When then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared in 2007 that there were no gay people in Iran, he was correct in one sense. Because homosexuality is illegal and punishable by imprisonment, torture or execution, the idea of someone living their life openly gay in Iran is unheard of.
But of course Ahmadinejad was wrong in that there are plenty of gay Iranians living in the shadows. It's just that the government chooses to ignore them — at least until it doesn't.
And while we often hear about LGBT Iranians who've fled the country, what about those who choose to stay or can't afford to leave?
In a story published Tuesday, Vocativ offers a compelling look at Iran's underground gay community through the eyes of three of its members: a 25-year-old single man who recently had the courage to come out to his parents, and two men in their early 30s who are in a relationship, albeit a very secretive one.
It's a story of private parties whose hosts must pay off the country's moral police, and of wealthy married men who live parallel lives and cruise parks for young male prostitutes.
Gays from lower classes and rural areas, where stigmatization is often most severe, rarely have the ability to move out of the house before marriage, let alone leave the country. Even in more affluent communities in cities. there is generally little acceptance of homosexuality, but some middle- and upper-class Iranians have the means to create parallel lives, out of sight of their relatives or friends. These people—men like Saeed—are the lucky ones.
“Ninety-five percent of gays in Iran will never come out,” Saeed says over pasta at one of northern Tehran’s coffee shops, where the atmosphere is relatively permissive. For all his friends who have dared, coming out has been a traumatic experience; parents lock their children inside the house, confiscate their phones and laptops, and force them to seek therapy.
Even "the lucky ones" like Saeed live in constant fear — "We are all so fucking scared," he told Vocativ. The Iranian government keeps extensive intelligence files on its citizens and presumably monitors gay apps like Grindr. But an even bigger threat to gay Iranians can be blackmail by other citizens who find out.
The pressure is so intense in Iran that many gay men choose to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Being transgender is acceptable in Iran, where more people undergo GRS than in any other country except Thailand.
Meanwhie, the country's HIV rate has increased nine-fold over the last 10 years, and 70 percent don't know they're infected.
Still, there are signs of hope.
A recent government study found that 17 percent of young adults in Iran said they were gay. And the government has begun to at least acknolwedge their existence — even if it's through backward policies like a ban on military service for those who can prove it.
Hossein Alizadeh, of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, told Vocativ:
“There’s a new generation of people who are more tolerant of these issues. But at the end of the day, it only takes one person to destroy your life.”
And in some cases, "destroy your life" can mean literally.
Read Vocativ's full story here.