Biden must stand up for LGBTQ Iranians

“I was arrested four times by the moral police because of being trans and because of my appearance. They also flogged me.”— A respondent to a 2020 survey by the Iranian Lesbian and Transgender Network (6Rang)

Each June, LGBTQ Americans celebrate Pride month, notwithstanding the continuing challenges they face due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Unfortunately, for their counterparts in Iran, Pride month—and every month—is Fear Month, a month of hiding who they are and whom they love in order to avoid arrest, imprisonment, flogging, and even execution. 

The Iranian regime began persecuting LGBT citizens immediately after coming to power in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran’s first “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, justified executing homosexuals as necessary to “eliminate corruption,” likening them to gangrene and claiming the condemned would otherwise “contaminate others and spread.” 

The regime has entrenched homophobia and transphobia in Iran’s legal system. The country’s Islamic penal code forbids consensual sex between two persons of the same sex. The law reflects pernicious gender stereotypes, punishing penetrative intercourse between two men with death for the “passive” party and 100 lashes for the “active” one—unless the latter is married, used coercion, or is not a Muslim, in which case he is also executed. The government gives 100 lashes to women who have sex with women, and executes them upon a fourth conviction for that “crime.”

According to the State Department, the security forces arrest individuals they suspect of being LGBT, force them to undergo “sodomy” checks while in custody, and put them on trial before kangaroo courts that don’t follow basic evidentiary standards. 

These aren’t rare cases. In the aforementioned 6Rang survey, almost 20 percent of participants claimed to have been victims of violence by police officers, security forces, prosecutors, and/or judges. Such violence could be inflicted merely for “different gender expression, breaching binary dress-code norms, insufficient hijab (Islamic veil) or participating in house parties.”

A government policy also outs gay Iranians and thereby endangers their lives. The regime treats homosexuality as a mental illness and consequently exempts gays from military service. Military exemption cards list the legal provision that excuses them from service, and thereby expose Iranians to violence from anyone who sees their cards. Ali Fazeli “Alireza” Monfared, for example, was murdered by family members after his half-brother opened a letter containing Alireza’s military exemption card.

The regime does permit and subsidizes what would normally be called gender-confirmation surgery, but this theoretically progressive policy is often malevolent in practice. Because Tehran criminalizes sex between two men or two women, the government and mental-health professionals and families pressure gay and lesbian cisgender Iranians to undergo unwanted surgery in order to be able to enter into same-sex relationships without fear of arrest and punishment. 

To add insult to injury, the authorities oppress trans Iranians regardless. One such episode demonstrates the regime’s evil in practice. “I complained to the police many times because of being assaulted on the streets and on the metro,” a participant in the 6Rang study said, “but because I had an earring, they asked me, ‘Why are you like this?,’ meaning feminine. I told them I am transgender. Then, they [the police] wanted to have sex with me and abuse me. When I didn’t accept that, they detained me for many days. After that they sent me to the court and the legal doctor. They kept threatening me that if they find out I have had sex with a man, they will hang me. After two weeks they finally released me, but all this time they had not even informed my family about me.”

On Pride month and every month, the United States must help LGBT Iranians. In his message proclaiming Pride month, President Biden said: “My administration is also working to promote and protect LGBTQ+ human rights abroad. LGBTQ+ rights are human rights, which is why my administration has reaffirmed America’s commitment to supporting those on the front lines of the equality and democracy movements around the world, often at great risk.”

The president must come through on his eloquent promise. He can start by sanctioning Iranian officials responsible for violating the human rights of LGBT people. He can use his renewal of our international alliances to encourage friendly and partner countries to likewise issue such sanctions. And he can prioritize human rights—including LGBT rights—in his administration’s ongoing diplomatic engagement with Iran. 

LGBT Iranians won’t be safe until their government is held accountable for abusing them. The U.S. cannot do so unilaterally, but we can and must lead the way.