Published on July 18th, 2012 | by Wild Gender
Gelare Khoshgozaran: Regarding Our Pain and Others’
Telegram to my father:
I can kiss and not feel pain
every time that I do.
–Sepehr Masakeni, Iranian Gay Asylee in Germany
One of the most famous Youtube videos of all time, with any connection to two things: Iran and LGBT people, is a notorious video excerpt from our president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University in September 2007. Those historical (and hysterical) 49 seconds of his response to an audience member inquiring about the execution of homosexuals in Iran, and Ahmadinejad’s seemingly naive answer have indeed done a great help to the LGBT Iranians seeking asylum in other countries:
“In Iran we don’t have any 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!” (i)
As funny as it might sound, in the statement above, Ahmadinejad is making a completely sane statement. His Persian word choice for homosexual is “Hamdjens-baz” (a commonly mistaken word for Hamdjens-gara, one whose sexual orientation is towards the same sex) meaning a rather promiscuous person who, regardless of sexual orientation, tends to have sex with the same gender to please her/himself. The suffix, “-baz” meaning “-player” indicates a hobby developed by the person referred to. Therefore “Hamdjens-baz” is the one who enjoys sleeping with the same sex just for the sake of pleasing one’s self as opposed to, for instance the law of Islam allowing sex only after marriage to provide for the individual completion, calm and procreation, therefore it is indicative of deviation, immorality, promiscuity and perverseness.
At the moment of translation however, given the limits of time and the spontaneity of the speech, his interpreter chooses the word “homosexual” and moves on. The crowd has, by now, already got the message, as it is reacting with laughter and booing. His speech being broadcast live, soon became available online. It was already all over the news and other media, everyone was reading, hearing, laughing or making some sort of commentary about it. The world now thought that Ahmadinejad has denied the existence of homosexualsin Iran without in fact knowing the word he had used to address this phenomenon. In other words, most people are still clueless as to whose existence exactly Ahmadinejad has denied.
While there is no such phenomenon as homosexuality in Iran “like here in the States,” the act of sex with a person of the same sex is what is recognized, prohibited and punished as “sodomy” in Iran. According to the law, women are punished with 100 lashes for having sex with another woman for the first two times, and they can face the death penalty if convicted a third time. You can be homosexual and you can live in Iran. What you cannot do is live as “homosexual,” the one whose existence was denied by Ahmadinejad literally, rhetorically and phenomenologically.
“No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”(ii)
The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees In Germany* refused a 24-year-old Iranian lesbian asylum in June 2012 because according to the court “she was unable to make the danger she would face in Iran believable.” The court also suggested that she return to Iran and live a “reserved lifestyle like other Iranian homosexuals.” (iii) This verdict is in some ways very similar to Ahmadinejad’s statement as long as it concerns the mere biological life of the individual. By suggesting that the Iranian lesbian can return to Iran and live a “reserved” or “cautious” life—even though, now that her name has been all over the media, she is in bigger danger of persecution upon return to Iran—in fact, the German court is championing the closet as a shelter for one to save her/his life in order to keep breathing, eating, sleeping and living as a person.
Let us assume that there is a consensus as to the meanings of the words “cautious” or “reserved,” but what about “life”? Is “living” merely the state of not being dead? Who determines what is or is not “dangerous”? Is “safety” equal to being able to protect one’s physical body from an assigned death, execution? And is this privilege that is perfectly brought to one by the good old closet an alternative to death? Ultimately how different are the foundations of such thinking from Ahmadinejad’s statement: “We don’t have homosexuals in Iran like in your country.” The court has proved unable to believe the danger that the Iranian lesbian would face living in Iran. Or in their words, she has proved “unable to make the danger she would face in Iran believable.” Now is it a question of the court’s inability to believe or the lesbian’s inability to make the court believe the danger? What are the parameters of a globally understandable notion of danger? Can we think of a unique “ability” to make the other believe the danger that is threatening one’s life when the two are living two inherently different lives and not one?
The self-entitlement of the German court to determine what is and is not a “livable” situation for a human being exemplifies the problematic nature of “Human Rights” and its concerns of “abstract life”, meaning “deprived life”, “private life” as Rancière refers to it, reading through Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. “The confusion of two freedoms: political freedom, opposed to domination, and social freedom, opposed to necessity.” (iv) Their view—a curious possessive adjective, speaking of “Who is the subject of the rights of man?”—towards the priority of life, as opposed to the quality of living as an individual without being discriminated against, living with the constant fear of execution, harassment by the society and law, lack of education for the people to familiarize themselves about homosexuality, the mandatory gender reassignment surgery (GRS) as cure, amongst many other conditions that make homosexual life not livable in Iran is one of absolute hegemony and supremacy. It seems like “Human Rights for the German lesbians” are one thing, and they are another thing for the Iranian ones. According to the blatant hierarchy of “rights” here, it could be concluded that a “human” of a different rank, the privileged one is determining the rights and wrongs for the “deprived”, the one with no desires but needs.
Meanwhile desire is precisely what oppressive regimes such as the Islamic Republic tend to control in order to police individuals. Sex is infinitely whispered about, kept at the level of a completely private act—just as the German court has advocated for the Iranian Lesbian Asylum Seeker—one that belongs only to the confined space from the ceiling to the floor of your bedroom or your closet. As individuals we learned how to completely ignore fantasy, the only escape from this incarceration of the essentially social phenomenon of sex. “Women’s dreams turn out the exact opposite” goes an old saying in Farsi.
The question is what is the relationship between the Human Rights to the decades long reserved, rather “survived” lives of individuals? Wrong forced heterosexual marriages, wrong mothers and fathers of the wrong kids, gay teenagers with no community to support them, living a lifetime of negotiating between a forced-voluntary death, suicide and a forced-assigned death, execution. It is true you can be a homosexual and even come out in Iran, in which case the government will facilitate your GRS to fix you. Now what is the relationship between the Rights and the bodies of those humans being operated on, scarred by semi-voluntary, but in fact forced surgery to get their sexual orientation, rather “disorientation” fixed? How is that for a homosexual’s life, if not a homosexual life in Iran? Living with a constant self-hatred for being the wrong of nature, the confused one, the one who is eternally ashamed for being the deviant one, the pervert, the incapable one, the one in need of getting fixed psychologically, morally and physiologically in order to escape execution?
“To the militant, identity is everything. And all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.” (v)
Iranian LGBT rights are among the world’s most favorite Human Rights topics these days. U.S. and European officials show supports for them, movies are being sponsored, celebrated and made about them. In other words their pain is being showcased. “All they need to do is to appear in front of your camera to talk about their problems. When the film ends, you will go your separate ways and solidarity gives way to the exploitative uses in the political and social market [of this subject]” writers Sepehr Masakeni, Iranian gay asylee in Germany in a small note on his Facebook page (vi) “I find myself wondering if everyone from the right to the leftists outside of Iran are engaged in some sort of activism in this area, why are the lives of the gay and trans immigrants and refugees getting harder each day? Why are they getting lonelier, more isolated and marginalized every day?” While Iranian trans and homosexuals are becoming sick of the number of cameras and microphones of filmmakers being turned towards them, journalists interviewing them, scholars traveling to Iran or remotely doing research on them—often without even bothering to make their research and scholarship translated and available to them—Iranian LGBTs are a favorite subject of the warmongers in favor of foreign intervention ironically enough in the name of “human rights,” which as Rancière notes becomes the “right to invasion.”
In the discourse of “Humanitarian” Intervention—a discourse, in which the only true questions absent are those of “life”, “human” and “rights”—Iranian LGBTs are depicted as the victims of the regime’s brutality and its major violations of human rights in Iran. When they intend to project the brutal, illegitimate and un-trustable disposition of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it becomes a matter of the conditions under which Iranian homosexuals are living. But when it comes to the lives of the individuals and their right to make decisions for themselves—as in the German court’s case—it gets narrowed down to the mere biological survival of the same group, Iranian LGBT people. The very same topic, the phenomenon of contemporary Iranian LGBTs—human beings with bodies, lives and desires—is instrumentalized with all its neo-orientalist potentials to delegitimize the current regime of Iran from developing nuclear energy. While the U.S. and European sanctions are making the lives of those individuals, amongst the other Iranians living in or outside of Iran much harder in numerous ways, the lives of the very same people are being showcased for the world to learn how the Islamic Republic makes its own people suffer. In other words from the pictures, stories and documentaries being distributed widely around the world, to Ahmadinejad’s speech, these images, sounds and messages are telegrams sent out to the world to only convey one thing: see how the regime makes minorities suffer!
Below is a screen capture of an advertisement I came across just recently on the Internet. An example of how the violations of the regime against LGBT people in Iran is abused by the foreign media to justify “humanitarian intervention” demonizing the government as one that cannot be trusted with nuclear power. The message is very clear in the juxtaposition of the ad appearing next to the article about “Cul-de-sac,” an Iranian film about “a lesbian who has left Iran to avoid getting arrested, tries to start a new life in the UK, and [ironically enough] her application is turned down by the Home office. She has nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.” (vii)
The message is clear: Look, a government so brutal and unfair towards its own people, torturing and executing them, making their lives miserable, setting them off stranded in exile because of their sexual orientation needs to be stopped from developing nuclear power for the sake of humanity! If this is what they are doing to their own people, imagine what they would do to their enemies once that they will have the power; therefore, “help Israel, one small democracy surrounded by hostile enemies.” reads the ad by Google.
On the one hand Sanctions and their major damages on the education and culture, hand in hand with the state oppressions are making it almost impossible to fight homophobia through education and activism in Iran. On the other hand, the threat of war is putting the mere lives of the homosexuals in Iran in literal danger. The Catch-22 of the Human Rights, (also known as the rights to invasion) in relation to the homosexuals in Iran could be imagined as: Execution of Homosexuals>;Human Rights Violation>;Illegitimacy of Regime>;Nuclear Development Ban>;Sanctions/War>;Homophobia>;Execution of Homosexuals
ii Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Picador, 2003
iv Rancière, Jacques. Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man? The South Atlantic Quarterly, Volume 103, No. 2/3, Spring/Summer 2004, pp. 297-310
v Sontag, Susan. Ibid!
*Note, Khoshgozaran elaborates on reasons for Iranian asylum as sought through Germany specifically: A community of Iranian refugees including political activists, homosexuals and other social minorities has formed in Europe, especially Germany since the revolution in 1979. However there are a number of reasons why Iranians still choose to seek asylum in Europe and Canada as opposed to the U.S. Among the technical reasons, the most important one is that since the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979, and consequently the Iranian Embassy in the U.S. in order to seek a U.S. visa, Iranian citizens have to travel to a neighboring country with a U.S. consulate. It requires scheduling an appointment in advance and the costs of an additional travel. Once approved a U.S. visa Iranians also have to go through an “administrative process” or wait for their “clearance”. In addition to all of that, it is rare to be approved a U.S. visa with the purpose of “visiting”. Therefore, unless admitted to a higher education institution and applying for Student Visa it is almost impossible to get a U.S. visa as a single young Iranian. This among the other reasons, makes the whole process much easier for asylum cases as sought through Europe.