Iran has for nearly four decades posed a particularly hostile environment towards its LGBT-identifying citizens, with little or no prospect of positive change regarding the rights of such individuals. The punishments for sexual acts between individuals of the same sex are severe, ranging from lashing or flogging, and including the death sentence. The options that these citizens possess are very limited and often take on extreme forms, but one of these options stands out particularly, namely sex change.
Same-sex relations have been considered a strictly criminal offence in Iran since the 1979 post-revolution revision of its penal code, which states for instance that the act of same sex intercourse can be punished with one hundred lashes and in most cases, the death penalty. The death penalty has been a frequently carried out punishment, with over 4000 confirmed gays and lesbians being executed since the end of the 1970s. However, it is often difficult to estimate whether the reasons are same-sex relations, and this is made particularly tricky considering the fact that Iran does not even acknowledge the existence of homosexuality within the country. During a speech that took place in the U.S. in 2007, the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated that: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals …. We don’t have that in our country …. I don’t know who’s told you we have it.” Taking such a statement into account, the amount of citizens executed for homosexuality might be significantly higher than 4000.
The criminalization of homosexuality leaves very few options; those who can afford it choose to purchase an apartment and live a parallel life with their partner or lover, but most people are forced to hide their sexuality, and others might resort to simply fleeing the oppression and moving to more permissive countries. There is however another choice that gay people can pursue, and many are pressured into doing so, and that’s changing their sex. While the highly religious Iranian government refuses to recognize the existence of homosexuality, it does however accept the idea of being trapped in the wrong body.
Within the religious community there is a belief that a person might be attracted to someone of the same sex, but this does not mean acceptance of such a phenomenon, and instead it implies that the person was essentially born into the wrong sex and must transition into the opposite one. This makes Iran the country with the second largest amount of sex change operation in the world with an estimation of 170 surgeries performed in 2006, a number that has risen to 370 in 2010. As a means of erasing supposed homosexuality from the country, the state goes as far as to provide funding by up to half of the costs of sex reassignment surgery for those who decide to change their sex.
While this might make things easier for people having the actual desire to transform their sex, these procedures as well as the opinion of those who have undergone such a treatment still involve a lot of stigma. In an interview with BBC, one individual who underwent this type of surgery stated that “After the operation whenever I wanted to feel like a woman, or behave like a woman, everybody would say, ‘She looks like a man, she’s manly.’” The matters become even more problematic for homosexual persons pushed into this sort of surgery. A law that does not see the complexity of sexuality and gender identity can end up being a destructive force towards those who find themselves attracted to the same sex, but still strongly identify with their biological sex and the gender that they were assigned at birth. This complexity of gender identity has numerous dimensions that cannot be easily captured, but perhaps the most important point to be made is that the concept of heterosexuality as the only acceptable option is not a sustainable one in terms of both human rights and social inclusion.
The choice of living openly in Iran as a member of the LGBT community is clearly an immense struggle and such individuals hold almost no power to live freely with their identity and sexuality without having to undertake radical measures. It is obvious that reforms, both legal and social, are desperately needed in Iran, but the question is; are such reforms likely to take place in the near future? Some say that the Iranian government is slowly beginning to accept these individuals, but as the major fundamentalist religious doctrines have shown us, it isn’t a simple task to let go of values opposing different forms of sexuality and identity. It is therefore safe to assume that in order for LGBT citizens to live ordinary lives and thrive inside Iran, the political and especially the religious domain of the country will require radical changes, something that does not seem likely to occur any time soon.