Lesbians in Iran are being asked to get sex changes or die

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Tonight on BBC World News, a documentary called Iran’s Sex Change Solution delves into the world of homosexuality in Iran where lesbian and gay people are told they must transition to be accepted in their country. Host Ali Hamedani speaks with several LGBT people who have moved to Turkey and discuss their coming out processes and how they reconciled their sexuality with their gender, and the pressures they faced from their communities, who deny the existence of homosexuality and instead offer free sex change operations, paid for by the government.

Donya is one of the lesbians featured in the special, and says she was told by a police officer she could not have her head shaved, telling her she needed to change her gender.

“I was under so much pressure that I wanted to change my gender as soon as possible,” Donya said, who sought medical help to stop her period and eventually began hormone treatment. But when surgery was recommended, she didn’t feel right about it.

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“I didn’t have easy access to the internet – lots of websites are blocked. I started to research with the help of some friends who were in Sweden and Norway,” Donya said. “I got to know myself better… I accepted that I was a lesbian and I was happy with that.”

Living as a lesbian or openly gay man is punishable by death in Iran, which is why those like Donya sought asylum in more accepting countries. Executions happen frequently, although Ali Hamedani notes exact numbers are not known.

It’s mindboggling that Iran sees transitioning as an out for lesbian and gay people. In America, where transphobia is persistent and hate crimes agains trans people happen far too often in modern society, it’s a bizarre kind of homophobia that means transpeople are not part of a “queer” community but forced to assimilate into their “straight” society. Even more interesting is the fact the government offers loans to these individuals, encouraging physical changes but not mental ones. As Ali notes in the film, “The concern is sex changes are being misused offered to people who are not transgender but who are gay or lesbian and lack information to know the difference.”

Suicide and depression rates for those who transition without actually being transgender are high, says an Iranian psychologist who would not share her identity in the film but felt it important to speak on the issue.

“I think a human rights violation is taking place,” she says. “What makes me sad is that organizations that are supposed to have a humanitarian and therapeutic purpose can take the side of the government, instead of taking care of people.”

Arsham Parsi fled to Canada and runs a sort of underground queer railroad to help Iranian exiles, and said that he once heard from a woman who was being asked to change her gender but had no idea what a “lesbian” was. He said he believes close to 45 percent of Iranians who transition aren’t actually transgender, but instead, gay or lesbian.

An Iranian lesbian at Istanbul Pride

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Iranian lesbian activist Shadi Amin now lives in Germany, and spoke with Ali about the sadness that comes with living in the closet.

“Living hidden, it means to be forced not to show your identity for the people you love. The people you love, they don’t know about you,” she said. “They don’t know how you live really. They don’t know who you love, really. That’s really sad.”

Shadi calls Iran the “Hell of homosexuals” and wants queer Iranians to be provided with more information before they decide to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

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“Until I was 30 I was going to change my gender,” Donya said. “But then I got to know myself better.” She said she met many who had undergone surgeries and unhappy with the results, and now she has several cancerous tumors that she thinks are from her hormone treatments. She hopes to receive medical treatment and eventually become a lawyer in Canada, where she’s been granted asylum.

Iran’s Sex Change Solution is an eye-opener and will hopefully spark international conversations about the country’s dangerous recommendations to lesbian and gay people. Thankfully many of those interviewed were granted asylum or are scheduled to begin the application process in the near future. Still, there are likely several others in Iran who aren’t aware of or able to find another solution and need outside help, as their government and policemen will not be acting in their best interests.

Iran’s Sex Change Solution with Ali Hamdani airs tonight at 10:10pm ET on BBC World News (available in U.S., on TV, radio and online)

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