Iran is one of the oldest civilizations on earth.
Throughout its history, many forms of gender expression have been celebrated – from the acknowledgment of a third gender to men wearing makeup to distinguish their noble and higher status in contrast with cultures like the Greeks, who were seen as less civilized.
Iran has been both a queer paradise and a queer dystopia. So where do LGBTQ+ Iranians stand today?
Many have tried to argue for the rights of trans people by pointing out the more accepting attitudes of ancient Iranian civilization, an attitude that is at odds with the modern interpretation of masculinity and femininity.
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And a shift did begin to take place in the 1960s thanks to one brave activist.
The mother of a movement
In the 1960s, Iran was experiencing a great shift in its attitude towards homosexuality. While conservatives condemned it, there were many gay bars and other places for young gay people to be themselves. The secret 1978 marriage of Bijan Saffari (the son of a high-ranking senator) is one example of the passive presence of homosexuality in the country.
Maryam Khatoon Molkara was born in Anzali, a deeply religious province, and grew up alongside these cultural shifts in Iran. Initially thinking she was gay, Maryam used her family’s connections with the Pahlavi family (the ruling dynasty at the time) and asked Iranian Queen Farah Diba for guidance.
The queen suggested Maryam find others like herself and create a community that could ask for protection from the state. Farah, a progressive woman unlike her husband, showed love and sympathy for gay people and was among the few members of the royal family who had good relations with them.
In 1975, Maryam traveled to London and had an eye-opening experience about trans identities. It was there she realized she wasn’t simply homosexual.
Maryam was a religious woman and began writing letters seeking religious advice from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was in exile in Iraq, regarding her experience of being assigned the wrong gender at birth. She mentioned her gender identity had been apparent since she was just two years old, as she used to imitate applying makeup with chalk on her face. Khomeini suggested that she live as a woman, which included dressing accordingly.
She even went as far as seeking his guidance in person when he was in Paris, but she was unable to meet with him. However, these attempts at meeting Khomeini and connecting with what became the ruling clergy saved her life.
Following the 1979 revolution and the annihilation of the leftists and liberals by the religious right, Maryam faced severe backlash due to her identity. She endured arrests, death threats, and various forms of mistreatment, including being forced to wear masculine clothing and being injected with male hormones against her will. She was ultimately forced to stay in a psychiatric institution, but thanks to her connections with religious leaders, however, she managed to secure her release. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the renowned reformist who would ultimately become president of Iran, was instrumental in helping her.
During the Iran-Iraq War, Maryam volunteered as a nurse on the front lines, and her compassionate care often led the men she treated to assume she was a woman.
Throughout this period, Maryam persisted in advocating for her right to undergo gender-affirming surgery. In 1985, she confronted Khomeini directly at his home in North Tehran, dressed in a man’s suit and carrying the Koran while seeking refuge. Security guards initially restrained and beat her until Khomeini’s brother intervened. She eventually pleaded her case before Khomeini, explaining her identity and the need for sex reassignment surgery to fulfill her religious duties.
After hearing her story and consulting with doctors, Khomeini issued a fatwa (ruling) affirming that sex reassignment surgery was not against Islamic law. Maryam then worked to implement the necessary medical procedures in Iran and assisted other transgender individuals in accessing surgeries.
In 1997, she underwent her own gender-affirming surgery in Thailand, as she was dissatisfied with the procedures available in her home country. The Iranian government supported her surgery and subsequently established government funding for surgeries for other transgender individuals.
In 2007, Maryam founded and ran the Iranian Society to Support Individuals with Gender Identity Disorder (ISIGID), the first state-approved organization advocating for transgender rights in Iran. Prior to that, she had used her own property to offer support, legal advice, and medical care to fellow transgender people, including post-op care. Despite knowing the potential risks, she continued to fight for the rights of other transgender individuals, even helping secure their release from prison.
Maryam died in 2012 in Anzali, where she was born, but her efforts transformed Iran into one of the more accepting countries for transgender people in the Middle East.
Modern Iran is not known for its love of LGBTQ+ people. With the recent attacks on gay people from President Raisi, as well as the execution of a few LGBTQ+ activists, there is no denying that LGBTQ+ people are having a hard time under the Islamic Republic’s reign.
But unlike gay people, whose acts might lead them to death, transgender folks are treated as sick people who need gender reassignment surgery to live according to their true gender, just like Maryam Khatoon Molkara.
This has put Iran in an odd situation where according to the law, trans people are far more accepted than gay people. In practice, though, trans people still receive a lot of hate and discrimination. That being said, no one can go as far as publicly challenging the fact that gender reassignment is a bad thing because then they would challenge Khomeini’s words, something that could have dire consequences.
Since the late 2010s, the American culture war has found its way into Iran through the sharing of videos of Donald Trump and right-wing figures like Jordan Peterson. These anti-LGBTQ+ leaders have been attractive to Iranian youth due to their anti-Islamic and anti-Islamic Republic sentiments that seem to align well with their aim of toppling the regime.
Inevitably, the American right wing’s unique form of bigotry also found its way to Iran. Josephine Baird, a British-Swedish scholar, told LGBTQ Nation that American and European reactionaries used Iran’s acceptance of trans people for many years as evidence of their conspiratorial ideas that accepting trans people would lead to the erasure of gay people – or some sort of tyranny.
“The modern rampant transphobia has no real connection to Iran or our culture,” Becca Sanaei Kia, an Iranian scholar in the US, also told LGBTQ Nation.
There are two clashing ideas over the existence of trans people in Iran. One is the old-school religious view that trans people are sick and must be cured. The second is the Western-style secular transphobia that sees any bit of acceptance as threatening. While Khomeini and his creed were convinced of their beliefs due to religious texts and arguments, the modern transphobes rely on a distorted sense of “science” and “biology.”
LGBTQ Nation spoke with several trans people in Iran, and it’s clear that to many, the old view is more comforting because it didn’t give them a lot of visibility even if they still felt abnormal, sick, and sinful for being trans. However, some folks were more positive with regard to the new waves. They mentioned that while modern transphobia can be even more cruel and inhumane, the visibility has given rise to many who stand for LGBTQ+ rights and want to advocate for the rights of trans people.
In other words, those standing up to hate give them hope.