In Iran, a Fight Just to Fight for GLBT Rights


Yes, we have no homosexuals.

by Kevin McKenna
Columbia University sophomore

As a gay student at Columbia University, I was looking forward to hearing what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had to say about the documented persecution of homosexuals in his country. Ahmadinejad did not discuss punishment for homosexuals but rather stated, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have this.” As much as any of the views expressed by Ahmadinejad, these views on homosexuality in Iran are completely ridiculous and unreasonable.

I grew up in Orange County, California, which is not the friendliest environment for gays. I went through about five years of personal torment before finally coming out to my close friends and family during my senior year of high school. There is not a large gay community in Orange County, so I was happy to find myself in New York City about six months after informing my family of my sexual orientation. The whole process was very difficult for me, but everything turned out well in the end. The concerns I had about coming out in Orange County are trivial compared to the dilemma gay people face in Iran.

Iran is one of only seven nations that subjects homosexuals to the death penalty in the name of Islamic law. The government does not acknowledge the idea of sexual orientation, so all Iranians are considered heterosexuals before the law. “Gender identity disorder” is recognized in Iran, and sex change operations are permitted for those who are able to afford them. Others face the fullest extent of Sharia law for homosexual acts.

In July of 2005, two teen boys were publicly hanged for engaging in gay sex. Prior to their execution, the two boys received a combined 228 lashes while in prison for 14 months. This punishment is unimaginable to Americans for any crime, let alone for something that has not been considered criminal in this country since 2003. In addition, these boys were minors. While many Americans may find homosexuality immoral, I imagine these people would unquestionably condemn the torture and execution of two gay teens. This story is just one of many regarding the oppression of the GLBT community in Iran.

Many gay people in Iran live their lives in secret. Kamran, an Iranian lesbian, reported to Iranian Queer Organization leader Arsham Parsi, “If someone abuses you, you cannot issue a complaint to any organization or report to the police, because you’ll create more problems for yourself.” Gay Iranians are living in fear, hoping that they won’t be caught and prosecuted.

Many gay Iranians have been ostracized by their own families, while others live their lives keeping their homosexuality a secret even in their own home. Kamran’s partner, Kaveh told Parsi, “My family will believe it, but I am certain my parents would definitely have heart attacks. I will have problems with my brother. And I will definitely be kicked out of the house.” While many members of the American GLBT community must face the uncertain coming out process, there are always resources and communities open to those whose families do not take it well. This is not the case in Iran.

The only gay community that exists in Iran is in cyberspace, with little exception. Parsi’s Iranian Queer Organization is based in Toronto, as it would be dangerous to manage a website for the GLBT community in Iran. If Iranians want to date people of the same-sex, foreign-based dating websites are the only option because it is impossible to meet other gay people in public. Any attempt to do so would facilitate the Iranian government in capturing and executing gay Iranians. An attempt to set up a gay organization in the early 1980s led to seventy executions.

In the United States, the gay community is fighting for non-discrimination laws and marriage equality. In Iran, gay people are afraid to fight for anything. They are only concerned with their right to live. Ahmadinejad’s visit to campus made me realize that although the United States has a long way to go on gay rights, many Iranians dream merely of having the right to peacefully assemble and publicly fight for the rights that we already enjoy. Fighting for equality here in the United States is important, but the gay community in the Western world should be doing more to help those who do not have a voice in other countries.

Kevin McKenna is a sophomore at Columbia University majoring in political science. He is a research fellow in the Roosevelt Institution and the Alumni and Social Affairs Director for the Columbia Democrats.

1 Parsi, Arsham. “Farsad and Farnam: A Gay Couple Who Have Been Tortured for Being Gay.” UK Gay News. 21 July 2005.
2 Parsi, Arsham. “Interview with Iranian Gay Couple.” Gay Republic Daily. 7 September 2007.
3 Parsi, Arsham. “Interview with Iranian Gay Couple.”
4 Forbes, Simon. “Iran – the State-Sponsored Torture & Murder of Lesbians and Gay Men.” Gay Patriot. 20 April 2006.