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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
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“Hey, did you hear that (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) said there weren’t any homosexuals in Iran?” My class was discussing Ahmadinejad’s controversial Columbia address when a student made this observation. 


“Well, let’s put it this way,” I replied. “There are no openly gay people in Iran. At least not for long.”


The class chuckled at my flippant comment, but I wonder if they understood the horrifying truth behind it. According to the Islamic Penal Code of Iran of 1991, Article 110, the punishment for sodomy “is killing; the Sharia judge decides on how to carry out the killing.”


Lesser acts, including kissing, rubbing thighs or buttocks, and standing naked with a non-relative under one roof, are all punishable with lashing. Lashing is also the punishment for lesbian activity; however, the fourth conviction for lesbian contact results in death.


Given these legal guidelines, it’s small wonder that the “phenomenon” of homosexuality, as Ahmadinejad calls it, hasn’t occurred in Iran. Yet, the truth is that there are homosexuals in Iran, a point made clear when an assistant to Ahmadinejad declared that the president had been mistranslated and that he had said there were not “many homosexuals”.


The presence of gays in Iran was further made evident by the countless first-hand accounts of gay men in Iran that peppered the media after Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory comment. Most of these men were identified by first name only, with the personal details of their lives hidden to protect them. But their message was the same: “We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re living in fear.”


The controversy of Ahmadinejad’s comments, however they may be translated, has provided comedy fodder for late night talk show hosts and programs, such as Adam Samberg and Adam Levine’s hilarious love song to Ahmadinejad, “Iran So Far”, on SNL. However, like my comment in the classroom, these gags take away focus from the seriousness of the situation, not just for homosexuals in Iran, but throughout the world.


The gay and lesbian community in the Western world struggles daily to achieve equal protection under the law, struggles represented by the recent battles in the US Congress over workplace non-discrimination and hate crime legislation. The discrimination we face is evident in a new study that reveals that gay men are paid less money for the same work than our straight counterparts, a story reported outside of the US, but largely ignored here. (“Gay men face discrimination, pay imbalance in workplace”, Times Colonist, 25 October 2007. 


Still, as is often the case in the US, our ethnocentric nature forces us to focus too closely on our own problems, failing to recognize that our brothers and sisters overseas are fighting just to stay alive. This is not an accusatory statement, simply recognition of fact. When one’s hands are bound, it is difficult to think about the person who is stretched on the rack.


Gay men, bisexuals, and lesbians must endure harsh discrimination in all corners of the world, but some countries have legislated that discrimination. For GBL individuals in those countries, secrecy is not a choice; it is a necessity of life. Being openly gay can result in imprisonment, torture, or death.


The persecution of transgendered individuals is worse. Most often, these attitudes are based in religious beliefs, but they, too, often have become ingrained into the cultural mindset, so that even those who do not share the dominant religious viewpoint share the repulsion of alternate sexual identities that stem from religious beliefs.


Such is the case in Iran. However, Iran is not alone in imposing the death penalty for homosexuality. According to the International Gay and Lesbian Association, quoted on the Human Rights Education Association (HREA) website, execution is the punishment for gay activity in 12 countries. Forty countries worldwide outlaw same-sex activity, and 15 countries forbid gay men and women from associating or openly expressing themselves. 


HREA lists 15 human rights violations that GLBT persons are subjected to in some part of the world. Most notable is the loss of life; it is incomprehensible to civilized people to image such a penalty, but this is merely the worst practice. GLBT students are denied the right to an education, and in some cases, may be taken from their parents. Likewise, gay parents lose custody of their children.


They also risk losing the right to hold a job, seek medical treatment, or apply for government assistance. GLBT persons are subjected to arbitrary arrest, and prejudices of the judicial systems in homophobic nations prevent these individuals from receiving fair trails. Even those rights which are considered basic human rights in many Western nations—the right to privacy, free speech, and religious practice—can be denied.


These state-sanctioned, homophobic acts are more widespread than you might think. On 5 June 2006, the Human Rights Watch sent a letter of protest to Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, criticizing the Polish government’s attempts to link homosexuality to pedophilia and organized crime. The letter also made note of the government’s ban on Gay Pride parades, and quoted a member of Parliament, Wojciech Wierzejski, who called for violence against gays who attended such a parade: “If deviants start to demonstrate, they should be bashed with a baton. . . Once they feel the pain they won’t come again because gays are by definition cowards.” (“Poland: Official Homophobia Threatens Basic Freedoms”, Human Rights News).


HRW has also written to John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia, noting that the country had 58 laws on the books that create financial and work-related discriminations against same-sex couples. Russia has been criticized for the violence that broke out against marchers in gay pride parades for the last two years. Latvia has banned gay pride marches, which have also been marred by violence against marchers. Sweden has been deporting GLBT Iranians, sending them back to a life of hell in their home country. China has no laws outlawing homosexuality, but gays are frequently jailed under laws forbidding “lewd” conduct or “perverse” behavior.


Even if all such discriminatory laws and governmental policies disappeared, life for GLBT persons would not dramatically improve. Ahmadinejad’s statement that Iran did not have the “phenomenon” of homosexuality prevalent in the West had an implied meaning: that the absence of open homosexual behavior was one of that country’s assets.  Iran is a better place for driving its gay population into the closet and underground.


Again, Iran is not alone. In his article “Africa and Homosexuality”, gay Nigerian theologian Rowland ‘jide Macauley, who now lives in London, discusses how cultural attitudes affect the perceptions of gay individuals in Africa: “If it were possible to determine homosexuality at birth, many African parents would repudiate their homosexual children before they have the chance to live. It is commonly said in Africa, ‘It is better to have the corpse of my child than for me to accept that my child is gay.’” Macauley goes on to say that many homosexuals in Africa grow up to feel worthless, being scorned individuals in their own homelands. 


For gay men and women in Asian cultures, the struggle is to have the mere existence of homosexuality recognized. Because such cultures tend to be collectivistic, meaning that they put the larger group interest ahead of individual interests, lifestyles which deviate from the “norm” are not easily acknowledged. Family members and friends simply refuse to believe that someone they know could be gay, and societal pressure to conform forces many GLBT beings to stay deeply in the closet.


In the book Coming OUT!, Japanese singer Sasano Michiru reveals her experience after announcing she was a lesbian: “Even having said that I am a lesbian, the majority of the people don’t believe in the reality that lesbians exist in this society. At the places I sing now, no matter what or how I sing, everything is switched to ‘Boy meets Girl’ because ours is a one ‘story’ society.” (Quoted on “6 Books about Being Gay in Japan”.)


It is a culture of machismo that creates an atmosphere of homophobia in Latin American countries. Acts of brutality have been recorded against gay men in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador. This has led the website TravelNow.com to warn gay travelers to be cautious when traveling through Latin America; even in the more tolerant Brazil, travelers are warned not to venture outside of large cities.


Daniel Soto of Amnesty International explains the root cause of the violence against gay men: “All these instances of abuse are born largely of a near-maniacal, hetero-male obsession with strictly enforced social conformity. Acts, which can only be described as pure terrorism, are perpetrated against gay people so they won’t dare to come out of the closet, thereby preserving at least a patina of social uniformity.” 


Surprisingly, Soto notes, transgendered people are tolerated in Latin cultures more than gay men and lesbians, but only because they are viewed as “ridiculous and funny, perhaps slightly crazy, creatures of no consequence.”  (“Sources of Homophobia in Latin America”)


Ultimately, it would seem that there is no corner of the world that allows gay men and women to live freely and equally. Despite the ridicule, the President of Iran has brought to the fore an issue worth examining, the fact that homosexuality exists in even the most repressive of societies. However, he failed to acknowledge that it is a culture of hatred and fear that has kept the “phenomena” of homosexuality from flourishing in his home country and many others.


The true lesson of Ahmadinejad’s speech is this: the best GLBT individuals can hope for is to find a place where we can live without fear, and from there, fight to achieve equality. It isn’t an optimistic attitude to hold, but it is the world in which we live.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


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