The Iranian LGBTQ+ community has long been kept invisible by mainstream overseas Iranian opposition, but a US LGBTQ+ award to exiled Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi seems to signify changes in attitudes and is bringing hope to Iran's queer community.
Crown Prince Pahlavi was born in Iran and remained in the US, where he was trained as an air pilot after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He is the founder and leader of the US-based National Council of Iran, one of many exiled Iranian opposition groups, and a vocal critic of Iran's Islamic Republic government.
On November 11, leaders of the national Log Cabin Republicans presented him with the 2023 Outspoken Award at the Spirit of Lincoln gala. This award recognizes his lifelong dedication to the pursuit of a free and democratic Iran. The Republican organization represents LGBTQ+ conservatives and their allies in the US.
Pahlavi celebrated his award on X (formerly Twitter):
I was honored to receive @LogCabinGOP’s Outspoken Award. Just as I defend the rights of every Iranian, I am proud to stand up for the rights of the Iranian LGBTQ community.
However it is my brave compatriots inside Iran who truly deserve this honor because they are not only… pic.twitter.com/W7yBA54yor
— Reza Pahlavi (@PahlaviReza) November 12, 2023
Homosexuality is outlawed in Iran and punishable by death, making it virtually impossible for queer people to be open about their gender or sexual identities 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 raised the issues of women, gender, and queer rights both inside Iran and in the vast Iranian diaspora.
To understand the implications of Pahlavi's award and statements, Global Voices spoke to Matt Forouzandy, an Iranian-Canadian queer activist and interdisciplinary artist, who is one of the voices of Iran's exiled LGBTQ+ community. The interview took place by email and has been edited for style and brevity.
Filip Noubel (FN): What is the significance of Crown Prince of Iran Reza Pahlavi being awarded the 2023 Outspoken Award?
Matt Forouzandy (MF): On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage. The peak of the efforts of American LGBTQ+ rights activists to achieve the right to form and enjoy a family coincided with the end of the first term of Barack Obama's presidency.
Obama tried his best to prevent the LGBTQ+ community from getting this right because he believed that the legal repeal of this ban would have a negative effect on his second-term election results. Unfortunately, politicians only support the LGBTQ+ community when they benefit from it, which is a very common global phenomenon. Among the left and right, Americans and Iranians.
In the midst of instrumentalisation of LGBTQ+ issues, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi's compassionate and sincere support for the Iranian LGBTQ+ community is rare and unique. He has consistently used his vast social popularity in Iranian society to improve the dire situation of Iran's LGBTQ+ community.
The widespread dimensions of homophobia and transphobia in today's Iranian society are not hidden from anyone. Acknowledging this situation, these were Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi's words to his hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. ‘In a situation where the laws in Iran, instead of protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, justify the harassment and punishment of them, my fellow compatriots, especially those who trust and [have a] fondness [for] me, I want you to protect and support them in society.’
Undoubtedly, the Crown Prince's support is very valuable and vital for the Iranian LGBTQ+ community and has a positive effect on our fight against homophobia and transphobia in Iran.
On X, the recently formed global Iranian LGBTQ+ organization Simorg, whose president is Forouzandy, saluted the award in those terms:
“In a situation where the laws in Iran, instead of protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, justify the harassment and punishment of them, my fellow compatriots, especially those who trust and fondness me, I want you to protect and support them… pic.twitter.com/9pj9BJfUlQ
— Queer Liberation Committee (@30morg_org) November 11, 2023
FN: The exiled Iranian opposition represents a large continuum from the royal family to leftist groups. Can you unpack the role and perception of the royal family today?
MF: The Crown Prince cannot be assumed to be on one side of the opposition spectrum; he has been able to play a non-partisan role in Iran's diverse political spectrum.
Although the communist left of Iran, once an ally of the Ayatollahs in the 1979 revolution and the early years of the Islamic regime, is still trying to create an imitation-type leader for the Iranian opposition, the social democratic left of Iran supports the leadership of the Crown Prince in the process of overthrowing the Islamic Republic.
After four decades of trial-and-error, Iranian society recognized the importance of leadership in the process of overthrowing the regime. They understood that the structure of Iran's future governance after the collapse of the current regime must be determined by the people of Iran through a free and democratic election.
Due to the need for nonpartisan leadership in the regime overthrow process and the fact that Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi has played this role well, his role has become more crucial for Iranian society than ever.
FN: There are often mentions of queer love in classical Persian poetry and art. Does that historical heritage help affirm Iranian queer identities today?
MF: Typically, in classical Persian poetry, a male poet writes a poem describing his same-sex love. In Indian subcontinent literature, it if often a woman who writes about her male lover, and in Western literature, it is common for a man to write about his female lover.
However, due to the stringent censorship of books in the Islamic Republic and the regime's homophobic campaigns, I don't see the influence of classical Persian literature from this perspective in today's Iran.
Let's not forget that the specialized book ‘Shahedbazi (sodomy) in Persian literature,’ written by Dr. Sirous Shamisa, was published in Iran in 2002 and was immediately banned, and the regime dealt harshly with the author and publisher of this book.
FN: Is there cross-movement solidarity for exile queer communities among people coming from the Middle East?
MF: Personally, as an Iranian LGBTQ+ rights activist, I have always tried to work closely with Arab, Turkish, and Israeli LGBTQ+ activists, and I have been successful in this direction. We’re among other Middle Eastern activists who are part of the advisory board of academic projects that are focused on the LGBTQ+ community and also give consulting to international organizations about gender equality issues.
But unfortunately, this is not a general practice, and the majority of Iranian LGBTQ+ groups do not give due importance to such cooperation.