LGBT history in Iran

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This article covers the LGBT history of Iran.

Pre-Islamic period[edit]

The history of homosexuality in Iran has been both influential and contradictory. The religion of Zoroastrianism in the country, which reached its peak under the Sassanids, taught that all homosexuals (active or passive) are inherently demonic and as such they must be put to death[citation needed] when detected. This condemnation seems to have made its way slowly against the much older Iranian tradition of polytheism and initiatory pederasty, coming into sharp conflict during the Achaemenid period.

Persian pederasty and its origins was debated even in ancient times. Herodotus claimed they had learned it from the Greeks: "From the Greeks they have learned to lie with boys."[1] However, Plutarch asserts that the Persians used eunuch boys to that end long before contact between the cultures.[2] In either case, Plato claimed they saw fit to forbid it to the inhabitants of the lands they occupied, since "It does not suit the rulers that their subjects should think noble thoughts, nor that they should form the strong friendships and attachments which these activities, and in particular love, tend to produce."[3]


Persia was conquered by the Arabs in A.D. 637, when Islam took over as the predominant faith. The Arabs were only superficially intolerant of homosexuality, and certainly the Koran specified no earthly punishment for homosexual behavior. Nevertheless, the devout Muslim was expected to know that God would be displeased. The outcome was a toleration and even celebration of pederasty in classical Islam[citation needed], and much of the Arab poetry of this time is devoted to boys and their beauty. There is a significant amount of literature in Persian that explicitly illustrates the ancient existence of homosexuality among Iranians.[4] As a result, over a period of time the people of Persia once again moderated or reversed their earlier position.

In Persian poetry, references to sexual love can be found in addition to those of spiritual/religious love. A few ghazals (love poems) and texts in Saadi's Bustan and Gulistan have been interpreted by Western readers as homoerotic poems. In some poems, Sa'di's beloved is a young man, not a beautiful woman. In this he followed the conventions of traditional Persian poetry. Sa'di's own attitude toward homosexuals was more negative than positive. In the Gulistan he stated, "If a Tatar slays that hermaphrodite / The Tatar must not be slain in return." Another story tells of the qazi of Hamdan whose affection towards a farrier-boy is condemned by his friends and the king, who eventually says: "Everyone of you who are bearers of your own faults / Ought not to blame others for their defects."[5]

20th century Iran[edit]

Under the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last monarch of the Pahlavi Dynasty, homosexuality was tolerated, even to the point of allowing news coverage of a same-sex wedding. In the late 1970s, some Iranians even began to talk about starting up a gay rights organization, similar to the Gay Liberation movement. Until the revolution, there were some night clubs in which gay behavior was tolerated. During the Shah's time, however, homosexuality was still taboo everywhere, and often one could not turn to family or friends for support and guidance. There were no public agencies to assist youth or people who were confused or questioning their sexuality.

Janet Afary has argued that the 1979 revolution was partly motivated by moral outrage against the Shah's regime, and in particular against a mock same-sex wedding between two young men with ties to the court. She says that this explains the virulence of the anti-homosexual oppression in Iran.[6]

Post Islamic revolution[edit]

The new religious government that came to be established after the 1979 Iranian Revolution classed transsexuals and transvestites with gays and lesbians, who were condemned by Islam and faced the punishment of lashing and death under Iran's penal code. In 1986, transsexuals were re-classified as being "heterosexual".

On September 24, 2007, while speaking at Columbia University, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, in answer to the question "Iranian women are now denied basic human rights and your government has imposed draconian punishments including execution on Iranian citizens who are homosexuals. Why are you doing those things?", "We don't have homosexuals, like in your country. I don't know who told you that."[7] An aide later said that he was misquoted and was actually saying that "compared to American society, we don't have many homosexuals". The aide further clarified that "because of historical, religious and cultural differences homosexuality is less common in Iran and the Islamic world than in the West".[8] A great book on this topic is Women with mustaches and men without beards: gender and sexual anxieties of Iranian modernity by Afsaneh Najmabadi.

Transsexuality in Iran[edit]

One early campaigner for transsexual rights is Maryam Hatoon Molkara, who was formerly male and known as Fereydoon. Before the revolution, she had longed to become physically female but could not afford surgery. Furthermore, she wanted religious authorization. Since 1975, she had been writing letters to Ayatollah Khomeini, who was to become the leader of the revolution and was in exile. After the revolution, she was fired, forcedly injected with male hormone, and institutionalized. She was later released with help from her connection, and she kept lobbying many other leaders. Later she went to see Khomeini, who had returned to Iran. At first she was stopped and beaten by his guards, but eventually Khomeini gave her a letter to authorize her sex reassignment operation. The letter is later known as the fatwa that authorizes such operations in Iran.[9][10][11][12][13]


  1. ^ Herodotus, Histories, I.135, tr. David Grene; p.97
  2. ^ Plutarch, De Malig. Herod. xiii.ll
  3. ^ Plato, Symposium, 182c, trans. Tom Griffith
  4. ^ ">> literature >> Middle Eastern Literature: Persian". glbtq. Retrieved October 22, 2010. 
  5. ^ "Sa'di". Retrieved October 22, 2010. 
  6. ^ [1][dead link]
  7. ^ Ahmadinejad speaks; outrage and controversy follow –[dead link]
  8. ^ "President misquoted over gays in Iran: aide | International". Reuters. October 10, 2007. Retrieved October 22, 2010. 
  9. ^ Robert Tait, A fatwa for transsexuals, and a similar article on The Guardian. Gives details on Molkara's plea to Khomeni.
  10. ^ Frances Harrison, Iran's sex-change operations, BBC.
  11. ^ UNHCR, Iran Country Report, 7th European Country of Origin Information Seminar Berlin, June 11–12, 2001 – Final report. Transsexual part is on pp. 104.
  12. ^ ^ Safra Project Country Information Report Iran.
  13. ^ 2004 report, and consider UNHCR report underestimate the pressure. Mentions gender diversity on pp, 15.