"I was taking driving lessons, and sometimes on the way home, I'd visited a café, sometimes with a friend. One morning I went into this café on my own, and no one was there except one member of staff. At first, I liked him and we enjoyed a friendly chat. I saw him a few more times there. We became more intimate. We talked more and more... and I told him about my sexual orientation."

These are the words of Saeed, a 20-year-old gay man in Ahvaz, who has agreed to talk about the trauma of being raped in a culture where speaking out would make it all the worse. The experience, he says, has left him irreparably damaged; not just his body, but also his mind and soul. "I thought he liked me," he remembers. "I later found out that he had an intimate relationship with me just to get close to the girls I knew, the friends I usually went to the cafe with.

"A few weeks ago, it was almost midnight when I got a message from him on my phone saying that he wanted to see me late that night. Ever since, I have regretted looking at his message and messaging back. I wish I had never done it.

“He insisted I go to him, to his friend's house. I had never had sex with him. I did not trust him. It was late and I didn’t want to leave the house. He kept insisting, and then he started threatening me. He knew my address and said if I didn't go to him, he would come to my house with my friends. I was scared and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t think he would come to the house, but if he did, I wouldn’t know what to do in front of my family.”

Saeed explains his family didn’t know he was gay. He still hasn’t really told them. In the past, people had suspected, and these situations had always cost him dear. Once, his mother checked his phone and read his personal messages. She warned him that he was playing with life and death and had to stop. She threatened to kick Saeed out of the house, saying he risked harm to her and to himself. His father does not live with them and is based outside Iran, but when his mother told him what she had discovered, he said he was going to return to Iran and kill his son with his bare hands — even if it meant he would spend the rest of his life in prison.

Talking to me today, Saeed seems to have trouble breathing. He stumbles over his words. "I had to go out, of fear and the disgrace he might cause. He attacked me; it didn’t matter to him that I was a human being. It didn't matter to him that I was in pain. He was brutal. The worst part was when he whispered in my ear, cursing me, and my mother and my sister. I couldn't defend myself or resist."

Numb with shock, Saeed went on Twitter, hoping to get support. He was lucky: his followers and people he turned to listened to him, helped him, and eased his pain somewhat. Asked why he didn't inform the police, Saeed simply says that if he had, he would have been prosecuted. And of course,  his family would find out.

Saeed's rapist has since been in touch several times. Saeed does what he can to avoid him and to protect himself. "I didn’t know there was such a thing as an LGBTQ community and that my sexual orientation is a natural thing," he says. "I thought I was alone, and based on what I heard from religious people at school, I thought it was a disease that needed to be cured. I was 15 or 16 years old when I found out more about it online. I realized it is normal, and that it's my misfortune that I was born in a homophobic country and am deprived of many experiences the LGBT community enjoys in free countries."

The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses and psychiatric disorders back in 1973, and the World Health Organization removed it in 1990 after the 43rd World Health Assembly endorsed the decision. These steps followed research by social and behavioral scientists and psychologists around the world that determined that homosexuality is normal and healthy, and different sexual orientations are natural.

But in some countries, Iran included, homosexuality is considered a crime, and people can face prosecution. The country’s Islamic Penal Code provides for very severe punishments, from flogging to the death penalty, for homosexual men.

Saeed is thinking about emigrating, like the thousands of LGBT Iranians who have been forced to give up their homeland because of the way they were born. They are building new lives, bit by bit, carving out a space where they can live freely and free from judgment, discrimination and violence.

Related coverage: 

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