A few days ago, I was home minding my own business, eating my yogurt (as they say in Farsi/Persian) when a friend told me over the phone that Ahmadinejad had made a fool out of himself by saying that there are no gays in Iran. Because I don’t have cable television, I could not listen to Ahmadinejad’s talk at Columbia, live on TV. I had to trust that the president “gand zadeh” as my friend put it. She was upset not only because of Ahmadinejad’s alleged statement about the lack of homosexuals in Iran, but also because of Bollinger’s disrespectful and rude introductory remarks.
Later that night, I attended a meeting of Iranians who had gathered to provide the US Library of Congress representative with information about the Iranian diaspora’s cultural productions. When the representative said that he was going to meet with the queer Iranian group in Los Angeles, people burst into laughter. “But we have no homosexuals in Iran,” remarked a participant, mimicking Ahmadinejad. Everyone got the joke, as Ahmadinejad had spoken at Columbia only a few hours before our meeting. Being one of the two queer people (or at least the only one who is “out” to the most members of that group), I felt the weight of unfamiliar and familiar looks on me. It was as if at that very moment with that sarcastic utterance, I had received the stamp of authenticity (you are the living proof that Ahmadinejad lies!) and at the same time was given an opportunity to participate in a moment of group solidarity: all of a sudden gay rights had become an issue of concern for all of us, intellectual Iranians!
The next day, I decided to find Ahmadinejad’s talk online. Rather than relying on other people’s tubes, I took refuge in Youtube and surely, there it was… headlines such as “Ahmadinejad: no Homos in Iran,” readily jumped at me. I watched Bollinger’s talk and was outraged by his racist remarks. When I heard Bollinger say to the audience that he feels “the weight of the civilized world” on his shoulders, I felt as if I was listening to the good old colonialists’ narratives of rescuing the “savage” and civilizing the “barbaric” in the colonies! “White man’s burden,” as a friend rightly put it. Feeling very grateful for a promise of rescue by agents of “civilization,” I clicked on the next video to listen to Ahmadinejad’s talk and prepared myself to be more annoyed, expecting his infamous sentence about denying the existence of homosexuals in Iran.
As a queer woman who is aware of the violences of religious fundamentalism (including but not limited to Islamic fundamentalism) on queer bodies, I did not expect Ahmadinejad to pretend that he was a gay rights advocate; the same way that I do not expect Christian fundamentalists such as Bush and Cheney to defend gay rights in the US (and they do a good job denying any rights to queers in the US!). As a matter of fact, when Bollinger mentioned the violation of gay rights in Iran, I was thinking: “kal agar tabeeb boodi sar-e khod davaa nemoodi!”
But not only did I expect Bollinger to mention the persecution of gays in Iran, I also expected the question to come up in the Q&A session. After all, this question seems to be the thing to ask these days! It is as if women and queers have become the sexy representable subjects for those who yearn to characterize Iran as the core of the “axis of evil.”
But sadly enough, the hate mongers who are dying to wage a war on Iran are not the only opportunist fake gay rights advocates. Defending the rights of homosexuals is the new fad among the Iranian opposition groups as well. Let’s be forward about it. Despite the chic of homosexuality among the Iranian opposition groups these days, many of the so-called “progressive” forces who wave the gay flag in solidarity with the Iranian “degarbaash” jamaa’at (a term used by these groups to refer to queer in Farsi), remain deeply homophobic, laugh at jokes about “koonis,” and when given a chance in their private gatherings, make fun of queers.
Why do we go far? It was only last year that a famous dissident, who writes petitions defending degarbaashan-e Irani, in his response to a question about the rights of homosexuals in his vision of the free democratic Iran, publicly said that “homosexuality is not an issue for the Iranian people!” How is it that now, all of a sudden, it has become THE issue? It beats me. Could it be that it is fashionable (or profitable for some) these days to defend gay rights and make films about it? It is as if the homophobes of the opposition woke up one day, read their Vogue of Politics magazine and saw that the latest fashion in the homeland politics was to be a gay rights advocate! So now everyone is wearing the gay rights hat, which conveniently hides the bald spot (homophobia) of their democratic future for Iran!
Don’t get me wrong. I would love to see the Iranian queers not be excluded from the realms of the Iranian cultural and political citizenship. After all, have I not experienced exclusion and homophobia in its many forms from all kinds of Iranians, secular or not? I don’t mean to privilege my experience as the base of my argument, but many of these opposition groups rely on nationalist discourses that are deeply intertwined with heteronormative definitions of the nation. That is why when queers become “peeraahan-e osmaan” and are used by these deeply homophobic neocons or opposition forces, one wonders, if the tables turn, will queers still be so hot on the agenda of these groups? I doubt it.
But exactly because of the way Iranian queers have been excluded from the imaginations of Iranian-ness for so long, moments such as this become opportunities for many queers who desire acceptance to insert themselves into the imaginations of the Iranian nation, which is being constantly envisioned by the opposition groups in diaspora. Despite the ambivalence of the nation and the fact that Iranian-ness at this particular historical juncture, for political reasons, has become inclusive of queers for certain opposition forces, I am very skeptical of the intentions of these groups.
And on the other hand, this incident also becomes an excuse for some to make homophobic remarks. These comments range from those by Islamophobes who in expressing their hatred of mollas in Iran, call them gay (“khodeshoon keh kooni hastan!”), to those by people who in defense of Ahmadinejad claim that there are in fact no gays in Iran, and thus erase homosexuality from the Iranian historical memory all together. Unfortunately, even some anti-imperialist Iranians who criticize the opportunistic use of Iranian queers by the opposition forces and the neocons, resort to homophobic language. Sarcastic statements such as “perhaps the pro-gay dissidents do not mind having a gay experience themselves!” are meant to demasculinize the opportunist fake gay rights advocates by using homosexuality as an insult.
Let me also say a couple of words about Ahmadinejad’s response. At the risk of being accused of defending him, I want to point out that Ahmadinejad did not say that queers do not exist in Iran at all. He said “we do not have ‘hamjensbaaz’ the way that you have it in this country.” I understand the denial of the existence of queers in Ahmadinejad’s sentence and am the first one to say that he is extremely homophobic. It is no news to anyone that he represents one of the most socially conservative officials in Iran. But he is correct to say that homosexuals do not exist THE SAME WAY that they exist in the US.
The meaning of being queer is different in the Iranian cultural context than it is in the US. Despite the desire for representing a homogenous global gay identity, there is no such a thing as a unified gay identity that transcends history, politics, and culture. The historical processes that have culminated in the formation of the gay rights movement and have shaped the gay and lesbian identitarian politics in the U.S., are different than the ways by which homosexual practices and identities are formed/lived in Iran.
But what is interesting is that out of all of Ahmadinejad’s statements and answers, this particular remark has been blown out of proportion and is being circulated in the media as the highlight of his speech at Columbia. We do not hear about his questioning of particular forms of knowledge as taken-for-granted truth. We do not hear about his criticism of developing nuclear weapons. All we hear about is the distorted version of his statement about the existence of homosexuals in Iran. Why is that? I cannot help but to wonder.
After Ahmadinejad’s talk, a queer Iranian group in Los Angeles was bombarded by requests for interviews by the American media about the violation of gay rights in Iran. CNN repeatedly showed the notorious image of the hanging of two young men in Mashad who were prosecuted for the rape of a minor, and represented that image as the evidence of killing of gays in Iran. Again, I am not defending the capital punishment, be it by the Iranian state or the American state (they both have these laws, executed in different manners. Both need to be criticized). Nor am I denying the difficulties that many queers endure in Iran. What I am concerned about, is the politics of representation and the way by which an image about the punishment of alleged rapists is circulated as the proof of the killing of gays in Iran. I am weary of the chic of the Iranian homosexual in the post 9/11 period.
I think it is important to question these politics and to be skeptical of the appropriation of queer rights by different political agendas. After all, “gay,” “lesbian,” “hamjensgara,” “degarbaash,” or any other identity that claims to represent a group of people is not a reflection of an inherent characteristic. Nor is sexuality the only factor that makes one a “hamjensgara,” “degrabaash,” etc. There are multiple discourses that participate in the constitution of these identities in different political and historical moments. The question is which identities are readily represented in particular discursive fields and which ones are not? The dilemma of the Iranian queers at this historical moment is to negotiate a legitimate space in the imaginations of Iranian-ness while being aware and critical of the current political discourses that move queers from the position of the abject other to that of the subject.