Op-ed: What Will It Take for Americans to Help Iranians?

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com October 25 2011 6:00 AM ET

Earlier last month three handcuffed
gay men from the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan were led to the
gallows in the middle of the city of Ahvaz before a crowd of several hundred
people and summarily hung by officials of Iran’s regime. Several months earlier,
the three men had being found guilty of sodomy — which is crime in Iran — in
what international human rights groups indicate was a sham trial.

Iran’s government follows Sharia or
Islamic law that prohibits any type of sexual activity outside the realm of
heterosexual marriage, and homosexuality is considered “a violation of the
supreme will of God.” Specifically, in Islamic law homosexuality is referred to
as “lavat,” which is Arabic for sodomy and in Iran is punishable only by death.

Yet the recent execution of the
three gay men in Iran is a mere footnote in the 32-year horrific history of
unspeakable human rights abuse and killings carried out by Iran’s current
regime against LGBT people living in that country. According to a May 2008
confidential British government cable that was leaked by the “Wikileaks”
website and later published by the London Telegraph newspaper, human rights activists believe that since 1979, between 4,000 and 6,000 gay
men and lesbians have been executed in Iran for crimes related to their sexual orientation.

On a regular basis, local police or
government-sanctioned thugs in Iran arrest, beat, torture and, in most cases,
hang or even stone individuals who are suspected or found to be involved in
homosexual activity.

Despite the brutality LGBT Iranians
face, in September 2007 when speaking to a crowd of students at New York’s
Columbia University, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flatly denied the existence of homosexuality in
Iran. Ironically, that same year the Iranian regime executed more than 200
people — many of whom were LGBT.

According to Iranian-American human
rights activists, the circumstances behind the September execution of the three
gay men in Ahvaz were unique. This is because gay men in Iran have often, as a
mere façade, been executed for crimes of rape, sexual assault, murder or drug
trafficking in order for the regime to avoid extreme international pressure for
carrying out executions based on homosexuality.

“An official of the prosecutor’s
office in Iran in this particular case was quoted by the ‘Iranian Student News
Agency’ last month as saying that the three gay men were executed for the
specific crime of ‘lavat’ or sodomy under the Iranian penal code sections 108
and 110,” said Frank Nikbakht, who heads the Los Angeles-based Committee for
Minority Rights in Iran. “This was rare because it’s one of the few occasions
where the Iranian regime has point blank admitted to executing someone for
being gay.”

Likewise, in a similar July 2005
case, two teenage boys, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni were the last
homosexuals accused of the crime of sodomy and hung in public by construction
cranes in the Iranian city of Mashad.

Interestingly enough, according to
the New York-based “United Against a Nuclear Iran,” the regime in Iran now has
more construction cranes per capita than any other country in the Middle East.
These cranes are not being used for any sort of massive national infrastructure
program, but to routinely hang LGBT and “other undesirables” who the Shiite
clerics who rule Iran claim are “defacing Islam.”

Nikbakht also described a chilling
televised speech given by one of Iran’s radical fundamentalist clerics nearly
30 years ago regarding the “joys of killing homosexuals.”

“In July
1982, the infamous judge of the revolutionary court, Ayatollah Gillani, in his
weekly program on Iranian TV, graphically and with a smile on his face
described the offenses punishable by gruesome executions —  he even ordered the execution of his
own gay son, specifically announcing sodomy as a crime that was punishable by
death, as the law of the land,” said Nikbakht.

These very difficult circumstances
for LGBT Iranians make life unbearable for the majority of them. I recently had a telephone interview with a
25-year-old gay man in Iran by the name of Amir H., who asked that his real
name be withheld for fear of being arrested by the Iranian regime. He said gay
couples in Iran are not seen together in public and often keep their sexuality
behind closed doors since they have been popularly stereotyped as being
sex-obsessed child molesters or rapists having AIDS or other sexually-transmitted

“The only way for gay men to be
able to live in society here in Iran is to live as transsexuals,” said Amir H. “Many
of my gay friends wear make-up and cover themselves under the women’s veils in
public because they are afraid of abuse from others or the police.”

Sadly, today in Iran the regime pressures
gay men
to have gender-reassignment surgery in order for them “to be cured
of the homosexuality disorder” and to “prevent social disorder that is brought
about by same-sex relationships.” Many times not only are gay men forced to
have the operations, but also the regime subsidizes the costs of the surgeries
and legalizes new birth certificates for those who undergo the operations according
to a 1987 fatwa or Islamic religious edict issued by the Iranian regime’s late
founder, the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Seeking to avoid legal difficulties
and heavy societal pressures, countless gay men in Iran in recent years have
instead voluntarily opted to have their genders changed. According to a February 2008 BBC News report,
as a result today Iran has one of highest rates of these surgeries, second only
to Thailand. Yet at the same time many who do undergo these surgeries still
face abuse from the regime and are ostracized by their communities.

Amidst the difficult conditions for
LGBT Iranians, there has been some hope as a few Iranian LGBT groups in the
West have formed in recent years. Specifically, the “Iranian Queer
Organization” based in Canada has been one of the most vocal organizations
addressing the abuse of LGBT in Iran. This group has also sought asylum in
Europe and North America for LGBT people who face persecution or imminent death
in Iran.

Still, many LGBT Iranians who I
have interviewed in recent months have expressed a significant sense of
hopelessness with their plight. They often make remarks that the LGBT community
in the U.S. and Europe has not taken any monumental steps to help them or
indirectly pressure Iran’s regime of their behalf.

“We don’t know why our LGBT
brothers and sisters in the West have not put real pressures on their
governments to help us or started a real international campaign to pressure the
Iranian government politically or pressure international businesses who work
with the Iranian regime,” said Amir H. “We need real help! What will it take to
awaken gay rights activists in America from their slumber and to come to our
aid here in Iran?”

While I do not hail from the LGBT
community, the dire situation for LGBT and others living in Iran who are only
seeking personal freedoms, in my estimation, is a serious humanitarian crisis
that we living in the free world can no longer ignore. With the Iranian
regime’s sick and twisted ideologies against LGBT and others they deem as
“undesirables,” one cannot help but wonder how that regime, if unchallenged,
plans to force their beliefs on the rest of the world as they continue to
pursue nuclear military capability, and defy the international community on
societal and legal issues alike.           


KARMEL MELAMED is an award-winning
internationally published Iranian-American journalist covering Iran and Middle
East affairs for various publications.