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Share your stories and stories from your family and friends from inside Iran on Underground Iran.

In a 2007 speech at New York’s Columbia University, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told his audience that, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.”

He later clarified to CNN, “Perhaps there are those who engage in [homosexual] activities … but these are not known elements within Iranian society.”  “Rest assured,” he added,” this is one of the ugliest behaviors in our society.”

Given these stark realities in Iran, the “not known elements” to which Ahmadinejad referred – are Iranian lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender persons (LGBTs) – are among the most deeply closeted in the world today.  For LGBTs in Iran, getting exposed could cost them their lives.

But things in Iran were not always the way they are today.

Political writer Doug Ireland suggests that homosexuality was tolerated during the Pahlavi dynasty.  One of the ways Iran’s then spiritual leader, the ayatollah Khomeini, is said to have ousted the shah was by stirring up public outrage over the “immoral lifestyle” of the Pahlavi court, based on rumors that his prime minister gay.

After the fall of the shah, the new regime switched from a legal system based on a hybrid of European and Islamic jurisprudence with a stricter interpretation of Sharia.


Article 110
:The hadd (punishment) for lavat (homosexual act) where penetration has occurred is death and the method of execution is at the discretion of the Sharia judge.
Article 111: Lavat is punishable by death so long as both the active and passive partners are mature, of sound mind, and have acted of free will,  – Islamic Republic of Iran’s penal code on homosexuality.

Twenty-six articles of Iranian law deal with homosexuality, outlining punishment for various same-sex acts. This can range from imprisonment and lashings to execution. Lesbians have it a little easier than gay males under the law:  They are to be given 100 lashes for the first three ‘offenses’.  On the fourth, they are to be put to death.  As with adultery, the law requires four witnesses to come forward.  In some cases in which the accused confess, they can be pardoned.

It is difficult to determine how many LGBTs have in fact been executed under the current regime. Some rights groups suggest that such executions are commonplace.  Physicians for Human Rights reports that in 2011, at least three Iranian men were executed after being convicted of lavat – officialy defined as an “act of congress” between two partners.  Other gay men remain on death row. In 2007, 20-year old Makwan Moludzadeh was charged and executed for “rape at the age of 13,” though details of his case remain fuzzy.

Roya Boroumand is Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation for the Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights in Iran.  The foundation maintains an online database of everyone executed in Iran since the Revolution in 1979.  It is a work in progress, says Boroumand, because it is difficult to get detailed information from such a closed regime.

“In the early 1980s, Iran used to announce executions of homosexuals,” Boroumand said.  “But then they realized this was causing an international hassle.  So if homosexuals are being executed now, they don’t say; they accuse them of other charges.”

But in spite of the harsh atmosphere created by the regime, Iran does have an active gay community, says Boroumand. “They have parties, they have a life; everyone knows there are certain cafes in Tehran where you can go on Thursday night, however, these are frequently raided by police.”

Scum of the Earth

Amin M., is a 30-year-old Iranian now living in the United States. He describes the experience of being gay in Tehran with a single word: “Terrible.”

“There is no way to express yourself,” Amin said. “There is no venue, no talk of it – or, if there is talk of it, it’s all derogatory. The way that they report it or broadcast it in the media, it’s like gays are the scum of the Earth.  Bad people, criminals mostly.  In school, the worst swear word that you can tell anybody is that he is gay.”

[In Iran,] it’s like gays are the scum of the Earth, – Amin M., a 30-year-old Iranian now living in the U.S.

For many years, Amin says he fought his own sexuality.  He went to three different therapists.  One of them was a ‘homophobe’ himself, Amin remembers.  The other two were ‘nice.’  “They were, like, ‘Oh, it (homosexuality) is normal, it’s OK.’

“When they were telling me that in their office, it was only me and the therapists.  But then when I came out of their office, when I looked around… when I was in the taxi, when I was in the street or school, it was not OK,”  Amin added.

Amin says for years he was confused about his sexuality.  As a teenager, he contemplated suicide. “I felt tortured.  It was like gradual suffocation.  I couldn’t live like that,” Amin said.  To make matters worse, he was always afraid of being caught:  “I remember vividly I once read in a newspaper that two young men in Masshad were hanged because of their sodomy crime.”

Amin refers to the case of Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, at least one of whom was a juvenile, who were publicly lashed, then hanged in Mashhad, Iran, on July 19, 2005. The government accused them of raping a 13-year old boy at knifepoint, a charge many rights groups believe was trumped.  The international press was outraged.  In response, a member of the Majlis Legal Affairs Committee responded: “These individuals were corrupt; their sentence was carried out with the approval of the judiciary and it served them right.”

It was not until Amin came to the U.S. six years ago that he found the courage to “come out” – that is, openly admit his gayness – to his parents.  He did so in an e-mail.  “When I told my dad I’m gay, he tried to reason with me,” Amin said.  His reasoning was all religious.  He told me, ‘Go to mosque. Start reading the Quran. Maybe then you’ll get better.’

Gay Railroad

Arsham Parsi is Founder and Director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR), based in Vancouver, Canada. He says his organization was inspired by the 19th Century American Underground Railway, a secret network of people, roads and hiding places set up to help African Americans escape slavery. The IRQR provides information and other resources for Iranian LGBTs and their families. Parsi says even if being gay were not against the law in Iran, LGBTs would still face tremendous pressure of social taboos.

“We are in contact with a lot of parents,” Parsi said, “and we find out the first issue for the parents when they find out they have a queer family member is, they don’t think, for example, ‘Oh, my son is gay.’  They are thinking, ‘What should I say to your aunt, your uncle, your extended family?’”

Frequently, says Parsi, families force their LGBT sons or daughters into marriage and honor killings are not uncommon, particularly in rural regions. “It was in 2004, a very small village near the city of Rasht in northern Iran.  A father found out about his 18-year-old son’s sexual orientation, and he set him on fire by using gas-petrol.  And also, he poured petrol on himself as well.  The father survived.  But the 18-year-old passed away,” recalls Parsi.

Parsi also tells stories of LGBTs entrapped by police on gay websites or in public parks; gay lovers who turn on one another, accusing their partners of rape in order to avoid execution themselves.

The “gender switch” escape

Ironically Iran has a more lenient view on transsexuality, on the grounds that it is not specifically condemned in the Quran. In 1983, the ayatollah Khomeini issued an extraordinary fatwah recognizing transsexuals as suffering from a medical condition and obligating them to undergo surgical sex change. The government not only subsidizes a part of the cost of the surgery, but legally alters birth certificates to reflect the new gender.

“There is no harm in undergoing the said operation if the end result would be determining of the true sex of the person provided that it does not lead to the commission of any haram  (sinful act) or a consequent vile deed, wrote Iran’s current spiritual leader, the ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, in a Response to Inquiries about the Practical Laws,  Q.271.

However, the law has had little impact on social attitudes. Transgenders report they are routinely harassed and discriminated against.

Parsi says that although the sex-change law is not meant as a “cure” for homosexuality, many LGBTs have chosen to change their sex so as to legitimize their same sex relationships.

Last November, the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission called on Iran to repeal or amend any laws that result in discrimination, prosecution and punishment of sexual minorities, to release those currently being detained for sexual orientation or activities and to prohibit all discrimination against sexual minorities. Iran, however, is not legally bound to heed the call.

Share your stories and stories from your family and friends from inside Iran on Underground Iran.


Cecily Hilleary

Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.

2 Comments

  1. Joyce Dimaranan Del Rio

    June 15, 2013

    Just want to know any contact information where in I can bring up some concerns regarding nurse who has family here is having an illegal affair there in riyadh. I am not telling a lie. if need further investigation and need establish objective evidence I can give. Still this nurse is not stopping going with the guy.
    Reply · Like · 6 minutes ago.

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