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Sahar Ghorishi

LGBTQI+ people are at the forefront of Iran’s revolution – they should not be forgotten

content warning!

Protests are not just about the compulsory hijab or cisgender women’s rights. This is a fight for basic human rights, including the rights and safety of silenced trans and queer people.

23 Dec 2022

Content warning: This article contains mention of sexual violence, homophobia and transphobia.

Hundreds of people stand in the street shouting and throwing their arms in the air in a video taken in the midst of Iran’s revolutionary protests. The camera turns to face a woman wearing a green bandana covering her face. Her message reads: “I am a trans woman, I have had surgery and no one employs me in this country or values me. But, as an Iranian, I want to fight to get my country back.”

For months now, hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets across Iran, sparked by the brutal murder of Kurdish woman Jina Amini while she was in the custody of the Islamic Republic’s morality police. According to reports Amini had been detained for wearing an ‘improper hijab’ in public. The two journalists Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi who broke the news are currently being held at Tehran’s Evin prison, accused of espionage which is punishable by the death penalty. 

This revolution, however, is not just about the compulsory hijab. It’s not just a fight for cisgender women’s rights. It is a fight for basic human rights, including the rights and safety of trans and queer people, whose voices have been silenced in a country that criminalises same-sex sexual activity and gender non-conformity. It is a fight against a fascist theocratic regime that controls its citizens’ every move and punishes those who question them. 

Since its inception in 1979, the Iranian regime has controlled its citizens’ freedom to make their own life choices. This has particularly affected people of marginalised genders, and resulted in many deaths, violence and discriminatory laws at the hands of both the state and society. 

“People of Iran all want the same thing: freedom”

Säye Skye

As is the case worldwide, trans people are some of the most marginalised in Iran, very often not accepted by their families and wider society whilst experiencing oppressive laws – the effects of which worsen when factoring in intersectional issues such as class, disabilities and minority ethnic oppressions. In 2021, Health Care for Women International reported that 92% of trans women in Iran face emotional or verbal violence and over 70% face physical violence. The ongoing homophobic and transphobic violence has led to many LGBTQIA+ Iranians migrating to neighbouring countries. 

“LGBTQ Iranians are at the forefront of this revolution. We’re just not seeing them as visibly,” Säye Skye, an Iranian rapper and activist based in Berlin, tells gal-dem. He was forced to leave Iran soon after releasing his first song in 2009, ‘Saye Yek Zane Irani’ (Shadow of an Iranian Woman), a viral hit which unapologetically states the existence of queer people in Iran, resulting in Saye receiving many death threats. “People of Iran all want the same thing: freedom,” he says. “This is a crucial moment where people are looking beyond differences and fighting for a common cause.” 

Yet the visual LGBTQI+ presence in this revolution has mostly been erased by the mainstream media outlets. For example, on 15 October, parts of Evin prison were set on fire, which notoriously holds many political prisoners and is known to hold a secret basement space (the “land of the forgotten”) used only for trans prisoners kept in inhumane conditions. Though exact numbers are unknown, at least eight people died during the blaze at the detention centre, but once again, little was said about the queer and trans prisoners at risk.

img courtesy of @nimania11

Just weeks before Jina’s murder, LGBTQI+ activists Sareh Sedighi-Hamadani, 31, and Elham Choubdar, 24, were sentenced to death for speaking up about LGBTQI+ rights. The official name for their crime is ‘spreading corruption on earth’ – a religious terminology used against anyone who criticises the government, an act interpreted by them as equivalent to ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘anti-god’. Aside from some human rights, LGBTQI+ organisations and outlets speaking out against this news, the media – and the world – has been largely silent.

In May 2021, we mourned the murder of Alireza Fazeli Monfared, a 20-year-old who identified as a non-binary gay man. They were killed by several male relatives on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender expression. Their murderers are reportedly still free.

In September, just days after protests erupted after Jina’s killing, 16-year-old Nika Shakarami went missing while taking part in demonstrations. It’s believed she was murdered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Now Nika’s name is shouted alongside Jina’s and at least 63 teenagers and children who have been killed by the IRGC since protests started. “Nothing will bring her back, even if thousands of people are protesting for her,” Nika’s girlfriend told German magazine De Zeit in an interview.

Most recently, it emerged that on 17 December Raha Ajodani, a young trans woman and human rights activist, was detained for her digital activism.

“It is important that LGBTQ+ activists do not stop their fight, and they should always be at the forefront”

Ozi Ozar

Since the start of the revolution, the IRGC has killed at least 458 people; two detained protesters have been executed, while many others are at risk of the death penalty. Reports have found this violence against protestors to be gender-based. Through anonymous testimonies, CNN revealed how Iran’s security forces use rape to quell protests while authorities have been found to “target men and women differently”, purposefully shooting at women’s faces, breasts and genitals using pellet guns, according to the Guardian.

“As LGBTQ+ Iranians, we are marginalised not just by the government, but wider society and our families,” says Nima Yajam, an activist now based in Toronto, Canada, who was forced to quit medical school in Iran, after threats from university authorities. It’s now up to activists around the world, they say, to “be the voice of queers in Iran, who could be at the risk of death and prosecution just for holding their flags”. 

“This is a very intersectional revolution, it is for LGBTQ+ people, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, they are all frontiers of this fight,” Nima adds. “These are facts that need to be recognised.”

‘Queer/Trans, Life, Freedom’ 

In recent weeks however, many LGBTQI+ Iranians have been taking to the streets and photographing themselves holding pride flags, trans flags and signs that read the revolution’s slogan ‘Woman Life Freedom’, or queer alternatives such as “Queer/Trans Life Freedom”. Some have photographed themselves kissing in significant public places, such as the ‘Freedom Tower’ in Tehran, their faces blurred or covered for safety. These images have not ever been seen before, and for many Iranians like myself, these symbols are monumental. LGBTQI+ Iranians are defining a whole new generation of people fighting for freedom.

“When we speak about queer rights, we are told that it’s not the right time, but this is exactly the right place to make our demands,” Ozi Ozar, one of the organisers at Woman* Life Freedom, a Berlin-based collective, tells gal-dem. “When we stand with the ethnic minority provinces in Iran such as the Baloch, the Azerbaijanis, the Kurdish and the Turkish people, we are also standing by the LGBTQIA+ people in those communities.” Ozi and I both hope one day we can sit freely together as two queer and trans people in a restaurant in Iran, eating vegan Chelow Kabab.

“Because Iran is a country that was ruled by gender apartheid dictatorship for decades, it will not change in an instant to make space for LGBTQ+ people,” says Ozi. “This is why it is important that LGBTQ+ activists do not stop their fight, and they should always be at the forefront.” 

For many people like me, this is the first time we have truly understood and felt the notion of ‘hope’ for our futures. For the first time ever, my Instagram feed is filled with queer and trans Iranian activists and artists speaking up about our rights. I am overwhelmed with hope for a queer and trans future in Iran – for a day where we can return to our home country, and live freely as ourselves. In every revolution and movement led by people, hope has proven to be the most powerful tool for success. These protests are about human rights, which crucially includes LGBTQI+ rights. This should not be forgotten.

Follow the petition to save Sareh and Elham’s lives from execution here

You can support the International Railroad for Middle-Eastern Queer Refugees here.

UK-based Galop offers support for LGBT+ survivors of sexual assault, hate crimes and domestic violence. Their services include a helpline and online chatbox, as well as advocates and caseworkers who can give advice and emotional support.