For the Middle East’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, the grassroots upheavals in many Arab countries – and promised reforms in the Islamic Republic of Iran – have not produced a sexual liberation movement. Meanwhile, rollbacks in Turkey’s limited freedoms to LGBTs also are on the rise.
Perhaps the most neglected major news story unfolding in the Middle East is the systematic repression of the region’s LGBT community. The enormously dangerous anti-LGBT environment in Arab countries and Iran largely excludes chances for interviews. Nonetheless, reports are bubbling to the surface in an era of social media and expanded Middle East news gathering about ramped up repression of LGBTs.
A slice of the headlines over the past month suggest intensified repression of LGBTs: Eight men sentenced to jail in Egypt for alleged same-sex weddings; gays pushed to change their gender [in Iran]; Turkey: Gay couple face ‘death threats from family’ after staging symbolic wedding; Gay people hit hard by Middle East turmoil.
Iran’s state-sanctioned killing of gays has been a defining feature of its Sharia-animated criminal code since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. After President Hassan Rouhani was elected in June 2013 on a platform that “All Iranian people should feel there is justice,” lethal homophobia continues.
In early August, two Iranian men, Abdullah Ghavami Chahzanjiru and Salman Ghanbari Chahzanjiri, were executed by hanging for possible same-sex relations. Putting aside the conflicting stories on the relations between the men, Rouhani has made no effort to repeal his country’s anti-gay laws, including a system that forces many gays to change their genders.
According to one report, Soheil, a gay Iranian 21-year-old faced enormous pressure to have a gender reassignment surgery. He fled Iran to Turkey.
A BBC article in late October captured the catalogue of horrors for lesbians and gays in the sexually closed Islamic state: “Living in Iran as an openly gay man or woman is impossible.”
Toronto-based Arsham Parsi, who oversees the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, told the BBC that 45 percent of those who underwent a gender reassignment in Iran are gay and not transgender.
In stark contrast to the plight of gays in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and other regional countries, a BBC overview of LGBT communities in the Middle East noted, “One refuge in the region for some is Israel, one of the most progressive countries in the world for LGBT rights. Same-sex relationships are protected by law, and the only annual gay pride march in the Middle East takes place in Tel Aviv – regarded as an international gay capital.”
The author of the BBC article, James Longman, added: “Since 1993 – well before the US and other Western countries – openly gay people have been allowed to serve in the [Israeli] military. Palestinians from conservative homes have also fled to Israel to avoid persecution.”
Many Middle East experts view emancipatory progress for the Arab world and Iran as meaning full equality for women and religious and ethnic minorities, recognition of Israel, and press freedoms, to name some of the key elements.
The end of sexual repression and reactionary violent laws targeting Middle East LGBTs has not been front-and-center in the mainstream debates about the Arab revolts since 2011.
On the watch of the military regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, eight men were convicted for “inciting debauchery” for their participation in a gay wedding.
Turning Arab countries as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran into open societies for LGBTs will require a wholesale change in attitudes toward LGBTs. Robust Western interventionism certainly can spark changes. For example, the US and world powers could twist Iran’s arm at the nuclear talks about its miserable human rights record, particularly in the area of LGBT rights.
The LGBT revolution in the Middle East is a tall order. But there is a bundle of potential among the struggling LGBT communities to make progress.
By Benjamin Weinthal
All rights reserved © The Jerusalem Post 1995 - 2021