Listen: Hossein Alizadeh Discusses LGBT Rights in Iran on BBC Newshour

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As the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to impose severe penalties (including capital punishment) for consensual same-sex relations, the international community has become more vocal in its opposition to human rights violations in Iran. During the second Universal Periodic Review of Iran by the United Nations Human Rights Council on October 31, 2014, at least ten countries—including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Spain, Iceland, Denmark, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg—made recommendations to the Iranian government regarding decriminalization of homosexuality and respect for the rights of LGBT people in that country.

On Sunday, Hossein Alizadeh, Regional Program Coordinator for Middle East and North Africa was on BBC Newshour to discuss these rights violations, particularly common social misconceptions about sexual orientation and gender identity and how some individuals report being coerced by the society—including their immediate family members—to undergo sex reassignment surgery to 'normalize' their sexuality and to avoid criminalization.


BBC: Let’s talk more about those harrowing accounts with Hossein Alizadeh from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in our studio in New York. Hossein thank you for being with us on Newshour. Tell us more what you know of the situation for gay and lesbian people living in Iran.

Alizadeh: Basically in Iran, homosexuality is an act punishable by death for two men and by severe punishment such as flogging for women. When it comes to sex reassignment surgery, the Iranian government has a different approach. They allow this to happen, but in a country where talking about gender identity and sexual orientation is not allowed, people are quite confused about whether they are gay, lesbian, or transgender. There is a great deal of confusion within the individuals themselves who want to figure out their own sexual identity and then there is a great deal of pressure from the society because they feel that if sex reassignment surgery is allowed, that is the way to go.

BBC: It sounds like the system in Iran is adding to that confusion that individuals feel.

Alizadeh: Absolutely. The Iranian government has a medicalized approach to transexuality. They understand and recognize sex reassignment surgery, but even if you are transgender but do not wish to go through sex reassignment surgery, you really don’t have any other option. The government says either you have to go through sex reassignment surgery for you to be recognized as a person with a new gender identity or else your existence is illegal and therefore punishable.

BBC: How do the authorities know that someone is having a same-sex relationship or is of that orientation? Is it reliant on people reporting their neighbors? Those kinds of things?

Alizadeh: Well, that’s the catch. There are a great deal of homophobic messages that are being spread on a daily basis from the government-run media, the state officials, the person of the supreme leader, down to the speaker of the parliament almost on a weekly basis attacking homosexuality. People really have a lot of misinformation about sexual orientation and gender identity. They think that that is a sort of sexual perversion or lewd behavior. If you notice that a member of your family is acting differently, in order to protect your honor, people punish the person within the family or report them to the authorities. There is a great deal of blackmailing going on within the society. If the neighbors find out that so and so is gay or the colleagues find out so and so is lesbian or transgender then they start blackmailing the person.

BBC: It’s interesting to hear this is going on in the background. The official position as I understand it is that there are no gay people in Iran. Let’s have a listen to former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking at Colombia University in New York in 2007.

Ahmadinejad [audio clip]: In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.

BBC: Do you think that’s still the position of the Iranian authorities?

Alizadeh: Absolutely. Last year the head of the Iran Human Rights Body who is the brother of the head of Iran’s judiciary Mohammad Javad Larijani had a speech in Geneva in which he publicly said that the right to life is not applicable to homosexuals. On Friday, he had a speech in Geneva again, during the universal periodic review (UPR) of Iran, where he basically said that homosexuality is a lifestyle that is imposed by the West on Iranians and the Iranian government does not recognize that.

BBC: That’s what we are seeing with the people we just heard from moving to Turkey. By the way, what’s the situation there?

Alizadeh: When you move to Turkey as a refugee basically you find yourself in a very vulnerable situation because you are away from family obviously you are disowned by the family, but also in Turkey there is a great deal of homophobia and transphobia, especially in smaller communities. Even though it’s not illegal to be gay or transgender, there is a lot of social stigma attached to it. Those individuals have to wait for years in order for their cases to be approved by the UNHCR.