Is the exiled Iranian queer community finally getting acceptance in the Iranian diaspora?

Portrait of Matt Forouzandy. Photo used with permission.

Homosexuality is outlawed in Iran and punishable by death, making queer public life nearly impossible in the country today. The “Women, Life, Freedom” movement that started in September 2022 with the death of Kurdish–Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, and subsequent protests across Iran that continue to this day, brought up the issues of women, gender and queer rights both inside Iran and in the vast Iranian diaspora.

Yet the situation has not improved in any way for the community inside the country. But things seem to evolve slowly within the Iranian diaspora. To unpack the reasons for the first signs of change, Global Voices spoke to Matt Forouzandy, an Iran-born queer Persian-Canadian interdisciplinary artist, and curator, the co-founder and artistic director of the 3.19.27(2) Foundation, and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in Iran, who currently lives in Canada. Forouzandy's award-winning drawing at the first Tehran International Contemporary Drawing Exhibition, held at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999, marked the return of queer art in the Iranian art scene, after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

The interview took place over email and is edited for style and brevity.

Filip Noubel (FN): The Iranian opposition in exile is a vast movement made of many different groups. What is the place of the queer community in this movement, and how is it perceived by different opposition groups? 

Matt Forouzandy (MF): Iranian opposition groups have identified common dark spots in the regime of the Islamic Republic, such as human rights violations, discrimination, repression, violence, as well as economic corruption and overall inefficiency. In this context, an Iranian queer person is the embodiment of the ultimate opposition to the Islamic Republic.

The visible presence of the Iranian queer community on the front lines of the struggle in the “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising is clearly a phenomenon that had a great impact on the political sphere of Iran. What we see today is not the same as what we saw before the uprising.

At the same time, while the Iranian opposition is no longer able to ignore the queer community as it once did, the queer community is still being tokenized by some of the opposition groups, while others have a long way to go to learn more about LGBTQI+ people.

The Iranian queer community's demands are not just about individual freedom, but about social justice and pluralism. Indeed, the queer community's presence and voice not only challenge the regime's ideology, but also contribute to the diversity and creativity of the opposition. This is why Iranian opposition groups still have much to think about their approach to the queer community.

FN: What can the Iranian LGBTQ+ community bring to the opposition, and to its image, both abroad and inside Iran? 

MF: First and foremost, the discourse of social justice and pluralism. Forty-four years [since the 1979 Islamic revolution] of discrimination, injustice, and systematic violence in the Islamic Republic have turned the matter of social justice into one of the main issues of Iranian society. The issue of pluralism is also very important and complex for Iranian society: Due to the comlex ethnic diversity of the country, discussions about pluralism are mainly associated with the fear of parts of Iran considering to become independent entities. Tehran constantly  fuels this fear in society.

From the LGBTQI+ angle, it is possible to discuss pluralism in Iran without stepping into the traps of the Islamic Republic. Indeed the whole Iranian society will benefit from such discussions. Besides, the Iranian queer community is not an isolated or marginal group but rather a connected and central group with allies, networks, and influence. The queer community is not a problem or an obstacle for the opposition movement, but an opportunity and a resource for it.

FN: Can we talk about growing acceptance about LGBTQ+ individuals within the Iranian diaspora? Are there any role models, and if so, who are they? 

MF: The Iranian diaspora community, at least in accepting the queer community, is far behind Iranian society inside the country. It is important to understand that Tehran has had significant influence on the social and cultural institutions of Iranians in the diaspora in the last two decades.  One could argue that, in fact, the Islamic regime played a role in the establishment and control of certain diaspora institutions.

In this regard, isolating the queer community inside the Iranian diaspora community and spreading homophobia among Iranians has always been on the agenda of Tehran agents. The homophobic approach of these institutions was very evident during the “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising in Toronto, Canada, for example. 

First, they tried to remove the symbols of the queer community from the Iranian demonstrations and gatherings. Then on October 1, 2022, in a ridiculous move, the organizers of the Iranian protests in Toronto asked the Canadian police to remove a queer person who was holding an LGBTQI+ flag from the demonstration. because they message did not match the message of the demonstration. The video of this incident went viral the same day.

Our source of hope is that the Iranian queer community stood up against this kind of pressure. We were able to take great steps to promote the rights of the community during the uprising. We are also aware of the fact that we still have a long and difficult road ahead of us, and we must re-organize ourselves for future steps.

FN: Is it even possible to talk about LGBTQ+ life or community in today’s Iran? Is it entirely underground? 

MF: As you said, the underground nature of the queer community in Iran makes it difficult to speak about it accurately. The signs we see in Iranian society indicate a unique phenomenon. In spite of four decades of systematically spreading hatred by the Islamic regime against queer people, Iranian society's awareness of LGBTQI+ has increased. In the “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising, we witnessed the visible presence of the queer community in Iran, knowing what dangers this presence entails for them. We saw photos and videos of people from the queer community who brought their handmade LGBTQI+ flags to the streets of Iran. Lesbian couples and gay couples kissing each other in front of Iranian landmarks. Activists’ report from inside Adel Abad prison in Shiraz also reported that queer prisoners do not hide their identity from other prisoners anymore.

It all tells of the beginning of a cultural renaissance in the heart of the Middle East. A cultural renaissance that sooner or later will destroy the republic of the mullahs in Tehran. 

For more on Iran's queer community, read: A gay Iranian photographer's journey of survival 


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