Will Gay Iranians Come Out of the Revolt Better --or Worse?

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday June 30, 2009

Ever since the Iranian Revolution empowered a socially conservative theocracy led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, the country has been a difficult place for gays, lesbians and transgender people to call home. Under Sharia law, the law of the Islamic republic's land, homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death, causing many LGBT Iranians to either leave the country or live in secrecy.

Now, as the eyes of the world turn toward the streets of Tehran and other parts of the country in light of the massive protesting around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial re-election over the popular reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi, we ask what role LGBT Iranians are playing in the unrest and what the protests could mean for an already vulnerable community.

LGBT activists on the streets in Iran
According to sources interviewed for this story, gay and lesbian protesters, largely based out of urban universities, have stood at the forefront of the opposition to Ahmadinejad alongside many women and religious and ethnic minorities. The protesters were further invigorated when Iran's president-elect pointed to "thieves, homosexuals and scumbags" as the root of those who stand against him in a victory speech. His statement proved ironic, given his previous denial of the existence of a queer community in his country in a now infamous Columbia University speech two years ago.

"For Iran's LGBTs, this is a moment of truth," explained Neil Grungras, executive director of ORAM - Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration, an organization which aids those seeking refugee status based on sexual or gender-based violence. "While they dream of gaining long-yearned for freedoms, many fear they will soon need to join their sisters and brothers who've fled the country."

"The Iranian LGBT community is angry, in addition all minorities. These are the people you see in the streets of Iran," echoed Arsham Parsi, prominent Iranian LGBT activist and executive director of the IRanian Queer Railroad (IRQR). "They are unhappy with the discrimination and being targeted by the government. Enough is enough. They're going to the street to support the green movement and saying, 'We do exist, we didn't vote for you and we want our votes back.'"

The street demonstrations have continued nearly non-stop since the results were announced June 12, despite the government's attempt to quell tempers and censor the spread of organizing information through social networks like Twitter and Facebook. The protests have resulted in the deaths of at least 17, according to the official figures released by the government, though many speculate that the figure is much higher.

Iranians ask for international support
Iranian activists have seen the unrest as an opportunity for reform, though they acknowledge serious concerns remain for the community's safety. Via an open letter distributed by the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO) June 20, a "network of homosexual university students of Iran" reached out to the international LGBT community with a strong message. [As the source of the letter has remained unconfirmed, excerpts from the letter originally published here have been removed to protect gay Iranians' safety.]

The call to action has been answered by some in the Western LGBT community, though it is worth noting that a perusal of the Human Rights Campaign's Web site rendered no mention of Iranian violence. In an e-mail distributed earlier this month, British activist and writer Peter Tatchell helped mobilize a large contingent of gays and lesbians to participate in a demonstration outside of the Iranian embassy in London on June 18. Tatchell urged LGBT activists to stand in solidarity with the Iranian opposition with hopes that such support could empower the community.

"As a matter of principle, we should support this epic mass movement for fair votes, personal liberty, social justice and human rights," Tatchel wrote. "Moreover, if the regime in Tehran is reformed or better still, toppled, it might open up a democratic space in which LGBT Iranians are able to organise and campaign, which could lead to the eventual abolition or non-enforcement of Iran's harsh homophobic laws."

LGBTs have a lot to lose
The fears of activists were shared by Hossein Alizadeh, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission's communications coordinator. Alizadeh spoke with EDGE shortly after returning from a visit to Turkey, where nearly 20,000 Iranian refugees - an estimated 150 of which identify as LGBT - await asylum in the West. Some have been waiting for as long as three years, a period during which it is difficult to find employment or safe spaces to live openly gay lives.

"The reality is that gay people are always the easiest target for the government to go after. I'm worried that if there is a crackdown, they will be targeting gay people," he said. "The public doesn't have much sympathy toward homosexuality. For the past 30 years, there has been no open conversation about sexuality in this country, let alone homosexuality. Iranians have had no opportunity to explore the concept of sexuality and what it means to them, so all they know is what the government propaganda tells them."

And that propaganda has not been traditionally friendly toward the queer community.

"In the mind of many Iranians, there is nothing worse than being gay," said Grungras. "There is nothing more anti-Islamic or immoral to them, so if you want to disparage a movement, what's easier than saying that homosexuals are behind it? LGBTs have a lot to lose if the result of this is that the current government is more entrenched."

What comes next?
As both the world and LGBT community stands by and awaits what the result of the post-election mayhem will be, activists ponder their next move with uncertainty. They continue to hope for democracy but fear major reprisals in the form of both vigilante and government-sponsored violence.

"The question is what will happen next? What will happen to gay and lesbian Iranians?" asked Alizadeh. "This is a country run by a government that has not allowed any sort of non-governmental organization to operate and has no tolerance for other political ideologies or points of view. We have to think about how we can work a viable LGBT movement into Iran in a way that will work if there's a dramatic shift of power ... The Iranian people are ready for a major change."

This story is the first of a series of stories examining LGBT connections to the current unrest in Iran following the contested election results. Next, read more about the experience of gay and lesbian Iranian refugees attempting to flee the country since the election fallout began.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.