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The first time I heard about homosexuality was in the context of the AIDS crisis, when gay men were being blamed for the spread of the disease.

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Women wait to cast their votes during the presidential elections, Tehran, June 8, 2001. Hassan Sarbakhshian

The Only Lesbian In Iran

JANUARY 23, 2002. Niloufar, 30, who has been living in the United States for two years, answers The Gully's questions about what it's like to be an Iranian lesbian and immigrant. She asked that her last name not be used in case attempts to extend her visa fail and she is forced to return to Iran.

The Gully: What was it like growing up as a lesbian in Iran?

Niloufar: My family was actually living in Belgium when I began to realize I was a lesbian. I was 15 or 16 years old. Being in Europe didn't make it any easier. I was still inside my Iranian family, and coming out was very difficult, mostly.

The first time I heard about homosexuality was in the context of the AIDS crisis, when gay men were being blamed for the spread of the disease. I was really homophobic at the same time I was attracted to women. Because I couldn't accept myself as a lesbian, I couldn't even think about coming out to parents or family or anything, and it took me maybe ten years.

Did you know other lesbians when you went back to Iran?

Yes and no, because there are many people there who are attracted to the same sex, but don't identify as gay. They don't understand what it means, or even have the words for it. They just imagine that some day they will get married anyway.

That's something that is really changing in Iran, almost everywhere really, as people have access to the Internet and to satellite dishes. People are beginning to believe that they can identify as gay or lesbian and be accepted some day. More importantly, lgbt people are beginning to accept themselves.

I talked with someone who just came from Iran six months ago and she said she knows of a gay and lesbian community in Tehran. Hundreds of people. They socialize inside houses, or communicate on the Internet.

Now that you can meet other people that identify as lesbian or gay, it makes a big difference. When I was there, I thought I was the only Iranian lesbian in existence.

Is the coming out experience different for men and women in Iran (as much as you can come out, when being openly gay means the death penalty)?

Men have much more freedom in Iranian society. For them, it's easier to meet other gay men. In Tehran there are hangouts for gay men, but there are no such things for women. It's easier for lesbians only because their existence isn't even recognized.

What about class difference? In Franco's Spain, lower class queers were thrown into prison, or worse, while some upper class queers remember it as the best time of their lives.

There is a little more leeway if you have money and connections, in case you do get into trouble or get picked up by the police. At the same time, in higher class society being gay is less accepted. So, it's not really better.

You've been in the United States two years. Do you have much contact in general with the Iranian immigrant community?

No, because I know they are not very accepting, and because I know I look like a lesbian, and I don't want them to stare at me. I don't feel comfortable. They still have a lot of prejudice. Even if they live here. Many of them still believe homosexuality is a Western thing, and that we are imitating Westerners, that we're not really gay, just acting. That's why we have to be out. They can only believe we exist if they see our faces.

Iran seems to be on the verge of change. Going by the foreign press anyway, there seems to be an increase in demonstrations...

Society is changing inside Iran, even if the government stays the same. The important thing is having access to information from the Internet, satellite TV.

And you're right. There are a lot more demonstrations. Iran has a lot of economic problems, economic and political. People are tired and can't take it anymore. Even though at demos the government arrests people, forces them to have "interviews," tries to make examples of them, I think the country has reached a point where they can't do anything about it anymore. People are fed up.

In Iran, civil society is very active, maybe more so than in other Muslim countries where people who do not accept the situation are maybe more passive. Despite the situation of women under the regime, they are still fighting back and getting back their rights. Women make up 53% of university enrollment, which is a good thing.

Most of the Iranian reform movements, at least those visible in the Western press, are still Islamic-based, just differing in their interpretation of Islam. Do you think there will ever be room for lgbt people in Iran without a secular government?

It's true that all reform movements in Iran are Islamic-based, but that's simply because other movements are outlawed by the government. But I believe that Iran is shifting, slowly, towards democracy, and that Islamic democracy, as well as Christian, Jewish or any other religious democracy, is an oxymoron. I believe that Iran will have a secular government in the future. It's simply inevitable. It will take a while, though!

I don't think with an Islamic government there will ever be room for lgbt people in Iran.

What is the situation of lgbt people living outside Iran now?

Iranians living outside Iran don't accept us. That's why we have to educate our community.

Homan [a lgbt Iranian group] has existed for 10 years, and it's still mostly just a dozen people. In Los Angeles [during a recent meeting] we had only 10 people from different countries. Even at the meeting, no one wanted to have their picture taken. In San Francisco's Gay Pride last year, the person holding Iran's flag wasn't Iranian. We talked about this during the meeting, that there should be at least one person willing to be out. But there's fear of coming out for those who have family here, plus the other consequences. You couldn't go back to Iran to visit your relatives. And if your visa expires, or you're deported... It's very risky. Especially now.

How have the September 11 attacks and their aftermath affected you personally?

The September attack was a horrendous tragedy and came as a great shock. Still, I never predicted the events that would follow. I was appalled by the anti-Middle Eastern/Muslim/Arab atmosphere, and Middle-Eastern bashing and stereotyping in the aftermath of the attack. Ironically, it reminded me of the queer-bashing I have witnessed and experienced my entire life. I guess the question I have been asking myself as an "Iranian Lesbian" — and doubly marginalized — is if there will ever be a place I could call home. And if I will ever belong anywhere.

Related links:

For Khanaye Doost, a site for Iranian Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Women.

For Human Rights Watch World Report 2001: Iran: Human Rights Developments.

For the lgbt Iranian group Homan.

For IGLHRC (International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission).

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage Asia

For Complete Coverage 9-11 Attack and Aftermath

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Puerto Rico to Taiwan and more.

From global warming to gay- trendsetting. Includes headlines, politics, and news from beyond.

WTC Attack
Guide to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on NYC and DC. Includes info on Afghanistan and the Taliban.

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