Growing up gay in Iran | guardian.co.uk
Mahmoud Ahmedinejad says there are no homosexuals in his country. This is the story of an invisible community
By Tehran Bureau correspondent
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Hey dear friend,
The other day when I talked to you, it occurred to me that it has been so many years since the last time we saw one another, and we have been unaware of the stories of each other’s lives.
Here in Norway, far from home, when I talk to strangers about my life and the reasons for my escape, I am always amazed by how much they don’t know about life in Iran. And then the other day, I talked to you after these many years and realized that even in Iran, nobody knows our story, our tale. It is hidden behind a thousand veils.
Because of all the secrecy, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can claim that Iran has no gays. There is no dialogue, no discussion about us or our lives. Even you, my open-minded friend, are so ignorant of our lives that I can hardly blame other people who call us by a thousand diabolic names.
If you hear my story and learn about what I endured my reasons for escaping Iran, then perhaps you can better understand the truth. I will start from our years back at that God-forsaken high school in our provincial city. If it wasn’t for the wonderful memories with friends, it would have been the worst period of my life.
The mode of education was rigid and meant to be all-consuming. But how rebellious we were. I sat beside Hamid and a little farther from us sat Hamed and Mehdi, and you sat with all the other nerds in the front. It would have seemed that we were attentive in class, but below the desks it was a whole other world. I am not ashamed to recount it now — our curious hands, mine, Mehdi’s, Hamed’s, Hamid’s, exploring and discovering. I’d put my hand on Hamid’s lap and he would do the same on mine.
It was all innocent. The most we did was watch each other change in the schoolyard while preparing for the physical education hour. We didn’t feel different then. The all-boys school and growing up among boys, gave a sense of normalcy. All the boys were intimate with each other to some extent; we occupied one end of a spectrum, but even those at the far end didn’t regard us as freaks.
Everyone’s circle of friends was completely composed of boys; everyone chose a very close friend or even a soul mate from among other boys. It wasn’t a sin to tell some other boy that you loved him.
Oh, there were also those few cool kids who had girlfriends, but how rare they were. Perhaps now, with internet, satellite TV and so forth, the situation is different.
When I entered university, I saw that the world was quite different. I discovered women, experienced up close those whom I had deified for so long. Yet by the end of my first year, it had became obvious to me that somehow I failed to enjoy their company in the way I’d expected. I sought refuge in the familiar masculine realm – friends and comrades whom I understood, whose presence brought me happiness.
For the first time, I felt different. It was a time of self-discovery, of the realisation that I was not “normal”, that I was of another kind. My needs were also developing – the hunger for physical intimacy, touching, caressing, kissing. I had had such an experience with a girl, but it wasn’t what I had in mind. It felt strange and unsatisfying. I saw that I wanted a person of my own kind, my own sex, a mountain for me to lean on and one for whom I could be a mountain. To be a man for him and him for me.
I struggled. I was sure that I was sick. I thought all these desires were unholy and sinful. I sought a thousand different ways to rid myself of these thoughts, but alas it was not possible. They were the inescapable desires of the body and the soul.
The first time, I found a guy named Reza. It was by accident that we met and by accident I found out that he too was different. I think we were discussing François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups when we talked about it first. I was 21 and he was 22. We had no experience at all, and so, little by little, we experimented. We started by talking for long hours, going here and there, here and there until I mustered up the courage for a kiss.
I had kissed his cheeks many times before and he mine. You know that we Iranians on hello and farewell hug and kiss each other on the cheeks, so it’s not weird for us. But one day after a few months, emboldened, I kissed his lips… No, not exactly his lips, but his upper lip and the faint line of his moustache. The world was set ablaze, my heart stuttered. It was lust and love. At first I felt filthy and sinful from all that religious indoctrination of my early years. I washed myself again and again as if I could scrub away the sin. In the end I gave in, to me and my needs and wants.
By the time Reza finished his studies, his family was on his back to marry a woman. They went on and on about this, so much so that he went with them on a prearranged matchmaking session and gave his consent simply to rid himself of the emotional pressure. I was driven crazy; he was heartbroken. I was afraid that I’d remain alone for the rest of my life, especially in that hellhole of a city. So I gathered my things and moved to Tehran, looking for a new start.
In Tehran, I found some friends and at one of our parties I met Naser. We talked for the entire evening.
The next day we went to a park and talked from dawn till dusk. Neither of us revealed his desires, neither let on that he felt anything more than just platonic love. We never discussed it, but slowly, I can’t even remember when it started, we were holding hands. Then there was a vacation on which I accompanied him and midway he confessed and I cried and our lives were changed forever.
I gave up my place and moved in with him. After two years I found a job at the place he was working and this became a fatal mistake. Up until then we had hid ourselves behind a thousand veils, but every work place has its jealous individuals and a co-worker started rumours about us. One day amid a heated discussion at a company meeting he stood up and called me a queer and so we left the company. But they did not let us be. They called our landlord and told him, so we lost our home as well.
As we were looking for a new place to rent, we heard that they had notified the authorities and so there was nothing left but to escape. You know if we were caught we would have faced lashes and then execution. So we fled. We went to Kurdistan and then to Iraqi Kurdistan, from there to Istanbul and finally Greece. We were refugees, and I won’t tell you about all the maltreatment, humiliations and abuse that we faced while in detention. A month passed, then five, six, eight. Finally after 10 months we were given asylum and so we came up to Norway and started here anew, together.
My poor father, may his soul rest in peace. I didn’t see him before his death. The last time I saw him was just before I fled the country. I went home, sat him down and talked to him. I told him all about me and Nasser, about my fortunes and misfortunes. He didn’t say a word, but he was shattered within. A traditional man with traditional ideas, he was embarrassed even to hear my words. At the end he broke down. He cried and I cried – it’s a very hard thing seeing a father cry. I thought he was very ashamed of me, but at least he knew that I was speaking my heart.
Then came my mother, a deeply religious woman, devoted to her prayers. She couldn’t believe any of it. At first she cursed me. Then she said that she would take me to a doctor in order to cure me. Then she thought that perhaps I could marry a woman who would turn me around. She went on and on until my father asked her to leave me be.
When we said our goodbyes my father kissed my cheeks. He did not cry again. He was holding it in so that I wouldn’t become distraught. My mother, though, she just couldn’t let go. She clutched the sleeve of my shirt and cried incessantly, uttering prayers beneath her breath. In the end my father took her hand and pulled her away and they were gone. Nasser and I got on the bus for Sanandaj and the border beyond.
I was here in Norway when my father got sick and passed away and I couldn’t be there for him or be with my mother in order to sooth her. My poor father, my poor mother.
This was the price that I paid for being different. Up until the time that it all came into the open, we faced no problems. All hell broke loose, however, as the veils were set aside. In Iran if you want to be different you have to hide it; then you are free to do as you please, or rather just so far as they don’t become aware of you and your way of life. If you’re different, if you don’t conform to their standards and it becomes known, you pay the price as I did.
You know, before that wicked man in the office brought us so much harm, we had an almost normal life. In Iranian society, close friendships between men are unexceptional. Bromance is normal and accepted. It is not that weird for two men to hold hands in the streets. It is not odd to hug a man, sit with him in a coffee shop, go to a restaurant with him or even live with him. None of these things cause others to judge you as gay, so in this respect being gay in Iran is much easier even than in Europe. As long as people don’t tag you as being gay you are not bothered. On the other hand if you are pointed out as different then the whole world turns against you, from people to the government.
You wouldn’t believe how many homosexuals are living under the city’s skin. Nobody knows, nobody wants to know. If you are gay, soon you’ll find friendly places to go to. Take the Café… in Tehran – it was our hangout for a long while. It wasn’t obviously gay, there was no rainbow flag flying at the door. But as soon as you got in, there were little hints.
We had our homosexual parties as well. Would you believe it? Yes, in Iran we had parties just for homosexuals, and we had so much fun, we would chat and laugh and dance. It wasn’t jaunty, it wasn’t dirty, it wasn’t an orgy. It was like any other friendly gathering with all the usual constraints of Iranian society. Only the composition of the couples was different, men with men and women with women.
Of course, the fear of the authorities was ever-present. But the government was always left behind on the far side of our closed doors, outside our closely knit circles of friends. In our safe space we were free to be us, the real us. And no, there’s not just a few of us. There are just as many homosexuals in Iran as there are anywhere else, it’s just that nobody knows. Nobody knows about Iranian homosexuals.
Ahmadinejad is correct in a way when he says that Iran has no homosexuals. His version of Iran – and it’s far from his alone – has no gays, no liberals, no dissidents. Our Iran lives behind closed doors and high walls. One day these walls will be brought down and we will all share a common Iran.
The breaking of the walls starts with you, my dear friend. Hear my story, know my story and tell my story. Our coming out starts with your acceptance, I hope that now you can better understand why I made the choices I made and why I did what I did.
As told to a Tehran Bureau correspondent
Copyright © 2013 Tehran Bureau.
[Photograph by Najaf Shokri, from Bachelors, a collection of photos of young men in Tehran, which does not reflect sexual orientation.]