What it's like to be gay in Iran

It is possible to be gay and live under a repressive regime that is always threatening to out you, or worse. But it's a lot like walking a tightrope: scary and fraught with risks.

Saeed was 20 years old when he sat his father down and told him he was gay. Trembling, he recounted how, as a child, he hid cutouts of male underwear models from foreign magazines under his pillow, and would gaze at them for hours when he was alone. His mother, sitting speechless in a chair next to her husband, went pale.

A retired colonel in the Iranian Air Force, Saeed's father looked at him with a straight face, not moving a muscle. "Affirmative," he said. He had spent three decades in the military, and had been shaped equally by its rigorous discipline and his religious upbringing. "I always knew you were different from my other children. I always used to say that to your mom. Right?" he said, turning to his wife, then added: "Saeed, this is your nature. This isn't your choice. You should have told us earlier."

Saeed burst into tears, relieved. His mother took his hands and nodded, "What can we do to help?"

In a different country, this coming out story might not be considered out of the ordinary. But Saeed, a pensive, handsome 25-year-old with a faux-hawk and meticulously groomed stubble, lives in Iran, where Islamic law criminalizes same-sex relations. Coming out is simply something very few do, even in capital city, Tehran, where Saeed grew up. (For security reasons, Saeed asked to be referred to by his first name only.)

Until recently, consensual sexual intercourse between men was a capital offense in Iran. After a change in the country's penal code, the "active" person in the act can now be punished with up to 100 lashes, but if he's married, the death penalty may apply. The "passive" person can still be sentenced to death, regardless of marital status. Sexual interaction between two women is punishable by flogging.

The vast majority of media reports about homosexuality in Iran are based on accounts of torment and oppression from gays and lesbians who have fled the country. And while their experiences are representative for some of Iran's homosexuals, they are hugely different from those of the people who choose to stay in the country, or don't have the opportunity to leave.

Gays from lower classes and rural areas, where stigmatization is often most severe, rarely have the ability to move out of the house before marriage, let alone leave the country. Even in more affluent communities in cities. there is generally little acceptance of homosexuality, but some middle- and upper-class Iranians have the means to create parallel lives, out of sight of their relatives or friends. These people — men like Saeed — are the lucky ones.

"Ninety-five percent of gays in Iran will never come out," Saeed says over pasta at one of northern Tehran's coffee shops, where the atmosphere is relatively permissive. For all his friends who have dared, coming out has been a traumatic experience; parents lock their children inside the house, confiscate their phones and laptops, and force them to seek therapy.

A typical night out for the urban middle class by Tehran's Milad Tower. | (VOCATIV/SUNE ENGEL RASMUSSEN)

"The number one threat to gays and lesbians in Iran is the family," agrees Hossein Alizadeh of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), and himself an Iranian. Many gays endure beatings and even sexual assaults from family members, he adds. Even if one manages to create a parallel life, it is tenuous and can be destroyed instantly.

In a dimly lit mansion on the slopes of northern Tehran, the thump of an electronic bass so loud it makes the windows clatter, bounces off the walls of the vast living room and out onto the porch. Dozens of men dance and mingle, drinking bootleg vodka out of plastic cups, and several of them are visibly high. Thick trees surround the garden and the swimming pool, allowing the residents some privacy, but the loud music traveling downhill gives them away.

This is one of the most blatantly unsubtle parties I have been to in Iran. The host is an Iranian man in his mid-20s, whose parents let him use the villa when he wants, and he's throwing a birthday party for his European boyfriend. He has paid off the local moral police in the hopes his guests will be allowed to enter and exit the party undisturbed. A party like this is the easiest way for young Iranians to hook up for a one-night stand. It is also a risky one.

"All of us have profiles in the intelligence service, I'm sure we do," says Saeed. "Names, details, everything."

The Iranian authorities usually turn a blind eye to the gay community's escapades, but much like the intelligence services in the former Soviet Union, Iranian intelligence is believed to compile large files on many citizens, which they can use to build a legal case against people who might be caught engaging in political activities. Often, this kind of compromising information is used to push gay people to inform on their fellow citizens.

"Certain people can shield themselves — hide behind their money and their connections," says Alizadeh. "The problem is that somewhere down the road, someone finds out you are gay and then starts blackmailing you. It doesn't have to be a straight [person], it can be a gay who sleeps with you and finds out you have money. You are at the mercy of the society without legal protection."

The feeling of being under constant surveillance, both by other Iranians and the state, takes its toll. "We're all so fucking scared," Saeed says. "Look at me. I'm 25, but I look 30."

Private parties are some of the easiest places for middle-class Iranian gays to hook up for one-night stands. | (VOCATIV/JANUS ENGEL RASMUSSEN)

Not even the Internet is safe. While dating apps like Grindr, Scruff and Hornet aren't censored like Facebook and Twitter, most people still assume the country's intelligence services closely monitor them. So, often the best alternative is random, anonymous encounters.

Across town in a grimy, smog-choked business district in central Tehran, Park-e Daneshjoo, or Student Park, is an oasis of calm. The tree-lined park is home to the National Theatre and a decrepit teahouse, and is a roaming ground for mustachioed hipsters, long-haired musicians, chess-playing old men, and young couples holding hands and eating saffron-infused ice cream. The park is also one of the most popular pickup spots for Tehran's gay men.

Around dusk, Maseratis, BMWs and the occasional Porsche circle the park; you don't have to wait long to spot one of them slow to a halt and pick up a single man cruising the fringes. Most Iranian gay adults are in heterosexual marriages, and prostitution is the preferred way to have same-sex affairs. It also provides a tempting income, for gays and straights alike, in an economy beset by inflation and unemployment.

And though these types of in-person encounters are a way to elude virtual spies, they are still fraught with risk. The number of people with HIV has increased nine-fold over the past decade, the country's health minister said last year — with an increasing number being infected through "high-risk sexual activities." Plus, 70 percent of them are not even aware they are infected.

Another, more immediate threat is violence. Recently, a story went around about a young gay man who was murdered by two strangers during BDSM play. "It was definitely an attack. He was just strangled to death," says Saeed, who has become more cautious about meeting up with strangers because of similar incidents.

Tehran's parks are always crowded, and particularly around dusk, many of them become popular cruising spots for gay men. | (VOCATIV/JANUS ENGEL RASMUSSEN)

So naturally, when Naeem* met Behram* four years ago on gay dating site Manjan, which is also monitored, he was initially hesitant. The two started exchanging photos, and eventually Naeem trusted Behram enough to give him his number. Naeem bought a burner phone to hide his chat relationship from his parents and co-workers, and after two months they met for a real date. Seven months later, they rented an apartment in western Tehran; they both still live at home and when Naeem comes here, he tells his parents he is going out of town with friends.

The challenge of finding a steady partner weighs heavily on Iranian gays; many speak of depression, loneliness and paranoia as almost permanent mental states. But Naeem and Behram exude a different, lighter air, and consider themselves lucky.

"We need our privacy," Naeem says, sitting on a purple couch in the couple's two-bedroom flat. "Sometimes we lie down and watch TV or a movie. Other times we have friends over and we can invite them any time, without any rules."

Naeem has short-cropped hair, clean-shaven cheeks and deep dimples when he smiles, which he does all the time. Behram is taller by several inches, and both are fit, well-dressed and speak perfect English. Each is in his early 30s, and both men face pressure from their families to get married.

"They told me many, many times, 'Just get married, then we will provide this apartment for you, and this car for you.'" Naeem says. His parents picked out several potential wives for him, and though they insist he is free to choose his own spouse, they are puzzled that he turns all of them down.

"I have to make many excuses. For example, "This lady is very tall, this lady is very short,'" he says with a grin. "The girls they find are very good, they are extremely good. A straight guy would definitely accept to marry one of them, because in every case the girl is perfect in appearance, in education, in health — in everything."

Though Behram's family is more religious than Naeem's, he doesn't face the same nuptial pressure.

"My father tells me all the time that if he could be born again, he would live like me, not married," Behram says. "He loves being with his friends, not caring about the family. He is very happy that I am not married and enjoy my life — as straight."

Outside the windows of their apartment, darkness has set in. A fluorescent flicker from the television in the apartment outlines, via illegal satellite, the face of Googoosh — the Los Angeles-based Iranian queen of pop. She's a big gay icon, and in February she came out in explicit support of gay rights with a video for the song "Behesht," depicting a lesbian couple in love. (In a male-dominated society like Iran, homosexual women have even less privacy than men, and often risk being shunned by neighbors if they rent an apartment without a husband.)

A star of the 1970's, Googoosh is also hugely popular among Naeem and Behram's parents' generation, so for the past six months, Naeem has tried to get his mother to watch the video to gauge her reaction, always leaving the TV tuned into a music video channel. "I think she tries to not watch the clip so she always changes the channel or pretends that she doesn't watch the TV," he laughs.

Part of the stigma against homosexuals is intrinsic to the Persian language, which has two different words for homosexuality. The LGBT community uses hamjens-garai (literally, "the state of being interested in the same sex") while the government and state media use the term hamjens-bazi, which has a derogatory connotation as someone who "plays" with people of the same sex. The closest, but not universally agreed upon translation is "faggotry."

Tehran's coffee shops are relatively permissive, and popular haunts for young Iranians who spend hours here socializing, smoking and flirting. | (VOCATIV/SUNE ENGEL RASMUSSEN)

"A hamjens-baz is a person who, for example, is straight and has sex with females, but when he finds a teenager around 14 years, he just wants to play around with him," Naeem explains.

"We are not hamjens-baz," Behram says. "We are not sick."

Yet the problem for men like Naeem and Behram is there's no real outlet to debate semantics: Although homosexuality can be punished, it's not something that is officially recognized. In 2007, then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ludicrously claimed in a speech in New York, to loud jeers, that there were no gays in Iran. It is unclear if Ahmadinejad believed this himself, but his comments mirrored the regime's preference of simply ignoring homosexuals.

However, some signals hint that the hard line may be softening — a bit. While the new centrist government under President Hassan Rouhani maintains a similar refrain as its predecessor, foreign-based media outlets like BBC Persian, Radio Zaman and Voice of America use non-derogatory language about homosexuals, and it is slowly trickling down to reformist outlets inside the country, and to young Iranians, says Alizadeh.

And despite its often venomous rhetoric, the Iranian regime silently accepts that gays do exist, and takes a few pragmatic steps to account for that reality.

The Quran, the foundation of Iranian law, explicitly bans homosexuality. But it doesn't mention transsexuality, which Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, permitted in a fatwa in 1983. As a result, sex reassignment surgery (SRS) has become a controversial solution for gay men trying to reconcile their faith with their sexuality. Iran carries out more sex-change operations than any other country, apart from Thailand. (Simple cross-dressing, before a surgery, is not allowed because men or women disguising as another gender allegedly disrupts the social order.)

The government even extends loans to people who undergo sex reassignment surgery, and requires insurance companies to cover SRS in their policies.

In Tanaz Eshaghian's 2008 documentary Be Like Others, a cleric counsels young Iranians who are looking to change their gender: "If changing your gender was to be considered a sin, because you are changing God's natural order, then all of our daily tasks would be sins. You take wheat and turn it into flour and turn that into bread… There are thousands of things we do every day that are changes in God's natural order."

Another piece of pragmatism by the government is their rule meant to keep gays out of the army. If a man can get a doctor to testify he is gay, he will be exempt from military service.

Still, these small concessions hardly amount to any sort of tangible freedom for Iran's gays, many of whom continue to fight their own sexuality. For example, a friend of Naeem and Behram's tried to get a doctor to cure him of his homosexuality. "The doctor just laughed at him," Naeem says. "He has a girlfriend now, but he leads a bad, depressing life. He knows he is gay but he doesn't want to be gay. He has tried medical cures with pills."

"He uses pills like Viagra just to have sex with the girl," Behram adds.

An acquaintance of theirs who came from a very wealthy family fared even worse. "His father realized he was gay, and thought that maybe it was the effect of his friends. So he tried to move him away and bought a luxury apartment for him in Dubai," Behram says. "But after four weeks there, he committed suicide."

Religion adds another layer of pressure, but for some religious Iranian gays, like Behram, Islam actually makes life easier.

"I read the Quran and I pray. I don't fast and sometimes I drink alcohol. I am a modern Muslim," Behram says. "I didn't ask from God to be gay. I would love to be straight, to have a normal life. But if you believe in God and believe that everything is made by God, then it's not in our hands."

For Saeed, his parents' acceptance of his sexuality ushered in a completely new life. While his father grudgingly accepts that his son is "a lost cause" and will not get married, his mother has embraced him completely. She will often make him run errands to the pharmacy because Saeed has the hots for the clerk, he says with a smirk.

However, Saeed's sexuality has cost him his relationship with his sister, who initially was the first person he came out to, but whose new husband is less supportive.

"He is a jerk, and he is homophobic," Saeed says of his brother-in-law. "He comments on my sexuality a lot, and has told me to get a life. And my sister took his side. He has totally turned her against me."

To Saeed, this proves that some people are born with a bias and can't be changed. "You can have someone who has studied at Yale or Princeton, and when he comes back to Iran, he still doesn't understand," he says.

Alizadeh says that though there is a small movement toward broader acceptance of homosexuals in Iran, the improvements are feeble.

"There's a new generation of people who are more tolerant of these issues," he says. "But at the end of the day, it only takes one person to destroy your life."

(*Some names have been changed to protect sources.)

This article originally appeared at Vocativ.com: Living dangerously: What it's like to be gay in Iran.

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