Farhang is a gay blogger and activist, living in Tehran. He runs Qulture and Q-Daily in English and Persian. He talked to me about life in Iran, the struggle for the rights of gays and lesbians, and how he feels let down by most Western progressives.
Michael Holmes : Where do you live? What is life like there? What do you do for a living?
Farhang : Contrary to what most people in Western capitals might think, Tehran, thanks to the petrodollars, has the appearance of an average metropolis. So it is not surprising that there are some great cultural gaps between different neighbourhoods and districts of Tehran. I live in a family that I can easily call typically Iranian, which is one with not very well educated parents but educated offspring, very much into politics as long as it is a matter of only talk, generally pro-American, but also at the same time Francophile, with some members who are moderately religious and a majority which is severely secular, with the average income of $6000 per year for each person, a house of their own, a French car, no pets, and with access to satellite, which is of course forbidden by law in Iran. That’s the way a quite typical Iranian family might look like. It is impossible for me to go any further about my identity.
MH : How dangerous is it for an average Iranian to discuss politics? Do you have to restrict yourself a lot in everyday life? How open are politics being debated in the private sphere? Are there ways of symbolically expressing dissent without risking too much?
Farhang : You can say anything you like, but only if you have nothing to lose. That means you must be mentally ill or very old to criticize the government in public. In any case, however, talking about the Supreme Leader of Iran is simply unthinkable. On a crowded bus, for example, if you start talking to another person about the economic problems or inflation, there is always a fair chance that another person stands up in defense of the government. People incessantly voice their complaints about economic hardship, but they don’t see or wouldn’t like to see that there is a basic political problem behind this. So they somehow voluntarily never ever touch issues like democracy or freedom in their discussions, and that’s particularly true about the young.
Some believe when a girl on the street pushes her headscarf a little back to show more of her hair, she is actually symbolically expressing dissent, but in reality these kinds of “dissent” are pretty tolerable for the regime. In the private sphere people could trust each other and be open about the way they think about current affairs. This, however, is changing. As more young people see their lives depend on the government – be it a promotion, a scholarship or simply a raise – they become more tight-lipped about politics. To be concise, there is no systematic thought police intimidating and suppressing the people, simply because there is no NEED to do so (of course I am not talking about the media and newspapers, which ARE systematically censored and controlled.) Does the propaganda machine of the government work well? I doubt it. One suspects that deep cultural characteristics of the Iranian people, which make them reluctant to grapple with their problems head-on, might be at work.
I believe at the moment there is no serious alternative to the Islamic regime of Iran at sight, both inside or outside.
MH : In which ways is life for gays and lesbians even more difficult? How do you or others deal with the situation?
Farhang : The simple point is: “we don’t exist”, as Ahmadinejad once said at Columbia University. And if you don’t exist, you’re either dead – approximately 4000 executions of people because of (though not always accused of) their homosexuality since 1979! – or you just keep a very low profile and have a hush-hush life. You just meet a guy and the government can and will never get entangled with you, as long as you don’t get involved with politics, gay or otherwise. That’s why the Home Secretary of Britain has just come to this conclusion about gay life in Iran: “The evidence does not show a real risk of discovery of or adverse action against gay and lesbian people who are discreet about their sexual orientation.” In other words: only if you don’t exist. Of course she holds double standards; she believes we are less equal than the British to enjoy the “luxury” of living freely and openly. But she is right to some extent. The regime is not so stupid to kill you only or blatantly because of your orientation, but of course they have an active gay hunt program on the internet in place, of course they have closed a major newspaper because of an interview with a lesbian poet, and of course they force and even financially help you to undergo sex-change surgery to “cure” your “perversion”. But having said all this; you can have a discreet life as a queer in Iran. How this type of life destroys your human dignity and distorts your psychological health is of course far beyond imagination.
MH : How important is the help from gay-lesbian movements abroad or other human rights organizations?
Farhang : Sadly not very much. Unfortunately, they are totally misguided at best. Most of them are busy “exporting” gays from Iran to Canada or Sweden. These organizations have found the solution in helping asylum seekers to flee the country and this way, I believe, they provide the Ayatollahs in Tehran a great service. Is this just a coincidence? Hard to say. Surprisingly, one of the most vocal dissidents, Akbar Ganji, who is nonetheless a practicing Muslim, has made a plea for tolerance towards LGBTQ people. On the other hand, the Noble Peace Prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi is utterly pathetic. She is a great disappointment to all human right activists in Iran who thought that in her they have found a great voice.
MH : What is the role of the internet for the gay-lesbian-community?
Farhang : Without doubt, the history of LGBTQ movement in Iran can be divided in before and after the Internet, even if we in Iran face the strictest internet censorship in the world. Just to give you a vague idea: it must be shocking to your readers to know that in Iran not only words like “sex” or “porn”, but also words like “women,” “hot”, or “teen” cannot be googled. So if you are a student and you want to write a paper on “women” filmmakers or you just want to check out “hot” news or you want to take a look at a website containing information about the 30th (XXX) volume of a writer’s collection, you will face an “Access Is Denied” page. It is just tragically ludicrous. As anywhere else in the world Iranian gay and lesbians use the chatrooms or social networking websites (all blocked in Iran) via proxy and anti-filtering techniques to communicate with and get to know each other. The difference is, however, that this is virtually the only option to find each other. We also have something like 40 active LGBTQ bloggers right now. The subject of most of these weblogs is, however, not politics but literature. Persian is the language of poetry as you might know. Having said that, it is overtly evident that this virtual Iranian gay community on the cyberspace is a great light of hope for us all. We support each other and feel the presence of each other, despite all filtering and censorship. So when they block the access to your blog (let’s say http://www.hunk.wordpress.com) we just add a 2, or 3 and so on (like http://www.hunk2.wordpress.com) and we open a new one, and this cat and mouth play goes on and on.
MH : Do you feel let down by Western ‘progressive’ intellectuals who are always ready to take a stand against homophobia in their own countries, but then don’t really seem to care much about the far worse situation of gays and lesbians in the Middle East or other underdeveloped regions?
Farhang : It is really frustrating to see people marching on the streets of New York or Paris protesting the war in Iraq or a possible one in Iran, but then not once pour massively to the streets defending the rights of the bloggers, the women, the gays or the Bahai people to write, to wear, to love and to practice what they want, the way they want it. That is pure hypocrisy. When you scream NO to war against Iran and you don’t do the same thing and in the same fashion to the brutal and sweeping violation of human rights in countries like Iran, I can’t call you a friend of mine; consciously or not, your actions are thoroughly aligned with the Ayatollahs.
There is a close link between changes in Western attitude towards gays and lesbians and those of third world countries like mine. And I don’t think the harsh position of the Islamic regime towards gays and lesbian can be mitigated by any activist struggle in the West, no matter how sincere or serious. We are aware and we are grateful of people like Peter Tatchell for example, but unfortunately even these rare well-intentioned activists don’t know the Iranian government and the way it functions. You just can’t make a noticeable change this way.
MH : How does the general population’s attitude towards homosexuality differ from that of the regime? Is it part of the problem or part of the solution – or both? Has it been changing over time? Is there a big difference between urban and rural areas?
Farhang : People are not the major problem, it’s the government. My father may use the word “pervert” to describe a gay man but he watched Brokeback Mountain more than once. So he hasn’t made up his mind, he just needs to see these “different” people and to feel their reality. My father doesn’t allow himself to think of a “Sir” Elton John as a worthless creature who will go to hell; never, not for a minute. He watched his marriage on BBC and he never ridiculed it. If the West wants to do anything for us, the path is clear: help us to build our democracy and take Hollywood more seriously as a generator of huge change and cultural impact, even well after the time we have our nascent democracy.
Some of my audacious friends have come out to their family and friends, indeed, but most of them paid a price for that as well; for many families having, or rather the awareness of having a gay son or a lesbian girl, is an earthquake, an inevitable disaster.
We made some progress during the Shah period (before the 1979 Islamic Revolution) in tolerance towards gays and lesbians, but right now we have some huge cultural difficulty in this regard. Interestingly enough, in Persian poetry the homosexual love is well and abundantly documented since at least the middle ages. So one can’t dismiss it as pure Western “decadence”. But the current negative (or perhaps harsh) attitude towards gay people exists only because of ignorance and not because of religious fanaticism. I believe the decisive challenge for the Iranian LGBTQ movement, like in any other place, is to win the people’s hearts and minds. And knowing Iranian culture I am confident that, unlike the Arab nations, this ultimate battle will be easy to win, if we only manage to get rid of the currently ruling totalitarians, who have blocked every form of political dynamism. We have to face the people and to start a long process of persuasion and argumentation, but this regime has thwarted such a process even before it has begun. I believe our real problems are yet to come. You know, in our high schools there is no such thing as gay bashing, simply because there is no such thing as homosexuality; again, we don’t exist.