Living Dangerously: 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.

“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.

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