Remember When Iran Said it Had No Gay People?
Despite claims by previous state leaders that Iran has no gay people, a new government report suggests that 17 percent of surveyed young people identify as homosexual. Is this recognition a change for the better?
The 82 page document, which was reportedly issued by Iran’s parliamentary research department, didn’t focus solely on homosexuality but asked a broad range of questions of 142,000 students as a snapshot of nationwide attitudes among young people and young adults. The research found that, despite strict religious rules against pre-marital sex, not only are 80 percent of unmarried women in relationships with men, but a significant proportion of secondary-school pupils are also engaging in relationships.
In addition to this, and according to the Economist which has seen the report, about 17 percent of young people were identified as homosexual — though it’s important to qualify that figure because, even by older models, anything over 10 percent of a population is quite staggering. For one thing, we don’t know what criteria was applied to get this result. Did the government class homosexuality as someone expressing deep feelings for a non-family member of the same-sex? Did it class a one-time sexual encounter with someone of the same-sex as defining homosexuality? And what about gender nonconformity? Were people who didn’t have stereotypical male or female traits classed as likely homosexuals? The breakdown hasn’t been released so we don’t yet know and can’t comment specifically on those figures — but we don’t necessarily have to in order to talk about the legal situation surrounding this report.
The government appears to be acknowledging that homosexuality is at least present in Iran, if only as part of a wider sex outside of marriage issue. So what is the Iranian government’s solution? On its surface it appears more liberal than you might think. The government is reportedly suggesting that young people be able to take advantage of sigheh, which is apparently a practice in Shia Islam that allows people to form a marriage-like union that doesn’t carry the strict bonds of marriage. Cornell has a lovely write-up on these temporary contracts, but essentially it’s like a domestic partnership that can be dissolved at any time. Sigheh has often been controversial because it’s seen as a cover for promiscuity, but the advantage for the government in this case would be that it would turn illicit activity into something the government can at least more easily keep an eye on.
Liberal Iranians may be skeptical of this though, because for them this report is likely only an acknowledgement of what for some time now the public has known to be the case, particularly in big cities. For them, this might instead represent a clawing back of power and a prelude to more aggressive interventions.
For LGBTs, it is an interesting development that comes with both historical and present-day considerations.
In 2007, Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infamously told the media that there were no homosexuals in Iran. This was after he was confronted about the terrible human rights atrocities committed against LGBT people in the region, in particular Iran’s enforcing the death penalty by hanging or stoning. That penalty is still on the books, but in recent years it has become much harder to ascertain the reasons behind a death sentence.
Just last week, two men were hanged in Iran, possibly for consensual homosexual sex, but getting concrete facts on that is difficult for several reasons, but chiefly because those killings come as Iran continues to rack up approaching 400 executions in just the first half of 2014 alone. The media is also reluctant to name precisely the “sins” these “villains,” as one report put it, had engaged in, but a common thread in the reports is some sort of sexual impropriety.
In fact, the government’s answer to homosexuality has been despicably efficient. The death penalty is a constant threat but, in other cases, officials have attempted to “cure” the so-called problem in another way: by pressuring gay people into gender change surgeries, and in some cases paying for that treatment.
This speaks to the peculiar fact that while in Iran homosexuality is classed as a sin, without any specific religious text decrying gender change, the government views so-called transexualism as a recognizable medical condition. Iran has one of the highest rates of gender change surgeries in the world second only to Thailand, and experts believe that it is likely because of Iran’s staunch anti-gay laws that many people opt for gender change surgeries so as to escape stigma, persecution and, yes, death. This impacts trans people too because, while they may find transition easier in some senses, they may have to undergo medical procedures they do not wish to have, including coerced or even forced sterilization.
So while it is undeniable that this new report could offer a glimmer of hope that Iran may at last be willing to enter into a dialog surrounding LGBT identity and wider non-marital relationships, it unfortunately doesn’t at this stage represent meaningful change when Iran is still possibly killing people for simply being gay and pressuring others into altering their bodies in ways that do not comport with the gender identity.
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