Iran’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities are routinely forced to undergo sex changes and to agree to dangerous medical “cures,” according to new research compiled by campaign group Justice for Iran (JFI) and 6Rang, the Iranian Lesbian and Transgender Network.
Speaking at a conference in London, Shadi Amin, the founder of 6Rang and author of the book Gender X, which outlines the discrimination LGBT people face in Iran, said the practice of forcing people to undergo sex changes, sterilization procedures and embark on unethical and potentially harmful clinical treatments must stop immediately. The book is available in Persian. A report in English based on the book, Diagnosing Identities, Wounding Bodies, written by Raha Bahreini, Amnesty International’s Iran researcher, is available to download. Both publications, part of the No to Forced Sex Change campaign, were launched at an event in London on August 13.
Homosexuality is illegal in Iran, but the widespread and often violent discrimination LGBT people face there is largely unknown. Although forcing people to undergo sex changes is not official government policy, LGBT people come under enormous pressure to go through with the operation.
As Amnesty International and other campaign groups have pointed out, the practice of forcing people to undergo a sex change amounts to a form of torture. In some cases, LGBT people also face prison and even the death penalty.
“Iran is a highly gendered society where sex and gender determines not only the rights and responsibilities that people have under criminal and family law, but also what clothes they can wear, which courses they can take in universities, where they can sit on a bus or train, how far they can travel, and even which door they can use to enter a government building,” said Bahreini at the London event.
Bahreini said that Iran’s LGBT community faced discrimination in “almost every aspect of their lives” because they defy “socially constructed gender expectations” and because Iran does not recognize “diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.” Alhough LGBT people are protected from discrimination under international human rights law, the Iranian government refuses to acknowledge the rights of LGBT people.
Instead, Bahreini said, the Iranian government offers LGBT people “treatments” to cure homosexuality. “Our research shows that repression is increasingly accompanied by an emerging set of legal and medical practices that promote harmful reparative therapies, unjustified hormone treatments, sterilization and genital reassignment surgeries in order to cure their homosexual attraction.
“The purpose of the book is to alert homosexuals in Iran that they don't need to go through sex change surgeries,” Shadi Amin said. Gender X also looks at the violence LGBT people face in Iran, and calls for homosexuality to be decriminalized.
In addition to the practice of forced sex change operations, Iran’s medical establishment allows for the use of harmful treatments to “cure” homosexuality, including electric shock therapy, prescribed hormones and mind-altering and nausea-inducing drugs.
Gender X outlines the situation in Iran, indicating that many mental health professionals in Iran are diagnosing lesbian, gay, and transgender individuals with gender identity disorder or body dysmorphic disorder, an anxiety disorder that causes people to have a distorted view of how they look.
“The majority of those we interviewed were told within a few sessions of psychotherapy that they are transsexual, and should pursue sex reassignment procedures. They were rarely told that gender variance is not in and of itself pathological and having a cross gender or transgender does not constitute a psychiatric disorder,” said Bahreini. “Many health professionals misrepresent the effectiveness and the potential for harm of sex reassignment surgeries when counseling individuals distressed by their sexual orientation and gender variance”.
The report says that many people who have had sex changes failed to receive meaningful preoperative surgical consultation about post-operative care and follow-up. “During this research, we learned of at least three transsexual individuals who died after operations because of significant lack of post-surgical care” says Bahreini.
“Iran has the highest number of sex change surgeries in the region ” said Janet Afary, a historian of modern Iran at the University of California in Santa Barbara, said. “Doctors and therapists in Iran should be trained not to recommend sex change to homosexuals,” she said, supporting the view that medical professionals in Iran lack basic knowledge about LGBT people and their rights, whether medical, social or political. It was vital, Afary said, that measures were taken to ensure Iranian LGBT communities could live freely without the fear of being forced to undergo unwanted reassignment surgeries.
Gender X and the associated English report point to a range of examples of human rights violations in connection with sexual orientation or identity, many of them shocking. They suffer from domestic violence, harassment and persecution. Akan, a 19-year-old transgender who lived in western Iran, suffered violence at the hands of his father. “When I told my father that my therapist told me that I am a transgender, he started beating me. He shouted at me: ‘you are a girl, nothing else.’” Akan’s mother tried to intervene, she said, but her father continued the attacks. Akan was arrested and forced in a cell with serious criminals, even though her only crime was being transgender. Akan also reported that police officers — women and men — physically abused her, touching her to identify her gender.
A Need for Change — Now
“I listened to the new generation of transgender people in Iran,” said Shadi Amin. “Their stories were familiar for me. They went through what I went through 30 years ago in Iran. Nothing has changed. That is why I started this project.”
According to the report, the earliest sex change operation reported in the Iranian press dates back to 1973. But sex reassignments were only made legal in 1985, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa about it, apparently after meeting a woman who said she was trapped in a man's body.
“The situation of transgender people in the UK began to change less than 50 years ago,” said Jackie Lewis, who sits on the national LGBT committee of UNISON, one of the United Kingdom's biggest trade unions. She believes lessons learned in the UK can help other LGBT communities. “Lots of work has been done and lots of work needs to be done to make the situation better globally,” she said. “The change is all about people demanding their rights. It is as simple as that, and yet it is very complicated, as witnessed in Iran.”
“It is quite recent that the existence of LGBT people in Iran has been recognized and discussed — even though recognition doesn’t mean they are accepted in society,” said Haideh Moghissi, a professor of sociology and women's studies at York University. “Access to the internet has increased attention to Iranian LGBT issues”.
As Moghissi says, “Gender X is a political work advocating changes in the process of sex change operations in Iran." By drawing attention to the Iranian government’s refusal to acknowledge LGBT rights — and in particular, their right to refuse sex changes and other medical treatments — JFI, 6Rang and other campaigners who attended the London event hope that support for Iran’s LGBT people can be strengthened, and that the community can benefit from knowing there are global organizations working on their behalf. For now, there are few signs that the attitude towards LGBT people within Iranian society, led by Iran’s government and ruling establishment, will change. But raising awareness and informing LGBT people of their rights must be the first step toward change.
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