In a series of personal stories submitted to the International lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex association (ILGA) the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees reveals massive state-sponsored persection of lesbians, gay men and transgender Iranians.
Iranian transgender people
Iran carries out more sex change operations than any other nation in the world except for Thailand. Since the mid-1980s transgender individuals have been officially recognized by the government and allowed to undergo sex reassignment surgery with the government even providing up to half the cost for those needing financial assistance. A change to a birth certificate is also allowed.
However many transgender surgeries are actually performed on gay men who report being coerced. They and actual Iranian transgendered people report being persecuted, tortured and coerced to undergo sex reassignment procedure.
Many of those Iranians undergoing operations end up far worse off because of carelessly performed or even incomplete reassignment procedures and absent pre-surgery counseling.
Those individuals who receive psychotherapy are sometimes assaulted and abused by their therapists. There have been incidents where therapists tell their patients to have sex with them if they want to prove that they have feminine emotions. There have been other incidents where transsexuals have been raped by their surgeons. Surgeons are aware that their transsexual patients do not often have financial and/or family support so they commit the sexual violence without fear of any sanction. Often, victims cannot file a complaint with the police as police themselves commit the same sort of acts all the time.
Most transgendered individuals cannot get a job until they go through a sex-change operation and receive a new identification card. Despite the supposed government assistance, most transgendered people lack the financial means for a sex-change operation. Consequently, many of them turn to prostitution in order to earn money for the sex reassignment procedure. Prostitution brings with it, however, all types of risks and dangers from sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection to abuse, rape and murder.
Despite the government's theoretical acceptance of transgender people, like gays and lesbians, they are always in danger of getting beaten and arrested by the unaccountable Basiji forces (a paramilitary volunteer militia). Transgender people have been deemed 'criminal by the Basiji and delivered to Mafased, the organization responsible for dealing with 'moral corruption', which can imprison people for days and subject them to physical and psychological torture.
Judges, who can arbitrarily decides whether to set a person free or not, usually use sexist, brutal and demoralizing words and acts.
Sayeh has been arrested three times by the Basiji and forced to sign papers guaranteeing not to appear in public anymore with his transgender attire and appearance after two days of psychological torture in a detention centre - even though he was just wearing a simple shirt and pants at the time of his arrest. He fled Iran to Turkey and was granted asylum status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and eventually found sanctuary in Canada in 2007.
Unfortunately, after a year of living in Toronto, he reportedly committed suicide due to serious problems related to his sexuality. The police did not disclose much detail on the mysterious circumstances of Sayeh’s death. It is not certain whether he committed suicide or had been killed and became another victim of homophobia.
In February 2007, a 40-year-old transgendered man from the neighbourhood of "Sheikhtappeh" in the city of Orumieh, Azerbaijan, was found murdered. The transgendered man, who was known as "Giz Naser" (meaning Naser the girl) in his neighborhood, was attacked and murdered by three men.
Holiya is a 24-year-old Iranian male-to-female transgendered person. In 2006, she left Iran for Turkey because of her sexual orientation and gender identity. Holiya is from one of Iran's wealthier families but unfortunately experienced severe difficulties when her family found out about her sexuality. Her family found it hard to accept the fact their son was a transgendered woman. Holiya's family repeatedly said she brought shame onto their honour. Eventually, they stopped financially supporting her and Holiya had no choice but to leave home.
In May 2008, after 14 months of living in such a difficult situation, she finally left Turkey and arrived in the United States. Holiya is now living in Portland, Oregon, but she is not yet secure. Holiya continues to wear men's clothes because she hasn't come out and told people she is a male to female transgendered person. She fears people’s reactions because she used to live in Iran where she had to hide everything.
Although not as visible internationally as the situation for Iranian gay men, Iranian lesbians also face viscious persecution.
Many are forced by society and by their family to live a lie and marry a man. Under Iranian law, it is lawful for a man to rape his wife. The only unlawful rape of a woman is 'zena' or adulterous rape.
If arrested, they risk being raped, whipped, persecuted or even tortured to death. Women convicted of lesbian sex face flogging or, after conviction for a fourth time, the death penalty.
If their sexuality is discovered by their family members, they are likely to be beaten and abused if not abandoned. Abandonment often means drug abuse and prostitution.
Sometimes, lesbian women are forced by their families to consult a doctor, a process which can involve agitation and trauma. There have been cases where a lesbian required hospitalization after being prescribed a dangerous pill used typically for serious mental illnesses. They may even be persuaded to undergo a sex-change operation, which can lead to depression, various mental and physical conditions and even suicide.
A university student in her mid-twenties in Tehran told IRQR that she was barred from leaving the family home for there months when her mother discovered she was a lesbian. After which she was under constant supervision and was prevented from communicating outside the family.
A Human Rights Watch report describes the experience of a 23-year-old woman in Tehran who had two girlfriends who were subjected to forced therapy and drugging. After the parents learned of her lesbianism, she was told that she must take estrogen for her condition of hormone deficiency. One of her girlfriends was forcibly medicated from age 15 until age 21. The side effects of the drugs included an inability to concentrate, constant dizziness, chronic fatigue, and loss of sexual interest.
Maryam is a 29-year-old Iranian lesbian refugee who IRQR helped connect to the UNHRC after she fled to Turkey. Her family forced her to marry one of their relatives. The husband raped her every night. She could do nothing about it because one of the first duties of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran is “sexual delivery” to their husbands.
She went to a doctor after the repeated brutal marital rapes and was told: “you appear to have been raped by an animal and you need urgent health care now.” However, her family ordered her to be patient and stay at her husband's home. She was then repeatedly beaten by her husband but she eventually escaped and went to a friend's house.
While she was there, her brothers came when she was out and told her friend they were going to kill their sister to save the family's honour. She allegedly had dishonored the family because she had left her husband and has suspicious connections with other women. That was when she fled Iran to Turkey.
Sanaz's mother forced her to marry a man after discovering she was a lesbian. Had she refused, her parents would have disowned her. She had no means of supporting herself. She continues to live in fear of her husband discovering her sexuality and thus might become abusive or publicly 'out' her in a shameful divorce. She also described a pattern of forced sex with her husband.
Taraneh is an Iranian lesbian refugee who has lived in the Netherlands for the past 17 years. She was 21 when she was first arrested in Iran and consequently spent three months in prison where she received 100 whip lashes.
Later, she was forced into marriage by her family. Yet, she continued her relationship with her girlfriend clandestinely.
Her neighbors became aware of her same-sex relationship and reported her to the police. The police forces raided her house, beat her severely and took her to a detention centre. She was severely tortured there and was forced to confess to her lesbianism.
She spent several days in solitary confinement while bleeding and lacking access to sanitary and medical facilities. In the Revolutionary Court of Esfahan, Taraneh was offered freedom if she agreed to co-operate with the secret police to identify other lesbians. After rejecting this offer, she was beaten again and was then sent to prison.
She spent two years in prison and received 180 lashes. She was flogged in front of other prisoners. Throughout this period, she was repeatedly threatened with imminent execution. Every night, she and other prisoners were taken to the prison’s courtyard and were forced to run. They were told by the guards that “people like them must be burnt to death.” When Taraneh was finally released after several years of torture and trauma, she immediately escaped to Turkey and applied for refugee status.
Shaghayegh is another Iranian lesbian who was forced to escape from Iran along with her partner in February 2007.
In 2001, she was forced into marriage, which consequently made her depressed and suicidal. During this period, she became friends with Nazanin, who is now her partner. Shaghayegh’s husband became aware of their relationship and blackmailed them. He repeatedly threatened that he would report them to the police. His threats continued even after Shaghayegh divorced him.
The husband once attempted to murder Nazanin by throwing a stone at her while she was driving. Left without any legal recourse, Shaghayegh and Nazanin had to buy themselves short periods of safety by giving the former husband a lot of money. They spent many of their days in fear as they sometimes heard stories about a lesbian friend of theirs getting arrested, beaten up, tortured and raped by the Basiji forces.
One month before leaving the country, the couple received constant threats from a stranger who wanted to force them into group sex. The stranger harassed the couple repeatedly by knocking at their door and windows at night and calling their cell phones. Once again, Shaghayegh and Nazanin were unable to report these incidents because, in the eyes of the police, they would have been not the victims but the criminals.
On Feb. 22, 2007, Shaghayegh was alone at home when she heard a knock on her door. She opened the door to be informed that police forces had come to confiscate her satellite receiver. While in her apartment, the police agents also noticed several DVDs beside the TV set. Among the DVDs were “illegal movies,” lesbian movies, and pictures of Shaghayegh and Nazanin kissing and making love.
The police took the DVDs with them and asked Shaghayegh who the man of the house was. After telling them that he was away, Shaghayegh was told to send her husband to them by next week. Understanding that the DVDs contained enough evidence to sentence her and Nazanin to arrest, torture and rape, if not outright execution, Shaghayegh and Nazanin arranged their escape to Turkey immediately and applied for refugee status once they arrived there.
Iranian gay men
In December 2008, Ali, who is 30, escaped from Iran to Turkey. He was caught when he was having sex with a man by his father, who was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. As a result, he lost his job, and he and his family were threatened with death.
He was arrested several times in Iran, the last time was in the summer of 2007 while he was on vacation in the north of Iran, and the Islamic Guard detained him simply because he was wearing a T-shirt and jeans and had spiky hair. He doesn’t feel safe even in Turkey because the father of the man he had sex with is in the Revolutionary Guard and has the ability to find him there and have him killed so he can cover up the scandal of his queer son.
In an interview with IRQR, he said: "I didn't do anything. I'm just a gay man who was born in a country in which my existence was forbidden, just for being gay, just for having a special feeling which is not that of a majority of society. I love guys. It is my right to be free, but I have to live in exile for it. I need help.”
On May 10, 2007, eighty-seven queer men were arrested and beaten by the police at a birthday party in Esfahan.
Around 10 p.m., the police force first entered the second floor of the home where the family members were gathered and arrested some of them and a child. The family members were released the day after. The police then went to the third floor where the party guests were gathered, turned off the lights, shot ‘fake gunshots,’ forced everyone to lie on the ground, began beating them and walked over them. Then the police dragged either head-bags or their blouses over the guests’ heads, forced them to go to the street and pushed them with a baton into a military car.
While the car had a normal capacity of 15-20 people, the police stuffed all 87 men into one vehicle. The people who were witnessing the event on the street reported that the clothes of the arrested men were torn and their faces were bleeding. One of the guests jumped out of the third floor window and needed an operation on his two broken legs as a result.
Based on information received, they were transferred to the Esfahan Dastgerd jail and were exposed to severe pressure and torture. Of the 87 men arrested, 60 were released unconditionally in the weeks following their arrest while 27 were later released on bail. They are not believed to have had access to lawyers or their families.
Farhad, the 19-year-old man for whom the birthday party was held, was condemned to pay 150,000,000 Tomans (about 170,000 USD) as bail. A judge reportedly said that those detained following the private party will be charged with consumption of alcohol and homosexual conduct ('hamjensgarai') even though there was no evidence to prove that these men were gay or were engaging in same-sex relations.
It is important to note that when storming the house, the police forces were equipped with cameras and were accompanied by four clergymen, making them effectively ready to satisfy the legal requirement of four “righteous men” to prove the act of sodomy. No evidence could be collected, however, to prove the crime of “lavat” because at the time of the invasion, no one was engaging in any sexual conduct.
The situation could have been different, though. This incident is just one of the many examples that show the extent to which the walls of homes are transparent and the halls of justice are opaque in Iran. It also shows the extent to which respect for privacy and personal dignity is fragile in Iran.
IRQR acquired information about this incident in Esfahan through its queer members in Iran. After some of our members contacted us by phone to report the situation, they were contacted by intelligence agents (Setad-e Khabari-e Ettelaat) and were brought into their office. They were accused of working for foreign organizations and asked to explain why there was once an Italian man at one of their parties.
When they denied the accusation, they were told that the intelligence agency has information about all of them and were presented with albums that contained the pictures and contact information of all their gay friends. They were asked to pay significant amounts of money in order to be released. Following their release, several of the arrested men left the country for security reasons. These incidents illustrate the extent to which members of the queer community, their telephone conversations and their relationships are monitored and controlled.
In April 2007, two gay men, 26-year-old Farsad and 24-year-old Farnam, received 80 lashes for giving a small party in their house, and were told that they would receive further lashes later for having an “improper” relationship.
Farsad and Farnam moved together into an apartment in the winter of 2007 to start their life as a couple. They invited a small group of their friends to celebrate their union. Just fifteen minutes after the party began; the police broke into their house and arrested everyone.
The arrestees were beaten brutally and were then transported to a police detention center. They spent the entire New Year holidays in a prison cell. “We were beaten to the point that my spine hurt permanently; I still feel the pain caused by the fists pounding my face,” Farsad says. They were accused of advocating decadence, homosexuality and prostitution.
Because they were arrested together, the authorities insisted on more details about their relationship. During the police interrogation, they were asked, "Did you have sexual intercourse with each other?” They did not admit to this, and eventually they were sentenced for having an improper relationship, for which they received a sentence of 80 lashes.
All other guests were released conditionally and they were ordered to remain in the city and not contact each other. Two weeks before the execution of their sentence, the party attendees were arrested again and were sentenced to 60 lashes each, all received the same day. Farsad and Farnam were told that the 80 lashes were just for holding the party, and that their sentence for the improper relationship would be executed later.
At the age of 21, Farsad set up a weblog in order to meet people like himself. The police found his address through his IP information and arrested him.
He spent three weeks in solitary confinement and he was accused of obscenity, advocating decadent values and homosexuality. He was sentenced to six months in prison. After completing his sentence, he suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress with symptoms so debilitating they forced him to get hospitalized.
Then his diary was found by his stepfather, who demanded Farsad denounce his homosexuality. When Farsad resisted, his step-father took him to Qom (a holy city in Iran and a centre for ayatollahs) to be seen by the grand ayatollahs. He spent several nights in custody, and was humiliated by the security forces there. They threatened him with stoning unless he denounced his homosexuality.
Traumatized by the threats, he was taken to see a grand ayatollah. Before him, he signed his confession and forgiveness plea. He was then returned to Tehran, where he received 95 lashes before being released. Almost as an afterthought, he was questioned by the supreme leader’s office in the university where he was studying and was expelled from school as well.
A documentary called 'Out in Iran:Inside Iran's Secret Gay World' was broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in February 2007. The documentary, which was filmed in Iran, provides the world’s first look at life inside Iran’s persecuted gay community. The director meets an astonishing group of courageous people with heartbreaking stories.
One of these people is Hooman, a gay man who has been the victim of abuse, torture, rape and unlawful arrests. The Basiji forces have attacked him several times and have abused him physically and sexually. He has been warned not to inform the authorities, for this would only cause him to receive more severe punishments.
Before the release of the documentary, one of the young gay men interviewed in the documentary, named Mani, was forced to escape from the country. Mani's employer at the pharmaceutical firm where he worked at found out that he was gay and that he had participated in the documentary and reported him to the police.
Since the documentary was broadcast in February 2007, IRQR have received reports from Iran about the abuse and torture of at least one of the young gay men whose face was shown in the documentary.
The young man, named Farzan, had been identified by the Basiji forces and repeatedly beaten and bullied by them. He was threatened with more severe punishments if he decided to report his case. His family members also become aware of his sexual orientation and have since put him under extraordinary pressure and restrictions. These incidents show the great political and social forces that are at work to keep Iranian queer people an invisible and oppressed population.
Hossein, 22, escaped from Iran to Canada in September 2006, where he has been languishing while awaiting official refugee status and the granting of asylum by Canadian government. He is a musician who used to perform at various celebrations, including weddings and parties. These gatherings were often raided, but usually the host would pay the authorities a bribe, and that would end the matter.
He had his first relationship at age 12 with the son of a neighbor. It lasted two years.
In September 2006, he was playing along with other musicians at a private gay party in a home. The party was raided, and the police viciously attacked the men. One person was beaten so badly that Hossein later learned that he had died from it.
Hossein was beaten for ten minutes and lost consciousness for about 10 hours. He was later arrested while he was in hospital. Eventually his mother and a friend of his came to the hospital; The latter dressed in the uniform of a sergeant in the disciplinary forces and pretending to relieve the soldier who was guarding his room. Hossein put on a hospital worker's uniform and was able to escape.
After he was smuggled into Canada, his family's home was raided, and his mother and father arrested for three days on charges of helping him escape for being gay. His father was detained and tortured for a year and later died.
In November 2005, an 18-year-old boy from Agah Bisheh, a village in the province of Rasht, was set on fire by his father.
Outraged and saddened with the news of his son’s homosexuality, the father first poured gasoline on his son and then on himself in order to save his family’s “honour.” While the 18-year-old boy died from severe burns, the father survived with burns on his hands and face.
In March 2005, a gay man, named Sam, was arrested after he had been lured though online chat rooms to meet a man who had turned out to be a police agent. He was taken to a Basiji Base, and was severely beaten and tortured there.
After several hours of physical and mental torture, he was asked to write an undertaking not to ever enter a chat room again lest he would be entitled to the most severe punishments. He was threatened with execution. While being beaten and whipped, he was forced into signing a form and putting his fingerprint on it. He was repeatedly insulted with foul words.
After two nights, he was taken to a deserted area and was left alone there. He was saved by a van driver who took him to the city. Being fearful for his life and unable to tell his family members and friends about the incident, he left Iran for Pakistan immediately and applied for refugee status.
In June 2004, undercover police agents in Shiraz arranged meetings with men through Internet chat rooms and then arrested them. Amir was one of them, he was held in detention for a week. During this period, he was repeatedly tortured. The judicial authorities in Shiraz sentenced him to 175 lashes, 100 of which were administered immediately.
Following his arrest, security officials subjected Amir to regular surveillance and periodic arrests. From July 2005 until he fled the country later in the year, police threatened Amir with imminent execution.
In September 2003, police arrested a group of men at a private gathering in one of their homes in Shiraz and held them in detention for several days. According to Amir police tortured them to obtain confessions. The judiciary charged five of the defendants with “participation in a corrupt gathering” and fined them.
Compiled from reports submitted by Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees to ILGA. For security reasons, the real name of the survivors, in most cases, were not used.