Wednesday, February 25, 2009
In September 0f 2007 during his visit to New York, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded to a question from a Columbia University student about the execution of homosexuals in Iran by proclaiming that Iranian homosexuals simply do not exist.
“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” he told the questioner. “In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.”
Several people have ridiculed President Ahmadinejad for his strong remarks, noting the absurdity of the idea that homosexuals exist everywhere in the world but Iran. Evidently, the confusion around his statement stems from the fact that Iranian homosexuals do not have legal rights. In Iran, homosexuals are subjected to punishment or execution. The Islamic penal code has a specific section about the punishments for homosexual “crimes.”
The Penal Code defines sodomy as “sexual intercourse with a male.” Article 110 states that the punishment for sodomy is death; it is the judge’s responsibility to decide how to carry out the killing. In the articles that follow, it clarifies that a mature man of sound mind who partakes in sodomy is subject to killing, where as an immature person will endure 74 lashes for the action.
Following the chapter about sodomy, the Penal Code discusses lesbianism. It defines lesbianism as the “homosexuality of women by genitals.” Article 129 states that the punishment for lesbianism is 100 lashes for each party. Another article adds that if the act of lesbianism is repeated three times and punishment is enforced each time, then the death sentence will be issued the fourth time.
In 2005, two teenage boys were publicly hung in Mash’had, Iran for the “crime” of homosexuality. According to a report from the Iranian Student News Association, the boys were interrogated and severely beaten in a prison for 14 months. They eventually admitted to having sex with each other and were killed.
To avoid torture and execution like the Mash’had boys, homosexuals in Iran are forced to keep their sexual identities in the closet.
“It’s not peaceful for [homosexuals in Iran]. They are living in a hard situation and their lives are at risk. They face legal and social problems but some have found out how to live an underground life,” Arsham Parsi, a homosexual Iranian said.
Jinos Sharifrazi, an attorney in Tehran, Iran, says that although partaking in homosexual acts is a crime in Iran, people commonly ignore the law. “Having a boyfriend or girlfriend in Iran is a crime, but most people still have them. Going to a party and drinking is a crime, but tons of people do it. Likewise, it is a crime to have sex with the same sex, but some do it anyway,” she said.
Parsi, from Shiraz, Iran says he knew he was gay when he was about nine years old and had sex with his male cousin. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I thought maybe I was sick, and probably had to go to the doctor, but I didn’t know which one to go to,” he said.
In an attempt to feel “normal.” Parsi tried to compensate for his differences through the Islamic religion.
“I prayed more to become a good person, a normal person. Most people prayed five times a day and I would pray ten. Other people fasted for two months and I would fast for four,” Parsi said.
At the age of 18, he fully realized his sexual orientation after receiving access to the Internet and conducting research about homosexuality. Two years later, in 2001, two of Parsi’s closest gay friends committed suicide because of the challenges they faced living in Iran as homosexuals.
“After my friends died, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it and I didn’t have any websites, references or organizations to go to. It was so awful for me. I decided to do something for the next generation of people who were born gay,” Parsi said.
He founded the Iranian Queer Railroad, an online interest group for the homosexual, bisexual transsexual populations. He operated the website, made phone calls, conducted interviews and wrote letters under a false name. One day in 2005, Parsi received a voicemail and several emails from the Iranian government, who had become aware of his activity after tracing his Internet Protocol address and phone calls. He knew he had to leave immediately before being arrested or killed. On March 4, 2004, he fled from Iran to Turkey.
Some gay Iranians, like Parsi, make the decision to openly advocate for their homosexual rights. Other homosexuals who reside in Iran choose to go about their lives, hiding their sexual identities from the public. Another portion of Iranian homosexuals prefer to have sex changes.
Sex changes have been legal in Iran ever since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution, passed a religious decree, known as a fatwa, about 25 years ago and authorized the operations to “diagnosed transsexuals.”
Iranians who wish to go through the operation must contact Iran’s Ministry of Health. They are required to meet with a panel of psychologists whose primary job is to determine whether the person is a homosexual or transsexual. Once a person is deemed to be a “true” transsexual, they can proceed with the operation.
Parsi, still the director of the IRQR and now based in Canada, explained that Iranian homosexuals who seek sex change operations may attempt to find a way to make their psychologists diagnose them as transsexual.
“I have received about 45 reports of operations in Iran where the people [who seek or have had a sex change] are not really transgender. They are gay and only want to change their sexuality for a little bit of freedom,” he said.
Bahram Mirdjalali, one of Iran’s few gender reassignment surgeons, disagrees with Parsi. “[The high number of sex changes in Iran] has nothing to do with politics, religion or any other external factors. These people are not homosexual. They are just people who are basically trapped in the wrong body,” he said through an interpreter.
He added that he believes the people who undergo sex changes have a phobia against their own gender. “If they are technically male, they are not attracted to men. But once they have an operation and become a female, they become attracted to men,” Mirdjalali said.
Mirdjalali has performed more than 600 operations over the last 12 years. He said that in a European country like France, where he was trained, he would have carried out fewer than 80 transsexual operations over the same period. Aside from Thailand, Iran carries out more sex change operations than any other country.
Mirdjalali assisted with an Iranian study about the roots of the high number of those with gender identity disorders in Iran. The study concluded that women living near the war zone during the Iran-Iraq War with three to four month gestations had a higher rate of incidents of children being born with gender identity disorders than the average population.
He said that the entire sex change process is physically painful and emotionally draining for the patient, adding that it is crucial for the patient to have the support of his or her family and close friends. “I see people going through this very tough operation and difficult post operational procedures, but once I see them smiling, it gives me such great satisfaction,” Mirdjalali said.
The Iranian government used to make note of a person’s sex change on their birth certificate, but because of Mirdjalali’s efforts to change the policy, there is now no documented trace of the operation. The person’s new gender replaces the old on the birth certificate, making it easier for transsexuals to peacefully reemerge into society.
But even though sex changes receive legal recognition in Iran, this doesn’t always equate to social and political acceptance.
“[Transsexuals are not accepted in Iran. Everyone gossips about them. People—especially old people and traditional people—think that transsexuals are bad people or criminals,” Sharifrazi said.
Bijan, a resident in Tehran, who wished not to disclose his full name, has never seen a transsexual in Iran. He doesn’t deny their presence in the country, but instead thinks that the transsexual community avoids the public whenever possible to avoid humiliation from the generally unwelcoming Iranian crowd.
“It’s very unacceptable to be [transsexual] here. A lot of people keep hidden until they can leave the country. My friend’s son wanted a sex change, but waited until he left Iran to receive one. His father was always trying to keep him away from other people because he knew the others would make fun of him for his differences,” Bijan said.
Mirdjalali also notices a lack of tolerance towards those with gender identity disorders. “Traditional families are having a hard time accepting this concept that we are operating on their kids. I often have to talk longer hours with the father or mother of the patient. A lot of parents and family members do not want to recognize that these individuals are in need of help and have gender issues,” he said.
Parsi tries to encourage Iranian homosexuals to stop resorting to sex change operations as a means to be free. “[Gay and lesbians] who are going through this process are victims of ignorance. They usually don’t have any knowledge about their rights,” he said. “Suicide rates are very high after operations and many live in a pre-suicide type of depression.”
Through his organization, Parsi offers advice to Iranian homosexuals who consider going through the surgery. He asks them to share their particular situations and talks to them about their motive for wanting a sex change.
“[From the mind of a gay man considering a sex change,] the only way he thinks he can sleep with a man is to become a woman,” Parsi said. “But these people are not transgender. They are homosexuals. Society forces them to change their sex.”
Parsi, Mirdjalali and others may disagree about the reasons for such a high number of transsexuals in Iran, but it’s impossible to deny the existence of a homosexual population in a country of approximately 70 million people.