The Intersection of LGBT Identity and the Protest Movement in Iran

By Guy Fiennes

Image Credit: Sahar Ghorishi

President Raisi’s speech commemorating the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Republic was punctuated by his rejection of the ‘Zan, Zendegi, Azadi’ (or, Woman, Life, Freedom) movement. Raisi declared that the protests which erupted across Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini had nothing to do with women, life or freedom; and everything to do with an insidious campaign launched by Iran’s enemies to undermine the regime.

Rather, he charged, it was the West which was guilty of commodifying women and, he added, propagating the vilest form of obscenity – homosexuality.

This is not the first time that the Islamic Republic has pointed to queerness as a sign of Western moral deficit, centre-staging the spectre of homophobia to shore up conservative support. Raisi’s framing of queerness as a foreign degeneracy aligns with his conservative predecessor President Ahmedinejad, who proudly announced that Iran had no homosexuals in 2007, and further back to Ayatollah Khomeini, who justified the execution of a boy for same-sex activity with the words: “Corruption, corruption. We have to eliminate corruption.” The country remains one of the few in the world to retain the death sentence for consensual same-sex relations, and Iran’s LGBT community might reasonably be expected to keep to the shadows. However, this is not the case – younger Iranians are increasingly accepting of diverse sexual identities, and urban centres are home to lively queer scenes and community spaces. Online, across social media platforms, the Iranian queer community is active and politically engaged.

The killing of a young gay Iranian man, Alireza Monfared, by his family in 2022 sparked widespread outrage on social media, as did the arrests of prominent online LGBT activists Elham and Sareh, whose death sentences were first reported on September 4 – days before Mahsa Amini’s death on September 17. Since reformist President Khatami’s term ended in 2005, the country has been dominated by conservative elements who reject liberalising voices, prefer repression to accommodation, and opt for a hardline policy against the West.

Source: Amnesty International

There are many similarities between the regime’s handling of LGBT individuals/activists and those involved in the Mahsa Amini protests calling for more general liberalisation and freedoms, not least of which is the regime’s insistence that such opposition is a foreign innovation. As has been the case with homosexuality and LGBT rights activism, when the protests spread across Iran in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death the regime pointed the accusing finger of blame squarely at morally decrepit Western states. Protesters and LGBT activists alike are charged with moharebeh ‘enmity against God’ or efsad-e fel arz, ‘corruption on earth’, both of which can carry the death sentence and have historically been used against any political opposition to the regime. Toomaj Salehi, an anti-regime Iranian rapper, was charged with efsad-e fel arz in November 2022, while Sareh was charged with it in January 2022, explicitly by way of ‘promoting homosexuality’. Thus, in judicial terms and the perspective of the conservative factions of the Islamic Republic, anti-regime democratic liberalisation sentiment and homosexuality/LGBT activism are located within a singular category: a political threat to the state and to society, fomented by the West and antithetical to authentic Iranian values.

A salient feature of the protests is how diverse they have been in their composition of different groups within Iranian society. From the ethnic minorities, Kurds, Baluch and Azeris, to women both religious and secular/liberal, the private sector, the working class, women’s rights activists, liberal dissidents and LGBT individuals, the protests have united an unprecedented cross-section of the Iranian public in an expression of discontent with their authoritarian regime. Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of the morality police epitomises the brutal excess of a system based on state-enforced interpretations of conservative religious morality. Queer individuals and women alike are subject to surveillance, arbitrary detentions, beatings, forced confessions and torture by state security services, including the paramilitary basij and plain clothes officers. Their behaviour and dress is prescribed by conservative religious ideals and imposed both by their own family members and by the many unaccountable and castigating arms of the state.

The momentum of the protest movement has also spurred queer Iranians in exile to raise their voices online and tell their stories of abuse and liberation. Some explicitly refer to the intersectionality of their ideals; as one organiser of the Berlin-based collective Woman*Life Freedom quoted in online feminist platform gal-dem explains: “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.” Queer rapper Saye Skye, also in Berlin, extends the intersectionality even further: “Jin Jiyan Azadi is not only about Iran, it’s a message of freedom for every single oppressed person around the world.” (Jin, Jiyan, Azadi is the original Kurdish phrase which translates into zan, zendegi, azadi.)

Indeed, the intersectionality of the protest movement is exemplified by its slogans and hashtags, among them #ما_همه_باهم_هستيم ma hameye baaham hasteem – we are all together, tweeted in a comment by the prominent protest account 1500Tasvir under a photo of two girls kissing, itself hashtagged #مهسا_امینی (Mahsa Amini). Thus – and in part because of the state’s interpretation of homosexuality as an act of political opposition – the public display of same-sex attraction becomes in and of itself an act of political defiance against the regime, just as removing the hijab in public is a political act which contests the regime’s legitimacy and authority over Iranian bodies.

The Islamic Republic is not alone inframing the LGBT community as a sinister foreign import and using it as a rallying issue in the culture war between the conservative regimes defending tradition and the imperial progressive-liberalism of the West. Putin’s Russia has acted similarly to portray itself as the bastion of traditional values against Western degeneracy, and some academics go so far as to cast homosexuals as agents of Western imperialism. As conservative regimes escalate repression and targeting of LGBT communities, it is important that activists and LGBT individuals are able to access asylum, and that they do not feel alone or forgotten by the international community when they risk retaliation in their countries by making their voices heard against injustice.

As it has become clear that the regime is opting for repression and retrenchment in lieu of accommodation and reform, it seems certain that repression of the LGBT community will only persist or escalate, as has been the case for ethnic minorities and women’s rights’ activists. Many Iranians who leave the country, including those who apply for asylum, cite abuse or fear of abuse related to their LGBT identity as a primary motivation. They are unlikely to feel emboldened to return to Iran in the near future, as the number of executions rises and the protest movement simmers under Raisi’s boot.

This piece was published as part of “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi”: A series of weekly articles and interviews that unpack different symbols and concepts at the heart of the most recent developments in Iran