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Documentary Examines Iran’s ’Final Solution’ to Gay ’Problem’

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Aug 27, 2008

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed last year that there were no homosexuals in Iran, the world reacted with skepticism. A new documentary film on how the Iranian government deals with gays might shed some light on what seems like an extraordinary claim.

As reported in an Aug. 26 article posted by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian, born in Iran but now based in New York, has created a documentary titled be Like Others that explains how the Iranian government allows its gays men to do exactly that--by becoming other than the people they were born as.

The film, which screens as part of Montreal's World Film Festival, claims that Iran pays for gays to receive sex-change operations.

To the Iranian government, this may seem like a more humane way of dealing with the "problem" of gays than the clerically mandated punishment of death to men who love other men.

Eshaghian's film shows interviews with women who were gay men before submitting to gender-reassignment surgery. It was not hard to find and interview her subjects; says Eshaghian, "It's a very public phenomenon."

Continued the filmmaker, "These sex changes are legal and are endorsed by the leading clerics. It's embraced.

"I asked for a press permit before I went. After a month, I was given the OK. Officially, I was allowed to do what I needed to do."

Eshaghian noted that Iranians "don't see it as an openly political issue."

Added the filmmaker, "The rest was what you have to do with any documentary: spend a lot of time gaining trust."

Though the West may not have heard about this manner of dealing with gays in Iran before now, it turns out that the practice has decades-old roots in a declaration by Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini that "diagnosed transsexuals" would be permitted to change their gender surgically.

As with any issue regarding social and religious pressure to conform, the individuals who face sexual reassignment respond to their limited options with an array of attitudes.

For some, it means a life-changing, even life-saving avenue out of government and faith-sanctioned persecution; for others, the article says, it is the least difficult of a short list of hard choices.

The article noted that one former male, now a young woman, found that her boyfriend had lost interest once she became female.

Another found that even though her religion accepted her as a woman, her family did not: rather than embracing the daughter they now had, the family regarded their gay, gender-reassigned offspring as a dead son.

The article quoted Eshaghian as saying, "Here are individuals who are living in a very traditional culture, and they are on the margins."

Noted the filmmaker, "Those people tend to show you how everyone else thinks.

"I thought it would be a way to look at gender overall, through people who are not fitting in."

But there are other ways of fitting in; as Eshaghian noted, money could provide a cushion, making it unnecessary for wealthy gay Iranians to endure the procedure, while the options left to the poor were more hard and fast.

"If you're poor, this is when the conformity is really expected of you," Eshaghian was quoted as saying.

The film featured a startling depiction of religious zealotry in the person of an Iranian reporter who confronted a group of gay men about to undergo gender reassignment, telling them, the article said, that their fate was their own fault.

Said Eshaghian of the reporter, "She has an identity that really could only have been created in the past 30 years, since the revolution.

"There are no questions in her mind, there are no gray areas--everything is in black and white.

"I envy her clarity," the filmmaker admitted, adding, "She was very happy--any time you get rid of ambiguity altogether, there's an element of joy."

Except, of course, for individuals on the wrong end of dogma.

Even here, Eshaghian could intuit the reporter's point of view. "Her point was that there are rules and rules are there to help you.

"If you start cross-dressing before your operation, you bring the problems with the police upon yourself."

Observed the filmmaker, "Islamic Iran and the Christian Right have so much in common--it's just surprising that they're not better friends."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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