Earlier this year, in response to a United Nations Human Rights Council Report from the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the head of the Iranian judiciary’s human rights council, Mohammad Javad Larijani, was interviewed on Iran’s state television.
During the interview, Larijani was asked to respond to the report’s concerns about the harassment, persecution, cruel punishment, and denial of basic human rights faced by LGBT-individuals in Iran.
Our response has been very precise and clear. We said, firstly, in our system ham-jens-baz’i [Persian slur for homosexuality] is considered a disease–a terrible disease. Therefore, organizing gatherings, publicizing it and such are completely wrong and we have strong laws against it which are enforced, however, regarding individuals, we do not approve of beating and harassing [homosexual people]. [Secondly,] this is an ailment which has to be treated, and [the sick individual] must be treated with special mental care, even sometimes physical or biological [treatments].” He went on to say that the UN, and presumably the West, “…want to present [homosexuality] as a norm in social life and a right way of living. We are completely against that.
Examining these brief, yet revealing remarks by Larijani—who has very close ties to Iran’s ruling elite—sheds important light on the current understanding of LGBT issues in Iran.
What Happens to the “T” in the LGBT community in Iran?
In his response to the Special Rapporteur’s report, Larijani’s comments above were targeted toward the LGB-community—namely, lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals—and their sexual activity.
Currently in Iran, sexual conduct between females is punishable by flogging. As per a newly revised controversial penal code, the “passive” participant in male same-sex sodomy (or Lavat in Persian) is punished by death, while the “active” participant is punished with lashes.
Iran’s penal code does not, however, directly target the transgender community. In Iran, transsexuality is officially recognized and is not considered criminal by the state. In 1985, the first Supreme Leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, reissued his 1967 fatwa “sanctioning sex-change,” in Persian (originally, it was in Arabic).
Khomeini’s fatwa, which is not supported by all Shi’ite clerics, paved the way for Iran to become a and a destination for many individuals from Eastern Europe and the Middle East looking to have these procedures.
In fact, in April 2013, an official of the Iranian Ministry of Cooperative, Labor, and Social Welfare announced that SRS will no longer be considered a cosmetic surgery. Accordingly, insurance companies in Iran are now required to extend their coverage to include SRS for transsexual individuals.
This remarkable development—which would considerably reduce the often-frightening financial burden for transsexual Iranians transitioning genders—has the support of both Iran’s legislature and executive branches.
The official recognition of transsexuality, despite its narrow religio-legal framework, has allowed transsexual individuals to have a certain amount of freedom, and has also benefited the LGB community in some ways.
As Afsaneh Najmabadi, the prominent Iranian-American professor of history and gender studies, has discussed, official recognition of transsexuality by the Iranian government has unintentionally benefitted LGB individuals in various ways by creating safer “semi-public gay and lesbian social space.”
When Larijani called for “physical or biological [treatments]” for homosexual individuals, it was suspected by some that he was talking about forced SRS treatments. However, Najmabadi and others have questioned the veracity of this claim.
Official recognition of transsexuality has not stopped many transsexual Iranians from seeking asylum in other countries. This is largely due to a general lack of knowledge within the Iranian public about transsexuality and the fact that many transsexual Iranians are shunned by their families and society at-large. Some transsexual persons also identify as homosexual and/or do not fit into the state’s narrow definition of transsexuality, which does not include a wide spectrum of transgenderism.
According to Iran’s government, there is no discrimination against transsexual Iranians. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Larijani did not acknowledge the UN’s concerns, choosing instead to focus only on homosexuality.
Another Word in Farsi Instead of the Derogatory ham-jens-baz’i?
Larijani’s televised appearance is not the first time he has used the derogatory slur ham-jens-baz’i to refer to homosexuality.
Although the use of the insulting term is prevalent among Iranians, there is a very slow, but growing awareness within Iranian society about the clinical, non-derogatory term ham-jens-gara’i.
The term can literally be translated as “the state of being interested in the same sex.” The growing online presence of the Iranian LGBT community, the many reports on Iran by human rights monitoring organizations, and, above all, the ever-growing reach of Persian satellite channels—which operate outside of Iran such as BBC Persian, Persian Service for the Voice of America, and Manoto1—play important roles in educating Iranians in the country about these terms.
According to Willem Floor, an independent scholar specializing in the history of Iran in the Safavid and modern ages, both ham-jens-baz’i and ham-jens-gara’i were invented in the mid-twentieth century in Iran to translate the then emerging international term “homosexuality,” which itself was coined in the late nineteenth century in Europe. The closest translation of ham-jens-baz’i in English is “faggotry,” but there is not a consensus on this translation.
There is consensus among gay and lesbian Iranians that ham-jens-baz’i and its derivatives are demeaning words that have served to normalize and propel the rampant, violent harassment gay and lesbian Iranians have received for years from their compatriots.
What Does it Mean to Publicize Homosexuality?
Words matter, but, as Larijani has indicated, publicizing homosexuality is forbidden in Iran. In theory, this ban can mean anything Larijani wants it to mean, but, in practice, it has made Iran-based news media reluctant to report on the egregious mistreatment of LGBT people in Iran.
In the few instances where homosexuals, bisexuals, and queer Iranians are covered in the country’s media outlets, they are depicted as a threat to the state and government. They are portrayed as ham-jens-baz, perverts, deviants, or allied with other marginalized groups, including secularists, atheists, leftists, supporters of the Green Movement, dissident intellectuals, and exiled artists.
Any association of any kind with anything other than state sanctioned heterosexuality is considered a perversion, deserving of public shame and punishment.
At the same time, transsexual issues such as SRS are considerably covered in the Iranian press. Dr. Najmabadi writes, “Many transsexuals I listened to, especially those coming to Tehran from (provincial towns), said they had found out about SRS clinics through the press coverage (including satellite broadcast of documentaries).”
As Dr. Najmabadi emphasizes, a clear distinction between the criminalized homosexuality and the legalized transsexuality, as defined by the Islamic government, is essential when discussing Iran’s LGBT community.
By ignoring the existence of Iranian LGBT people, their sufferings, and, above all, their humanity, the media has helped create an environment conductive to the deadly mistreatment of these individuals.
The absence of any mention of sexual minorities in the media or within Iranian society has perpetuated many false notions about LGBT people.
This can be seen in the comments section of almost any online discussion about LGBT topics on Facebook or on blogs. Among the comments that regularly appear are “Faggots are pedophiles,” “Lesbians need a good cock to become straight,” “Transgender people are freaks,” or “Homosexuality is not natural.”
This hostility toward Iranian LGBT people has increased thanks to the regular coverage provided by state-sponsored, conservative Iranian news outlets on the same-sex marriage debate in the United States and Europe.
This coverage has typically involved depicting the moral corruption of Western societies, including headlines such as:
“Britain’s Prime Minister: I am Proud of Supporting Faggots Getting Married,” published by Hamshahri Daily. “Moral Decline of the Western Society and the Popularity of Faggots Marrying,” published by Young Journalists Club. “On the Apparent and Hidden Aspects of the Promotion of Faggotry in the World,” published by siasatrooz.ir. “Promotion of Faggotry is an important cultural strategy for the West” published by Jamnews.ir. “Efforts of the West to Promote Faggotry in Shi’ite Countries,” published by shia-online.com.
Media Censorship: A Case Study of the Shargh Daily
There are harsh consequences for media outlets that choose to cover events relating to Iran’s LGBT community, even in a fleeting fashion.
Shargh Daily, a leading Iranian newspaper closely aligned with the country’s reformists, was suspended for publishing an interview, titled, “Feminine Language,” which featured Saghi Ghahraman, an expatriate Iranian poet who lives in Canada.
On Monday, August 7, 2007, the Press Oversight Committee indefinitely suspended the newspaper, a major news agency with at least two-hundred personnel.
Mohammad Parvizi, head of the domestic print media division of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, said, “Shargh Daily was suspended pursuant to the press law…due to [publishing] an interview with a counter-revolutionary element and a promoter of faggotry, who has a reputation of openly engaging in this kind of debauchery, and who disclosed her heart’s desires in this interview.”
In the two days between the publication of the interview and the subsequent suspension, the management of Shargh Daily twice published a note of apology on the paper’s front page, explaining, “We had no knowledge of the background of [Saghi Ghahraman] and [the newspaper] will be more careful in the future.” Shargh Daily also immediately removed the interview from its website.
According to separate accounts from Ms. Ghahraman, the interviewer, and Shargh Daily’s managing director, there was no mention of homoeroticism, homosexuality, or the sexual orientation of Ms. Ghahraman—she is bisexual—in the pages of Shargh Daily.
In the interview, there was also no mention that Ms. Ghahraman is a founding member of the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), an NGO promoting and defending the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Iranians living in Iran or as refugees abroad. There was also no mention that Ghahraman was a member of the persecuted communist party in the early days of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and had to flee Iran in 1983 for fear of her safety.
Shargh Daily decision to print the interview was, however, enough fodder for political conservatives in Iran to berate the reformists.
Kayhan Daily, a morning newspaper headed by the representative of the Supreme Leader of Iran, found the published apologies of Shargh Daily unacceptable, saying, “Considering the personality of the interviewer and the [rest of the] journalists of this newspaper, media observers believe that Shargh Daily interviewed this ham-jens-baz aware of her porno-personality, sick sexual identity, and dissident political views.”
Fars News Agency, which is close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, wrote a piece criticizing Shargh Daily, and exposing the “moral corruption” and the “ungodly agenda” of Ms. Ghahraman.
The organization also published a separate piece consisting of readers’ comments reacting to the original Fars News report. Many commentators criticized Fars News for “publicizing” Ms. Ghahraman and her “disgraceful” life by covering the reasons behind the suspension of Shargh Daily.
Fars News subsequently apologized several times for revealing Ms. Ghahraman’s background and her opinions on same-sex desires.
While, in the aftermath of these events, some in the Iranian blogosphere condemned the lack of freedom of expression, there were many that blamed the newspaper’s management for giving conservatives a convenient excuse to ban their beloved newspaper. At the time, Shargh Daily was one of the few remaining voices in the media for reformists.
Cheraq, a magazine for Iranian LGBTQ, of which Ms. Ghahraman was the editor, published a piece in September 2007 that was strongly critical of the reactions of Iranian intellectuals, especially Shargh Daily’s management and journalists.
The piece admonished them for caving into criticism from the Iranian government, and its denunciation of Ms. Ghahraman’s personal life and human rights activism.
Shargh Daily was allowed to publish again on April 11, 2010, after a three-year ban.
It is hard to imagine how LGBT issues can be discussed in the Iranian public sphere in a meaningful manner when simply mentioning the name of a non-heterosexual person in a newspaper can be construed as a criminal offense.
When the most powerful person in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, uses the word ham-jens-baz’i in a public speech, what can be expected from likes of Larijani or outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
Even former reformist President Mohammad Khatami justified capital punishment for sodomy in Iran in a speech at Harvard University hypocritically called, “The Ethics of Tolerance.”
One has to wonder what the future holds for Iranian queers, other than more misery.
*Acknowledgement: I would like to gratefully thank Dominic Bocci for his kind review, patience and constructive comments.