Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Iranian president, once declared to the world: “in Iran, we don’t have homosexuals. In Iran we don’t have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you we have it.” At the time, Ahmadinejad’s remarks at Columbia University were met with much laughter and criticism. However, his claim is not far from the truth.
This narrative is reflexive and representative of the state’s policies and practices that do not support a homosexual ‘subject’. Conversely, despite how this subject is named, same-sex relationships have historically existed and continue to persist even in today’s toxic environment, though silenced and under-recognized. This is because every cultural apparatus, from family to society to government, deny their sexual identity and human rights. In other words, the Iranian queer’s fight for survival, liberty, and dignity begins first and foremost as a struggle for acknowledgement and existence.
Iranian queers are often surrounded by friends and family who encourage and enforce heteronormativity; subjected to a social contract that largely supports the homophobic Sharia law, they are victims of judicial proceedings that prosecute and convict them because of their sexual orientation. The true lives of queer Iranians are readily hidden, sheltered, or censored from public appearances. It is almost as if they do not exist.
Makwan Moloudzadeh’s bitter trial and execution is testament to this harsh reality, one that Amnesty International deemed “a mockery of justice.” Makwan had been found guilty of multiple counts of anal rape, allegedly committed when he was only 13 years old. The alleged victims in his case later withdrew their testimony, claiming to have lied under duress. Makwan also informed the court that his confession had been coerced, and pleaded not guilty. Most importantly, Makwan was only a minor and under Article 49 of the Iranian Penal Code, minors (“those who have not yet reached maturity [puberty] as defined by Islamic Law”) are exempt from criminal responsibility.
Nevertheless, according to Article 120 of the Penal Code, in cases of anal sex between men, the judge “can make his judgment according to his knowledge which is obtained through conventional methods.” Accordingly, the judge relied on his discretionary powers under this article to rule that Makwan could be tried as an adult. Both the Seventh District Criminal Court of Kermanshah, and later the Iranian Supreme Court, found him guilty, and ordered his execution. Makwan was executed in Kermanshah’s Central Prison on December 5, 2007, in the absence of medical evidence testifying to his state of maturity at the time of the crime, and in spite of widespread international uproar. Makwan was invisible throughout the proceedings to those who turned on him, to the prosecutor, to the executor, and most significantly, to the society and the status quo that stood idly by and witnessed it all.
Queer Iranians live in an atmosphere of uncertainty, peril, and pressure. There are various factors that contribute to their inhumane living conditions. First and foremost, the religious and patriarchal elements characteristic of the present Iranian republic view homosexuality as something to be feared and controlled. Moreover, the Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based on strict Sharia law that reserve some of the harshest penalties for those convicted of same-sex sexual conduct. Furthermore, queers in Iran may face arrest as well as physical and sexual assault during detention, summary prosecution, and corporal punishment due to their consensual same-sex acts. Finally, familial and societal pressures to be other than themselves deprive Iranian queers of their dignity, leaving them stranded and invisible in stark vulnerability.
The Penal Code Against Homosexual Acts in Iran
In Iran, the Penal Code proscribes same-sex sexual expression and imposes harsh sentences. A man found guilty of kissing another man “with lascivious intent” is punishable “by up to 60 lashes of the whip” (Article 124). Likewise, Tafkhiz—non-penetrative sex—and other sexual behavior between two men are punishable by 100 lashes to each partner. Four convictions of Tafkhiz may lead to the death penalty (as does sexual “penetration”). The Penal Code further stipulates that “if two men, unrelated to one another, lie, without necessity, naked under the same cover, they will each be punished by up to 99 lashes of the whip” (Article 123).
It is important to note that there are many negative repercussions of the “morality laws” in Iran. Moreover, the rigorous enforcement of the laws results in disproportionate harm to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI) in Iran in comparison to laws that apply to Iranians more generally. Sexual minorities are singled out for such treatment and for the deprivation of their human rights.
This is a brief summary of the discriminatory penal code that is regularly and rigorously enforced. As recently as May 2012, an Iranian court sentenced four men—Saadat Arefi, Vahid Akbari, Javid Akbari and Houshmand Akbari—to death by hanging for sodomy. There are two important issues in this case, as pointed out by London-based lawyer Mehri Jafari: the location of the alleged occurrence and the interpretation of the law, which requires a strict Sharia punishment. The Kohkiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad provinces of Iran are two of the country’s most undeveloped, and it is obvious that a lack of access to lawyers and a fair trial is a serious issue in this case. After this announcement, it is very likely that the execution will be carried out soon, and the remote location makes it difficult to exert any external influence on the process.
Regarding access to lawyers, it is worth recalling that judges are enabled to bear in mind their own view of facts regardless of any defense. They may also consider confessions extracted through coercion that would be excluded from court proceedings in most jurisdictions. Presence of informed legal counsel, a right in such jurisdictions, is therefore not always supportive of human rights as a result.
The law is equally punishing for Iranian lesbians. According to Articles 129 and 131, the punishment for mosaheqeh—sexual relations between two females—is 100 lashes for each partner for the first three offenses, and the death penalty for the fourth. According to a report by Amnesty International, the Iranian Supreme Court issued a quick verdict of execution for Atefeh Rajabi Sahaaleh, a 16-year-old woman who had confessed to her crime for the fourth conviction of mosaheqeh. Based on eyewitness accounts, “as Atefeh was taken to the crane for execution, she repeatedly asked Allah for forgiveness…When asked later why [the] case was rushed, [the judge] was reported to have said that, in his opinion, there was too much ‘immorality’ in Neka,” Atefeh’s hometown. The case of Atefeh illustrates the complete discretion conferred to judges in Iranian courts to disregard rules of evidence and render decisions based on personal attitudes towards homosexuality.
This is not an isolated incident. Human rights campaigners report that over 4000 members of sexual minorities (LGBTQI) have been executed from when the Ayatollahs seized power in 1979 to the year 2000. However, it is estimated that the number and frequency of executions is much higher, due to the fact that queer Iranians are often condemned under the charges of rape, acting against national security, or other fabricated charges in order to “justify” their criminality when proof of sexual acts cannot be found. These camouflaged charges allow the Iranian government to conceal the punishment of queer citizens, thereby continuing to curtail sexual minorities’ rights to life and security as well as obscuring the circumstances surrounding their executions from reports.
Furthermore, people charged with sexual crimes often endure summary trials that do not adhere to principles of fairness. In “morality” cases, such as those aforementioned, the stringent standards of evidence are likely to be flouted by the judiciary in the name of protecting cultural and religious standards. For example, according to Article 117 of the Penal Code, “the witnesses of four just men who have observed the act proves the crime of sodomy.” Given that judges may draw from their own views of circumstances, this provision opens the way to slander and rumormongering.
The Invisible Penal Code Against Homosexual Acts
LGBTQI Iranians have also reported that physical and psychological abuse during detention—including the threat and use of torture—have been used in order to extract confessions of homosexual conduct to be adduced in Iranian criminal trials. In 2002, Iran’s Guardian Council of the Constitution—a committee of 12 senior clerics who oversee all judicial, governmental, and parliamentary legislation—vetoed a bill passed by the Iranian parliament that would put limits on practicing torture and presenting confessions obtained from it in judicial proceedings. Though this may seem like an improvement, the proposed bill also stated that political dissidents and homosexuals were exempt from the proposed limits on torture. With that bill, the Iranian government clearly acknowledged that protection against torture should be provided, but that sexual minorities do not deserve such fundamental legal protection.
A Human Rights Watch report documents instances in which police and the militia have allegedly physically and sexually assaulted individuals before obtaining an arrest warrant. Several of those interviewed spoke of how they had been sexually assaulted or raped during detention. A July 2012 email from Ahmad, a queer Iranian who currently lives in Canada, to the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR), clearly lays out the consequences for being arrested for being gay in Iran. He was arrested at a gay birthday party in Iran by the basij (militia), was then taken to a police station, and raped in the detention center. Afterwards, he was told that he could enjoy his life from now on as a “faggot.” Three months later, when trying to donate blood, he discovered that he had contracted HIV during this ordeal.
Farshid, another queer Iranian interviewed by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), also vividly recalls his rape by two members of the militia. He was initially arrested under the pretext that what he was wearing was considered “inappropriate” clothing by the militia. He was eventually taken to an unknown residential apartment where he was severely beaten and raped by two senior officers.
Unsafe Handling: Sex Reassignment Procedures
Numerous LGBTQI Iranians are also forced to undergo medical and psychological treatment under the pretext of curing their same-sex sexual orientation. During interviews with Human Rights Watch, individuals described how their families had sought the intervention of a variety of health care providers such as family practitioners, gynecologists, neurologists, and psychologists. These individuals recounted a process that was psychologically and at times physically abusive in the sense of the denial of freedom to decide on matters bearing on their sexuality, and of pressures to undergo extensive or invasive treatment to change that sexuality.
To illustrate, some Iranians reported how their parents had taken them to sexologists and psychiatrists who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of sexual and gender issues. Treatment options varied depending on the diagnosis of the symptoms: psychological counseling, drug therapy, etc. There have been cases where lesbians required hospitalization after being prescribed dangerous medication typically given to patients with serious mental illnesses.
Such cases of mistreatment may be seen as culminating in a medical recommendation for sex reassignment surgery and the accompanying hormonal drug therapy. Gay Star News reports that in less than four years, from 2006 to 2010, over 1,360 gender reassignment operations were performed in Iran. These operations almost invariably lead to serious physical complications, depression, and in some cases, suicide.
Certain cases have shown sex reassignment to be inappropriate as an alternative to prohibited sexual orientations, and has worsened the circumstances of those who have undergone the treatment, as it makes them think that their situation will improve. This is especially the case when factors such as familial and societal pressures the are main reasons for the reassignment, and not the decision of the individual herself or himself. Government pressures are another factor, given the probation on homosexuality and official encouragement (though not real support) of sex reassignment.
Where sexual orientation remains the same, for example, the individual may find her choice of sexual partners rejected by family and friends, in spite of the sex reassignment. For example, Anahita, a male-to-female transgender Iranian, deals with a family who is not accepting of her new gender identity. Although she is now engaged to her boyfriend, her brother continues to refuse to identify her as his sister. “They pray for me to die soon. If I’d known that my family would truly shun me like this, I would never have done it.”
Publishing and Media: A History of Censorship
Positive dialogue or images of LGBTQI Iranians can rarely be found in state-controlled media outlets. This reinforces widespread ignorance and prejudice against minority sexualities, creating a national population that avoids or neglects the issues that lead to and reinforce discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. A lack of information, and, more importantly, the fear of talking about social phenomena, result in negligent people and negligent experts. Today, in Iran, there is complete silence about homosexuality in official media.
This taboo on homosexuality extends beyond the news media and pervades the publishing world. On June 8, 2012, government officials ordered the permanent closure of a renowned and respected Tehran publishing house, Cheshmeh. The government originally justified the decision by stating that some of the content published by this outlet was offensive to religious tenets. However, on June 22, a high-ranking Iranian official was quoted as saying that the publishing house was also accused of disseminating content “promoting homosexuality, incest, and immoral sexual relations.” He went on to declare that, “even the censorship officers were ashamed to review the books.”
Hossen Alizadeh, a representative of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, interprets the recent closure of Cheshmeh as an example of “how the sodomy law and anti-LGBTQI hysteria harm the entire society, including intellectuals and members of civil society who are simply interested in examining the issue of homosexuality.” Gorji Marzban, an activist and chair of the Austria-based Oriental Queer Organization, also points out that, “there is not even one single book in Iran published about homosexual relationships.” A gay Iranian poet also notes that, “alternative literature is censored by the Ministry of Culture and Guidance, but gay literature is prohibited from even being sent to the Ministry; we are non-existent, even in literature.”
In another instance, Shahed Baazi in Iran’s Literature by Doctor Cyrus Shamisa was ordered off the shelves—despite being initially approved—because it named certain notable Persian authors as homosexuals or bisexuals. The homophobic Iranian censorship machine is both systematic and totalitarian.
A Discriminating Hand with Many Heads
The religious fundamentalism that characterizes the attitude of the Iranian judiciary toward homosexuality is longstanding. To contextualize the strict upholding of such judiciary practices, one must first consider the ideology of the Islamic Republic as it is embodied in its religious and political leaders. Within months of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the birth date of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—then the highest-ranking political and religious authority in the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Supreme Leader—called for homosexuals to be exterminated. They were to be understood as the “parasites and corruptors of the nation” who “spread the stains of wickedness.”
Even under the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami, the Islamic judiciary remained one of the bulwarks of religious conservatism in Iran, a judicial and legal status that was strengthened under the hardline rule of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In fact, the refusal of any recognition of civil rights for sexual minorities is seen as an unassailable cultural, religious, and ideological cornerstone of the state itself. As recently as January 2012, in a meeting with the head of the Human Rights Commission of the German Parliament, Doctor Mohammad Javad Larijani, the international advisor to the Iranian judiciary, referred to homosexuality as a “perversion and a form of sexual disease [that is] not acceptable” to Iranians. Consequently, any discussion of the rights of homosexuals in Iran with Western officials has been superficial and fleeting. Admittedly, nation states have always responded to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in varying degrees. Yet, Larijani’s staunch position on curtailing sexual minority rights for cultural reasons is deplorable and clearly contrary to the Declaration.
Endemic homophobia in Iran also stems from the teachings of Islam as provided in Sharia and Sunnah—Sharia is the moral code and religious law of Islam; the Sunnah is the next important source, and is commonly defined as the traditions and customs of the Prophet Mohammad. When serving as the head of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Musavi-Ardebili celebrated the “most severe punishments” as befitting the Islamic prohibition against homosexuality. While delivering a sermon at Tehran University in 1990, he remarked that Islam prescribed the most severe punishments for homosexual men and women.
When their homosexuality has been proven on the basis of Sharia, the authorities should seize them and split them in two by sword while they are standing and then cut off their head. He concluded: “they get what they deserve.”
It is evident, therefore, that the authoritative and flawed practice of justice in the cases of Makwan and Atefeh mentioned at the beginning of this piece is connected to the prevailing attitudes defining the core of Islamic Republic religiosity. It is also connected to the opposition that it continuously strives to mount as its irreconcilable exterior: homosexuality. The discrimination against sexual minorities is arguably one of the main tenets of the legal and ideological discourses of the Islamic Republic’s regime. These discourses squeeze out minority expression and make the queer community virtually invisible, if for no other reason than the absolute prohibition of the community’s very identity. The logic behind the Iranian government’s denial of the existence of homosexuals is simple: if something does not exist, it is not eligible for basic human rights. The Iranian government denies LGBTQI Iranians a voice and does its utmost to prevent them from interacting with each other or speaking out in public.
Implicit in this observation is that certain basic rights, such as freedoms of association, assembly, and speech, are conditional upon conforming to the religious and legal beliefs and codes of the Republic, or at the very least upon abstaining from expressing sexual identity and gender.
Indeed, this trend is not going towards either liberalization or the expansion of human rights for Iranian’s queer citizens. Iran’s regime, especially its Supreme Leader, is careless about all Iranian citizens, but especially queer individuals. To accept the fact that there are homosexuals in Iran is to bring all their fundamental and ideologies into question—unacceptable in such an authoritative regime. Even the most democratic and popular government officials in Iran have lines they are unwilling and unable to cross. Given this, the issue of Iranian queers seems to be permanent.
As activists for these very groups, this permanence makes our jobs harder. We have to roll up our sleeves and work with people one-on-one to change hearts and minds in hope that future generations will have the support that their forefathers did not.