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Silenced Voices, Rising Movement: The Fight for LGBTQ+ Rights in Iran

Despite enormous challenges, the LGBTQ+ movement in Iran has come a long way in the last years. Queer individuals actively participated in the Women, Life, Freedom protests. However, one of the biggest challenges remains the isolation and solitary existence of the movement.

By Rezvaneh Mohammadi

The history of the LGBTQ+ movement in Iran distinguishes itself from that of several other countries worldwide and in the region, as its development is intricately tied to the realm of cyberspace. This unique trajectory gains significance when considering that the evolution of the LGBTQ+ movement in Iran not only unfolded in recent years but can be traced back to the early years of the 21st century. During this period, the visible presence and self-expression of LGBTQ+ individuals were notably limited, primarily due to constrained avenues for communication.

This transformative shift became possible with the gradual rise of internet usage in the country. The increasing prevalence of cyberspace played a pivotal role in providing LGBTQ+ individuals with platforms for expression and connection. The ability to communicate and organize online not only facilitated the growth of the movement but also marked a crucial turning point in the history of LGBTQ+ activism in Iran.

In this article, we aim to delve into the multifaceted history of the LGBTQ+ movement in Iran, a journey that commenced approximately half a century ago at Shiraz University.

Champions of Change: Pioneering Advocates

Addressing the Iranian LGBTQ+ movement would be incomplete without acknowledging Saviz Shafaie, a young student at Shiraz University before the Islamic Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic state. Shafaie boldly spoke about social inequality and marginalized groups, highlighting homosexuals as one of them. [1] As a Sociology student, discussing such matters is commonplace, but in 1972, it was still a significant undertaking. It is essential to note that this was just a year before the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed the diagnosis of "homosexuality" from the DSM. [2] Even the World Health Organization (WHO) eliminated Homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) 19 years later. Shafaie's discourse marked a courageous step at a time when such discussions were groundbreaking both internationally and within Iran.

On the other hand, the history of the Iranian LGBTQ+ movement owes a debt to Maryam Khatoon Molkara, a trailblazing trans* woman who embarked on her journey as a young queer individual in pursuit of understanding her gender identity. While working at the National Iranian Radio and Television in 1974, Molkara had the opportunity to meet Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran. [3] It was during this encounter that Pahlavi suggested the idea of forming a network for Trans* individuals to advocate for their rights. Despite encountering obstacles, such as the failure to establish the group, Molkara simultaneously pursued an Islamic fatwa from Ruhollah Khomeini, a strategic move given the context of the Islamic Revolution. Eventually, her efforts paid off, resulting in a groundbreaking fatwa that would shape the future of trans* rights. It stated, "The change of gender under the prescription of a trusted physician carries no religious implications. God willing, under divine protection, may those you've mentioned extend their consideration toward your circumstances." Yet, despite this assertion, there are still several religious authorities who are specifically extremely against sex reassignment surgeries (SRS) and believe only intersex people are allowed to undergo such procedures. [4]

However, Khomeini's fatwa, while significant, remains contentious. It presupposes a binary understanding of gender and pathologizes being transgender, with surgical intervention as the prescribed treatment. This decree effectively mandated surgery for legal gender recognition, denying agency to Trans* individuals. Nevertheless, Molkara's tireless advocacy played a pivotal role in achieving even this limited recognition.

The suffocating atmosphere of the post-Islamic revolution, compounded by the fear stemming from war and bombings, compelled many to emigrate or seek refuge. Initially, the legal situation regarding LGBTQ+ individuals in post-revolution Iran was governed by Sharia law, with reports of homosexuals being subject to execution. However, the first Islamic Penal Code was introduced in 1991 and revised in 2013. In both versions, same-sex relations were punishable by lashes and execution, with differing penalties for men and women. Men could face execution from the first offense, while women might receive lashes up to the fourth instance. Recent amendments reduced the punishment for men in the dominant role in same-sex relations to 100 lashes. Even in this situation, [5][6] there was little significant indication of demand for gender equality even within most opposition parties. Finally, after the ceasefire in 1990, Hooman Magazine was primarily published by individuals like Mansour Saberi and other eleven anonymous lesbian and gay individuals living in exile. This magazine became a focal point in LGBTQ+ activism in Iran. In 2002, after the publication of 18 issues of Hooman, it ceased publication.

Technological Catalysts and Emerging Platforms

This path was continued by the new generation in the Internet era through blogging. Access to the internet opened a new chapter not only in Iranian LGBTQ+ rights activism but also as the main tool to discover one's sexual orientation and gender identity. However, it is not easy to ignore the fact that the focus in these decades was on gay and then lesbian people, and gender discourse was rarely mentioned.

In December 2004, the Maha e-magazine was introduced as a groundbreaking publication. Boldly emblazoned across the magazine cover was the declaration, "The First Iranian GLBT e-Magazine." [7] Maha's inception was spurred by the censorship of Queer blogs by PersianBlog, the first free blog service in Farsi. The founders of Maha sought an alternative means to avoid reverting to the confines of secrecy and suppression. The editorial of the inaugural issue conveyed this message implicitly, with the editor's words resolutely asserting, "We won't flinch." "Our objective in launching Maha (magazine) is to navigate the familiar challenges and proactively address potential disruptions in raising awareness about the issues affecting sexual minorities and homosexuals in our society."

While it is true that LGBTQ+ bloggers have independently shared their experiences and participated in various gatherings and events, Maha magazine marked a significant milestone as the first, or at least the most successful, collaborative effort among the new generation of Iranian LGBTQ+ individuals.

The publication of Maha magazine continued to evolve with the introduction of various magazines and podcasts in the subsequent years. Among these, Cheragh Magazine emerged in 2005. Published by the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization, Cheragh differed from its predecessors and contemporaries. Its lifespan extended until 2013, indicating a longer duration compared to other independent magazines, possibly owing to its institutional backing.

LGBTQ magazines primarily centered on sexual health, gender concepts, activism, and creative works by community members, with some, like Hooman, taking explicit political stances, while others, like Maha, demonstrated growth. Their primary audience was LGBTQ+ individuals, serving as vital sources for self-discovery and finding similar voices, especially given the limited internet and satellite TV access in Iran at the time. As late as 2009 and 2010, they remained popular, with some individuals distributing printed copies in public spaces.

However, a common issue among these magazines was their predominant focus on gay men. While a part of individuals engaged in limited official activities due to the presence of the aforementioned fatwa, not all of these communities actively advocated for transgender rights or provided adequate awareness, leading to subsequent internal criticism within these organizations.

Trans* Rights Movement Within the Country

In 2007, the Iranian Association for Supporting Individuals with Gender Identity Disorders was established by Maryam Khatoon Molkara, along with the assistance of psychiatrists, psychologists, and civil activists. [8] The association articulated its goals on its website, emphasizing the need to raise public awareness about this disorder as a form of mental illness requiring intervention and treatment, as well as providing education through seminars and relevant workshops, and offering support to affected individuals. This signifies the formal stance regarding transgender issues.

Molkara, as a pioneer, was mostly remembered as a respected figure; however, the organization's approach to transgender issues has remained problematic until now. There is no evidence that this organization ever intended to address LGBTQ+ issues as political matters or seek confrontation with the government. Over time, the new generation of the Trans* community has found their own path, and attention to this type of thinking and organization has decreased drastically.

Lesbians Defying Suppression, Owning Their Voice

Lesbians faced even greater marginalization, often having to contend repeatedly to establish their own platform. The reasons behind this disparity are multifaceted and warrant individual exploration. Despite the predominant focus on gay men's issues and rights, lesbians persistently fought to carve out their place. The transformation of Maha's magazine title from "GLBT" to "Homosexuals" e-magazine by the 7th issue signified this shift, alongside the introduction of a lesbian co-editor. She vocalized her right to representation, stating: "To demonstrate our presence as Iranian lesbians in the arena." [9] These endeavors bore fruit in August 2007 in a new way with the launch of "Hamjense-man: The Iranian Lesbian" by two Iranian lesbians. [10]

These lesbian writers were enraged by the neglect faced by the lesbian community and the prevailing notion that lesbian issues are not equivalent to those of gay men. They criticized the accusation against lesbians for not being sufficiently active in the community, overlooking the impact of patriarchy and other societal constraints on women in Iran.

Over time, advancements in technology such as smartphones have played a significant role in shaping LGBTQ+ activism, while also offering new avenues for queer dating in Iran. Social media has empowered LGBTQ+ individuals in Iran to independently or collaboratively create content on platforms like Instagram and Telegram. This has sparked a continuous struggle between LGBTQ+ individuals and security forces, as they seek to maintain anonymity and safety in their activism, while authorities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) intelligence and the Ministry of Intelligence work to identify and suppress them.

Throughout this period, many Iranian queer individuals have sought asylum in Turkey as a means to escape the constraints of living in secrecy. Consequently, some of these closeted activists have left the country, resulting in a gradual increase in their representation in Farsi media.

Enduring Despite Suppression and Isolation

Meanwhile, from 2004 to the present day, several LGBTQ+ NGOs with varying priorities have been established in exile. While some continue their operations, others have ceased their activities due to a range of challenges. Operating voluntarily in exile presents numerous obstacles and fundraising efforts require expertise and initial investment. Consequently, some individuals have been compelled to step back from this arena, regardless of their preferences.

Especially notable is the emergence of a multitude of queer organizations and foundations in exile since 2010, advocating for various sexualities and gender identities, including those previously marginalized, such as bisexual individuals. Iranian queer activists and members of the community in Iran welcome support, but its effectiveness depends on several factors. Prolonged exile can disconnect Iranian queer activists and community members living abroad, limiting their understanding of the dynamics within the Iranian community. This distance may lead to actions that erode trust, compounded by personal errors among activists or organizations. Furthermore, there is often a disregard for queer activists in Iran, leading other human rights advocates to rely on organizations and activists in exile to understand the community's perspective and experiences. However, this dependence on second-hand information can result in further errors.

However, my focus remains steadfastly on Iran, where the LGBTQ+ movement perseveres despite external pressures. One illustrative instance of state-recognized LGBTQ+ activism in Iran occurred in 2018 when Rezvaneh Mohammadi, the author of this article, was arrested by the Ministry of Intelligence for her LGBTQ+ and human rights activities. [11] While it wasn't the first time an LGBTQ+ activist had been summoned or arrested, what set this case apart was the explicit mention of advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and attempting to hold the Islamic Republic accountable for violations of LGBTQ+ people's rights as reasons for the accusations, making it distinguished.

Over time, intersectionality has gained greater prominence within the queer movement. One notable instance of heightened awareness among ethnic minorities took place in the Kurdish region of Iran. Here, individuals have started generating content in their native language, which was previously neglected in their educational curriculum. The Pelkezerine initiative, a notable force in advancing both queer and Kurdish identities, can be found on Instagram under the handle @pelkezerine_official.

Furthermore, during the 2022 protests in Iran (Women, Life, Freedom movement), queer individuals displayed robust activism both on the streets and through social media, significantly amplifying the visibility of LGBTQ+ people in public discourse. It seems that the intensified suppression has compelled the Iranian LGTBQ+ community, especially its younger generation, to assertively declare their presence and participation in protests even more. It goes beyond mere participation in protests against the regime. They boldly demand equal rights by visibly raising rainbow flags, creating graffiti, or simply expressing affection in public with their partners and sharing these images, actions that are clearly against the law and require immense courage. It significantly increases the visibility of Iranian LGBTQ+ people.

However, this movement has often operated in isolation, with activists from diverse backgrounds often choosing to maintain a certain distance from LGBTQ+ rights advocacy. Maha magazine, in its seventh issue in June 2005, highlights a crucial perspective for future generations in an interview with a feminist whose name is withheld for security reasons. This feminist argues that until lesbians themselves "have not publicly expressed their existence", open support from the women's movement is meaningless. Until then, they should refrain from participating publicly, even with rainbow flags, in gatherings such as March 8th. She believes that their presence constitutes a violation of the rights of organizers and undermines their efforts.

Despite overall improvement, some activists still hold such views. For example, despite Narges Mohammadi receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2023 for her outstanding work in advancing human rights, she has so far refrained from publicly addressing LGBTQ+ rights or recognizing their vital role within human rights discourse, despite the criticism of civil and queer activists. [12] Even earlier in 2021, Emadeldin Baghi, recipient of the Martin Ennals Award, reacted to a photo of Austrian singer Conchita Wurst, labeling it as disgusting and a "warning bell of dehumanization," asserting that "a human rights defender cannot remain indifferent to dehumanization." While his remarks sparked reactions from numerous activists abroad, he later expressed regret specifically for the act of writing them, stating that he saw no need to focus his objection solely on this issue due to his primary concerns lying elsewhere. He deemed people's reactions a misunderstanding and commented, "If I had known it would lead to such a misunderstanding, I certainly wouldn't have used such language."[13]

A highlighted but rare example of solidarity under the suppressive conditions of civil activism in Iran occurred within women, life, and freedom protests when 20 civil and union organizations published a charter asking for recognition of a minimum set of civil rights, including recognition of the LGBTQ+ community and decriminalization of same-sex relations. [14]

The Outcome and Challenges

In conclusion, it highlights that the Iranian LGBTQ+ movement has not only expanded over these years but has also always been an integral part of the queer diaspora community. However, one of its biggest challenges remains its isolation and solitary existence. The only solution is for the space of other social movements to open up for greater collaboration with this movement. Bringing an end to marginalizing this movement paves the way for a more dynamic and creative LGBTQ+ movement.


1.    Namdar, Arman. (May 2021). Radio Zamaneh.2.    North, Carol, & Suris, Alina. (Dec 2015). National Center for Biotechnology Information.3.    Bolour, Behzad. (May 2006). BBC Persian.4.    Unknown. (June 2022). Ijtihad net.5.    Janet Afary, (March 2018) Radio Zamaneh.6.    Rezvaneh Mohammadi (September 2020) Peace Mark7.    Unknown. (Dec 2004). Maha Magazine.8.    Unknown. (Feb 2008). ISNA.9.    Unknown. (August 2005). Maha Magazine.10.    Unknown. (August 2007). Hamjense-man: The Iranian Lesbian Magazine.11.    Unknown. Iran Prison Atlas. 12.    Unknown.   (February 2024).  Daadkhast.13.    Unknown. (January 2021).  BBC  Persian.14.    Unknown. (February 2023) Radio Zamaneh.

Second publication by courtesy of Böll Stiftung, CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0


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