Face of homosexuality is veiled but real in Iran
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published September 30, 2007
Several years ago in Jordan, I met a young man who had briefly left his poor home country to work in oil-rich Qatar. He got a good job selling Mercedes - only to quit after male customers began propositioning him for sex.
Yes, there is homosexuality in the Middle East despite the now-famous claim by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that his country is free of what was once known - how ironic! - as "the Persian vice."
"In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country," he told an audience at New York's Columbia University last week. "In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it."
Ahmadinejad's remarks drew jeers and laughter, but they might not have been as ridiculous as commonly suggested. Knowing that nuance is sometimes lost in translation, one could give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant that Iran doesn't have the kind of overt gay culture found in the West with its gay bars, gay celebrities, gay parades and so on.
In fact, "there has been a recent phenomenon of Western-style gay culture in Iran, but it is very new, largely limited to the upper classes and likely not known to President Ahmadinejad, whose social milieu is the middle and lower middle class," writes William O. Beeman, a University of Minnesota anthropologist.
Beeman, who has spent 30 years conducting research in Iran, also notes that the Western idea of homosexuality is quite different from that in Arab and Mediterranean cultures.
"In Iran, same-sex behavior is classified rigidly into active and passive roles," Beeman says on the New American Media Web site. "Active partners do not consider themselves to be homosexual" while passive partners "can carry a life-long stigma if their sexual role is known."
Of course Ahmadinejad might really think there are no gays in Iran because he has never met one, or at least never one who publicly acknowledged sexual orientation. There's a good reason for that: As in Saudi Arabia and some other conservative Muslim countries, homosexuality in Iran is a crime punishable by death.
In 2005, two teenage boys - one 16, the other 18 - were publicly executed for raping a younger boy, according to the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights. Though the lack of transparency in Iran's court system makes it hard to know for certain, outside groups claimed the real reason the youths were executed was because of homosexual activity.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government reportedly has executed more than 4,000 people charged with homosexual acts. But reliable figures are almost impossible to come by, and it is not known if other crimes were involved.
Muslims generally consider homosexuality a sin, based on the handful of passages in the Koran that seem to address the subject. Among them: "For ye practice your lust on men in preference to women; ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds."
But at various times in its history, Islam has shown a more open attitude toward same-sex relations. A 12th century Muslim poet waxed suggestively over the sight of a "slim young man, beautiful as the rising moon" - a sight beheld in a mosque during Friday prayers, no less.
In one of those coincidences that invite comparisons, Ahmadinejad made his "no homosexuals" comment the very week that U.S. Sen. Larry Craig began legal efforts to show he is not gay even though he appeared to be trolling for sex in an airport men's room. Homosexuality remains enough of a taboo even for many Americans that Craig's fellow Republicans turned on him faster than you can say "homophobic."
It's also interesting to note that while Iran bans homosexuality, it takes a surprisingly enlightened view toward transsexuals. None other than the Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader, ruled that sex-change operations are permissible for those whose self-image is at odds with their gender at birth.
Hundreds of Iranians have since undergone such surgery. And you have to wonder what the late ayatollah would have thought about the flap in this country over Steve Stanton's decision to become Susan.
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified September 30, 2007, 07:55:12]
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