Feature: Grim realities of life for gays in Iran
Gay Iranian organisation IRQO has published an in-depth interview with a gay male couple about the challenges of living in the Islamic Republic, both from the religious authorities, their families and other Iranians.
By Arsham Parsi. Translated by Solmaz.
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Kamran, I am 24 years old. Kaveh, my partner, is 25 years old and we have been together about 3 years.
What are the problems of an Iranian homosexual?
Kaveh: The first is that we cannot discuss any of our problems. We have a problem with the government due to our sexual orientation; the Islamic government does not accept us and we are condemned to hanging and stoning. In comparison the rest of the problems are minor.
How do you describe life as a homosexual in Iran?
Kamran: Very easy; one cannot work, cannot have fun, and cannot go out. You cannot go out with your partner because everybody will look at you as if you are abnormal.
The way we are looked at is a source of torment for us. Even though physically we are not any different from them they discriminate against us. This makes our lives extremely difficult.
I don’t think there is any problem greater than being labeled abnormal in society when you are certain nothing is wrong with you. If someone abuses you, you cannot issue a complaint to any organisation or report to the police, because you’ll create more problems for yourself.
What are the family problems faced by homosexuals?
Kamran : Familial reaction is just like that of society. No matter how close the family, it is not possible to be accepted.
Homosexuality is an unrecognised issue for people in Iran, families included. They will always look at us as different because we are not like our cousins or uncles.
We are not like our friends and acquaintances and so we cannot take part in their social gatherings. Why? Because we are homosexuals. That is the only reason.
It does not matter how hard we try to resemble others in society. They [parents] will always sense we are different, because we are their children.
Does your family know that you are homosexual?
Kamran: Yes, my family has known for long time.
Kaveh: My family cannot understand. Their age and health situation does not put them at a place where they’ll be able to understand, so I don’t see the reason to tell them.
Moreover, if I tell them they’ll think this is a childish game and will not take me seriously. Once, because of problems that arose, they tried to come between me and Kamran’s relationship.
I told them he and I would like to live together and remain close friends. They think we are very good friends. But they don’t believe we are gay. The thought would probably not even occur to them.
What do you think their reaction will be if you told them?
Kaveh: My family will believe it, but I am certain my parents would definitely have heart attacks. I will have problems with my brother. And I will definitely be kicked out of the house.
Why do you think parents can’t accept their child’s homosexuality? What is to be done in order for them to reach acceptance? What, in your opinion, is the core problem here?
Kamran: I really think the main problem is the social environment of the country. I know even in Europe, with all the freedom surrounding homosexuality, this is not very common and some families still have difficulties accepting it.
For example, in England which has been known as one of the most liberal countries for homosexuals, people differentiate the lifestyle of homosexuals with heterosexuals and do not see it as a normal relationship.
In Iran, we have more problems because we have a religious government and we have very limited relations with other countries.
If legal obstacles were to be taken away, it would be possible to change people’s minds about homosexuality.
It will be possible to discuss it, tell people that homosexuality exists whether you like it or not and it isn’t like an illness that can be eradicated by taking medication, it isn’t like mental depression to have recovery time.
You can’t tell a little girl not to be a girl, or to a boy not to move like a boy. You can’t tell a heterosexual man to not be heterosexual.
So you can’t tell a homosexual man “don’t be gay. Go and fall in love with a girl and marry her.” Our families are traditional, and they want their children to be exactly what they are.
They care more about their neighbours and friends gossiping than about their children. I, a gay man, matter less to my family than a neighbour or the local street-vendor.
They are willing for me to suffer and become what they consider a normal human being so that strangers will say: “Oh, they have such a good son.”
Kaveh: And other problem that people have in Iran is that they do not have any knowledge about homosexuality. There are gay people that do not know they are gay and get married.
Then after a while they are not happy in their life and realise that they are gay, or in some cases they get divorced but still fear their homosexuality.
In an Iranian family a mentally challenged child is given full attention, sometimes even more than to their siblings. They accept this as something God has willed, and they will not let anybody harm the child.
But they will not look at homosexuality as God’s will. They think it is because we never had a girlfriend or because we are perverts.
They don’t see homosexuality as a natural social reality, but as something acquired and chosen. We have not chosen to be homosexual. We were born homosexuals. What better answer can we give?
Kamran: Another difficult thing is that people do not know anything about our emotional life. They think homosexuality it is only about sex. “Homosexuality means sex” – this is what most of the people in Iran think and say.
Unfortunately, some uneducated people say I want to “do” a gay. They think gay means prostitute.
Kaveh: I think people mostly get these stereotypical assumptions about gay people is from gay web sites. If I search the word “gay” or “homosexual” on the internet it will give me these websites of naked men and women or their private parts, so people will assume gay means prostitute.
For example, we proudly print a section of an article from your publication that is informative for families to read and give it to our family, ask them “please read this and see what it says about this issue” because in Iran we don’t have a source of information.
Everything else is internet porn sites. The image people have of homosexuals is an evakhahar [a flamboyantly feminine homosexual man] in Daneshjou Park who waits to be picked up in cars and has sex all the time.
Kamran: If you believe homosexuality is a disease, look how many accomplished people we have.
Many of our doctors, engineers, artists, and chemists are homosexual. If that is an obscene sickness, why are these people so sophisticated, educated and accomplished?
There are a number of successful executives I know who are gay. Why are these people successful? Are they homosexual and sick? Of course nothing is wrong with them; they just have a different sexual orientation.
Homosexuals were born homosexual. Some people think socialisation can be part of it, but I do not think so.
This raised two questions for me. Why do you think people call homosexual “evakhahar “? What does evakhahar mean?
In addition, Kamran pointed to famous and successful people like singers and actors in cinema, figures most people are constantly exposed to and in a sense interact with daily. So how can they find homosexuality so unacceptable?
Kamran: I think their culture and way of thinking makes it impossible for them to accept it. At the most they’ll say that famous gay person is still different from you. But he isn’t. He has the same sexual urges as me.
On your other point, we call homosexual men “gay”. Gay means a man who acts like a man, dresses like a man, and wants to be with a man.
In this culture they think gay is a man who likes to put on make up, act like a woman, and dress up like a woman. They call those men “evakhahar”. Most of the time these people are not even gay. They just like to dress up and put make up on, but they want to be with the opposite sex.
Kaveh: I really think evakhahar is a name that people use depending on the situation. I’ve been told that I am evakhahar. It depends on the situation. Evakhahars are people who don’t fit into social categorization.
For example, if I live in Zaferanieh (a wealthy area in north Tehran) and have crazy hair and wax my eyebrows and have earrings everybody will say “wow that is fashion.”
They’ll think it is so cool. Now think if I live in Khorasan Square (a religious and working neighbourhood in downtown Tehran) and I come out of my house dressed in such a way people will call me evakhahar because I will not fit in with the norm around me.
This so called evakhahar doesn’t fit in any category. This gay individual doesn’t have a computer or the internet because he cannot afford it and does not have a friend to talk to about his sexual orientation.
He is trying to find a gay community and make some friends, maybe find someone more than a friend. He will be put under so much pressure by the society around him, he will be called an evakhahar and a woman so many times, he starts believing he is a woman and this may even lead to him getting a sex-change operation as a way to relieve the pressure.
He may even be a manager of some corporation or have employees working under him, but he may have to put some make up on when he goes out with his friends at night as a way to connect with people like himself.
So he starts acting like a woman, putting on an act, moving his hands a certain way in the hopes of finding friends like himself and satisfying his sexual needs.
In Iran there is no place for this community, so when people see him they think there is an evakhahar here to have sex.
Of course there is good and bad everywhere, in any culture. Just as we have destitute women, we have destitute men. Just as we have prostitution in the heterosexual community, we have prostitution in the homosexual community.
You mean that if someone dressed like a typical resident of downtown Tehran comes up north people will think he is a bum or a hobo, even though in his own neighbourhood his appearance is completely reasonable and acceptable.
Kaveh: yes exactly.
Many people believe homosexuality is now a fashion trend, it is cool, and being gay or having gay friends illustrates class, sophisticated, open-mindedness. What do you think about this?
Kamran: Yes, homosexual is commodified as something high-class. But there are people who don’t have bread to eat at night and are gay. Homosexuality has nothing to do with economic status, but some people see it as the current stylish trend.
So it is possible for a man from northern Tehran who wears earrings, rings, sports crazy hair and an over-the-top style to be heterosexual but presents himself as a gay man in order to make a fashion statement?
Kaveh: Yes, we know many people they are not gay, but tell everybody that they are. In Tehran gays are divided into two groups: south side gays and north side gays.
Or shall I say upper-class gays and working-class gays.
Working class gays are financially struggling because there are no jobs for them. If they do get employed somewhere, soon many problems arise for them in the workplace.
So in general they do not have any real income. Parents will not give them pocket money. They don’t have the means to go to school and pay for books or tuition.
For financial reasons they are denied higher education. They get teased in their neighbourhood and it is very hard for them to find friends.
Most young people these days care very much about the clothes and brand names and so on, so that also works against them.
The difficulties these gays face are much more intense and horrible than their rich counterparts. Rich gays are not problem-free either.
Their parents usually give them a car, a home and money and say “just go and get lost from our sight.”
Most of these people live in uptown in fancy houses, work in their own businesses, and continue getting pocket-money from their parents. Working-class gays often have liaisons with upper-class gays.
They are exploited by the upper-class as fresh faces. After a while these relationships inevitably expire. This is a type of entertainment for upper-class gays.
Kamran: There is a severe class distinction in Iran, and these two classes are in constant relationship with one another. They are forced to be in relationship.
Many people believe the number of homosexuals has increased. Families admit that there were homosexuals around years ago, even individuals they knew personally, but these days there are more and more of them since it is now a fashionable thing to be. Why do you think people think like this?
Kamran: well this is obvious. Five years ago we did not have systems of communication that could bring us together.
There is a computer or satellite dish in every home now. Ten years ago, we didn’t have any a wide-spread vehicle by which to raise awareness.
Many gay people who haven’t recognised this feeling inside of them watch a programme on the television, satellite and this makes them become a bit more aware of themselves and come to know their identities.
In my opinion, with the opening of debate and cultural developments and communicational developments, more homosexuals are coming out of the closet.
Homosexuals are not like ants, they are not going to grow and spread. They have always existed, but now are more visible to the main-stream society.
Do you believe media has helped people become familiar with homosexuality helping people to get more information about homosexuality, even though Kaveh complained of the excessive availability of pornography on the internet?
Kamran: Yes, modes of communicating information are varied and this variety itself is a way for people to become more familiar by getting varied exposure to it.
For example, one can gain knowledge by reading academic and philosophical texts and familiarising himself in that way and finally come to accept it.
Watching porn may shatter someone’s preconceived ideas about the ugliness of such a relationship. Every medium has its own particular audience.
Kaveh: Going back to the increasing visibility of homosexuals: yes, there is not doubt about that. They see each other, recognise each other, go out and people see more of them and think their numbers have increased.
But the other point that strikes me is that many homosexuals like to announce their sexual orientation to others and behave openly.
Everywhere they announce they are gay. They argue with heterosexuals and are even interested in having sexual relations with heterosexuals.
Two gay men, after initially meeting, start behaving as if they have known each other for such a long time, they are kind and generous. They are famous for these qualities and others can recognise it.
Kamran: Straight people who walk into this situation and see these two gay men acting to friendly and intimately, become interested.
It is interesting for them that these men go to parties together and live differently from others in society. They enjoy their company, hang out with them, have fun.
Eventually they think “what if we’re also gay?” Some of them get involved with gay men and abuse the situation, then tire of it and leave.
This kind of nosiness and curiosity by the heterosexual community makes it look like homosexuality is contagious and gives people more of a reason to believe it is a growing phenomenon.
What is relationship between gays and lesbians like?
Kaveh: It is very limited. In Tehran our only mode of communication and access was the internet. I tried many times to chat with lesbians.
I would tell them that I’d like to get to know you ,but they were suspicious.
They wanted me to either talk through the microphone or turn on a webcam, because most people want to chat with lesbians are straight men who want sex. Lesbians had many problems. In many gay chat rooms, there were many straight people who pretended to be gay to abuse lesbians.
Because of this lesbians didn’t respond to many people’s messages.
Kamran: I only knew a few lesbians who had limited relationships. They wouldn’t reveal themselves unless they really knew the person. I knew them through old mutual friends. But in general they conducted relationships very cautiously and with much restriction.
Kaveh: We would very much like to find a lesbian couple and be friends with them, so everybody could see gays do not hate women.
Gays like to be with girls, go out, hold their hands and be friends. They have nothing against women. They just choose not to share the same bed.
If we had some lesbian friends, we could deceive our parents. We could call them our girlfriends and we’d talk to them on the phone and our parents who have no reason to be suspicious of us. We would not have to come out of the closet to them due to societal pressures.
Because they will not accept that we don’t have relationships with any girls.
Why do you think gays and lesbians are so disconnected from each other, and what obstacles must be taken away for these two groups to come together?
Kamran: I think it is because we do not know each other. If I tell some stupid gays who ask lesbians how they have sex that it is none of your business these problems will become less and less.
Lesbians get upset hearing such questions, because they do not like to describe their sex life constantly to others.
In addition, if a girl does not have a boyfriend in Iranian society, she could be a lesbian. If a girl does not date, her parents will say we have a very good girl.
It is different for boys. If a man takes care of himself and perhaps waxes his eyebrows and wears flashy clothes he’ll be criticised for it.
Kaveh: I think lesbians are more stupid. Nobody will see you if you don’t come out. Lesbians like to remain in hiding. Gays talk about it but lesbians don’t at all.
So many people do not take their lesbian relationships seriously. In porn films they show a lesbian couple together who then turn around and have sex with a man.
This is the image people have of lesbians. In my opinion, a coming together of the two communities and creating stronger connections amongst us will eradicate many of these problems.
The gay community is much stronger than the lesbian community. Lesbians need to come out and get to work and be together, just like gays.
You ran away from Iran and are now in Turkey. Can you tell me what your situation is now?
Kamran: We don’t have the stability we had in Iran. In terms of food and health we are in poor condition.
Kaveh: Ever since we came here we got a skin condition. Our skin constantly itches. I don’t know if its bugs or fleas or what. But it itches so much we have wounds and sores all over our skin. We can’t sleep at night because of the itching and the pain.
Kamran: It is like pimples which have over taken our whole bodies. We went to doctor, but the medication is too expensive for us to afford buying it for the both of us.
It is about 40 lirs (£15).
We had to get one prescription and share the medication between us, which is obviously not going to work properly and the medication will run out before the prescribed treatment period.
This is our health condition and this is our dirty living conditions.
Kaveh: It is very hard for single people to rent a home, so we had to stay in other people’s homes. We had a pretty desperate situation; we had to ask everybody for help. In terms of food, we usually eat once a day and try to sleep the rest of the day so we will not think about food and hunger.
Currently, where are you in your immigration process?
Kamran: we are still waiting. We went to the UN, they told us to come back in seven months, then we are going to interview you and ask you what happened to you. We do not feel well. I do not think I can make it. We will get all kind of horrible diseases or we might die.
Kaveh: When we told them about our situation, they told us we did not send you invitation card, being refugees is hard.
What ever we had has finished. If you (IRQO) were not helping us, I don’t know what we would do. Until we go to the UN in seven months, we’ll have a very uncertain situation.
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We just have to be patient and wait. We have met people who have committed suicide due to the difficulties and pressure of this kind of life, or they have been waiting here for a few years and are still waiting, or those who have been deported back.
We have lost the little hope we had but have no other option but to wait.
What kind of future do you think awaits you?
Kamran: I don’t know, but I’d like to benefit from the same legal rights anyone else in Iran has. This is not such a big deal, but in Iran is very big thing to ask for.
Kaveh: We do not ask for much in life. I want to have a 40 metre apartment in Iran where I can live with my partner, the person I love. Get up in the morning and go to work, work, and feel at peace when I return home.
That’s it. Just a quiet life with my boyfriend. I’d like to reach this dream and not be hanged or stoned for loving someone.