Human Rights Campaign (HRC) recently waded into the public debate surrounding the recent rash of so-called “bathroom bills” sprouting up in state legislatures nationwide. The HRC, one of the largest and most well-established LGBTQ rights organizations in the United States, recommended that employerspermit an employee to use sex-segregated facilities that correspond to his/her full-time gender presentation, regardless of what stage that person is in terms of his/her overall transition process.”

Superficially, the HRC statement seems like a laudable and reasonable step toward gender and sexual equality. It appears to be inclusive of transgender civil rights, sensitive to the specific injustices faced by the transgender community, and responsive to reactionary measures from state legislatures. But, as demonstrated by non-normative sexual and gender identities in Iran, HRC’s recommendations exclude people whose conceptions of self fall wholly outside of “full-time gender presentation.” A deeper look at HRC’s past history of LGBTQ activism also reveals an organization deeply invested in prevailing sex/gender hierarchies.

Gender in Iran

If queer Iranians were to read the HRC statement, many would likely be confused. The idea of a “full-time gender presentation,” a stable gender subjectivity that remains static despite the different contexts and periods of one’s life, would be unfamiliar to Iranian queers. “Gender presentation,” as understood in the West, is an alien concept for this group. For many of these individuals, gender is, instead, defined by a “professing self,” a process that combines various circumstances and forces in their lives.

As described by historian and gender theorist, Afsaneh Najmabadi, queer identities in Iran are constructed in reaction to several factors, most importantly, legal visibility for transgender people, social and legal rejection of homosexuality, and the existence of a strictly delineated gender binary.

In 1981, then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious opinion, legalizing sex reassignment surgery, allowing people certified for the surgery to live openly as transgender during and after the transition process. The legal protections enjoyed by transgender Iranians contrasts with the situation facing men and women who are perceived to simply be “non-masculine” or “non-feminine.” These “abnormal” gender expressions are socially repressed, epitomized by the kuni, the passive male partner during anal intercourse, as well as the baruni, the female who has sex with other females.

While these abject positions are the product of a strictly delineated male/female gender binary, queer Iranians navigate the “borderland” between homosexual abjectness and transgender legal visibility through the formation of a “professing self.” This is a “horizontal” concept of the self, one formed by actions performed in life’s different contexts. The professing self is considered to be an amalgamation of all these actions. 

Navigating these discursive borders is not without risk for Iranian queers, and requires learning how to profess oneself in various contexts to avoid attaining the stigma of kuni/baruni. The failure to do so can result in physical and sexual abuse and the ever-present risk of being branded non-masculine or non-feminine. Nonetheless, these “borderlands” are malleable enough so that those who navigate it well can display surprising conceptions of their own identity. As one Iranian Najmabadi spoke with put it, “To be honest, there are still times that I say that I am transsexual; I am perhaps 70 percent lesbian and 30 percent trans.

By contrast, dominant Western queer discourse, as reflected in HRC’s interpretation of what it means to be transgender, adheres to an essentially unchanging “gender presentation” regardless of the “stage…of his/her overall transition process.” This discourse defines conceptions of transgender identity in the United States, at least regarding public bathrooms. Would queer Iranians feel comfortable, or be included, in such an America? The clear answer to this question says much about HRC’s position on other forms of sexual and gender identity issues in the United States.

Human Rights Campaign and Homonormativity

Human Rights Campaign has had a less than stellar record in the eyes of the U.S. transgender community. The charge that HRC has neglected trans issues in favor of promoting its gay, cisgender, white, and affluent constituents has been a thorn in the group’s side for many years, and with good reason.

In order to “normalize” gay and lesbian men in the eyes of “straight” America, HRC has long neglected or excluded trans and radical queer voices from the debate over “gay rights.” This is a reflection of homonormativity, a conception mapped out by New York University Professor Lisa Duggan. Homonormative discourse operates, in part, by incorporating the tropes, boundaries of identity, and behavioral norms of “heterosexuality,” creating a queer “sex/gender hierarchy.” In this hierarchy, all female-bodied or -identified persons, intersex persons, bisexuals, and “deviant” or criminal sexual subjectivities (such as promiscuous gay men and sex workers) are lower down the hierarchical ladder than cis-gendered, gay, white men. As with all social hierarchies in America, racism is incorporated within this hierarchy.

HRC’s 2015 internal diversity report, which was leaked to media outlets, demonstrates how deeply invested the organization is in a homonormative framing. The report’s executive summary notes a pervasive “sense of an organizational culture within HRC rooted in a white, masculine orientation, which is judgmental of all those who don’t fit that mold.” The report observes that HRC’s leadership is dominated by cis-gendered white males, and that women and transgender individuals are discriminated against such that “more than half of multiracial and Latino people and 83% of genderqueer people feel they are not treated equally [in the organization] based on their identity.”

These are shocking insights into one of the most powerful LGBTQ organizations in the United States. The report raises questions about whether HRC’s statement on the use of public bathrooms by transgender people might be similarly infected by this “white, masculine” homonormative orientation.

Homonormativity and Queer Elision

HRC recently got into hot water when Scott Long, former director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBTQ rights program, revealed the deep collusion between HRC and a neoconservative lobbying group, the “Foundation for Defense of Democracies” (FDD). Long’s criticism stemmed from HRC’s publication of FDD’s write-up of a Congressional hearing on human rights in Iran. According to Long, FDD advocates for a U.S. attack on Iran, in part, by “court[ing] various constituencies in the American public, from energy conglomerates to women’s groups. Gays are one of them, increasingly endowed with clout.”

Long’s main critique is that HRC is either ignoring or downplaying its connection with a hawkish, conservative think tank in order to reap the financial benefits of the association. The fact that HRC hosted the FDD-penned content, headlined as “Congress Explores Iran’s Persecution of LGBT Community,” on its website suggests, however, that HRC is essentially endorsing, as Long puts it, FDD’s “armchair-heroic…war talk.”

Indeed, the most publicly celebrated victories of the LGBTQ movement’s mainstream, homonormative organs reflect a decidedly conservative political and social worldview. Examples of this include allowing gays, lesbians, and transgender people to serve openly in the military and permitting gay men and lesbians to adopt children, act as legal dependents, and marry. While these are victories that should not be minimized, there has been much less agitation at the organizational, institutional level, over issues involving more progressive, radical, and intersectional concerns.

Transgender rights in prison, for instance, are grossly neglected by the mainstream LGBTQ movement. The same goes for the struggles of poor and minority queer people. The HRC’s publicly available material contains little evidence that there is any interest in understanding what it means to be “genderfluid” or “genderqueer,” let alone to identify key issues facing these communities.

The Western homonormative conception of queer identity epitomized by HRC collapses Iran’s LGBTQ community into two distinct categories: the passive kuni/baruni and post-operative transgender person. For HRC, there is no discursive middle space where someone could live, for example, as “70 percent lesbian, 30 percent trans.”

In this formulation, the kuni/baruni must make an impossible choice between unwanted sex reassignment surgery (SRS) to achieve legal recognition and total abjectness. The transgender person, on the other hand, is presumed to want sex reassignment surgery as part of being a “transgender” subject. According to this worldview, the pre-operative transgender Iranian is facing the same peril as the abject kuni/baruni. For them, there is no legal visibility, only disgust and homo-/trans-phobia. In a homonormative worldview, a transgender person would never deny themselves the benefits of legal visibility by refusing to undergo SRS.

What, then, happens to those Iranians whose lives do not conform to the demands of homonormativity? What, for instance, of the person who undergoes SRS not to attain legal visibility but to marry their partner? What of Najmabadi’s interlocutor who considers herself “70 percent lesbian, 30 percent transgender,” based on the demands of her life?

Sima Shakhsari, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College, provides an example of how such people might fare under the authority of Western LGBTQ groups, such as HRC. In a scholarly article, “Killing Me Softly with Your Rights,” Shakhsari documents the experience of Mahtab, a transgender refugee who escaped oppression in Iran. Mahtab is the perfect case for Western LGBTQ groups to laud as exemplary of a trans- and homo-phobic Iran that oppresses sexual minorities. She is also an example of how Western LGBTQ movements ignore these minorities, unless they otherwise serve their interests.

Facing significant death threats from her own and her partner’s family, fled with her partner from Iran to Turkey. Following her relocation, Mahtab could not access aid or other social support, as she waited for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) to certify her as a refugee; she also faced harassment and invasive questioning from Turkish authorities. Mahtab eventually reached Canada, where she quietly committed suicide some two years later after the expiration of her subsidized housing lease.

The broader LGBTQ community, at least until the publication of Shakhsari’s article, did not publicize her suicide in Canada, which was a result of marginalization and exclusion that was just as real as what she had faced in Iran. The community did, however, draw attention to her suffering in Iran and Turkey. One Canadian director produced a documentary focused on these aspects of her tragic life, though with far more criticism of what Mahtab had suffered in Iran than in Turkey.

Why was Mahtab’s suffering in Turkey and Canada so unworthy of criticism, while her time in Iran was loudly and frequently condemned?

Queer theorist and academic, Jasbir Puar, provides a powerful explanation of why the suffering of transgender Iranians like Mahtab becomes unspeakable once their suffering happens outside Iran. Puar argues that, once she left Iran, Mahtab’s suffering moved outside the sphere of interest of “homonationalist discourse.” Homonationalism, according to Puar, is a strain of homonormativity that promotes a sanctified, patriotic queer Euro-American citizen, in part, by positing an inherently perverse, terror-prone Islamic sexuality.

Homonationalist discourse condemns the suffering of LGBTQ Iranians, so long as that suffering can be placed at the feet of the Iranian state and society. This requires ignoring or erasing lives carved out by queer Iranians in the border between “homosexual/kuni/baruni” and “transgender.” It omits the suffering of LGBTQ Iranians when their suffering cannot be attributed to a homophobic Iran.

What does all this mean for HRC’s responses to transphobic “bathroom bills” proliferating across state legislatures? Its recommendation that one’s “full-time gender presentation, regardless of one’s state of transition” determines which bathroom one should use ignores the real possibility of lives lived according to other conceptions of identity. For some people, the bathroom they use might change based on their context and temporal position.

Western LGBTQ groups already have a history of neglecting Iranian transpersons whose suffering cannot be blamed on Iran. Perhaps we should question what lives we in the United States are ignoring when we talk only of a “full-time gender presentation” and who is moved a few more rungs down the ladder of the sex/gender hierarchy by the supremacy of a belief in “full-time gender presentation.”

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