JeROeN OeRLeMANS / PANOS
On 1 April Iran marked the 30th anniversary of becoming an Islamic Republic and adopting sharia law. For the country’s gay community, the occasion was a stark reminder of their decades-long persecution. Homosexuality was already taboo under the Shah, but the birth of the Republic in 1979 led to its criminalization. In 2007, despite a penal code stipulating homosexuality as a crime, President Ahmadinejad declared that ‘in Iran we do not have homosexuals’. Following international pressure and derision, he later conceded that there ‘might be a few gay people in Iran’ but denied that they faced execution.
But gay men in particular face a very real danger under sharia law. Its introduction made the crime of sodomy, or lavat, punishable by imprisonment, torture and execution. ‘Being gay in Iran means always being scared,’ says Behrouz, an Iranian who is currently seeking asylum in Britain. ‘You’re always waiting to be arrested, to be tortured.’ At the age of 15, Behrouz was caught having sex with another boy at school. After being tortured in a dark room for two days, he was imprisoned in a detention centre, where a guard confiscated his mattress and forced him to sleep in a pool of water when he refused to have sex with him. Six months later he signed a release paper which stated that if he was caught again he would be killed.
Life at home was like hell. ‘It was impossible being gay. People would abuse me in the street and it was too dangerous to go out at night. I was looking for ways to kill myself.’
Many gay men grow up in Iran with an acute sense of loneliness, believing they are the only gay person in the world. Some realize they are not alone when they discover the underground gay community in Tehran, meeting covertly in bars, at secret parties or in a city park. Accessing this community is dangerous, however: there is a constant threat of being reported by neighbours or of being followed and arrested by the secret police.
As a result, many gay men spend years desperately trying to deny their sexuality. They force themselves to have relationships with women or abstain from sex or relationships altogether. Behrouz wore elastic bands round his wrists to try to stop himself having sex and to remind him what would happen if he did. But his isolation was broken when he met a man at a secret party and began a relationship with him. They were together one night when neighbours reported him. Seeing the police approach the house, he escaped over the roof, and, in fear for his life, fled to Britain.
Behrouz is now waiting to find out if his asylum application is successful, well aware of the punishment he faces if he is returned. But in the end he knows that he had to take that risk: ‘Not being able to be gay means living a lie, it means not having a life and pretending to be someone else. It’s just not possible.’