Gay? Get a Sex Change

By Sean Kennedy

Originally published on Advocate.com June 23 2009 11:00 PM ET

Two years ago, Westerners rightly laughed when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a Columbia University audience that there were no homosexuals in his country. But the new documentary Be Like Others, premiering Wednesday night on HBO2, shows why he might believe that: Rather than be persecuted for being gay, some Iranian men decide to undergo gender reassignment-surgery and become women instead. Unlike homosexuality, which is forbidden by the Koran, transsexuality is considered a medical condition and is tolerated so long as people change gender. The surgeries are even regulated by the state.

For her debut feature, Iranian-American director Tanaz Eshaghian traveled to Tehran to follow three such men, the trans woman who mentors them (and says she hates gay people), and the jovial doctor who performs the surgeries. The resulting film, a 2008 Sundance selection, limns the Islamic republic's contradictory discourses on sexual orientation and gender -- and shows to devastating effect how some of the country's most vulnerable citizens fall prey to hard-line ideology. Eshaghian spoke to Advocate.com at a coffee shop near her apartment in downtown New York City, one week after Iran's disputed presidential election.

Advocate.com:What's your assessment of the current political situation in Iran? Tanaz Eshaghian: I personally don't think you're going to see much change. People are letting off some steam, which is nice. People need to do that.

The men you follow in Be Like Others don't discuss politics per se, but do you know what their take on recent events would be? No -- they're too involved in their own issues. Often being interested in current events, politics requires -- wherever you are in the world -- a certain lack of problems in your own private life. Also, being politically minded in Iran, it's very different. It's not like here.

BE LIKE THE OTHERS 02 X390 (HBO) | ADVOCATE.COM

How did you learn about the culture of sex-change operations in Iran? I read an article in The New York Times and thought, Oh my God, this is so crazy! And I kept thinking about it. It's an operation that could only come out of a Western cultural framework, really. The thought that you're an individual and that science can help you -- these things are incredibly modern, very Western. So to have something like that occurring in a more traditional society -- this doesn't fit into their construct of gender. I thought it'd be interesting to [observe] people are who are banging up against that cultural logic, and in some ways threatening it. All sorts of issues come up.

Perhaps the strongest tension in the film is between the persecution that one faces as a gay man in Iran versus the subjugation that one faces as a heterosexual woman there. There's no winning.

Exactly: You have to fit into the social order one way or another. Right. I mean, you definitely don't walk around Iran thinking women are not empowered. Not at all. Quite frankly, I didn't feel like it was that different here in terms of what women were doing. They're right there next to guys. It's more subtle.

But the men you follow certainly believe in traditional gender roles. They're from rural backgrounds -- lower-middle-class, traditional, religious backgrounds. One of the things I think is really important [in the film] is what people do when they feel even a mild amount of hope. Ali-Askar, who becomes [a woman named] Negar, says, "I thought once I had the operation, there'd be a place for me, I'd fit in" -- even though, if he looks around and sees people who've had it, it's hell. But there's such a desire to fit in, they're almost blinded.

BE LIKE THE OTHERS 03 X390 (HBO) | ADVOCATE.COM

And that's the tragedy: Negar's arguably in a worse predicament after the operation than she was in as a man. Her family disowns her, she becomes a prostitute, and she says her ability to love has been "killed." She saw a ray of light and went into it. But there's other things going on too. My theory is there's deep internalized shame, because these are individuals who find the fact that they're attracted to members of the same sex to be disgraceful. Unconsciously there's some desire to pay the price, to do what is expected of you.

The doctor says he can distinguish between men who are gay and men who legitimately want to be women because the former leave his office in fear after hearing what gender reassignment surgery entails. But how believable is that? Well, those are the questions the film raises. Is that lip service or is that really the case?

In one extended scene, an Iranian state radio reporter visits the clinic and betrays the very real cultural bias that trans women face even after having surgery. She was not cool. I felt that a very traditional way of thinking walked in via her. She was very clear: We have services for you, we take care of you. If you're a transsexual, there isn't any ambiguity -- we have the path set up for you. And if you're not one, then you're suspect. It's perfectly logical [to her]. She's expressing the truth.

Is Iran the only predominantly Muslim country that officially accepts sex changes? Yes, because of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa [permitting them]. It's not coming out of any text. Iran is mostly Shia, and the Sunni clerics, from what I've read, consider it totally unacceptable.

BE LIKE THE OTHERS DIRECTOR Tanaz Eshaghian X390 (HBO) | ADVOCATE.COM

Before his surgery, Ali-Askar sounds a note of regret, saying that he's a product of God and that he wouldn't change his gender if he didn't have to. It wasn't regret. He was thrilled -- he was certain that things were going to get clarified. He was just answering my question. He thought what he was doing made sense.

What about his boyfriend -- ostensibly he's interested in Ali because he's a man, but he's still interested in him as a woman? These are all questions. What he said [about Ali] was, "He's just another one of my girlfriends." At no point did he turn to me and say, "I like her because she's a guy." That's literally an unsayable thing in that environment.

When you were in Iran, did you talk to any gay men about this situation? I didn't know any gay guys there. I know gay Iranian guys here. It's not an out culture there.

What did your Iranian relatives and friends think about the film? Did they think it was such an American thing to do? No, they're normal people. If you approach [the subject matter] in a way that's sensationalistic, then it's going to be sensationalistic. I went out of my way to not do that. One of my favorite comments that people say to me is, "I forget whether they're transsexual or this or that. They're just human." That, to me, is the most important thing.