What Iran—Yes, Iran—Can Teach America About the Fight for LGBTQ Rights

Signs in Hamburg, Germany’s Christopher Street Parade, Aug. 2, 2014.

Markus Scholz/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, I was pulling together an article for Slate about the status of lesbian and trans women in Iran. With marriage equality settled and the prospect of four more years of tolerant Democratic leadership in this country, I thought it would be fitting to turn our attention to LGBTQ populations in parts of the world where queer people are routinely ostracized and even jailed.

And then Donald Trump was elected president of the United States of America.

As Slate’s comment moderator, it was my job to delete comments calling Slate authors the worst racist, homophobic, and sexist names you can imagine, as well as those that called for their deaths. There was more of this than I’d ever seen before, and it didn’t let up for days. On the other side of that deluge of hate, I found I couldn’t write the article I had been working on, because the assumptions I’d been under about our relative stability and safety no longer applied.

The election of Donald Trump did not improve the situation of LGBTQ women in Iran, of course. Legal and cultural discrimination play off one another, making the lives of queer Iranians doubly difficult. According a report commissioned by OutRight Action International, Iranian lesbians are often married off in early puberty, as dictated by social custom; this can happen long before a girl realizes she is attracted to women rather than men. Iranian law doesn’t allow married women to refuse sex with their husbands, so married lesbians may be subject to repeated rape with no recourse, and divorce law privileges the husband when it comes to child custody, which means women typically have to leave their children if they leave their spouse. Legally speaking, women who engage in same-sex romantic contact (including hand-holding or kissing) are committing a criminal act, subject to 31–74 lashes, or 100 lashes if the contact involves the rubbing together of female genitalia. (Read more about the conditions for lesbians in Iran.)

Iranian trans women also experience a great deal of hardship. Although the state recognizes transsexuality as a medical condition that results in a person belonging to a gender different from the one assigned at birth, a trans person who cannot afford—or does not want—genital surgery is considered a cross-dresser, which incurs a legal penalty of 74 lashes. Iranian law recognizes trans people who have had gender-confirmation surgery and, to a limited extent, it makes provisions for those in the process of seeking surgery to adhere to the dress code for their gender or defer military service, but families and communities often reject transgender people, expelling them from the family home or subjecting them to violence. It is difficult for trans women to find work, and offers of employment often come with sexual strings attached by the employer. (Read more about trans women in Iran.)

You might think that this state of affairs is natural for a country whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim, but as recently as the early 1970s, the picture looked very different. Homosexuality was technically illegal but largely tolerated in Iran before the 1979 revolution, particularly in large cities. A nascent movement toward greater acceptance of gay men had even started, one that doesn’t sound all that different from the American movement for greater tolerance that took off in the same general period.  Then the revolution came, and strict religious law forced a harsh conservatism on the population, and with that came laws targeting homosexuals. The Iran that was inching toward tolerance was gone, and the repressive fundamentalist state was born.

When Donald Trump reached out to LGBTQ people in his speech to the Republican National Convention in July, he offered them protection from a “hateful foreign ideology.” Taken with his other remarks about Muslims and Muslim communities, he seems to believe that violent repression of LGBTQ people is a feature of the Islamic faith, But Iran was Muslim before it began to target people for deviating from religious law. Today, thinking about the fragility of the 1970s gay rights movement in Iran fills me with dread, because a drastic change in government is happening here in the United States, and forces of hatred and conservatism are on the rise. Iranians are no more evil than Americans, and conservative Christian fundamentalists are just as eager to punish and repress queer people as conservative Muslim fundamentalists are.

Today, Iran is so repressive that all activism on behalf of lesbians and gay men is forbidden. OutRight Action International, which commissioned the reports that occasioned this piece, was forced to conduct its interviews with queer Iranians who had left the country. When it wanted to speak with people still inside Iran, it had to do so by telephone, because you cannot legally enter Iran to do LGBTQ rights work. In the early days of the internet, the web provided the Iranian LGBTQ community with the chance to share experiences and hope with one another. A crackdown followed, and now it’s illegal to even blog about being gay.

It could all happen here: the rollback of protections, the shift toward cultural conservatism, the social and legal violence. In the not-too-distant past, America jailed people for cross-dressing, among other “crimes” related to queer identity. Publications advocating for gay rights were considered pornographic and therefore not protected by the First Amendment. There are Americans who want to turn back the clock to when America was “great,” before “political correctness” brought us LGBTQ rights. They may not succeed, but if the election has taught me anything, it’s that we can’t assume any outcome is assured or that the underlying goodness of our fellow citizens will protect us from a disastrous result. Sometimes, tensions in a country reach a boiling point, a madman takes over, and things change drastically for the worse.

The United States and Iran are very different, but in the recently concluded campaign, we learned that our new president-elect has contempt for women’s rights, thinks that Mexican heritage disqualifies a judge from doing his job impartially, believes Muslim communities harbor terrorists and that all Muslims are responsible for the actions of a few. We can look to Iranian history and find reason to fear that this sort of leader could strip us of our human rights and destroy the freedoms we hold dear. But we can also look to Iranian history and find models for struggle and reason for hope. Because, unlike most countries where religious extremists govern, Iran recognizes transgender people and helps them to medically transition. Despite all the caveats about how precarious life remains for trans people in Iran, this is no small thing, and trans recognition can all be traced back to the activism of a single Iranian trans woman.

Maryam Hatoon Molkara would not take extremism for an answer and did not bow before the forces of hate. In 1975, she began a letter-writing campaign to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seeking to convince him that Islam permitted gender reassignment. This was before the revolution that installed Khomeini as supreme leader—and also resulted in Molkara losing her job and being institutionalized and forcibly medicated to make her live as a man. Molkara didn’t give up, even in the face of oppression on a scale few of us can imagine. For more than a decade, she continued her campaign to be permitted to undergo sex reassignment, until Khomeini finally agreed to allow it on the basis that in Islam the soul matters more than the body. The fatwa he issued became the basis for the subsequent recognition of transgender people and resulted in their being able to change their legal gender in Iran, and in Shiite Muslim communities elsewhere.

In this newly harsh environment, we need a renewed effort to preserve the freedoms LGBTQ Americans have fought for. But that doesn’t mean we have to look away from the queer diaspora abroad. We can draw strength from their struggle and give them hope with ours. When I asked Kevin Schumacher of OutRight Action International what Americans can do to help support Iranians in their struggle, he said, “It’s so important in places like Iran to see a robust community in the West. When someone like Tim Cook [of Apple] comes out, it changes the notion of gay men and what it’s possible for a gay man to be. The example of a vibrant [LGBTQ] community in the West is needed to inspire, perhaps more than anything else.”

The world is watching us to see if movements for queer rights are an aberration that can be quickly extinguished or something sturdy that can permanently take root. We must not let them down.