Iran is among the few countries in the world where gays still risk execution for their sexual orientation. But Iran's gay community has succeeded in carving out greater space for itself in recent years and gaining some important social recognition. Through online activism, publishing poetry, literature and artwork online, and engaging with global gay culture through television and the internet, gay Iranians are coming of age, despite the myriad of restrictions they still face in Iranian society and at the hands of the state. Mehdi Hamzad is young gay man in his early thirties who has recently finished higher education; he lives in Tehran, and has braved coming out to his friends, though not to his family. We spoke to him about what life is like these days for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Iranians, and whether it is even possible to live a fulfilled, secure life as a gay person in a country such as Iran:
Over the past couple of months, European and American gays and lesbians have secured some important legal rights. A federal anti-gay law was overturned in the United States, and in Britain gay marriage has became legal. What is the situation with Iranian homosexuals right now? Can one be homosexual in Iran and still enjoy life?
Yes, it’s possible. Under the current circumstances, Iranian youth, whether gay or straight, face many different obstacles, some of which have to do with the regime (social restrictions and ideological and political pressure or the economic situation), and some to do with public culture (a lack of acceptance of different lifestyles and closed, traditional thinking). I feel those who have remained in Iran have grown a thicker skin over these years, and have had to learn how to be flexible and deal with the obstacles, and where to fight them, in order to ultimately enjoy their lives more and more. The problems homosexuals face are not that much more complex or intense than what the rest of the people have to deal with.
What are the biggest challenges and problems of a homosexual’s life in Iran? Which poses the most pressure— society, the regime, or family and friends?
For me, the main problem is society. I always feel threatened by the regime, and there is always a probability that the situation will get even worse for minorities, but one does not feel pressure from the regime in daily life. As far as family is concerned, I have been living independently for several years and have no problems with my family other than to having to explain time to time the reasons why I haven't gotten married. The situation with my friends is the best, as they are either homosexuals themselves, or have accepted homosexuality and feel comfortable with me in this respect. But society is always an issue; discriminating, ignorant, and righteous attitudes are a part of the culture and life of the people and it is not going to be fixed anytime soon. There will always be interactions among co-workers, people on the street and in the bazaar, and in gatherings that will have traces of homophobia in them, and which will create an unwanted distance between a homosexual and his environment.
When did you accept yourself as a homosexual? Was it easy for you to accept yourself or did you struggle? How honest do you think other homosexuals in Iran are with themselves?
I was about 20 when I made peace with my sexual orientation openly and with self-awareness, and accepted it as a part of my character and life and not an accidental or external thing. It was probably not an easy thing, but right now I don’t have any particular memories of that time or the time it took to reach this level of acceptance. I mean I don’t remember any particular struggle or strong memories. With all the media attention around this subject (especially online, satellite television programs, and foreign films and series), homosexuals make peace with themselves rather quickly and relatively easily, but there are problems, too. One major problem is the traditional and religious upbringing of the society, and the patriarchal state propaganda that alienates homosexuals and causes acceptance of homosexuality to take a lot of time and energy. Homosexuals who live in small towns, in more insular environments, and those who come from lower social levels and don’t have sufficient avenues for accessing information and finding others with similar characteristics, or finding a more accurate understanding about themselves, face other problems.
With all the problems in Iran, are you able to lead a normal life? Do your friends know that you are gay? How did they react when they found out? Do you have a partner? Have you subconsciously made peace with your homosexuality in Iran, or are you constantly aware of your homosexuality?
I believe considering the standards and minimum conditions, we can’t really call life in Iran as “normal,” but compared to the living conditions of other people and the satisfaction levels in the country, yes, I have a relatively normal life. Almost all my close heterosexual friends know that I’m gay. Those who have known about my homosexuality from the beginning, and those who learned about it later, have approached it with acceptance and support. Over the past years, I have had two partners, both of whom have left Iran—one in 2009 and the other in May of this year. I don’t have a partner right now. In dealing with myself, I have fully accepted my homosexuality, but dealing with the outside world, with people and the society, I am always led to circumstances where I am willingly or unwillingly reminded of my homosexuality.
How does homophobia manifest itself in Iran? How homophobic are the people around you, and how has the situation changed during the recent years?
[I see homophobia] in jokes, conversations, socializing, or judgments, which often refer to homosexuals in degrading, insulting, comical, pathetic, disgusting, or immoral ways. All the homosexuals I know face many instances of homophobia on a daily basis. In my opinion, there are two ways to reduce this homophobia: for people to see more and more homosexuals around themselves as citizens, and to find more awareness about sexual orientation. Of course the decline of patriarchy and sexual discrimination has definitely been helpful. During the recent years, say, as compared to ten years ago, things have improved a lot; we can see that public expressions of opinion (even opposing opinions) involve a lot more analysis and reason, and taboos seem to be dissolving, as compared to before.
What types of questions did those around you ask as you were coming out?
Some of the questions they asked me after I came out were: Do gay men have love affairs, too, or is this just about sexual relationships? How can you be sure that you are a homosexual? You have never had any relationships with the opposite sex. How can you be sure that you are gay?Where and how do you find people like yourselves? To what extent is homosexuality acquired? Is homosexuality treatable? Have you ever thought of getting treatment? When did you realize you were gay? Do your family know? What would be their reaction if they find out? Don’t some people say they are gay to pretend to be intellectuals? Why aren’t homosexuals seen in the society? How come you told me about your homosexuality?
How do you answer those friends and acquaintances who mistakenly tell you that homosexuality is not natural, and that even animals don’t do it this way because it does not lead to procreation?
This is a very extensive subject. There are many scientific sources that indicate that homosexuality exists among animals, too, and that it is considered “natural.” But another issue is whether what is not normal is necessarily bad, or immoral, or inhumane. When comparing the lives of humans and animals, many examples could be presented to reject this. Additionally, human relations (of which sex is a component) are not necessarily always for procreation. Feelings of love, enjoyment, freedom, and satisfaction are things that are achieved in relationships, but which do not necessarily lead to procreation; whether the relationship is between a man and a woman, between two women, or between two men.
How do the Iranian intellectuals view homosexuality?
There are many different views and divergences. There are those like [Islamic philosopher Abdolkarim] Soroush, who haven’t yet thought about homosexuality; there are those like the [progressive theologian-cleric Mohsen] Kadivar who, if we consider him an intellectual, support Islamic punishment against homosexuality, and others like Akbar Ganji, Ramin Jahanbegloo, Arash Naraghi, and others who defend the rights of homosexuals. In Iran you don’t really hear a peep out of anyone about this. Overall you can feel that the different issues of homosexuals have no space in the minds of most intellectuals and they see no reason to pay attention to it. But it’s fair to say that as we go forward, there are more voices and sensitivity out there.
Beyond their external problems, what are the internal problems that Iranian homosexuals face? Is there discrimination between the passive and the active partner?
Discrimination between the active and the passive partners, opposing transsexuals, misogyny, internalized homophobia, a traditional and biased view towards two people’s relationship, lack of sufficient emotional maturity, and over-emotionalism are some of the things that can more or less be seen among homosexuals. The first reason for this is the foundation and environment within which we've grown up and continue to grow. Sometimes the intense pressure the homosexual experiences over time pushes him on a path where he may lack sufficient strength and patience to continually evaluate himself and to rationally manage his relationships.
What do homosexuals in Iran fear the most?
They fear that, unwillingly, they could be outed to the people around them and the potential headache that could ensue, of getting singled out and treated in degrading ways, of being left alone, of being rejected or abandoned in an emotional relationship, of life growing intolerable in Iran. Most of such fears have no remedy, and in small or large doses, they are intertwined with the psyche of most homosexuals. But if one tries to keep his eyes open and remain true to himself to the extent possible, and to create a supportive and accepting circle around himself, to have his own joys and happiness, and at the same time to pursue his personal and professional life carefully, the fears would subside or at least become more tolerable.
How aware are Iranian homosexuals about health risks and precautions such as having sex with condoms and the risk of HIV/AIDS?
I know more about the people who are around me and who have lifestyles close to mine, and I know that their awareness about issues of hygiene, medical information, and sexual relations is at a good, rational level; but still, we have a ways to go before reaching the ideal situation. There is no official dissemination of information for homosexuals and the only way to reach awareness about such issues is doing personal research, talking to other homosexuals, and occasionally getting professional counseling.
What kinds of psychological and mental problems does an Iranian homosexual face when she is forced to hide her real self in society and among her family?
When you live for many years with Iranian homosexuals, you will learn that there is no shortage of depression, dissatisfaction, psychological tension, and even attempted suicide among them. The continual concealment can lead to isolation and feelings of dissatisfaction with oneself among minorities. The other issue is the emotional problems of homosexuals, who cannot share their joy and sadness with their family and friends the way they like. Even with all this, overall, we can’t call the circumstances and the emotional state of Iranian homosexuals as bleak and disappointing.
You've had the chance to observe gay life outside Iran. What differences do you see between how Iranian gays' and lesbians' experience of life?
Homosexuals in Iran have a different set of thoughts and concerns, things that would be meaningless to those who live in a more open and advanced society. This is why we can guess that homosexuals who live in other countries may feel more cheerful, freer, and have more fun. At the same time there is more social acceptance and respect for other minorities in these countries and in most of them there are varying degrees of legal mechanisms for support of homosexuals and observation of their rights.
What are your wishes for Iranian homosexuals?
I hope all people find deeper and more real awareness, more understanding of the different ways of thinking, beliefs, lifestyles, and all human issues; this is the way everyone’s quality of life improves.
What are your recommendations for those who still see homosexuality as an inauspicious and abnormal phenomenon?
I would recommend that they not view their own thinking as absolute and to prepare themselves for accepting all reasoning and realities which perhaps opposes their previous thinking, and before making any judgment, to look for sufficient information and knowledge about the subject they are judging.
In the middle of the fierce confrontation of political activists with the regime, many believe that this is not the appropriate time to be raising the demands of homosexuals. How do you see this contention?
Prioritization of demands and dropping one because the others are more important is the first sign of suppression. It is not possible to ignore other demands because one demand has a higher priority. Whoever has a demand must be heard. It would be meaningless and stupid if we all become one voice and demand one thing and later (when will this “later” be?) go to the next demand. For example, should all political prisoners be freed first before we tackle the compulsory hejab? And once we have accomplished elective hejab, can we then talk about gay rights?
What is important is that if some demands are not our priority, we mustn’t refuse or suppress them; we must allow all voices to be heard and those who have similar concerns can join in that voice. It is not necessary for all of us to talk or take action about the rights of Baha’is or homosexuals; but if someone has something to say or wishes to take a step, we should all support him or her.
This article was originally published in August 2013