Former President Ahmadinejad, speaking at Columbia University in 2007 caused a stir and quite a bit of outrage when he famously claimed ““In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you we have it.”

The regime’s version of the truth seems to be quite different from that of virtually everyone else’s in the world, and even though this was already widely-known by most people, it was still quite an outrageous thing for him to tell such a boldfaced lie not only in front of a large crowd, but of course with reporters present to broadcast it to all.

In Iran, like every other country where human beings are found, there are some who are gay. Before the revolution, there was a far greater degree of tolerance shown toward them, even extending to some gay-friendly nightclubs.

After the revolution,homosexuality was something that became far more taboo, and gay sex itself, a ‘crime’ that was then punishable by death. One noteworthy case was the hanging of two 18 year old boys back in 2005. The official charge was that they’d raped a male child, but they rarely document these things as homosexual sex, making it easier to hide the existence of homosexuality in Iran-but also to make it impossible to track how many people are executed for this each year in Iran.

Surprisingly, where being gay is not something a person is allowed to openly be, there is a greater degree of acceptance for those who are transgender. The catch? You must first undergo gender-reassignment surgery which the government promises to give people loans for. Young gay men in particular are first told to see the Imam to discuss their ‘illness’, and told to recite their daily prayers each day in order to essentially ‘pray the gay away”.

That has about the same success rate that it does in the USA, so the next step is to see a therapist who will diagnose them with gender dysphoria, and recommend gender-reassignment surgery. Where being openly gay or engaging in gay sex is enough to get you executed, being transgender is somehow viewed as a solution. The person is then thought to be ‘turned normal’ because a woman having sex with a man is obviously fine, and vice versa. The government is even happy to grant legal documents and identification for the person’s gender change (sometimes even prior to surgery.)

Problem? Well, obviously not every gay person wants to change their gender. It is only a small percentage of people overall, in any country who genuinely feel they are transgender and desire gender reassignment/hormonal treatment to address what they view as their personal identity being different from their physical body.

Iran doesn’t actually care if someone wants to change gender or not. The choices are as follow.

  1. Marry someone of the opposite sex and hide your sexuality
  2. Change your gender and become somewhat more tolerable to society
  3. Leave Iran
  4. Stay, and risk execution for your sexuality

Unsurprisingly, many people choose to leave Iran. Turkey is the most popular destination because not only are they actually quite tolerant of gay people, with advertisements for gay clubs among other venues openly featured on travel sites, they also seem to be a good first stop for those who ultimately seek to move to the west.

This is a move many feel forced into by not only Iran’s societal view of homosexuality, but pressure from their own families to undergo gender surgery whether they want to or not. So unthinkable is it for a person to be gay in Iran, that drastic surgery is seen as some absolute must for those who are. One doctor was brave enough to speak in a documentary on this topic, and stated that she has seen quite a few cases of suicide following forced gender reassignment surgeries in her patient population over the years.

She identifies this as a human rights violation, which is absolutely appears to be. It would be almost impossible for most of us to imagine being forced to undergo such a surgery, let alone by our own families and circle of friends just to be accepted.

I have personally spoken with people here in the USA who came from Iran following the revolution, and have asked them “Can you tell?”, because I was curious to know, with all of the strict rules and guidelines governing public behavior, I didn’t imagine many men were out there in severely fashionable clothes drawing attention to their sexuality. One friend smirked slightly and said “You can tell. It’s the way they walk. You can’t force someone to hide something they naturally are.”

I’m not sure every gay man walks any certain way, but it’s clear that everyday Iranian people are quite aware that gay people exist among them, and it is not a secret, let alone some bit of common knowledge as Ahmadinejad so boldly claimed it to be in his speech.

We can throw that into the growing pile of ‘fake news’ coming out of Iran, right in there with women having more freedom under Islamic law than they do in the west, and free speech existing in any meaningful form in Iran.

The fact that a journalist was jailed for calling him out on that whopper of a story, is only further proof.

So, what is it like being gay in Iran?

We can’t answer that until people are allowed to be gay in Iran, unfortunately.