New Internationalist

Running scared

May 2009

No reprieve for gay community living with 30 years of sharia law

Living in fear: a gay transvestite in Iran. 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.’

Anna Webster

This column was published in the May 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Comments on Running scared

Leave your comment


  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

...And all is quiet.

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

Get our free fortnightly eNews


Videos from visionOntv’s globalviews channel.

Related articles

Recently in Currents

All Currents

Popular tags

All tags

This article was originally published in issue 422

New Internationalist Magazine issue 422
Issue 422

More articles from this issue

  • Timor-Leste - Don’t Forget

    May 1, 2009

    Catherine Scott and Jo Barrett call on the international community to honour its obligations.

  • No room for bigots

    May 1, 2009

    Canadian multiculturalism is in rude health and has licked the kinds of problems that crop up in other countries. Haroon Siddiqui explains how.

  • What's my identity?

    May 1, 2009

    Faith schools get a bashing even from committed multiculturalists. We talk to one supporter who currently teaches English at a secular school in Australia.

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

– Emma Thompson –

A subscription to suit you

Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.