New research by the UK-based non-profit Small Media has found that Iran's gay community -- a group that operates largely underground because homosexual activity is punishable by death in the Islamic Republic -- relies heavily on online activity.
The “LGBT Republic of Iran: An Online reality?” study drew from online interactions with users in Iran to reveal a highly-active virtual network.
Researchers tracked initiatives like Ketabkhaneh88, an online gay book fair launched from abroad by a pair of Iranian gay rights activists and poets who also started a Toronto publishing firm to print Iranian books on the topic.
Their Ketabkhaneh88 website, which launched in 2009, was targeted by the Iranian authorities and shut down the following year. It has since relaunched, according to Small Media.
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Small Media operations director Dr. Bronwen Robertson told GlobalVoices today, "[l]ogistically, it's impossible to do research about LGBT issues on the ground in Iran because it's such a taboo subject and there are so many risks involved."
Iranian president Mahmud Ahmedinejad has famously denied gay activity in his country, telling a Columbia University audience in New York, "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country."
Robertson told GlobalVoices that conducting the research was challenging even on the linguistic level. "For example, ‘hamjensbaz' (homo) is a derogatory term and ‘hamjensgara' (homosexual) is politically correct," he said. "But due to the fact that sexuality is such a taboo subject, many gay and lesbian Iranians refer to themselves as ‘hamjensbaz', because this is all they hear in the public sphere," he said, adding, "a lot of the homophobia we came across online (and there was a lot of it) was due to misinformation and a lack of awareness rather than hatred."
It was not immediately what wide-ranging conclusions could be drawn from the 100-plus page report. With research conducted chiefly through a Facebook page that researchers used to build up relationships of trust with self-described members of the Iranian gay community, findings were mainly drawn from 34 extensive case studies. The report also found less online activity among lesbians than gay men.
Iran's moralizing Islamic government is quick to crack down on homosexual activity, and has executed a number of people for sodomy -- four men charged with the offense were reportedly hung last month.
Violence and discrimination against the country's homosexual community is both widespread and commonplace, according to Human Rights Watch's 2010 "We are a buried generation" report, which was based on testimony from over 100 Iranians.
The Guardian cited one self-identified gay man from the northwestern Iranian city of Qazvin as telling Small Media researchers: "It's very hard to live as a homosexual in this country. Is it me or is it the culture, society, history or all of them? Loneliness is killing me."
The Guardian also noted that "one of the contradictions surrounding LGBT life in Iran, is that homosexuals are granted military exemption on the basis that they are mentally ill which will prevent them from doing official work." Parents have also forced children who have come out as gay to have sex changes, according to The Guardian.
Also surprising is the fact that it is legal to be transgendered in Iran, and the government even subsidizes some surgeries. One senior cleric told BBC that such an operation is no different than "changing wheat to flour to bread."