Ali Hamedani of BBC Persian went to Turkey to meet Iranian Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) exiles who fled their home country Iran, fearing being forced to change their sex.
The story is to be aired this weekend on BBC as a documentary called Our World: Iran’s Sex Change Solution. Hamedani speaks about politics, homosexuals in Iran, fleeing a country and of the enduring human emotions of love and longing. An interview with journalist Hamedani.
Q. When did you start researching for this film?
A. I began exploring these issues in 2006. The then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad had said that Iran doesn’t have any homosexual people, so I started finding out about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) life inside Iran. For this particular film, I started researching seven months ago. We travelled to Turkey several times to meet our case studies and film them.
Q. Did you have to travel to Iran and Turkey and from which country did you travel to Turkey?
A. The Iranian government does not let us come and go to Iran (neither for personal matters nor work) and when it comes to this topic, they are even more hostile. The reason I travelled to Turkey from London was there is a big refugee community there who left Iran recently and can talk about their issues.
Q. Who did you meet in Turkey (lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders)? Also where in Turkey did you meet them?
A. I met several lesbian, gay and transgender people who are seeking for asylum in Turkey, such as Soheil who escaped there as his family were pushing him to have a sex change. I met, Donya a lesbian. They have both been granted asylum in Canada. The Turkish government does not let refugees stay in big cities but accommodate them in small “satellite cities” like Kayseri and Denizli.
The train line which goes from Tehran to Kayseri, for a life-changing journey
Q. How did they leave Iran for Turkey and did they get a Turkish visa easily?
A. With an Iranian passport, you can travel to number of countries without a Visa. The most popular one is Turkey. They usually get the train from Tehran and start their three day train journey to Turkey.
Q. What about their families in Iran? Do their families know they left for Turkey?
A. Most of them escaped from their families and homes, like Soheil. They don’t want them to know where they are going or when they leave. Some of them didn’t tell their families the truth; simply saying they were going to work or study in Turkey.
Soheil has got asylum in Canada
Q. What are they doing in Turkey? Are they working in Turkey?
A. Refugees are not allowed to work in Turkey. Most of them can’t work legally and that causes them many problems.
Q. Turkey too is an Islamic country, is it gay-friendly? Is the LGBT community safe in Turkey?
A. It is a unique country in the Moslem world when it comes to LGBT issues. Although the society is tough at least it is not “illegal” to be homosexual there. In big cities like Istanbul, they are very friendly. The biggest Gay Pride in that region happens in Istanbul every year.
Q. Could you meet them openly, in public places and speak to them?
A. Yes it was possible. But in the small city of Kayseri where we met some persons, sometimes people stopped us and were curious about these people. They are already aware of them living in Kayseri.
Q. What are their dreams and do they aspire to go back to Iran, ever?
A. They all miss their own homeland but they say they don’t want to go back. They complained about the bad life they all experienced there. They are hoping for a better, safer and brighter life in the future outside Iran.
Q. Do they know of their gay friends or associates being killed for being gay?
A. They told me about friends who were jailed, tortured or even raped. They knew friends who committed suicide.
Q. What of their future? Are they going to become Turkish citizens?
A. No. Turkey is a temporary home. They seek asylum from The UNHCR office in Turkey and wait for a few years (2-3 years) to go to a third country- usually Canada and America. For example Raha, who’s journey from Tehran to Turkey we follow in the film, has now registered as an asylum applicant and his first formal interview is due in 2016.
Our World: Iran’s Sex Change Solution broadcasts on BBC World News this weekend; Saturday November 8 at 8.40 am and 9.40 pm, and on Sunday, November 9 at 3.40 am and at 3.40 pm.
Following the Revolution of 1979, transsexuals were criminalized and lumped together with gays and lesbians. Then, in 1987, the Ayatollah Khomeini granted permission to a male to undergo sex reassignment surgeries (SRS) and to live as a woman, a fatwa which made SRS legal.
The 1987 fatwa, coupled with a fatwa from Islam's oldest university in Egypt, Al-Azhar, which also made SRS a legal and acceptable practice, has resulted in many gays from other Islamic states, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and Malaysia, travelling to sex-change surgery capitals like Iran and Thailand for these procedures and returning to their country where their home government will readily reissue legal documents that reflect the newly-acquired gender identity.