they are often shunned by fellow human beings in Irian society.  Furthermore, there have been reports of torture perpetrated against transgender people in Iranian prisons.  Nevertheless, many gay men undergo the operation in order to be able to live together with their male partners afterwards.