New Internationalist

Sexual Exiles

Issue 229

new internationalist
issue 229 - March 1992

Sexual exiles
Arman fled his home country in fear for his life. He explains why terror
rules the lives of homosexual men and women in Iran.

In Iran today homosexuality is punished by arrest and even death, which makes coming out' practically impossible. Every lesbian and gay lives in almost complete isolation and panic lest school-mates, an employer or a family member become suspicious. Those who dare confide their secret know that if it gets out, shame will fall on the entire family.

They daren't even have books, magazines or any information about homosexuality because it could be found by a family member or by the police searching for forbidden items like political propaganda against the regime or alcohol and drugs.

Gay bars have been closed since the time of the Shah so homosexuals are forced to meet in parks, which are raided regularly by civilian-clothed police or 'guardists'. They demand identification and anyone who hesitates is immediately suspect. Gays revealing the slightest 'soft' or feminine characteristics are beaten and kicked or given electric shocks to different parts of the body. If the police feel they have captured a particularly 'dangerous' homosexual, he is humiliated and raped before being executed.

Lesbians especially lead intolerable lives. Forced to marry through family pressure, those who show no interest in sexual relations are accused of failing to obey their husbands, which under Islam is grounds for divorce - often preceded by a long period of humiliation and beatings.

Divorce brings even greater isolation and oppression: because the woman is no longer a virgin, her family fears she will misbehave sexually unless kept under constant supervision. Suspicions that she might be lesbian fuel their hostility.

Because the media tells Iranians incessantly that homosexuals who have been arrested are rapists and paedophiles, most people are very ignorant about homosexuality. Many believe AIDS is a justified punishment for those living sinful lives. Many lesbians and gays themselves believe they are the victims of disease or mental disorder.

It has not always been so, of course. In the Middle Ages the poets and writers of Persia wrote warm and beautiful sentiments about homosexual relationships. Even during the brutal repression of the Shah's regime, when political dissidents were arrested and executed, at least homosexuality was not outlawed. On the contrary, the pretence of adhering to Western culture gave gay people greater psychological freedom. And even if legislation did not protect homosexuals from arrest, there was little evidence of persecution.

But when the Shah fell, the ayatollahs and fundamentalist mullahs (priests) introduced a new morality, and religious fanatics began hunting down leftists and intellectual critics of the regime. Lesbians and gays were soon included on the published list of enemies' of the new rulers. And before long they were being rounded up in droves.

The first execution I read about in the Iranian papers came not long after the Shah's fall: a homosexual soldier who was killed after being caught having sex with a mullah. Since then lesbians and gays have been arrested and executed in ever-growing numbers - often having been severely tortured to make them confess the names of their friends and sexual contacts.

I soon realized that I had to leave my home country. Even if I refrained from being an activist and never again submitted a single article to an underground newspaper, my life would be in constant jeopardy: at any moment a friend being tortured inside a prison could reveal my name. Arrest would not only end my life but also disgrace my entire family. And how many names would I reveal once they started beating me on the soles of my feet, or hanging me from iron bars?

Eventually I fled to Sweden. But even in exile, none of us are safe. We live in terror of the Iranian fundamentalists who are eager to wipe out 'deviants', or political activists from Iran who won't allow unclean' elements to soil their noble cause.

Today no-one knows how many homosexuals have been killed or arrested in Iran. But we do know that those sentenced to death are given the choice of execution: being hurled from a cliff or high building, hanging, facing a firing squad or stoning. Many choose being thrown to their deaths. I think they feel this gives them a moment of freedom from earthly torture and pain.

Arman works for HOMAN, a Stockholm-based Persian-language organization for lesbians and gays. He told his story to Bill Schiller.

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