Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Iranian president, once declared to the world: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals. In Iran, we don’t have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you we have it.” Ahmadinejad’s remarks at Columbia University were met with much laughter and criticism at the time. Ironically, however, his claim is not far from the truth. This narrative is reflective and representative of the state’s policies and practice that, in fact, do not support a homosexual “subject.” Conversely, despite how this subject is named, same-sex relationships have historically existed and continue to subsist/persist even in today’s toxic environment—though silenced and under-recognized. This is precisely because every cultural apparatus, from families to society to the government and judiciary, deny their sexual identity and human rights.
Human-rights campaigners report that over 4,000 members of sexual minorities have been executed since the ayatollahs seized power in 1979. However, it is estimated the number and frequency of executions is much higher due to the fact that queer Iranians are often condemned under the charges of rape, fraud, or treason in order to justify their criminality. These camouflaged charges appear to allow the Iranian government to conceal the punishment of queer citizens, thereby continuing to curtail sexual minorities’ rights to life and security as well as obscuring from reports the circumstances surrounding their executions.
The religious fundamentalism that characterizes the attitude of the Iranian judiciary toward homosexuality is longstanding. To contextualize the strict upholding of such judiciary practices one must first consider the ideology of the Islamic Republic as it is embodied in its religious and political leaders. Within months of the 1979 Iranian revolution, the birth date of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—then the highest-ranking political and religious authority in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its supreme leader—called for homosexuals to be exterminated. They were to be understood as the “parasites and corruptors of the nation” who “spread the stains of wickedness.”
Makwan Moloudzadeh’s bitter trial and execution is testament to the harshness of this central tenet of regime ideology—one that Amnesty International deemed “a mockery of justice.” Makwan had been found guilty of multiple counts of anal rape, allegedly committed when he was only 13 years old. The alleged victims in his case withdrew their testimony, claiming to have lied under duress. Makwan also informed the court that his confession had been coerced, and pleaded not guilty. Most important, Makwan was only a minor and under Article 49 of the Iranian Penal Code, minors—“those who have not yet reached maturity [puberty] as defined by Islamic Law”—are exempt from criminal responsibility.
Nevertheless, according to Article 120 of the Penal Code, in cases of anal sex between men, the judge “can make his judgment according to his knowledge, which is obtained through conventional methods.” Accordingly, the judge relied on his discretionary powers under Article 120 to rule that Makwan could be tried as an adult. Both the seventh district criminal court of Kermanshah, and later the supreme court, found him guilty and ordered his execution.
Makwan was executed in Kermanshah’s central prison Dec. 5, 2007, “in the absence of medical evidence testifying to his state of maturity at the time of the crime,” and in spite of widespread international uproar. Makwan was invisible throughout the proceedings to those who turned on him, to the prosecutor, the executor, and, most significantly, to the society and the status quo that stood idly by and witnessed it all.
Despite the official pronouncements that deny or discount the existence of homosexuals in the Islamic Republic, the existence of legal sanctions, militia actions and relationships indicate that whatever the official pronouncements, thousands of Iranians clearly self-identify as what we would term “queers” (whatever labels they themselves dare use), while many others engage in consensual same-sex acts. There are, of course, no official statistics regarding the size of Iran’s queer population. They are visible in a number of Iran’s larger urban areas such as Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz. In the capital city, Tehran, for example, there are public and semipublic spaces known for being meeting places where Iranian queers may discreetly meet or gather. Some of these spaces, such as cafés and restaurants, are associated with the middle class or well-to-do, while others, including several well-known parks, are frequented by queers who have often been rejected by their families and are living on the fringes of society or are even homeless—particularly gay youth and men, as well as transgender individuals, who must resort to prostitution in order to afford basic needs.
Queer Iranians live in an atmosphere of uncertainty, peril, and pressure. There are various factors that contribute to their inhumane living conditions. First and foremost, the religious and patriarchal elements that are characteristic of the present Iranian Republic proscribes homosexuality as something to be feared and controlled. The penal code of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based on strict Sharia laws that reserve some of the harshest penalties for those convicted of same-sex sexual conduct. Furthermore, sexual minorities in Iran may face arrest as well as physical and sexual assault during detention, summary prosecution, and corporal punishment due to their consensual same-sex acts. Finally, familial and societal pressures to be other than themselves deprive Iranian queers of their dignity, leaving them stranded and invisible amidst their stark vulnerability.
Iranian queers’ fight for survival, liberty, and dignity begins first and foremost as a struggle for acknowledgement and existence. Iranian queers are often surrounded by friends and family who encourage and enforce heteronormativity; subjected to a socio-symbolic contract that largely supports homophobic Sharia laws, and are victims of judicial proceedings that falsely prosecute and convict them because of their sexual orientation. The true lives of queer Iranians are readily hidden, sheltered, or censored from public appearances. It is almost as if they do not exist.
As Farshad, an Iranian gay man, put it: “Since the moment you realize you are gay or that you belong to an LGBT subgroup, you know that you will be discriminated against. One form of discrimination is that your identity as a human being is denied. They deny your right to be a human being, because you know that if you speak of your rights, terrible things might happen to you. Your family, your society, your government, your friends, and your workplace—all of them might do terrible things to you. Discrimination could be everywhere. Certainly, what I witnessed and experienced has always existed [in the society]. The heaviest discrimination is to live under constant suppression. You cannot express who you are, what you want, or what you believe in, and you cannot talk about your sexual orientation.”
Even under the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami, the Islamic judiciary remained one of the bulwarks of religious conservatism in Iran, a judicial and legal status that was strengthened under the hardline rule of Ahmadinejad. In fact, the argument against any recognition of civil rights for sexual minorities is reiterated as an unassailable cultural, religious, and ideological cornerstone of the state itself. In January 2012, in a meeting with the head of the human rights commission of the German parliament, Dr. Mohammad Javad Larijani, the international adviser to the Iranian judiciary, referred to homosexuality as a “perversion and a form of sexual disease [that is] not acceptable” to Iranians. Consequently, any discussion of the rights of homosexuals in Iran with Western officials has been superficial and fleeting. Admittedly, nation states have always responded to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in varying degrees. Yet, Larijani’s staunch position to curtailing sexual-minority rights for cultural reasons is deplorable and clearly contrary to the declaration.
In Iran, the penal code proscribes same-sex sexual expression and imposes harsh sentences. A man found guilty of kissing another man “with lascivious intent” is punishable “by up to 60 lashes of the whip” (Article 124). Likewise, tafkhiz — or nonpenetrative sex — and other sexual behavior between two men are punishable by 100 lashes for each partner. Four convictions of tafkhiz may lead to the death penalty (as does sexual “penetration”). The penal code further stipulates that “if two men, unrelated to one another, lie, without necessity, naked under the same cover, they will each be punished by up to 99 lashes of the whip” (Article 123).
It is important to note that there are many negative repercussions of the “morality laws” in Iran. Moreover, the rigorous enforcement of the laws results in disproportionate harm to GLBT people in Iran in comparison with other laws applying to Iranians generally. Sexual minorities are singled out for such treatment and for the deprivation of their human rights.
This is a brief summary of the discriminatory penal code as it is regularly and rigorously enforced. As recently as May of 2012, an Iranian court sentenced four men—Saadat Arefi, Vahid Akbari, Javid Akbari and Houshmand Akbari—to death by hanging for sodomy. London-based Iranian human-rights lawyer Mehri Jafari pointed out:
There are two important issues in this case: the location of the alleged occurrence [all from the town of Choram in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province] and the interpretation of the Sharia law that a hodud (strict Sharia punishment) is eminent. Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad is one of the most undeveloped provinces in Iran, and it is obvious that a lack of access to lawyers and fair trial can be considered a serious issue in this case. After this announcement, it is very likely that the execution will be carried out soon, and the remote location makes it difficult to exert any influence on the process.
On the observation about access to lawyers, it is worth recalling that judges are enabled to bear in mind their own view of facts, regardless of any defense. They may also consider confessions extracted through coercion that would be excluded in court proceedings in most jurisdictions. Presence of informed legal counsel, a right in such jurisdictions, is therefore not always supportive of human rights as a result.
The law is equally punishing for Iranian lesbians. According to Articles 129 and 131, the punishment for mosaheqeh—sexual relations between two females—is 100 lashes for each of the first three offenses, and the death penalty for the fourth. According to a report by Amnesty International, the Iranian Supreme Court issued a quick verdict of execution for Atefeh Rajabi Sahaaleh, the 16-year-old female who had confessed to her crime for the fourth conviction of mosaheqeh. Based on eyewitness accounts, “as Atefeh was taken to the crane for execution, she repeatedly asked Allah for forgiveness. … When asked later why [the] case was rushed, [the judge] was reported to have said that, in his opinion, there was too much ‘immorality’ in Neka,” Atefeh’s hometown. The case of Atefeh illustrates the complete discretion conferred to judges in Iranian courts to disregard rules of evidence and render decisions based on personal attitudes toward homosexuality.
People charged with sexual crimes often endure summary trials that do not adhere to principles of fairness. In so-called morals cases, such as those aforementioned, the stringent standards of evidence are likely to be flouted by the judiciary in the name of protecting cultural and religious standards. For example, according to Article 117 of the penal code, “the witness of four just men who have observed the act proves the crime of sodomy.” Given that judges may draw from their own views of circumstances, this provision opens the way to slander and rumor from others.
LGBT Iranians have also reported accounts of physical and psychological abuse during detention—including the threat and use of torture—in order to extract confessions as evidence of homosexual conduct to be adduced in Iranian criminal trials. In 2002, Iran’s Guardian Council of the Constitution—a committee of 12 senior clerics who oversee all judicial, governmental, and parliamentary legislation—vetoed a bill passed by the Iranian parliament that would put limits on practicing torture and presenting confessions obtained from it in judicial proceedings. Yet the proposed bill also stated that political dissidents and homosexuals were exempt from the proposed limits on torture. With that bill, the Iranian government clearly acknowledged that protection against torture should be provided, but that sexual minorities are undeserving of such fundamental legal protection.
A Human Rights Watch report documents instances in which police and the militia have allegedly physically and sexually assaulted individuals before obtaining an arrest warrant. Several of those interviewed spoke of how they had been sexually assaulted or raped during detention. (It might be added that gay Iranians are also abused by police and morality authorities in public, not just while in detention.) According to a July 2012 email from Ahmad, a queer Iranian who lives in Canada, to IRQR,
I was arrested in a gay birthday party in Iran by basij [the militia]. I was taken to police station and I got raped there while I was in the detention center. … The guy told me that I could enjoy my life from now on as a faggot. I find out that I became HIV-positive three months later when I wanted to donate blood.
Farshid, another gay Iranian interviewed by Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, also vividly recalls his rape by two members of the militia. He was initially arrested under the pretext that he was wearing what to the militia was “inappropriate” clothing. He was eventually taken to an unknown residential apartment where he was severely beaten and raped by two senior officers:
There was a full bathroom on that floor. The bathroom was large and its floor was covered by ceramic tiles. … First the younger one raped me. Then the older one did the same. All that time I was very afraid that they would kill me after raping me out of the fear that they could get caught. Nobody had their number or any other information leading to them.
Endemic homophobia in Iran also stems from the teachings of Islam as provided in Sunnah and Sharia. When serving as the head of the supreme council of the judiciary, Ayatollah Musavi-Ardebili noted the “most severe punishments” as befitting the Islamic prohibition against homosexuality. While delivering a sermon at Tehran University in 1990, he remarked:
For homosexuals, men or women, Islam has proscribed the most severe punishments. … Do you know how homosexuals are treated in Islam? After homosexuality has been proved on the basis of Sharia, the authorities should seize him [or her] … they should keep him standing, and should then split him in two with a sword, cut off his head at the neck or split the head. He will fall down. They get what they deserve.
It is evident, therefore, that the authoritative and flawed practice of justice in the cases of Makwan and Atefeh above is the connected to the prevailing attitudes defining the core of the Islamic Republic’s religiosity, and to its opposition to what it continuously strives to mount as its irreconcilable exterior: homosexuality.
Discrimination against sexual minorities is arguably one of the main tenets of the legal and ideological discourses of the Islamic Republic’s regime. These discourses squeeze out minority expression and make the GLBT community virtually invisible, if for no other reason than the absolute prohibition from the community’s very identity. As one essayist has observed, the personal is political:
The logic behind the Iranian government’s denial of the existence of homosexuals is simple: if something does not exist it is not eligible for basic human rights. The Iranian government denies LGBT Iranians a voice and does its utmost to prevent them from interacting with each other or speaking out in public.
Implicit in this observation is that certain basic rights, such as freedoms of association, assembly, and speech, are conditional upon conforming to the religious and legal beliefs and codes of the republic, or at the very least upon abstaining from expressing sexual identity and gender.
However, there is a wider current to the homophobic tide in Iran that reflects more than the ideological and legalistic rhetoric of the Islamic Republic regime. This current of public opinion that acts to restrict, conceal, and prohibit Iranian queers flows through the main body of Iranian society and enables homophobic state policies, actions and ideologies. At times, homophobia takes the form of plain-clothed religious volunteers, but most often it surges in places the LGBT Iranians call “home,” or spaces where they seek understanding and counsel, such as doctors’ offices or school classrooms.
Read more from Tablet’s special Iran Week.
Arsham Parsi is an Iranian LGBT human rights activist living in exile in Canada. He is the founder and head of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees.