In September 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood before an audience of college students and faculty at Columbia University and made the perverse claim that there were no homosexuals in Iran. "In Iran we do not have this phenomenon, I don't know who has told you that we have it," he said. Ahmadinejad’s comments, made in a year in which Iran had executed 200 people, homosexuals among them, made shock waves around the globe. Yet the absurdity of the official denial may also have been unintentionally salutary, spotlighting as it did the terrible plight of homosexuals in the Islamic Republic.
There is a good reason that Iran’s theocratic dictatorship denies the existence of gays inside the country. An honest acknowledgment of reality would force the authorities to acknowledge that Iranian gays are regularly marginalized, harassed, tortured, and executed. Sometimes, they are forced into gender-altering operations. Ahmadinejad’s claim also called attention to the hypocrisy of the international community on the issue of gay rights in Iran. President Ahmadinejad’s absurd claim received overwhelming disapproval, yet when Iranian homosexuals are routinely abused and lawfully executed simply for their sexual preferences, that same international community, and the "progressive" Left that claims to champion gay rights, are deafeningly silent.
More recently, hundreds of thousands of Americans protested to overturn California’s Proposition 8, the legislation introduced on the California ballot in November of 2008 limiting the definition of a legal marriage to exclude same-sex unions. The measure passed and incited protests and demonstrations across California and the rest of the nation. Homosexual couples fervently began to file lawsuits with California’s Supreme Court. Prior to election day, opponents raised $43.3 million in their campaign to turn down the proposition, making it the highest-funded campaign on any state ballot. It exceeded every campaign in the country except the presidential race.
As the progressive backlash against Prop 8 indicates, gay rights are a significant and sensitive issue for Americans, particularly on the Left. But despite passionate outbreaks by the gay community and others, Americans have been uncharacteristically uninterested in the brutal treatment of homosexuals in Iran. These advocates ardently insist that homosexuals have the right to wed, to raise children, and to live as others do, yet they turn a blind eye to the execution of gays in Iran simply for their sexual orientation.
Such executions are in fact enshrined in Iranian law, where homosexuality is punishable the death penalty. Human rights groups estimate that almost 4,000 gays have been executed since 1979, when the Islamic regime took power. Gays are arrested, beaten, tortured, and in most cases, hanged or even stoned.
Sharia, or Islamic law, the legal code applied in Iran, prohibits any type of sexual activity outside the realm of heterosexual marriage. No distinction is made between consensual and non-consensual relations nor between sexual activities conducted in private or public. Any sexual relations other than the traditional marriage between a man and woman—referring to sodomy or adultery, as we've recently seen in the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the woman sentenced to stoning for allegedly having an extra-marital affair—is punishable by death.
All sects of Islam prohibit homosexuality, calling it “a violation of the supreme will of God,” but there are varying opinions among different schools of religious jurisprudence on the punishment and proof required. In the case of homosexuals, men are punished more severely since intercourse is involved. Lesbianism is likewise prohibited, but punishment is not as harsh.
In the Qur’an, homosexuals are referred to as qaum Lut, or "the people of Lot," which alludes to the Biblical character Lot, who was sent by God to go to the land of Sodom and Gomorrah to preach to the inhabitants there against their lustful and wicked ways. Lot's warnings were ignored and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. Muslims believe the people of Lot's depravity stemmed from murder, robbery and homosexuality.
At the same time, older males experimenting with younger males has been a part of Islamic societies for centuries as a way to ease sexual temptation in a segregated society that condemns pre-marital sex. Celebrated Iranian poets have often referred to the love between men and young boys in century-old poetry.
Iran is currently one of five Muslim countries to apply capital punishment to homosexuals along with Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Sudan, and Yemen, according to the 2010 International Lesbian Gay Association’s World Legal Survey. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan also applied the death penalty, as did Sadaam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. After the collapse of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan began punishing homosexuality with fines and imprisonment. In Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Islamist militia followed the Taliban’s lead, attacking, torturing and murdering hundreds of gay men in “honor killings.”
Under the rule of the late Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, homosexuality was accepted to the extent that there was often news coverage of same-sex wedding c ceremonies. Gay rights were a popular item, and there were even some nightclubs that specifically catered to homosexual patrons. According to Janet Afary, professor of global religion and modernity at the University of California Santa Barbara, one of the critiques made about the Shah’s government, eventually leading up to the Revolution of 1979, was that it was excessively liberal on moral issues, such as homosexuality.
Today, the only way for gays to be integrated into Iranian society is to live as transsexuals. They are still marginalized and harassed, but nonetheless can live more openly in society as transgendered. Iranian gays are encouraged by the government to have sex change operations.
Shortly after the Islamic Republic took over, a fatwa, or legal decree, was issued by the late Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the leader of the Revolution, stating that gender-altering procedures were legally permissible for diagnosed "transsexuals." Homosexuals who are "diagnosed" are legally obligated to have the operation in order to fully live in Iranian society and more critically, to evade legal punishment.
Presently, Iran has one of the highest rates of sex change surgeries, second only to Thailand. The government subsidizes the surgeries and makes necessary adjustments to legalize birth certificates. According to Iran’s clerics, gender reassignment is a "cure" for homosexuality. The official view is that these medical procedures prevent social disorder that is brought about by same-sex relationships.
As bleak as life remains for gays inside Iran, President Ahmadinejad’s infamous response at Columbia University has helped Iran’s homosexuals gain support in foreign countries. There has since been an increased rate of homosexuals escaping Iran and seeking refuge in Western countries and certain heads of state are now willing to grant Iranian gays asylum.
Arsham Parsi, a 29-year-old refugee who fled Iran, founded the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR) in 2008, a non-profit group aiding Iranian gays obtain asylum in safe countries. Currently living in Toronto, Canada, Parsi, fled Iran in 2005 after his work in the field of homosexual research and advocacy alerted Islamic authorities. Currently, the IRQR is helping more than 200 gay Iranians file for refugee status.
Things may also be changing, however slowly, inside Iran. According to Parsi, gays in Iran have been empowered since the June 2009 uprising against the fraudulent presidential elections, and he remains hopeful that further progress can be made. “Change will come to Iran. I know it will,” he says. “Some day queers in Iran will have their human rights respected. They will be free to be who they are - love who they love - and not be afraid of retaliation or torture or execution. I hope to be a part of that change.”
With their struggles increasingly gaining international attention, Iran’s gays could indeed make that change a reality – even in the face of a vicious tyranny that denies their very existence and a feckless progressive Left that reinforces the regime’s brutal line with its complicit silence.