Anything’s better than hell: How queer Iranians & anti-LGBTQ+ rebels became part of the same uprising

Anything’s better than hell: How queer Iranians & anti-LGBTQ+ rebels became part of the same uprising
Photo: Shutterstock

Amidst the current Iranian rebellion against the Islamic Republic, Majidriza Rahnavard was caught by the police and executed. 

After releasing his Instagram account to the public, some of Majidriza’s posts caused controversy. Photos of him kissing another man on a motorcycle led to the usual outrage, but it wasn’t all that surprising. Many of the other protesters who died were also members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

The most shocking thing, however, was his unapologetic support of the Pahlavi Dynasty and particularly the reign of Muhammad Riza Shah, the former Shah of Iran whose supporters want to achieve a restoration to the imperial past by implementing rigid conservative and anti-minority laws. 

These Monarchists see LGBTQ+ identities as moral degeneracy and leftist propaganda.  A recently leaked letter from an imprisoned activist mentions that they have called Afghan immigrants “Afghani dogs” and consider Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” (the highest-selling foreign book in Iran) as their holy book. It said the monarchists have been insulting other inmates who don’t share their views or are of different identities.

Why would an LGBTQ+ person support this conservative wing of the revolution? 

Yes, the supporters are against the country’s current government, but they do not shy away from expressing their hatred for LGBTQ+ people. They even went as far as revising Majidreza’s life, attempting to paint him as a straight man who didn’t identify with or support LGBTQ+ movements.

After a recent dispute between opposition figures against the Islamic Republic, the Monarchist movement has become prominent in the media by trying to give the power of “attorney” to Riza Pahlavi (the exiled son of former Iranian king Muhammad Riza Pahlavi) to lead the country out of its current situation. Right now, Iranians live under the rule of an Islamist state with isolationist and fundamentalist ideology. 

The growth of the Monarchist movement has led to great aggression online and among protesters. The Monarchists are targeting the part of society that they see as “problematic,” which includes almost anyone who doesn’t fit in with their vision of the ideal strong Persian country, such as Republicans (not the American GOP but people who want to establish a republic in Iran), followers of other figures, the left, and especially ethnic and sexual minorities. 

“Enemies of the Shah are Afghans [the Afghan minority in Iran], the left, MEK, mullahs, gays, feminists, separatists, and all the other bastards,” a monarchist tweeted.

Pahlavi has previously expressed in interviews that he doesn’t want to change the political apparatus of Iran but rather replace the most powerful people in the country, such as Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader. He has expressed that he doesn’t want this movement to go against the fundamentals of Islam. He has also famously said, “I don’t want to be just a symbolic king in a palace like the western monarchs, I would like to get involved [in politics] and be on the side of people.” With Pahlavi’s remarks, many have joined the “I don’t give the power of attorney” movement to combat his and the Monarchists’ attempt at “stealing the revolution.”

So why was Majidreza on their side? 

To have a better understanding of such paradoxes and what is currently taking place in Iran, we need to avoid defining all of Iranian society as a monolith.

A Stolen Movement

Demonstrator holding

The 2022 Iranian uprising – sometimes defined as a revolution – started out as a result of Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of the morality police in Tehran after she did not wear the hijab correctly. 

Amini was a young Kurdish girl whose death didn’t sit well with her community and soon enough it sparked great unrest in the Kurdish area of Iran with the famous phrase, “Woman, Life, Freedom”. 

Turks, Lurs, Arabs, Persians, and most minorities across the country started to adopt the slogan to fight off the Islamic Republic’s gender apartheid, as well as its whole existence. Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision has created a firmly hierarchical system in which women and minorities are second-class citizens. Khomeini was a far-right conservative theocrat who led the Iranian revolution of 1979. He then turned it into the “Islamic” revolution after killing and destroying all his moderate and leftist opponents.

Soon after “Women, Life, Freedom” began to spread, another slogan was quickly introduced by Persian Monarchists to “complete” the slogan: “King, Nation, Development”. This later morphed into “Man, Nation, Development” although the former is also used. It is a nationalist slogan that reminds Iranians of a glorious past in which Iran was an economic goliath in the region and had the power to cripple European and Western countries with its oil prices. 

The new slogan was widely adopted by certain segments of society who believed that men were being excluded from this movement and that it shouldn’t be about women. Of course, it met a huge amount of criticism from other segments of society who do not share the same patriarchal values and saw it as a betrayal of the original slogan and what it stood for.

This divide has been categorized as a battle between the right, who wants to maintain the patriarchy but with a different leader and aesthetics, and the left, who wants to replace it with a more equal society. 

“Man (or King), Nation, Development sounds much like the Nazi ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer’ or One People, One Realm, One Leader,” mentioned one Iranian Twitter user in September. Many others made the same comparison and saw it as a way for Monarchists, who shape up the majority of the right-wing sphere of Iran’s political discourse, to steal the movement.

Anything Is Better Than Living in Hell

London United kingdom October 29, 2022: Protest erupt in London over the senseless killing of woman in Iran by their morality police over the proper wearing of headscarfs.

“I remember people saying that using this slogan will shatter our movement’s image worldwide because everyone started to support it as a form of progressive revolution that stood for the rights of women and minorities,” Mina* , a trans Iranian novelist, told LGBTQ Nation. She added that although the majority of people who are part of this movement are feminists and want to end the gender apartheid, we should keep in mind that this phenomenon is also economical. 

In the 2019-2020 uprising known as the Bloody November, thousands upon thousands of people took to the streets because of the increase in the price of gasoline. Much like the current protesters they burned the pictures of Khamenei and his predecessor, Khomeini, but instead of shouting “Women, Life, Freedom,” and other feminist slogans, many said, “Riza Shah [Riza Pahlavi’s grandfather], Bless Your Soul.” 

Bloody November didn’t attract the attention of the western outlets and as Mina put it, “They [Westerners] thought it was just another rebellion of hungry people who were frustrated because of the economic incompetency and severe sanctions which to some extent was the case, and I think the current rebellion would have died out much like the Bloody November if this one was also only about the same issues.”

It’s hard to speculate what would have been the case but it is an undeniable fact that this uprising is in many ways a continuation of the previous unrest. 

“Honestly, I don’t even care at this point. People’s Mujahidin? The Shah [King]? Anything would be better than this,” Faranak, a lesbian university student and LGBTQ+ rights activist told LGBTQ Nation

She mentioned People’s Mujahidin and the Shah, two US-backed right-wing and conservative entities that have had histories of ethnic cleansing and inflicting pain upon minorities, to say that the situation in Iran is so incredibly bad that she would rather live under their dictatorial rule instead of the current one.

“A potato could run this country better,” she joked.

The price of the US dollar has reached an unbelievable level, with one dollar worth 450,000 Iranian rials as of writing this article. This means the average salary of a highly skilled worker is less than $200 a month. This is considered outrageous by many because the salary does not reflect the prices in the country. 

“Not just the prices, they have increased the price of your degree in public universities,” continued Faranak. She and many like her who study in public universities believe that the reason the government increased the price of buying your degree after graduation is to force young people to stay in Iran.

In Iran, students have to pay to get their degrees translated from Persian to English in order to work in foreign countries. It is possible for them to work inside the country and compensate for their education (sort of like the student loan system in the US), but they cannot get their hands on their degree to go abroad without paying for it. 

“It’s like living in hell,” Faranak said.“I cannot make this country better to live peacefully and I cannot leave because I cannot afford to release my degree and even if somehow I manage to do that, I cannot afford to even go anywhere with each dollar worth this much.”

Given the dire situation, Faranak’s claim that anything else would be better makes sense. As a member of the LGBTQ+ family, as a woman, or as an ethnic minority, you need to have some basic needs met to even be able to fight for your rights. The sanctions and the private interests of the government have made it excruciatingly difficult for people to lead normal lives. If you cannot afford to eat, how can you even think about your identity?

This might explain the alignment between the left (who are mostly progressives, socialists, anarchists, and sometimes liberals) with the right (who are for the most part monarchists). This is especially reflected in Majidriza’s character as the unusual gay monarchist and might explain the paradox that puzzled many.

A Multilayered Battle of Ideas

Washington, DC – October 29, 2022: Demonstrators in solidarity with protesters in Iran call for the overthrow of the regime for Women, Life, Freedom at Farragut Square.

“Faggotry is the most abhorrent and evil entity,” Ayatollah Ibrahim Raisi, the current Iranian president, said in a speech to an Iranian non-governmental organization. While the Islamic Republic has always been against any form of sexual and gender identity outside of its ideal heterosexual and binary vision, it hardly ever took many actions against LGBTQ+ people and for the most part tried to ignore the community as if it didn’t exist. 

This is very well mirrored in former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 speech in which he said gay people don’t exist in Iran. But unlike previous presidents, Raisi sees the LGBTQ+ community as a real threat to the Islamic Republic and is taking direct action.

While most Iranians on the right disagree with Raisi and Khamenei’s theocratic and clerical rule, they do not necessarily disagree with them on social issues. They also see LGBTQ+ people as nejasat, or filth. 

“Our youth doesn’t shed blood so faggotry becomes free,” a monarchist account angrily tweeted. Less obvious hatred is mostly given against LGBTQ+ people and other minorities by arguing that because there are many conservatives in Iranian society, the presence of LGBTQ+ people might discourage them from participating in the revolution. 

These arguments and expressions were soon challenged by Riza Pahlavi, himself, who mentioned that all sexual and gender minorities must live freely in a democratic Iran.  Recently, he even said that he would rather Iran be a republic and doesn’t want to be king. However, the overwhelming majority of his supporters are in favor of monarchy and disagree with him on most issues. They support him as a remnant of monarchy and not as a political figure.

“Coalition” is a term often used in the Persian online sphere. Notable political commentators outside of Iran such as Riza Pahlavi have decided to form a coalition to represent a form of legitimate opposition to Iran’s current regime. It is similar in fashion to how Ayatollah Khomeini and other figures formed a coalition against Shah’s regime in the 1970s. While this coalition includes more centrist and moderate figures, it has been described by many as “lacking any representation of the left and minorities.”

This became especially evident when Pahlavi’s wife shared a photo on her Instagram with the slogan: “Death to Degeneracy, Whether Mullah, the Left, or Mujahid.” Basically, she was claiming that anyone on the political left must be removed after the revolution. 

“I hardly see a brighter future. It’s just like the 1979 revolution. They will start the mass executions when they feel like they have the power,” Elias – a leftist who grew up in Sweden after their parents left Iran due to the mass executions of Khomeini – told LGBTQ Nation.

“This is a great opportunity for ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, and more to form their own coalition to stand against this far-right fascist block,” added Muhammad, a gay soldier who has been an avid participant in the uprising. 

While people like him are being ignored in this coalition, Muhammad believes this is not an end-all-be-all moment. 

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the fact that while this uprising started from the thoughts and blood of minorities and the left (and continues to live off of them), far-right figures and parties in the west are the ones interacting with the exiled opposition. There is also a strong right-wing sentiment in Iran that is especially apparent among the older generations who want to re-install the previous monarchy and uphold the conservative values of the current regime but with different aesthetics. 

This is not just a fight between the Iranian people and the Islamic Republic; this is a multi-layered battle of ideas that will eventually decide the future of Iran and the Middle East.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Islamists and by large the face of the coalition claimed that he would never seize power in Iran while he was in exile in France, but quickly after the revolution, he took full control of the country with an iron fist and killed thousands of people who opposed his newly formed regime. So, it is only natural for people like Muhammad and Elias to be worried about their future when members of the coalition are already expressing hatred for the left and the minorities – even Khomeini didn’t express such thoughts before overthrowing the Shah. 

“Death to the Oppressor, be it the King or the Supreme Leader” is one of the most notable slogans used in the 2022-2023 uprising. It became especially controversial when journalist Sima Sabet tried to silence people who were shouting this slogan in Berlin. Sabet works for the most popular Persian-speaking television broadcast called Iran International, which is funded by Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom. The broadcasting channel has been characterized as “Iranian FOX News” due to its extremely biased and hysterical right-wing reportage of the affairs in Iran.

The coverage of Iran both inside and outside has been heavily filtered through the lens of western interests.

Sina Fazelpour, assistant professor of philosophy and computer science at Northeastern University, lays out a guide to how non-Iranians can engage with Iran without falling into ideological traps. People on the left, while well-intended, might misguide many into thinking that the current uprising is all about feminism, social justice, and other progressive causes. Just as misguided, people on the right will try to convince people that this is not about social reform but simply the removal of Islamism and a fascist journey into pre-Islamic Iran by re-installing a monarchy. 

It is, however, extremely important to keep in mind that Iranians are not a monolith, and the complexities of the revolution cannot be understood by a dichotomic outlook which will result in confusion when seeing someone like Majidriza kissing another boy and expressing right-wing sentiments. 

Don't forget to share:

Support vital LGBTQ+ journalism

Reader contributions help keep LGBTQ Nation free, so that queer people get the news they need, with stories that mainstream media often leaves out. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated

Trump is workshopping the nickname “Tiny D” for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Previous article

Advocates rally nationwide for LGBTQ+ rights: We “have had enough.”

Next article