(Updated February 2006)
The Embassy of Iran in The Hague wrote in 1987 that “homosexuality in Iran, treated according to the Islamic law, is a sin in the eyes of God and a crime for society. In Islam generally homosexuality is among the worst possible sins you can imagine” (PB). Under Iran’s 1991 Islamic penal law the position is as follows:
(A) Male homosexuality
Sodomy is a crime, for which both partners are punished. The punishment is death if the participants are adults, of sound mind and consenting; the method of execution is for the Shari’a judge to decide. A non-adult who engages in consensual sodomy is subject to a punishment of 74 lashes. (Articles 108 — 113)
Sodomy is proved either if a person confesses four times to having committed sodomy or by the testimony of four righteous men. Testimony of women alone or together with a man does not prove sodomy. (Articles 114 — 119).
(B) “Tafhiz” (the rubbing of the thighs or buttocks) and the like committed by two men is punished by 100 lashes. On the fourth occasion, the punishment is death. (Articles 121 and 122). If two men “stand naked under one cover without any necessity”, both are punished with up to 99 lashes; if a man “kisses another with lust” the punishment is 60 lashes. (Articles 123 and 124). If sodomy, or the lesser crimes referred to above, are proved by confession, and the person concerned repents, the Shari’a judge may request that he be pardoned. If a person who has committed the lesser crimes referred to above repents before the giving of testimony by the witnesses, the punishment is quashed. (Articles 125 and 126).
The punishment for lesbianism involving persons who are mature, of sound mind, and consenting, is 100 lashes. If the act is repeated three times and punishment is enforced each time, the death sentence will apply on the fourth occasion. (Articles 127, 129, 130) The ways of proving lesbianism in court are the same as for male homosexuality. (Article 128)
(D) Non-Moslem and Moslem alike are subject to punishment (Article 130)
The rules for the quashing of sentences, or for pardoning, are the same as for the lesser male homosexual offences (Articles 132 and 133). Women who “stand naked under one cover without necessity” and are not relatives are punished by up to 100 lashes. (Article 134)
Against this chilling tradition and emotional threat, two stories are presented here and a link to a third is listed.
The first is a loving tribute to the late Iranian-American gay activist Saviz Shafaie written by his friend Jack Nichols, editor of Gaytoday.
The second commentary is by an Iranian-American therapist, Payam Ghassemlou, who offers his insights on trying to blend his personal feelings within diverse cultures: gay-straight, Middle East-Western, Muslim-Christian.
The third is a link to a personal coming out story published on The Gully web site: http://www.thegully.com/essays/iran/031120_gay_iran.html
But first, some small amount of good news is the recent appearance of a gay Persian magazine with beautiful covers such as are seen here. Cheragh Magazine is the publication of the Persian Gay & Lesbian Organization http://www.cheragh.pglo.net
(1) Saviz Shafaie: Persia’s Pioneer
Saviz Shafaie was in his late thirties when I first met him in the 1980s. On March 21st he’d invited me, along with a group of exiles, to his home where we celebrated NoRuz, the Iranian New Year.
At that time, many years had passed since I’d socialized with Iranians, the very people who’d ignited in me, when I was only twelve, an intense curiosity about their colorful native land and its ancient admirable culture.
Why, I’d wanted to know, upon first meeting Iranian kids in 1950, had the American males in my own culture been reduced to slapping each other’s backs as their only socially-acceptable show of mutual affection?
And why, on the other hand, did my young Iranian male peers feel free—in front of their parents—to show me an almost romantic sort of platonic love, a love accompanied by same-sex hugs, hand-holdings and even kisses?
I learned that Saviz had once delivered—in the early 1970s– what was no doubt the first gay liberation speech on Iranian soil, speaking to a group of classmates at the university in Shiraz. Later, arriving in the U.S., he’d immersed himself in sociological studies, quickly becoming an activist not only for gay and lesbian liberation, but for the men’s movement and other progressive causes as well.
He’d read my tome on masculinity, ‘Men’s Liberation’ (Penguin, 1975) and had grasped early-on why the subject of male role-conditioning is more important, in many ways, to same-sex relationships, than almost anything else. Saviz had already become a hard-working member of the nascent men’s movement, as well as an outspoken advocate of gay and lesbian rights in the South. His New Years party showed me that side of the Iranian character I’d loved obsessively in my youth. There was Saviz himself, unashamedly dancing for his guests. And I thrilled to his golden recitations of Iran’s great poets such as Rumi and Hafez, poets known and beloved by all. And then, there were his own poems.
The Iran-Iraq war had been raging at that time and the celebrating Iranian exiles feared for the safety of their families still living in the homeland. The cruel ayatollahs still enjoyed, at that time, a kind of total control.
Even so, Saviz was able—through the heartfelt assurances he communicated— to focus his exile friends on what he knew to be the best antidotes in the struggle against worry, antidotes alive and well through their extraordinary culture.
Within that same year, Saviz met his great love, an American, Jim Ford. At a Quaker meeting house, my Iranian friend and his wonderful lover held what they called a commitment ceremony. I sat in the audience and was one of those many who spoke of their affection for this exemplary couple, wishing them a happy future.
Among the things I noticed about this gathering was the diversity of causes that its celebrants represented. Many were involved in the Peace and Justice movement. And, of course, there were gay activists, feminists, environmentalists and men’s liberationists.
For years, Saviz, along with his extraordinary mother, Maheen, had owned and operated a health food store in Florida’s Winter Park. There, men and women, scions of progressive forces from all over the state, dropped in to enjoy refreshing smoothies and lively conversations that were unrivaled in their concern for the common good.
Saviz lost no time introducing me to the fledgling Iranian gay liberation movement, and he published the New Year’s poem I’d written in the pages of Homan, the Iranian gay and lesbian liberation magazine. He traveled, along with the then-editor of Homan, to visit me at the beach. In each subsequent issue of the magazine, both of us were proud contributors. Saviz earned a degree in social work, making many friends, as usual, at the university. He excelled as a student, and was soon helping and counseling citizens whose fortunes had waned.
With Jim, his constant companion, he also earned the love and respect of Orlando’s gay community. The two lovers were presented with an annual award because of the inspiration they’d brought to so many.
Sadly, just as his new counseling career was getting off the ground, an inoperable cancerous tumor felled Saviz. He’s now awaiting what appears to be an inevitable death.
But like the trooper he is, he’s meeting death with that same clarity and fearlessness he’d shown when he (a published gay liberationist) had temporarily returned to Iran in spite of the fundamentalists’ threats—to visit his dying grandmother.
At the end of August, I received an invite to Saviz’s 50th birthday party. I rented a car on the beach and drove to Orlando in a cloud of uncertainty. He knew he was dying. We, his friends, knew too. What kind of party would it be?
Over 30 guests were present, half of them Americans, the rest Iranians, both male and female. If a man’s character can be shown by the friends he keeps, I thought as I mingled within this circle of people, then Saviz gets the highest possible marks. He looked wan and tired at times, but his hopeful eyes were lit by a strong inner assurance that celebrated each moment spent living.
He was not afraid to die, he told us. His triumphant face revealed as much. He’d lived a life of which he was rightfully proud.
And each of those proud to be his friends, myself included, stood and told how he’d touched them in some unforgettable way. There were professors, poets, activists, writers, and fellow students. There were few sad faces, although an Iranian woman wept openly. But Saviz was eagerly celebrating life just as he’d always done. He’d wanted the birthday guests to enjoy just such a celebration.
I watched as his faithful Jim helped Saviz accomplish those physical tasks required by the party. All I could think was how glorious is the personal manner that shines in this enormously kind man, how wise has been his choice of a lover, how lucky he was to be so loved by so many. His hair, dark when I’d first met him, was now nearly snow white.
Something physical about Saviz reminded me, I thought, of a older mentor I’d chosen when I was aged 15. The older man had been Iran’s first envoy to America and the first Iranian to marry an American woman.
Saviz, I noted, is the first Iranian gay man to formally commit to a relationship with an American male. His white hair, like that of my long-ago mentor’s, gave him a kind of distinction, being a crown showing his wisdom.
I whispered to Maheen, his mother: “Your son’s dignity and beauty, now grown inwardly to maturity, recalls for me the best and highest pinnacles in Iran’s ancient culture.”
As I write, Saviz still lives. My love for him expands. My reasons for admiring him multiply. I see how natural to him is the courage with which he faces death. This has been doubly sweetened by his own deep-going awareness that he’s long managed to live with a deathless energy, working tirelessly to dispose of unnecessary human suffering.
As I left the birthday party, I thanked my lucky stars for their having brought this man into my life. The uncertainty I’d felt before arriving at his party had dissipated. Instead I found myself remembering a verse in the poem I’d dedicated to him twelve years before:
As quickly as the laughter fades, as sun goes down,
I am resolved that darkness will not win.
By Jack Nichols
(Ed: Shafaie Saviz passed away in late 2000.)
© 1997-2000 BEI
(2) An Iranian Man Struggles to Liberate His Gay Soul
As an Iranian gay man in Los Angeles, I interact with many communities including the gay male and lesbian community, the Iranian community and the American society at large. Each community is rigidly defined and strongly independent.
These communities expect me to conform to their manner of living and adapt to their ideas, which is like visiting three different worlds each time I interact with them. I have experienced discrimination within each of these communities and being a minority within a minority makes one more vulnerable to discrimination.
The Gay Community
When I discovered the gay community in Los Angeles, I felt relieved that there were other gay people like me. As a result, I was so blinded by my need for a supportive community that I totally merged with the gay community and its popular assimilationist ideas.
As a gay activist, I focused more on external coming out activities like marching in gay pride parades and followed an extraverted approach of being gay. I did not know gay liberation should include the internal journey of taming the demon of internalized homophobia and consciously experiencing my repressed feelings of hurt and rage for growing up in a violent homophobic world. I set myself up by looking into the gay community to be the loving gay family that I was deprived growing up.
Today I have a psychological approach toward gay liberation and equal rights and focus on gay liberation in my inner world. I am interested in embracing what is unique about being gay and do not concern myself with getting approval from heterosexuals or losing status in the straight world. Ancient homosexual wisdom and tradition going back before Plato and practiced by many Sufis has been about discovering what gayness offers through self-realization.
This self-realization involves coming out inside and, after years of coming out to the world and marching in different gay parades, I realized I have not really come out. I have been fighting homophobia outside myself and was not aware that I need to face it inside myself. I used to say I have no shame for being gay and waved my gay flag marching on the streets of Los Angeles. In reality, I had a lot of feelings of shame for being gay, but I never gave myself permission to feel my shame and partner the feeling.
I was too ashamed to admit that I have shame and I did not know I was entitled to experience all my feelings including my shame. Growing up in homophobic society and heterosexual family, I learned feelings must be repressed. I compensated for my shame by participating in extraverted political gay marches. Many gay activists claim they have no shame for being gay. How can anyone grow up in this homophobic world and not have any shame for his or her gay identity?
The greatest jihad takes place inside oneself. As Jung said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Coming out inside has been about facing the demon of internalized homophobia and having regard for the painful experiences of my gay inner child. The more I am connected to my Gay Self and have empathy for my struggle of coming out, the more compassionate I can be to others and myself. The more I can recognize how I was made to feel ashamed for being gay and have empathy for that child that I was once, the more I can feel liberated inside.
I am also struggling not to merge with Iranian community as well. Many gay Iranians who do not have a strong sense of self find it difficult to have an identity outside the Iranian community or the gay collective. Many gay Iranians deal with this complexity of interacting with different communities by creating different personas and merging with each community.
For example, I know many gay Iranians go to work every day and totally merge with the corporate system, then they visit their Iranian families and pretend they are heterosexuals and into dating women. Finally, on Friday nights after dropping off their so-called girlfriends or finishing taking care of whatever they need to do to keep their families’ approval, they are off to some anonymous gay cruising place to experience their homoerotic feelings. Even worse, they continue with their lonely, closeted lives and do not embrace these homoerotic feelings.
There is a high price to pay for playing so many different roles and not being real. Hence, the fake identity and lying can eventually become one’s dominant character. It must be a painful awakening in one’s forties or fifties to realize that one has gone through life with a false identity and the closest he or she ever got to experiencing gay love was a few anonymous sexual encounters. For many closeted gay Iranians who live in Los Angeles or elsewhere, this closeted lifestyle was either chosen or forced onto them for many reasons.
I recall when I was in the closet I used to come up with creative lies to hide my true identity because I was made to feel ashamed of myself and very scared of losing family support. Moreover, I grew up in a heterosexual Iranian family in which I was reared as if I was heterosexual and was constantly brainwashed that heterosexuality was the only reality. Any expression of my Gay Self would result in receiving violent treatments from kids in school and my family.
This violent homophobic society was too scary for me to express my genuine Gay Self. In order to survive, I had to hide my true identity and it makes me very angry to realize that I was robbed of the opportunity to experience a gay adolescence. I have empathy for myself and other gay men and lesbians for spending many years of our lives hiding our true identities in order to please our heterosexual families.
It is very difficult to have an independent identity outside an Iranian family unit. The traditional Iranian family unit is patriarchal in which the father is the undisputed head of the family. The mother tends to encourage her children to respect the father’s authority and seek family approval. No one dares to question the system, which sacrifices one’s needs in order to keep mother’s and father’s approval. In the Iranian family system, there is no room to express one’s gay identity and coming out to the Iranian family is viewed as bringing shame on the family. It is almost equal to committing a crime.
For example, family members might blame their health problems on the coming out of their gay child. It is not uncommon for Iranian parents to keep their gay children in the closet by using guilt factors such as accusing the gay child for being ungrateful for everything that has been done for him or her. My intention for coming out to my parents was to have a real relationship with them and stop pretending. Unfortunately, many Iranian parents are more concerned with how others might judge them.
If having a gay son or lesbian daughter might make them look bad, then they prefer that child to stay in the closet and lie about his or her identity. What people might say is more of a concern for many Iranian parents, than how their child might benefit from coming out. As an Iranian gay man,
I do not deny the complexity involved in interacting with three very different communities and coming out to an Iranian family. I believe staying in the closet and creating a false identity is not the answer to this complex issue. Family enmeshment is also not a healthy protection from the reality of living in a complex world. One has to face the truth and learn how to be real despite the demands from each community to merge with it.
There is a Sufi saying, “In the world but not of the world.” Just because I have to interact with different communities does not mean I should merge with them. No community can possibly provide all our needs and the only place one can find love and acceptance is within. Having a connection to our inner world helps us to be less dependent to the outer world for approval and acceptance.
By Dr. Payam Ghassemlou
February 28, 2002
(Dr. Payam Ghassemlou is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles. Please send your comments to: email@example.com and visit www.IranianGayDoctors.Com.
Story from Gay Wired: http://www.gaywired.com/index.cfm?linkPage=/storydetail.cfm&Section=15&ID=9397 )