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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 facade, 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 diseases.
"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.