Gay Iranian boy Sepehr tells us about gay life in Iran

So said former Iranian despot, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Columbia University in New York in front of some pretty shocked crowds!

Well, poor dear Mahmoud couldn’t be any more mistaken! As with most tyrannical rulers who take this ridiculous “there are no gays in my country” line (Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya to name another!), an LGBTQ community is very much alive and well, albeit forced to go underground and live a closeted life.

Iran’s stance on LGBTQ rights is horrific. Being gay in Iran is not only illegal, but it also carries with it a death sentence. What shocked us the most is this is so enthusiastically enforced by the Iranian government in such a sadistic manner: proudly carrying out death sentences in public. For example, 3 men were publicly sentenced to death in 2011 and another gay man publicly hanged in 2019. Young gay men are not excluded! In 2016, 19-year old Hassan Afshar was publicly hanged for “forced male-to-male anal intercourse”!

We always strive to use our blog to support LGBTQ communities that are forced underground by giving them a voice to inspire action and raise awareness. In this article, we do this by interviewing Sepehr from Shiraz who tells us what gay life is like in Iran. Sepehr is also HIV positive and was very open to giving us his perspective of what it’s like living with HIV in Iran. However, for obvious reasons, we’ve agreed to keep his identity anonymous and have used “Sepehr” as his alias – a common Iranian boy’s name, which also means “sky and space” in Persian.

Gay dating apps such as Grindr, Hornet, and Scruff are blocked in Iran, as are other websites including Facebook and Twitter. Therefore, if you want to use them we will need to get a VPN. This will not only give you full access to all your favorite apps and websites, you’ll also be able to surf the Net safely and anonymously.

What it’s like to be gay in Iran

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.

A typical night out for the urban middle class by Tehran’s Milad Tower. | (VOCATIV/SUNE ENGEL RASMUSSEN)

„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.

„All of us have profiles in the intelligence service, I’m sure we do,“ says Saeed. „Names, details, everything.“

The Iranian authorities usually turn a blind eye to the gay community’s escapades, but much like the intelligence services in the former Soviet Union, Iranian intelligence is believed to compile large files on many citizens, which they can use to build a legal case against people who might be caught engaging in political activities. Often, this kind of compromising information is used to push gay people to inform on their fellow citizens.

„Certain people can shield themselves — hide behind their money and their connections,“ says Alizadeh. „The problem is that somewhere down the road, someone finds out you are gay and then starts blackmailing you. It doesn’t have to be a straight [person], it can be a gay who sleeps with you and finds out you have money. You are at the mercy of the society without legal protection.“

The feeling of being under constant surveillance, both by other Iranians and the state, takes its toll. „We’re all so fucking scared,“ Saeed says. „Look at me. I’m 25, but I look 30.“

Private parties are some of the easiest places for middle-class Iranian gays to hook up for one-night stands. | (VOCATIV/JANUS ENGEL RASMUSSEN)

Not even the Internet is safe. While dating apps like Grindr, Scruff and Hornet aren’t censored like Facebook and Twitter, most people still assume the country’s intelligence services closely monitor them. So, often the best alternative is random, anonymous encounters.

Across town in a grimy, smog-choked business district in central Tehran, Park-e Daneshjoo, or Student Park, is an oasis of calm. The tree-lined park is home to the National Theatre and a decrepit teahouse, and is a roaming ground for mustachioed hipsters, long-haired musicians, chess-playing old men, and young couples holding hands and eating saffron-infused ice cream. The park is also one of the most popular pickup spots for Tehran’s gay men.

Around dusk, Maseratis, BMWs and the occasional Porsche circle the park; you don’t have to wait long to spot one of them slow to a halt and pick up a single man cruising the fringes. Most Iranian gay adults are in heterosexual marriages, and prostitution is the preferred way to have same-sex affairs. It also provides a tempting income, for gays and straights alike, in an economy beset by inflation and unemployment.

And though these types of in-person encounters are a way to elude virtual spies, they are still fraught with risk. The number of people with HIV has increased nine-fold over the past decade, the country’s health minister said last year — with an increasing number being infected through „high-risk sexual activities.“ Plus, 70 percent of them are not even aware they are infected.

Another, more immediate threat is violence. Recently, a story went around about a young gay man who was murdered by two strangers during BDSM play. „It was definitely an attack. He was just strangled to death,“ says Saeed, who has become more cautious about meeting up with strangers because of similar incidents.

Tehran’s parks are always crowded, and particularly around dusk, many of them become popular cruising spots for gay men. | (VOCATIV/JANUS ENGEL RASMUSSEN)

So naturally, when Naeem* met Behram* four years ago on gay dating site Manjan, which is also monitored, he was initially hesitant. The two started exchanging photos, and eventually Naeem trusted Behram enough to give him his number. Naeem bought a burner phone to hide his chat relationship from his parents and co-workers, and after two months they met for a real date. Seven months later, they rented an apartment in western Tehran; they both still live at home and when Naeem comes here, he tells his parents he is going out of town with friends.

The challenge of finding a steady partner weighs heavily on Iranian gays; many speak of depression, loneliness and paranoia as almost permanent mental states. But Naeem and Behram exude a different, lighter air, and consider themselves lucky.

„We need our privacy,“ Naeem says, sitting on a purple couch in the couple’s two-bedroom flat. „Sometimes we lie down and watch TV or a movie. Other times we have friends over and we can invite them any time, without any rules.“

Naeem has short-cropped hair, clean-shaven cheeks and deep dimples when he smiles, which he does all the time. Behram is taller by several inches, and both are fit, well-dressed and speak perfect English. Each is in his early 30s, and both men face pressure from their families to get married.

„They told me many, many times, ‚Just get married, then we will provide this apartment for you, and this car for you.'“ Naeem says. His parents picked out several potential wives for him, and though they insist he is free to choose his own spouse, they are puzzled that he turns all of them down.

„I have to make many excuses. For example, „This lady is very tall, this lady is very short,'“ he says with a grin. „The girls they find are very good, they are extremely good. A straight guy would definitely accept to marry one of them, because in every case the girl is perfect in appearance, in education, in health — in everything.“

Though Behram’s family is more religious than Naeem’s, he doesn’t face the same nuptial pressure.

„My father tells me all the time that if he could be born again, he would live like me, not married,“ Behram says. „He loves being with his friends, not caring about the family. He is very happy that I am not married and enjoy my life — as straight.“

Outside the windows of their apartment, darkness has set in. A fluorescent flicker from the television in the apartment outlines, via illegal satellite, the face of Googoosh — the Los Angeles-based Iranian queen of pop. She’s a big gay icon, and in February she came out in explicit support of gay rights with a video for the song „Behesht,“ depicting a lesbian couple in love. (In a male-dominated society like Iran, homosexual women have even less privacy than men, and often risk being shunned by neighbors if they rent an apartment without a husband.)

A star of the 1970’s, Googoosh is also hugely popular among Naeem and Behram’s parents‘ generation, so for the past six months, Naeem has tried to get his mother to watch the video to gauge her reaction, always leaving the TV tuned into a music video channel. „I think she tries to not watch the clip so she always changes the channel or pretends that she doesn’t watch the TV,“ he laughs.

Part of the stigma against homosexuals is intrinsic to the Persian language, which has two different words for homosexuality. The LGBT community uses hamjens-garai (literally, „the state of being interested in the same sex“) while the government and state media use the term hamjens-bazi, which has a derogatory connotation as someone who „plays“ with people of the same sex. The closest, but not universally agreed upon translation is „faggotry.“

Tehran’s coffee shops are relatively permissive, and popular haunts for young Iranians who spend hours here socializing, smoking and flirting. | (VOCATIV/SUNE ENGEL RASMUSSEN)

„A hamjens-baz is a person who, for example, is straight and has sex with females, but when he finds a teenager around 14 years, he just wants to play around with him,“ Naeem explains.

„We are not hamjens-baz,“ Behram says. „We are not sick.“

However, some signals hint that the hard line may be softening — a bit. While the new centrist government under President Hassan Rouhani maintains a similar refrain as its predecessor, foreign-based media outlets like BBC Persian, Radio Zaman and Voice of America use non-derogatory language about homosexuals, and it is slowly trickling down to reformist outlets inside the country, and to young Iranians, says Alizadeh.

And despite its often venomous rhetoric, the Iranian regime silently accepts that gays do exist, and takes a few pragmatic steps to account for that reality.

The Quran, the foundation of Iranian law, explicitly bans homosexuality. But it doesn’t mention transsexuality, which Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, permitted in a fatwa in 1983. As a result, sex reassignment surgery (SRS) has become a controversial solution for gay men trying to reconcile their faith with their sexuality. Iran carries out more sex-change operations than any other country, apart from Thailand. (Simple cross-dressing, before a surgery, is not allowed because men or women disguising as another gender allegedly disrupts the social order.)

The government even extends loans to people who undergo sex reassignment surgery, and requires insurance companies to cover SRS in their policies.

In Tanaz Eshaghian’s 2008 documentary Be Like Others, a cleric counsels young Iranians who are looking to change their gender: „If changing your gender was to be considered a sin, because you are changing God’s natural order, then all of our daily tasks would be sins. You take wheat and turn it into flour and turn that into bread… There are thousands of things we do every day that are changes in God’s natural order.“

Another piece of pragmatism by the government is their rule meant to keep gays out of the army. If a man can get a doctor to testify he is gay, he will be exempt from military service.

Still, these small concessions hardly amount to any sort of tangible freedom for Iran’s gays, many of whom continue to fight their own sexuality. For example, a friend of Naeem and Behram’s tried to get a doctor to cure him of his homosexuality. „The doctor just laughed at him,“ Naeem says. „He has a girlfriend now, but he leads a bad, depressing life. He knows he is gay but he doesn’t want to be gay. He has tried medical cures with pills.“

„He uses pills like Viagra just to have sex with the girl,“ Behram adds.

An acquaintance of theirs who came from a very wealthy family fared even worse. „His father realized he was gay, and thought that maybe it was the effect of his friends. So he tried to move him away and bought a luxury apartment for him in Dubai,“ Behram says. „But after four weeks there, he committed suicide.“

Religion adds another layer of pressure, but for some religious Iranian gays, like Behram, Islam actually makes life easier.

„I read the Quran and I pray. I don’t fast and sometimes I drink alcohol. I am a modern Muslim,“ Behram says. „I didn’t ask from God to be gay. I would love to be straight, to have a normal life. But if you believe in God and believe that everything is made by God, then it’s not in our hands.“

For Saeed, his parents‘ acceptance of his sexuality ushered in a completely new life. While his father grudgingly accepts that his son is „a lost cause“ and will not get married, his mother has embraced him completely. She will often make him run errands to the pharmacy because Saeed has the hots for the clerk, he says with a smirk.

However, Saeed’s sexuality has cost him his relationship with his sister, who initially was the first person he came out to, but whose new husband is less supportive.

„He is a jerk, and he is homophobic,“ Saeed says of his brother-in-law. „He comments on my sexuality a lot, and has told me to get a life. And my sister took his side. He has totally turned her against me.“

To Saeed, this proves that some people are born with a bias and can’t be changed. „You can have someone who has studied at Yale or Princeton, and when he comes back to Iran, he still doesn’t understand,“ he says.

Alizadeh says that though there is a small movement toward broader acceptance of homosexuals in Iran, the improvements are feeble.

„There’s a new generation of people who are more tolerant of these issues,“ he says. „But at the end of the day, it only takes one person to destroy your life.“

(*Some names have been changed to protect sources.)

This article originally appeared at Vocativ.comLiving dangerously: What it’s like to be gay in Iran.

What it's like to be gay in Iran

Gay in Iran

I’m looking for a cheap, exotic, slightly adventurous holiday in the Middle East and Ive settled on Iran. Im really excited about it. I’m also gay. (So, Mr . Ahmadinejad, there will be at least one in your country;) Obviously Im aware that homosexuality is illegal in Iran, and punishable by death. Not surprisingly, my mum and boyfriend are freaking out and asking me not to go. Im pretty confident that I will be OK. But, while I think Im 99% safe, 1% is still a big chance to take if it means death!

On the other hand, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life shuttling between gay ghettos in Sydney, Amsterdam and San fransisco endlessly discussing the merits of the latest Madonna single (I’m more of a Kylie man, anyway 😉

As far as I know (and please correct me if Im wrong!) no foreigners have been excecuted for homosexuality in iran.

And since Im in a monogamous relationship (with a boyfriend who doesnt want to come) I won’t be looking to hook up, or getting any action whatsoever while Im in the country. How would they know Im gay, then? Im not planning on running down the main street of Teheran with a rainbow flag. But, it is difficult for me to gauge how overtly gay I come across. In my home country (Australia) some people figure it out during the course of a casual conversation. Many dont. Its hard for to tell how „flaming“ I am, but obviously I am in some way noticeably gay-acting to people who are already attuned to that. Im hoping that in Iran, even if I did raise someone`s suspicions, they might just write it off as „foreigness“ rather than „gayness“ anyway, as happens often in Asian countries.

Also, I would be interested to meet Iranian gay guys just to find out what their lives are like, living in such a different and seemingly repressive society. I guess the best way to do that is through usual gay sites on the internet. (The only problem is that Im sure most of the Iranian guys will assume Im looking for a quick hook-up, or be looking one for themselves, rather than, err, a chat and some tea which is more what I had in mind).

Id love to hear from gay guys who have travelled in overtly homophobic (ie you get the death penalty) countries. How was the experience? Or Middle Eastern guys themselves – what do you think?

(Cross-posted to gay section and „like a sore thumb“).

I’m in Iran right now and I’ve met one traveler last week who was gay. He didn’t have any problems and he even made some contacts with other gays through the internet (yes, off course there are gays in Iran). To my opinion, it wasn’t the safest thing to do in Iran (and I told him to be careful), but he told me everything was fine and that the guys he was meeting obviously must know what they were doing. One day I joined them for a day trip to Mahan and I was pretty amazed by how obviously you could tell that these Iranian guys were homosexual (and how openly they „acted“).

So, to my opinion (based on my experience of course) you won’t be in trouble, as long as you will be careful when meeting other homosexuals. If you decide not to meet any, you won’t have any problems for sure (as long as you’ll be discrete about it).

Enjoy your trip to Iran, I’m here now for already 5 weeks and still can’t get enough of it!

Cool. The people over in the „gay“ section have been saying pretty much the same thing. Nice to know – thanx!

Most Iranians are in general, fundamentally independent, diverse and tolerant. So whether political or social, it depends on how confrontational you are. If looking for trouble, if being „gay“ is your primary claim to fame, I assume you be able to provoke a confrontation. Otherwise, not likely.

Iran has more problems enforcing womens head-scarves, and suppressing political dissidents, than worrying about some male tourist tending to his own business.

While two mid-eastern men holding hands means absolutely nothing; I saw a park in Tehran that was obviously a discrete yet public meeting-place for „friends.“ No big deal. Leave it at that, and you’ll have no problem. Confront the system, and it can come down hard.

As a gay man I used to frequently travel to Iran for business. (well, only to Tehran to be honest with you)I have never mentioned anyone in Tehran that I was gay and I have never encountered anyone who was gay in Tehran either probably because I was extremely scared all the time and I was not interested in meeting anyone Western gay codes,your western gaydar,will not work in Iran because of the cultural VVT mentioned above many straight males in Iran hold hands or sit/work/socialise with each other in physical distances which western cultures usually do not the eye contact issue can be this part of the world people do establish long and strong eye contacts with each other so do not assume I am saying is,the people you assumed to be gay might not be gay at all and can be also very hostile has a population of 76 million people and if you do the math there must be hundreds of thousands of gay people these gay people establish contact with each other is beyond my understanding since there are no obvious gay establishments,organizations,etc.. but they must be doing do not have the luxury of exploring the gay life in Tehran by yourself,you need a local to do that.I am assuming that since there is a legal problem with homosexuality in Iran everything is very very discreet and access to gay community is not easily available to a regular foreign it happens in many places the homosexual community in Iran must have also developed their own defense mechanisms and protective walls which will be very difficult for you to best advice for you is to establish connection with someone from your home country,an Iranian gay who may also have connections to Iran who in return will look after you/guide you there is safe.I have heard from many that looking for gay friends by yourself in Tehran is not recommended due to safety local ordinary people in the Middle East find the western “gay lifestyle “ not only illegal but also immensely East culture is very family oriented and not only the gay lifestyle but being heterosexual , over the age of 25 and still being single is also unacceptable to most of the you have an interest in “cheap, exotic, slightly adventurous holiday in the Middle East “,why Iran? why not Morocco or Cairo or even Syria or Amman?

Thanks for your ideas. Yeah, I definitely dont think its a good idea to arrive in Tehran and start giving dudes „the look“ in like, train station bathrooms …hahahahaha…. I was thinking of trying to make a local contact online.

And as for why Iran : Im more interested in Persian/Iranian culture that Arab culture to be honest, and I particularly want to see Iran it is!

Hey, I am gay and just got back to Canada from a trip where I traveled overland from London to Hong Kong (after finally finishing my degree). I was in Iran for 4 weeks and had a great time. I didn’t tell anyone I was gay mind you but I was surprised how often „gayness“ came up in conversations, young Iranians are very interested in talking about it I found. I keep telling all my friends that Iran would make a great gay travel destination though because you can walk around holding a guys hand and nobody would care the least. I will definitely go back one day, I met so many nice people and I would HIGHLY recommend going. Plus Iranian guys are hot!

I live in Tehran and can confirm to you that there are gays in Iran, especially in this part of the town that my office is. Many nights when I leave office late I see them walking and holding hands, you can tell they are gay from their mannerism and clothing and face makeup, they try overtly to make a scene. (Jomhouri street at College bridge, and Karimkhan street)

So it is not as concealed as our Turkish friend (GayTurk_Izmir) thinks and to be honest I think he has mistaken Iran with some Arab countries especially when he says „over 25 and still being single in Iran is unacceptable..“ this statement is a laugh when you look at statistics, the average marriage age for men is above 26, meaning in cities like Tehran the average for university graduates hovers around 30 ish and the ratio for women in university to men is 60% compared to 40% men!

So to my opinion there is nothing to be afraid of as long as you don’t try to confront the system.

“you can tell they are gay from their mannerism and clothing and face makeup,they try overtly to make a scene“

Good God..coinlockerbaby, do you identify with that ? LOL:)

You may as well start learning how to walk like John Wayne before you leave for Iran ,re-arrange your clothing(no glitter),leave your make-up kid at home and please butch it up a little and don’t create a scene .. will be fine ….

Gay in Iran

How do you meet other gay guys in Iran?

Gay dating apps such as Grindr, Hornet, and Scruff are blocked in Iran, as are other websites including Facebook and Twitter. Therefore, if you want to use them we will need to get a VPN. This will not only give you full access to all your favorite apps and websites, you’ll also be able to surf the Net safely and anonymously.

How do you meet other gay guys in Iran?

Storyline

The impact of such strict laws on homosexuality in Iran is examined through the life of asylum seeker Ramtin. Following the capture and torture of his boyfriend in Tehran, he now finds himself building a new life in Leeds. Ramtin and close friend Ali shed light on a situation ending the lives of many young men in their native country. This remarkable documentary finds Ramtin making the most of life in the U.K, playing flamenco guitar on local radio, practicing with a professional dancer and forming a support group for other gay Iranians. Yet fear of prosecution upon return to Iran, leaves Ramtin with his life in the balance as the Home Office continue to deny him citizenship. Written byGlen Milner

Storyline

Stefan Arestis

Stefan is the co-founder, editor, and author of the gay travel blog As a travel nerd, he has explored more than 80 countries across 5 continents. What he loves the most about traveling is discovering the local gay scene, making new friends, and learning new cultures. His advice about LGBTQ travel has been featured in Gaycation Magazine, Gaycities, Gay Times, Pink News, and Attitude Magazine. He has also written about gay travel for other non-gay-specific publications including Lonely Planet, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post. Stefan is also a qualified lawyer, having practiced as a commercial property litigator in London for over 10 years. He left his lawyer days behind to work full time on Nomadic Boys with his husband Sebastien. Find out more .

I had a short visit to Tehran for work. I fell in love with the people who were so hospitable and kind. I hope to go back and visit some of the places mentioned in this article.

Hello, Bonjour and Welcome to our travel blog. We are Stefan and Sebastien a French/Greek gay couple from London. Together, we have been travelling the world for over 10 years. Nomadic Boys is our gay travel blog showcasing all our travel adventures as a gay couple.

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