From Right to The Left

…and vice versa 

Toronto is a region of neighbourhoods, every neighbourhood a different country. During the last decade & a half, wherever I moved I’ve arrived in a different Canada all over again. Thanks to colonialism, & globalization of media, neither the white shadow of main-stream Canada, and nor the bold presence of China Town have been “unfamiliar”.

The cultural shock, though, hit hard with “Writing in English”. To write in Farsi, I put my pen on the far right of the page and move towards left, whereas to write in English, my hand jerks from its usual direction of landing on the right, and drags herself to the far left, to move then towards right. There is a clash, in the middle of page, every time, when the old habit of “from right” meets the self-imposed skill of “from left”.

I wonder sometimes if it helped had I walked passed the margins, and let myself be led by the rhythm of spoken word into the patterns of the written. But here I am, still in the middle of two lines inching forward face to face, from right to the left, and vice versa.  But the confusing clash doesn’t stop on the lines I write, it involves pages and passages I read, too. And so I can not deny the fact that I’ve become philosophical since I left Iran.

Over the years I have – out of habit – opened “English” books and magazines from the right end. And so, many times before I can say ooops, and flip the book over to open it from the other side, I have gone through a page or two of the ending. Thus, I’ve known how the story ends before I get to the beginning. That is the amazing part of living here, and not there.

This dilemma to search for the right destination to write expands in to everyday life as I gradually slip away from what have been my sense of morally / politically right back then. I stand -and not voluntarily- as far from there, as I am from here.

In the absence of a home, when my body becomes the virtual shelter, when my body is the only thing still in-hand, I stand in the middle of intersecting rights & wrongs. I trace on this body lines which are not right, but are mine. I follow curves and hollows which can’t be wrong, and are mine. I stop right here, in the middle, with me. And then, as if there is nothing left to love, I love my body from every angle.

Saghi Ghahraman
This piece was published in Descant, Toronto’s Quarterly Literary Mag., 2003, when I was a guest editor there through PEN Canada’s Writers’ in Exile program.

The many puzzles thrown at the Iranian society since 1979, includes

sexuality, in its many definitions

 Saghi Ghahreman is the president of the Iranian Queer Organization – a nonprofit organisation that defends the human and civil rights of Iranian LGBT individuals living in Iran or as refugees. A published poet, Saghi is the first openly lesbian Iranian who has written extensively on the controversial issue of homosexuality and gender fluidity against the oppressive norms of Iranian culture. An interview with her published in an Iranian daily, Sharq, in 2007 forced a two-year suspension of popular reformist paper. Saghi fled Iran in 1984 with her young son and husband whom she divorced five years later after finally reaching safety and settling in Canada.


One of the strongest opponents to the Shari’a laws governing Iran since 1979 has proved to be the youth of Iran.

The problem of sexuality and state interference has remained the constant irresolvable battleground between the youth of Iran and the Islamic state in the last thirty years. Curbing the natural urges and inquisitiveness of young minds has remained the biggest problem on the regime’s social and political agenda – from dress codes, attempts to segregate public spaces and invasion of their private spaces to banning books and access to independent information on the topic have been tried and defeated.

Intertwined with concepts of religious guilt and sin gender, sexuality, sex, equality, opportunity, right, wrong, rights and pleasure are defined in the context of Islamic Shari’a without any opportunity for healthy, independent and up to date dialogue with heavy punishment for anyone who challenges this interpretation and morality. Individuals are left to find out answers for themselves with little or no independent guidance.

Sex, acknowledged as a physical need of heterosexual men is recognised and sanctioned within marriage – hence legal polygamy – with very little available in Persian that deals with cultural gender imbalances. The slow progress of the feminist and queer movement in Iran can be blamed on the limited clinical and theoretical knowledge in this field.

The youth of the middle and upper middle class families are able to explore and experiment thanks to their privileged position and courage in the face of harsh punishments. They engage in single and group sex; exchange partners; experiment with different positions; use it as a drug as well as along with drugs; equate it with modernity and include it their works of art and literature.

In conversations with me a young emerging female writer from the alternative contemporary literature school living in Iran said, ‘we have abundant access to sex. We begin experimenting with sex when we’re still very young’. When asked about safety and protection she added, ‘we just follow trial and error, and we hope to manage without much damage to ourselves’.

And what happens if they are caught? A young male feminist artist/photographer in Tehran said of his own encounters with his girlfriends who he would meet in his apartment, ‘Every time, my body would be in severe pain with fear in anticipation of the Moral Police kicking the door down to arrest me and my girlfriend. I can never relax and enjoy myself. My orgasms are always twinned with paralysing fear of arrest there and then’.

Another, a woman of 38, recalled her arrest when she was 17. She was arrested with an older male friend while out walking. They were taken to the police station, detained, assaulted and then released on bail on the condition that they would marry. Her parents were ordered to arrange the marriage between the two and she was forced to remain in a loveless abusive marriage for twenty years.

These are common experiences of many during the first years following the 1979 Revolution. Many will have similar stories to tell. The years that followed saw flogging and detention replace enforced marriage as punishment. Many young people have had to learn how to deal with the physical and emotional scars of such treatment.

However, on the other hand, the youth belonging to the poorer families fall victim to paralyzing limitations caused not only by the governing Shari’a but by their own binding class-originated circumstances. This is particularly harsh on women whose fundamental rights are denied them and unlike their richer counterparts cannot buy their way out of problems or cannot afford the luxury of negotiating marriage contracts that may secure them some civil protection later on. Young girls are married off to older men for money or women are forced into Sigheh (time specific temporary marriage) for financial or societal safety. The problem of sex and sexuality is turned on its head with girls as young as thirteen (or even younger[1]) forced into marriage or prostitution with no say, choice or control over their sex life. They exercise no choice over the age, look or intellect of their partners as whether married or not their young bodies are being used as commodities.

The outcome of this paradox in the sexual behaviour of the youth in Iran is like all other contradictions of extremes and excessive behaviour within the Iranian society under Shari’a law – the struggle between progress and primitivity. However, as far as sexuality is concerned the society is not only divided between the progressive and the primitive, privileged and the poor, religious and the secular, traditional and the modern members of society, but it is also divided in terms of homosexuality versus heterosexuality which carries its own set of peculiar dilemmas.

Between them, those who live a colourful if risky lifestyle, those who are victims of state-sanctioned pedophilia under Shari’a based marriages and those whose sexual orientation and gender identity deem them the hunted ghosts in their own homeland, have together created a ‘carnival of violated rights’ during the past three decades. The youth of Iran have literally recorded violations of human rights over their bodies; it is hard to imagine any other section of the society complying with such suffocating limits of Shari’a.

While the heterosexual youth suffer under the strict laws of Shari’a they nevertheless, enjoy relatively more freedom and support from their families than the homosexual and transsexual youth. Sexuality remains the worst dilemma for this group under Shari’a law.

There is much less understanding of sex as gender and sex as sexuality when it comes to gender identity and sexual orientation, in any written material in Persian; or in the mind of the mainstream whether they are parents, teachers, counsellors, therapists, or judges dealing with the life and livelihood of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) in Iran. While a straight girl or a boy is certain about his or her gender identity, and is in harmony with the culture regarding his or her sexual desires, and knows pretty well what are her or his rights according to culture and legislature, a transgender girl or boy is puzzled about his/her own gender identity and is attacked for this same reason by the society. A homosexual girl or boy is understandably puzzled about his or her sexual orientation, wondering why he or she is not attracted to those he or she is supposed to be. There is hardly anyone to help, support or understand a transsexual or homosexual teenager with up-to-date information or to put their mind at ease. At best they are given wrong counselling and information hoping to ‘cure them’, and worst still is the fact that they are given deadly punishments because of their identity and orientation.

While being homosexual is forbidden and punishable by death as the most heinous crime, being transsexual is conceived as being ill and in need of cure through surgery – surgery that is carried out without adequate care,  support and counselling  leaving the ‘patient’ mentally and physicaly scarred for the rest of his/her life.

So, how do the young homosexuals and transsexuals cope with their identity and their sex life? How do they deal with complications of growing up in a community that disowns them, eliminates them, exploits them and takes advantage of them from early ages? Based on my interviews and conversations with the Iranian gays and lesbians, every gay man I interviewed had made at least two attempts on his own life before his 30th birthday. He was also heavily reliant on anti depressants. Based on the same interviews every lesbian girl was fighting to escape forced marriage, or was trying to survive the wifely obligations expected of her. To escape enforced marriage and exposure of their orientation many girls run away from home to live in parks and in the street only to be forced back home after arrest and into forced marriage. In these loveless marriages they have no choice but to put up with constant marital rape. As a result of this traditional social setting girls have no way of survival if they’re not surrounded and supported by their families.

Based on my interviews and conversations with Iranian transsexuals (TS), every TS who has had sex reassignment surgery suffers from painful, debilitating side effects due to unsuccessful or incomplete surgeries. Before surgery their sex life was crude and unsatisfactory and after surgery not much improved. Religion and tradition together with physical and psychological limitations before and after surgery put the vulnerable transsexual and homosexual individual at great risk of abuse.

Misunderstandings and confusion over sexual orientation and gender identity coupled with the Islamic regime’s keen interest in the denial and elimination of  homosexuality result in many being labelled as transsexual and consequently as a cure coerced into erroneous sex change operations which in a tragically twisted way trap them in wrong bodies with their lives ruined. The problem remains unresolved as to how with sexually repressive religious laws and morality gender-reassignment surgery can address larger issues of gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation.

Without a doubt, the young generation in Iran has and will continue to find its own way and answers; however, their experiences differ greatly according to their social and financial status and family culture. It must not be forgotten that despite the positive or successful sexual exploits of some, even they are not safe from the wrath of the State if caught. As many explore and discover their sexuality many more fear the extreme punishments and are afraid of arrest and sexual abuse and rape during detention at the hands of their accusers. Others fall victim to incest and sexual violence at home. The problems of the LGBT community are far more as not only do they have to fight State persecution they have to fight their own self doubt and unanswered questions at the same time. They are vulnerable and fall victim easily.

While the straight youth fights for their rights, the LGBT youth fight for their life. Under Shari’a law for them the physical act of sex means death and not joy or pleasure – as it rightly should be. By continuously demanding their equal rights they keep the fight alive – for them celibacy is not an option. They look to the Iranian society and the International community for support in their struggle for recognition and equality.

A gay poet, Barbod Shab, display the scene of a blind date between two gay men in Tehran:

The Seconds

By: Barbod Shab

I wonder what the meaning behind your gaze is

We are here to pass the Moment 

We are here to conquer the Seconds

Don’t forget I am here

I am watching you with all my might

With that fork, are you thinking of pulling my eyes out?

What if you’ve poisoned the food?

We are here to pass the Moment

We are here to conquer the Seconds

Have you made a bed for us?

Why this sheet is all red?

What harm you’re gonna do to me?

Is your belt tough enough?

We are here to pass the Moment

We are here to conquer the Seconds

The shimmering white under your shirt does not distract me

Do you always keep a rifle at home?

Why the fruit knives are razor-sharp.  

Did you know I carry a knife, too?

Show me your nails

Is it because you play guitar or…?

Today, we are here only to pass the Moment

We are here today only to conquer the Seconds

What’s your favourite music?

Did you know I can yell quite loud?

Why did you turn the sound so high?

So no one can hear us making love?

We are here today     almost accidentally     only to pass the Moment

We are here today     almost accidentally     only to conquer the Seconds

A glass of juice would be nice after all the bustle

What if you put something with the juice?

Are you sure you haven’t locked the door? 

I can’t believe my eyes! Am I leaving for reall, now?

Wouldn’t you grab my neck while saying good-by?

The moment is passed

We have been conquered

I am leaving now

Can I trust this cab will take me straight home?

2005 – Iran

Collections of Gay Poetry by Iranian Poets (residing in Iran)
[1] 9 Lunar years for girls, 15 for boys
I wrote piece for Roya Kashefi’s No To Execution campaign – Saghi Ghahraman

I Am Gay.  I am Lonely.

It Was Not Always Like This

On the turn of the 20st century Western culture found its way into Iran. Huge households shrunk to fit smaller group of family-members. That too, later, gave way to the nuclear family; husband and a wife and their children would be considered “family” and lived under one roof. Thus, gay men, invisible in huge households among the extended families living together, and singled out in the setting of nuclear family, shied away into a secluded lifestyle and remained so until 1979 when a witch-hunt begun to spot, expose, and execute them; large number of homosexual men fled to the West and became refugees.

The last Shah of Iran was relaxed about homosexuality. Homosexuals lived peacefully and fully, as artist, writer, film-director, show-host, and pup-singer; first public appearance of a Gay Rights activist, Saviz Shafaee, took place in Shiraz University when he presented a paper discussing Homosexuals’ Civil Rights in a seminar. The talk wasn’t picked up again until two decades later, by gay bloggers who pioneered on-line activism in order to escape silenced lives, under shadows of Shari’a law

Speaking up on Cyberstage

Homosexual men reacted some 20 years later. Gay men took to dressing up against norms; teased masculinity with their plucked eyebrows; allowed body-language to speak of their sexual orientation, and at the same time, denied links between appearance and sexual orientation; some took refuge in chatrooms, homepages, and on-line presence.

Blogger  Hamjensgera mentions in a post dated 2008, “long before weblogs were introduced to Iranian society, gay community appeared on-line via html homepages called yahoo clubs, or yahoo groups”. He mentions later the date goes back to 1995. Other bloggers confirm that they’ve seen the first gay blog around 2001, belonged to man identified himself as Behrooz, who wrote on his first post: I Am Gay; updated a little while later: I Am Lonely.

Still many bloggers remember Epsilon Gay as the first gay blogger, an inspiration to many who looked for ways to connect and express themselves. Epsilon Gay was interviewed sometime during 2005 by Dead Poets Society[i]. In that interview, Epsilon answered questions via email, talked about his feelings, and commented on his own blog.

Thus, 2001 was the beginning of a decade of hard work during which Iran’s lGBT community was formed and grew into a movement with tireless individuals orchestrating the challenge for decriminalization of homosexuality, initiating social justice for the queer community.

Blogs were considered real beings. Their birth and life span, untimely death, and suicide was closely followed and responded to by other gay bloggers.

Forming virtual families on-line

Weblogs of the LGBT community doesn’t serve only as alternative media for civil activism; it is also used as virtual family-setting on-line. Clusters of blogs and like-minded bloggers read each other daily and observed the mood in each weblog. If a blogger in their circle post about sorrow, or a recent attack, or shows suicidal hints/self-inflected wounds, they all gather in his comment-box, give advice, tips, and provide support. If a blogger doesn’t up-date for more than two weeks, everyone enquires of his whereabouts; According to the urgency of situation, reaction to the issues takes to the outside of the blogs to follow up. These bloggers presume the role of each other’s family members, each taking a role and acting upon it in their circle. They fill the gap that lack of actual parents/families brings upon the gay community. The strategy has worked fine and effectively, so long.

Home of all LGBT Blogs

During 2005 a Link’e Honar initiated to gather best of LGBT blog links. Right after, another weblog, called Khane Honar(House of Art) launched to all links without exception, in blogfa[ii]. It moved to blogspot when it became unsafe to remain with a server within Iran and face removal.[iii]  This weblog served as reference, mentor, and touchstone for events and issues in the LGBT community from 2005 to 2008 until the original team decided to keep a neutral stance. During the course of the last two years, this weblog has recorded over 200 LGBT blog’s removed from the net by direct order of official authorities. Still, over 300 weblogs are actively writing today, more and more responding to general issues of the Iranian society, as a natural path to be involved and included in the main society with their identity as homosexuals.

Weblogs subject to removal don’t receive warnings. They only see announcements such as this on the face of the weblog: This weblog has been closed for one of these reasons: 1- Violating server’s code of rights. 2- By direct order of official authorities. 3- Posting immoral content or content contrary to law of the land. Sometimes, though, bloggers receive letters warning them to stop writing, or stop addressing certain issues. Rarely do they receive emails explaining in detail that they are under scrutiny and must stop all immoral activity on their weblogs[iv]. These emails are sent from police110, or Gerdab, or similar institution, via gmail or yahoo. Although it is known fact that emails sent through any general domain doesn’t directly com from the institution but from factions related to the institution, and that these warnings will not immediately result in interrogation or detention, still bloggers stop writing in their weblogs to prevent eventual arrest. IP is traceable via Iran’s phone company. Users of phone and internet services are tractable via phone-line, through log-storages by order of intelligent service.

Gay Poetry in Weblogs

Up until 2009 leading bloggers were poets promoting gay rights disguised in fine and magnificent poetry. Their poetry was picked up with their permission – after they stopped up-dating their weblogs- and published by Gilgamishan and distributed as E-book on Iranian Queer Library. Today the majority of leading blogs belong to those with social activism in mind. One of such blogs Pesar (Boy) that started with porn-pictures 2005 or earlier, and switched to the role of big brother of the younger bloggers, advising, commenting, analyzing, and slightly mentoring. Or Hamjensgera, who is the observer and objector of everyword spoken or published with hidden or obvious violation of LGBT rights in Iran.   In between these two type of blogs, there are those who aim at teaching matters of relationships, committed and long term relationship, and even sexual encounters to a generation that has no role model, unlike the young of the main stream who confidently follow tradition and culture-based stages of social life. Gay couples specifically stress on promoting long term and committed relationships. Of course, their whereabouts is never known until they jump over the border into Turkey to seek asylum.

While Transsexuals have been nearly as active as Gay Bloggers, Where are lesbian bloggers? In a list of over 300 weblogs of gay and TS bloggers, only 5 or 6 belongs to lesbians, (do you have any thoughts about this? Where the lesbians and TS are? Would be interesting to develop) maybe mention Maha? What are the connections to the feminist movement? and that too, is only for matters of personal importance.

I also think it would be awesome with some information on the role of Iranian LGBT activists that work outside the country (your own organisation for example).

Is it possible to end the text with some thought about the future, what do you see, hope, can happen?


[i]   The weblog dedicated to archive all blogs belonged to gays. It was deactivated shortly after it opened, apparently because they’ve received tips of tracing by government, but remained on web without update and was removed by order of official authorities on 2009 for violation of moral codes even though there were no posts besides  list of weblogs and type of content.

[ii] Iranian Server

[iii]  Non-Iranian server

[iv] Samples of these letters are kept in IRQO archive.

I wrote this piece for Sweden’s RSFL on 2011.