Earlier this month the international community came together to commemorate IDAAHOPI (International Day of Action Against Homophobic Persecution in Iran). Demonstrations took place from Brussels to Chicago, Tehran to Dublin, Moscow to New York, and Florida to the United Kingdom to condemn the 19 July 2005 executions of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni in the Iranian city of Mashhad. The two young men, both in their late teens, were hanged after the father of a thirteen year old boy who had sex with them charged the boys with rape by knifepoint.
Some reports indicate the charges were a smokescreen and the father of the thirteen-year-old was forced by secret police to press charges to avoid having his son be charged with the crime of sodomy. Community members also claimed that a family member reported Mahmoud and Ayaz's secret relationship to the police.
According to Peter Tatchell of OutRage!, a gay and lesbian human rights advocacy group based in the United Kingdom and a lead researcher in the case: “The execution of Mahmoud and Ayaz conforms to a pattern of state torture and murder of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people by the Iranian clerical regime. By instituting charges of kidnap and rape, the Iranian authorities apparently hope to discredit the victims, discourage public protests and deflect international condemnation. They calculate that there will be little Iranian or international sympathy for people hanged for crimes like abduction and sexual assault.”
Although recent events have placed Amhadinejad and Bush on opposite sides of the fence, the one sure thing they agree on is their campaign to clampdown on the gay and lesbian community. In January this year, Human Rights Watch issued a report condemning the United Nations ban initiated by the Iranian government and strongly supported by the U.S. to stop gay and lesbian groups from gaining consultative status at the United Nations.
In May 2005, the International Lesbian and Gay Association, which is based in Brussels, and the Danish gay rights group Landsforeningen for Bøsser og Lesbiske (LBL) applied for consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council. Iran initiated the opposition and the U.S. abstained on a vote that would have enabled the applicants to present their case. The U.S. then voted to reject their applications. Human Rights Watch and nearly fifty other organizations supporting LGBT rights sent a joint letter to Condoleeza Rice demanding immediate action. Scott Long, Director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch stated, “This vote is an aggressive assault by the U.S. government on the right of sexual minorities to be heard. It is astonishing that the Bush administration would align itself with countries like Iran in a coalition of the homophobic.”
Lavaat (sodomy) is considered a crime punishable by death as written in the Iranian penal cde. Lesbianism is punishable by 100 lashes. If the act of lesbianism is continued, the death penalty can apply on the fourth occasion under articles 127, 129 and 130. In some cases, women having relations with other women are forced into mental hospitals, beaten by family members or become victims of honor killings.
Under the auspice of Islamic jurisprudence, the Iranian Office of Promotion and Prohibition of Vice is saddled with the responsibility of repressing moral deviance within the Islamic Republic and has been the main persecutor in these sex crime allegations. The warden of good vs. evil, the Office was created as a draconian arm of the Islamic Republic to monitor the public and private activities of Iranians and to ensure moral respectability under Sharia law. The Office has responded swiftly and since 2003, toughened up its death penalty laws, increased public hangings this past year, and opted to uproot all gay underground activities with the intention to sexually sterilize Iranian society.
I spoke with Doug Ireland, a tireless advocate of gay rights in Iran and a reporter for Gay City News in New York. He discussed how being gay has been historically associated with guilt and self-hatred, and often bears a greater burden in regimes like Iran where being gay is demonized. In the dozens of interviews conducted, Mr. Ireland underscored the complexities with identification within the gay community in Iran. One such interview he conducted was with a young gay Iranian escapee Amir in September 2005:
“Amir is a 22-year-old gay Iranian who was arrested by Iran's morality police as part of a massive Internet entrapment campaign targeting gays, beaten and tortured while in custody, threatened with death, and lashed 100 times. After this entrapment and public flogging, Amir's life became unbearable. He was rousted regularly at his home by the basiji (a para-police made up of thugs) recruited and working with the Office of Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice. Amir said that in one of these arrests, they told him they if they caught him again, they would put him to death. He escaped from Iran in August, and is now in Turkey, where he awaits a grant of asylum by a gay-friendly country.”
As viewed from the eyes of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, it seems the Internet has also played a large role in promoting sexual deviance. The Ministry has put in place a quite savvy Internet entrapment system to track and monitor the email exchanges and public liaisons of same sex couples. One young man arranged to meet his blind date he'd met online in a local park one afternoon.
When he arrived, the secret police were there to greet him instead. In prison, he was tortured and had to confess to a crime he did not commit in order to receive lashes and then be freed. There are many of these cases that go underreported. Gay men and women often admit to crimes like rape, violence and vandalism in order to receive lashes instead of the death squad. In several recent cases this year in Arak, Gorgan and Kermanshah, torture, abuse and death were not uncommon for same sex couples.
For lesbian women who face grave judgments by community members if they are unmarried and have no prospects for marriage, the Internet becomes a haven and escape for them to dialogue with other women who share similar sexual interests. But often these Internet sites are swiftly shut down or monitored. I tired logging on to the Khanaye Doost (House of Friends), a popular website dedicated to Iranian lesbian women. I only received the prompt: Sorry, Khanaye Doost no longer exists.
“For women in visibility in Iran, it is socially impossible to exist outside heterosexual relationships,” Scott Long told me in a phone interview from his offices in New York.
It is not difficult to grasp that it is women in Iran who suffer the greatest human rights abuses. Virtually all laws in regards to marriage, child custody, dress codes and access to jobs favor men over women. Although gay men are often executed, tortured and jailed in higher numbers than lesbian women, single and married women wishing to engage in lesbian relationships are paralyzed by traditions under Islamic law. It is almost impossible to find lesbian couples living openly together.
Says Nilofar, a 34 year-old Iranian lesbian who grew up in Belgium from the age of 16. “Men have much more freedom in Iranian society. For them, it's easier to meet other gay men. In Tehran there are hangouts for gay men, but there are no such things for women.”
There are also those who suggest that Iranian men and women who live under watchful glances by virtuous neighbors seize same sex opportunities because they are more accessible. But according to Scott Long, there can be no direct correlation to the increase in same sex behavior and sexual segregation of males and females. “I don't think we can suggest that it is the separation of men and women in Islamic daily work-life and within society that promotes same sex relations.”
It seems a hard fight if one considers that it was only up until the 1960's that gay couples began coming out of the closet in America. And it wasn't until 1974 that the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality off its list of sexual disorders. Only a few years ago, in the case of Lawrence vs. Texas, the US Supreme Court overturned a ruling that sodomy was a crime and unconstitutional. The court ruled On 26 June 2003, that states do not have the right to ban consensual sex between adults in their own home.
My friend Hashem, a fashion designer who lives in New York with an American boyfriend, often shares tales with me about his travels to Iran and daily Iranian gay life. He tells me of secret chai (tea) houses in Tehran that are known as hangouts for gay men.
“There's an underground that's really active. Men arrange dates online through secret coded language that the government won't be able to understand. We then meet up at chai houses at all hours of the day where only men are allowed. Sexual glances are often exchanged through teacups.”
While is futile to equate gay sex in America to gay sex in Iran, the comparisons are nevertheless made. However, we should not assume that Western gay stereotypes identify Middle Eastern homosexuality. There is also no evidence that shows that those who are engaging in same sex relations identify themselves as gay. “Gay” is not a term readily used in Iran. The term has been adopted by Western society and much of Iran's LGBT community is a secret underground and most gay couples are in the closet. This makes reliable statistics hard to find.
Iranian newspapers like Etelahat and Kayhan have been erratic in their reporting of these abuses and what have been dubbed inside Iran as “moral trials” are often held in private courtrooms with no press access. But the underground Gay magazine Maha often writes about the same sex couple killings and shares stories with gay community advocates who are a small bunch, but who have adopted gay identity and speak out for their rights in Iran through support from Iranian human rights groups inside and outside the country. The PGLO (Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization), based in Canada, and HOMANLA based in Los Angeles, have also been tough advocates for LGBT rights.
Paula Ettelbrick, Executive Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in New York told me that the demonstrations commemorating the 19 July anniversary were a great success and showed how the international community is coming together to advocate for the right to sexual freedom in Iran.
“The situation in Iran is very different from Western cultural understandings of being gay. These forums provide opportunity for Americans and the rest of the international community to understand the challenges the gay and lesbian community faces in Iran. They cannot freely organize their lives around their sexual identity because of the fear of being persecuted if they should do so.”
Ms. Ettelbrick hopes future activities will focus on how to encourage dialogue about these issues within Iran and to promote better understandings of Iranians among the international community, gay or straight.
At the end of this month, the International Conference on LGBT Human Rights in Montreal, Canada will bring together representatives from all over the world to discuss these hot issues. At the top of the agenda: devise a global strategy to convince Islam and homosexuality to cohabitate on loving terms.