In our week relaxing in Izmir we binged out on international media, and one thing we found was this: an in depth report from the BBC about an apparently common practice in Iran where young people who indicate they are attracted to others of the same gender are encouraged and/or forced into gender reassignment surgery.
Homosexuality is illegal, and punishable by death. In contrast the Supreme Leader was once so moved by the plea of a woman who said she was living in a man’s body, that he issued a fatwa – a non-binding religious ruling – that said gender reassignment surgery was okay. This has resulted in:
- a surprisingly liberal approach to transgender people, with Iran performing more than 1,000 gender reassignment operations between 2006 and 2010
- a disturbing trend towards using the same surgery as an ‘antidote’ to same sex attraction (assuming that a bit of prayer doesn’t ‘fix’ it)
The individual stories in the reporting are instructive, and moving. There’s:
- the young man whose family said he could either become a woman, or they would kill him
- many who flee across the border to Turkey as refugees including
- one who has setup a Queer Railroad to get those facing persecution our of Iran
- the woman who called him for help, and didn’t know how to answer his question as to whether she was transgender or lesbian: she didn’t know that the latter existed
This practice is another example of the stunning contradictions in modern Iran. It’s like a drastically souped up version of women with hair covered with veils and noses touched up by surgeons. Before we visited we might have expected that both homosexuality and transgender identity would be frowned on in a conservative Islamic society like Iran. Now, the practice of encouraging homosexuals to change gender makes an odd kind of sense: it represents the kind of clash of religious conservatism and modernity that we appreciate as part of Iran’s complexity. Doesn’t mean we’re any less appalled, though.