A conversation with Hossein Alizadeh
Turkey and the Lebanon are the countries most tolerant of gays; Iran and Saudi Arabia are the most homophobic. The picture painted by Hossein Alizadeh, a young Iranian who is the spokesman for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHTC) with headquarters in New York, is that of a patchy Middle East, where on the one hand embryonic gay movements appear while on the other sentences against sodomy are ferociously applied.
An interview by Ernesto Pagano.
Tell us about this organisation. When was it founded and what are its objectives?
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission was founded in 1990. Its mission is the emancipation of human rights for everyone, in all countries, to put an end to sexual discrimination, gender identity or restrictions to the expression of one’s sexuality.
What are the most important problems faced by homosexuals in the Middle East?
Sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular are considered taboo by people and by the media. Many are only informed about homosexuality on the basis of what they have been taught by their religious leaders, who often speak of it as a sin, as well as gossip on the streets labelling gays as perverts. General ignorance has been exacerbated by laws on sodomy, whether based on Shari’a, as in Iran and in Saudi Arabia, or inherited colonial laws as in the Lebanon. The combination of disinformation and strict laws against homosexuality have made LGBT people (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, editor’s note) extremely vulnerable in the Middle East.
Can one consider Beirut as a sort of refuge for homosexuals in the Middle East?
Historically the Lebanon has been one of the cultural centres for Arab countries. Its heterogeneous society has allowed the growth of a LGBT movement in loco. This works as an example and a model for the rest of the region. On the other hand political barriers do not permit gays and lesbians to travel to the Lebanon from other countries in the region. Furthermore, the Lebanese government is very sensitive as far as non-Lebanese Arab immigrants are concerned and makes it very difficult for them to settle in this country. There are also language differences that make the integration of between Arabs and non-Arabs more difficult, such as between Turks and Iranians.
Are there any other gay organisations appearing directly in the Middle East apart from the Lebanese one?
There are various LGBT groups in Turkey. In the Palestinian Territories there are two gay and lesbian organisations. There are also various activists in other countries such as Iraq, Iran, Morocco and the Sudan, who run their organisations from outside the region, in exile.
Do you remember any important episodes of homophobia in the region?
One of the most crude episodes perhaps is one that took place in the spring of 2009, when a few hundred homosexuals were raped and tortured by Shiite militias in Iraq. The manner in which homosexuals are treated by the Iranian authorities is also a dark chapter in the history of this movement.
How do homosexuals live their relationships in a country such as Iran?
There are many small secret clubs forming an underground network of gays and lesbians linking people and allowing them to meet and get to know each other. Unfortunately there is always a fear that government elements might infiltrate the organisation and in some cases there have been police roundups that have led to arrests, brutal torture and persecutions.
Are conditions for homosexuals improving in spite of repression?
The battle continues but I do not think the situation is improving. As long as there is ignorance, homophobia will prevail unconditionally. I am convinced that the role played by local activists is extremely important in establishing a dialogue with public opinion and in making the falseness of these prejudices understood.
Is it just a question of prejudice or are there links between Islam and homophobia?
Like many other religions, Islam is interpreted so as to only allow a binary vision of sexuality. Many religious leaders, using a literalist interpretation of religion, have brutally attacked homosexuality. Luckily, in recent times a movement of erudite preachers, both Sunni and Shiite, has encouraged a reanalysis of this issue with a more tolerant approach to sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular.
In his book Desiring Arabs, Joseph Massad criticises movements such as the IGLHRC because they impose the “homosexual” category there where it did not previously exist.
It is true that the concept of homosexuality as we know and understand it in the West is a strictly western experience. It is however certainly not true that people with desires for their same sex did not exist in other cultures before contact with the west. The truth is that Arab Islamic society has never accepted an open dialogue on sexuality. The idea of being gay and having a different identity has never been developed among Muslims. This does not mean that homosexuality has been exported from the West, just as it does not means that human rights are valid only for the West and not for Muslims.
Translated by Francesca Simmons