Thursday, August 17, 2006

Queers, Imperialism and Homophobia in Iran: Interesting Article from Gay City News

Vienna Protest Against Execution of Queer Teens in Iran

The following is a very interesting and thoughtful argument about how queers in the US can best to act in solidarity with their “sexual minority” counterparts in Iran. While i may not be in the same groove as the authors, i also don’t disagree with any of what they’re saying. (It’s more one of those i-ain’t-a-‘human rights activist’ kinda things.)

Worth discussing and thinking about, as the issues playing out in this debate are the same issues playing out all over imperialism’s current conflict with the Islamic world, be it in Lebanon or Iraq or Afghanistan. So, without further ado, here it is:


People-to-People Dialogue Key to Human Rights Progress

by Mitra Roshan and Kourosh Shemiani
Gay City News August 3-9 2006

The July 19 actions marking the anniversary of the execution of two young men in Mashad, Iran, have initiated an important discussion about the role Western LGBT activists can play in relation to persecuted minorities around the world.

We feel the July 19 actions were fundamentally flawed and showed a dangerous trend in LGBT politics, which could lead to a counterproductive, if not outright destructive, situation for sexual minorities in Iran and other countries. The problems are both in the misuse of facts and in a poorly developed strategy that is unlikely to achieve its purported goals.

First, the proof that the hangings were carried out because the two young men were lovers has not been verified by any credible organizations. Neither Human Rights Watch nor the International Gay And Lesbian Human Rights Commission could find conclusive evidence of the homophobic nature of the executions, or of a marked increase in homophobic policies by Iran’s new administration. The evidence offered was by a handful of gay activists, journalists, and bloggers who, in some cases, cited second or third-hand hidden conversations with anonymous sources inside Iran. It is disturbing to see some of the most respected veterans of LGBT politics be carried away by such reports.

Our suspicion of the cyber-writers is deepened by the language and attitude that they have adopted to talk about Iran. For example, Peter Tatchel, the head of OutRage!, proclaimed, “This is just the latest barbarity by the Islamo-fascists in Iran,” and he goes on to advocate economic sanctions and political isolation for Iran. And Doug Ireland has repeatedly used the word “pogrom” to refer to the situation of sexual minorities. This language is more in harmony with the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric adopted by the Bush administration than with human rights advocacy. It paints the violence of the Iranian regime as in a class of its own, barbaric and distinct from the presumably civilized violence of the war on Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo.

For this reason, the caveat of “no war with Iran” added to the bottom of the list of demands of the July 19 actions rang hollow and disingenuous. Intentionally or not, this rhetoric adds ammunition to the current U.S. administration’s stated goal of isolating and possibly attacking Iran, a policy that has nothing to do with protecting sexual minorities.

U.S. invasions have always required a liberal-sounding pill to make them digestible for the majority of Americans. In Somalia, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Middle East, that pill has been the condition of women, always quickly forgotten after the actions have gone forward. As recent events have made only more clear, in the Middle East, U.S. actions do not lead to greater security or freedom of any groups of people, least of all persecuted minorities.

So in the same vein, we are seeing Iranian sexual minorities, undeniable victims, held up and named as “gay” (regardless of how they identify themselves) and in need of our intervention. It is perhaps an indication of the times that established, respected veterans of American LGBT activism are following a path laid down by the neoconservatives’ failed attempts at imposed liberation.

This leads us to the second concern, the question of strategy. The actions on July 19 were not thoughtfully tailored to achieve their goal of getting Iran to “stop killing queers and kids.” In fact, the actions were counterproductive and potentially dangerous because their main tactic was to bring international attention to individuals and communities that survive, in part, because of their relative invisibility. Furthermore, if there is in fact no increase in persecution of sexual minorities in Iran, this action could well help instigate it.

In addition, Western activists need to be thoughtful about which Iranians they hold up as “representing” the interests of sexual minorities in Iran. While some groups have come forward with clearly admirable intentions, this very young movement needs time to develop its political analysis and strategies. The Western activists’ claim that they are following the lead of Iranian gays and lesbians is untrue and unacceptable as a justification.

The Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (PGLO), which supported but did not initiate the July 19 actions, is following a road that is politically and strategically misconceived. We fear that the PGLO is in danger of placing itself outside of a strong and inspirational movement within Iran for democracy. Within this movement of intellectuals, trade unionists, and journalists, none has called for economic and political hostility as advocated by the gay activists with whom PGLO has become allied. In fact, the most prominent Iranian activists — from the Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi to the journalist and former political prisoner Akbar Ganji — have specifically called for an opposite kind of politics that does not buy into the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric of racism and hysteria that the Western gay crusaders have fallen into. It is absolutely essential for the PGLO to also distance itself from such people and positions.

Much as in the U.S., the protection of sexual minorities is fundamentally a cultural issue that must be addressed through personal experiences and public debates that draw on values important to the entire community. Iranians are already engaged in these debates. Just one example is the situation of the transsexual people who are at the forefront of a cultural transformation in Iran, demanding greater respect and rights. The case for sexual minorities in Iran might first come through this movement and not from gay or lesbian-identified individuals. Change is already under way, and although it will be a slow, arduous road, it is unlikely to follow a Western pattern or be hastened by Western intervention.

Does this mean there is nothing impassioned LGBT activists in the U.S. can do to support sexual minorities in Iran? No, not at all. But it does mean that activists have to take a broad view of the issue of and be conscious of their own positioning. We have three recommendations for opening up the discussion:

  1. Challenge official policies that limit people-to-people contacts between Iran and the West. The U.S. government has put severe limitations on the ability of American citizens and institutions to help and form relations with their Iranian counterparts. The Iranian government has taken similar steps, and in the process, the ignorance and mistrust are growing on both sides. With the emergence of independent organizations advocating for the rights of groups like women, transsexual people, prisoners, and disabled people, among others, the Iranian people have extended their hands, and we need to fight for our right to reach out to them.

  1. Stop U.S. aggression toward Iran. If the shadow of U.S. military and economic pressure on the Iranian regime is lessened, the Iranian people will have increased breathing room to deal with their own regime and to resist it in a meaningful way. U.S grandstanding only plays into the hands of the Iranian hardliners, creating an external enemy around which they can rally support.

  1. Most importantly, we must come to terms with the fact that we are limited in our ability to effect positive change in the rest of the world. This is the price we pay for living under the shadows of George Bush’s America and a history of Western domination, as our actions are always implicated in our nation’s global power. Therefore, it is first and foremost our responsibility to rein in our own government’s aggression and militarism and to be extremely careful in how we use our power as Westerners. This is a hard pill to swallow for many die-hard activists, but it is a fact that we have to face honestly and courageously. Only then will we be able to build responsible and productive grassroots politics in relation to the rest of the world.

Mitra Roshan and Kourosh Shemirani are founders of QIAm (Queer Iran Alliance). They are both Iranian-American activists and although they are using pseudonyms because they travel to Iran, they welcome all dialogue and contact at


  1. ok seriously this argument amounts to nothing more than an aplogy for Islamic Fascism. Im sure the millions of Iranians in the street chanting Jihad! will soon embrace sexual minorities with open arms. Seriously, and i say this as a liberal gay-rights actvist, military power is the only thing that will topple this homophobic, anti-semetic, anti-feminist and fascist government!!! Stop allowing your cliché leftist guilt about colonialism to stop you from opposing muslim fanatics!

  2. I sympathize with your sentiments, but i have to ask: what next? what do you see happening after an invasion to topple this homophobic, anti-semetic, anti-feminist and fascist government? Even assuming the US could handle occupying Iran at the same time as Iraq, what effects do you think this would have on the politics of people in Iran?

    I think there is a perverse kind of dynamic tension created by imperialism's sexual "freedom" and the fundamentalists' sexual repression. Combine this with the kind of reaction you are bound to get in cases of military invasion - even many Iranian exiles feel that if the Us invades, their hopes would be with Tehran - and i think a US invasion would simply destroy any space women and queers have been able to carve out for themselves in Iran.

    Under such situation we could witness a renewed explosion of right-wing terror against sexual and ethnic minorities - and do you think the occupiers would lift a finger to stop this? Like they are doing with the explosion of sectarian violence in Iraq? Or even less effectively?

    Which does not mean i am in any way considering the Iranian regime to be anything but a monstrosity. (Less so than the US regime, though, for far less powerful...)

    I did post this article and did not find anything in it to disagree with, but nevertheless some parts do leave me cold. What i did find most important was the criticism of non-Iranian queers initiating and leading in the activism around the execution of the two queer teenagers, and doing so in a way which might in fact be counterproductive for queers "on the ground."

  3. your quite right about the fact that a US invasion could make things worse, but then what can people do to help topple this regime??

  4. Well,it depends who you mean by "people"...

    I am in no position to give lessons, or even advice, to people in Iran. And it is they and they alone who are in a position to bring actual liberation to their society.

    Can people outside of Iran support such a process? Well, some of us probably can, and most of us probably can't. If you don't live in a society you normally can't do good revolutionary activism there! That said, in terms of what little we can do, i would say learn about the situation, try to take advantage of any opportunities which present themselves to forge ties with revolutionaries and organizations of the oppressed in Iran, and work to oppose military intervention.

    There is of course something else we "can" do... and that would be to set a positive example, and support liberatory revolutionary movements in our own societies.

    We have to get used to the fact that it is only in such difficult (and dangeous) work that we can really make the world a better place - by acting where we are located instead of using imperialism's might as an emotionally cheap substitute.

    Liberation, you see, begins at home.

  5. curse you and your ignorance. apologize and make excuses for your own country and leave others to their own devices. Your homophobic, anti semetic and anti femenist argument is ridiculous. as for fasist government: let those without sin cast the first stone.

  6. again, another cliche far left defense of islamic fascism. sorry but you dont deal with fascist by talking about feelings. this whole story has nothing to do with colonialism or the west. A lot of people involved in islamic extremism (bin laden, Iranian mullahs) are millionaires. Its has nothing to do with class or how bad weve treated muslim countries. The only way to get rid of this Iranian regime is to bomb the shit out of their nuclear and military installations.

  7. The execution in July of two teenagers in Iran for
    the "crime" of posting gay teen porn blogs
    has attracted widespread criticism and quite rightly.
    surveillance and repression of gay boys
    under the clerical regime appears to have got worse since the
    international attention focused on last month's hangings.
    All told this portends a bleak future for Iranian gays