Changing Discourse Toward Understanding, Inclusion and Rights for LGBT Iranians

Iranian LGBT activist Arsham Parsi said he knew from the get go that Tavaana “would be an asset for the Iranian queer community and our human rights cause because Tavaana did not ignore us. Instead [Tavaana fought] with us toward equality, dignity and acceptance.” That fight is certainly ongoing: Iran remains a country in which homosexuality is punishable by flogging or death, where fatwas fan homophobic violence and discrimination.

Parsi and others in the Iranian LGBT community watched Tavaana elevating their concerns as part of the “traditional” spectrum of human rights issues upon the project’s 2010 launch. Tavaana’s interview with Parsi himself was among the first posted to our website, alongside other exclusive interviews with internationally respected human rights defenders like Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer and global luminaries of freedom like Vaclav Havel. We featured a case study early on about the American gay rights movement and its leader Harvey Milk, seeing it gain surprising traction and discussion, and later published another exclusive case study on the It Gets Better Project in order to bring hope to adolescent LGBT Iranians whose lives are too often depressed and fearful, even at home. The Tavaana online library features a section devoted to LGBT rights resources, sandwiched as a matter of equal importance between labor rights and ethnic and religious minority rights and covering vital topics from the science of sexual orientation to lesson plans on understanding homophobia and sexual minorities’ rights.

Beginning in 2013, Tavaana began posting these resources on its burgeoning social media networks alongside updates on global LGBT rights developments. Responses to early forays into this politically censored and socially taboo topic were strong: some called homosexuality an “illness, not a part of being modern” and recycled hostile rhetoric about morality and children needing a mother and a father in order to develop normally.  Hateful, defamatory speech predominated on Tavaana’s early social media posts on LGBT rights.  Nevertheless, Tavaana continued by posting short reports on Western countries’ expansion of LGBT rights while providing contrasting reports from Iran and the region about the violation of LGBT rights. 

When we shared the story of the suicide of a young, gay man in Azerbaijan in 2014, something of a ‘tipping point’ transpired as the story broke through to people’s hearts, arousing a catharsis of sympathy rather than the thereto prevailing silence, shame or hate.

Later in 2014, Tavaana took the provocative step of featuring a live webinar with esteemed religious scholar Arash Naraghi on how homosexuality and LGBT rights are compatible with Islam.  The live offering was well-attended, and the podcast from the lecture proved extremely popular, especially among the circles which routinely await Naraghi’s lectures: the religious community of Qom and the scholarly philosophical and legal communities.  These niche groups rarely discuss LGBT rights, and are unaccustomed to having a trusted “insider” broach the subject with analytical rigor.  Naraghi framed hatred toward the LGBT in a context of ethics while also arguing that the Koran does not sanction such inequality and human degradation.  The lecture featured many of the arguments of Western LGBT rights movements but couched these in terminology and approaches digestible by a target audience of intellectuals who could be mobilized as leading opinion makers.

Civic discourse on Tavaana’s social media platforms began showing the effects of our strategy to mainstream LGBT needs and rights.  While incendiary rhetoric continued, hateful comments began to be countered with admonishments from the Tavaana community about the universality of rights, the need to be respectful, understanding and compassionate to all fellow Iranians and the importance of tolerance if Iranians want to achieve true democracy and an open society. In time, these comments of admonition began earning many “likes” and shutting down the voices of those intent on spreading hatred and fear.  In less than one year, Tavaana saw a gradual and yet profound change of discourse on its social media platforms: a decline in hateful comments even as we pushed forward harder.

As Tavaana mainstreamed LGBT issues, the topic was beginning to be discussed more openly on Iranian virtual spaces in general, and the activities of budding Iranian LGBT rights groups came to be seen more publically, with greater pride.  Then, a watershed moment: the singularly exalted pop singer Googoosh suddenly released a previously unannounced song/video about a lesbian romance, in which the love of two women was openly celebrated. Tavaana scooped the video immediately and facilitated expansive discussion around it, gaining over 500 comments, 3,947 post likes and 1,174 shares.  The taboo subject matter – shown visually in an attractive, tender light – brought an outpouring of love in a way unthinkable even just a year or two earlier.

On a collaborative level, in 2014 Tavaana felt the need to expand its relationships with groups and communities of LGBT Iranians across the globe, especially those who had recently left Iran and gained political asylum, with an express intent to reach out to lesbian Iranians who live under double discrimination for their gender and their sexuality.  Sensing painful divisions within the LGBT community and seeking to avoid partnerships seen to be limited, partisan or exclusionary, Tavaana was able to forge a fruitful collaboration with another Iranian LGBT rights organization led by lesbian Saghi Ghahraman.  Ghahraman and her colleagues provided Tavaana with several recorded lectures on the challenges LGBT Iranians face, and she joined Tavaana’s teacher summit in 2014, helping other Tavaana faculty understand and appreciate the importance of sex, sexuality and sexual minorities in the context of the larger issues of human rights, health and well-being.

As part of the strategy to bring the LGBT rights issue into the fold of all discussions about rights and democracy, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the institute, Tavaana organized a panel discussion at George Washington University featuring Arsham Parsi speaking about LGBT rights alongside feminist and human rights defender Mehrangiz Kar, international best-selling author Azar Nafisi, and political analyst Mehdi Khalaji.  Mr. Parsi’s moving speech on this occasion was heartily received and later aired on satellite TV and Tavaana social networks.

By early 2015, a more comprehensive, substantive step proved possible and necessary. Tavaana offered an e-course on “LGBT Rights Advocacy” – advertised publicly just as other Tavaana live e-courses – to be taught by Arsham Parsi alongside others on health and human rights and the democratic politics of inclusion. The offering was itself an affirming statement of inclusion of LGBT Iranians and their rights as human rights. The course would impart practical skills and also provide a safe space for sharing, collaboration and solidarity among LGBT Iranians and their allies. Despite dedication to these goals, Tavaana launched the new e-course with trepidation about its reception: Would five years of developing social capital and trust be enough to navigate such a sensitive topic in a classic e-course format? Would we recruit the right students? Would the students find enough comfort and ease to broach all intended subjects? Would Parsi be able to transcend the “activist” hat and wear the “teacher” hat?  Would there be tangible learning outcomes?

To our surprise, the e-course proved to be one of Tavaana’s all-time most effective.  It met with a stunningly positive response and created marked change on both the individual and the community level. The participants, some LGBT Iranians and others allies, civic leaders and human rights defenders, came to class with great discipline, listened intently to each other, and engaged in robust, deeply respectful discussion with each other, both in the classroom and on the class’ asynchronous discussion forum. They learned much-needed, hard to access skills and information on helping others without endangering themselves; responding to crisis situations and homophobic individuals; navigating the coming out process for themselves and others; and the challenges of STDs and the opaque asylum process. The course integrated global best practices and insights from emerging Iranian LGBT movements while considering the possibilities for advocacy in such a difficult context. Such Persian-language information and expression, largely unavailable elsewhere, shattered the isolation of LGBT Iranians and allowed them to engage with pressing questions, perhaps most importantly of how to create a healthy, strong community despite the many perils they face. Through the class discussion forum, students gained still-thriving connections with each other and the global LGBT movement.

One student’s simple, moving realization from the course resonated with others: “I am neither sick nor a criminal. I am simply a citizen who wants to be able to live the way I want to live.” Another student wrote that though she lacked a history of activism before the e-course, now “I am intent on fighting for my community and my rights.” Following the e-course’s end, Tavaana capitalized on this positive response by further mainstreaming LGBT issues within other human rights discourses, such as by including LGBT perspectives in exclusive Tavaana resources on domestic and gender-based violence, seeking asylum in Turkey, and the cultural representation of LGBT people in a course on “Minorities and the Politics of Culture.”

The tenor of Tavaana’s social media discussions about LGBT rights meanwhile was progressing quickly, perhaps more than on any other human rights issue.  Tavaana was posting about LGBT concerns at least once each week on one or more of its platforms, reaching many millions of Iranians.  A gay pride parade in Istanbul, celebrations of the US Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, anonymous declarations of LGBT pride (and pain) from Iranians were highlight posts on Tavaana social media.  On a regular basis, through Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Instagram, Google+ and email, Tavaana was receiving private messages of effusive gratitude from LGBT Iranians, their lovers, families and friends.  One Tavaana Instagram post sharing the personal narrative of a transsexual Iranian woman was widely shared and earned public thanks from a large Instagram group devoted to transsexual Iranians.

By early 2015, Tavaana posted a video showing lesbians gathering in civic protest in front of a Viennese coffee shop that had discriminated against two kissing women.  The women gathered in a kissing fest, using their lips and bodies as their agents of protest.  The post was liked over two thousand times and shared 163 times.  It was a harbinger of things to come for the LGBT on Tavaana social media. A post about a blind, lesbian asylum seeker in Turkey gained nearly five thousand likes and over three hundred shares.  A picture of two Iranian men’s traditional Persian wedding ceremony was celebrated by Iranians worldwide, gaining over nine thousand likes and over six hundred shares, one of our all-time records.  The comments on both posts were indicative of nothing short of a cultural awakening.

Meanwhile on satellite TV, Tavaana lectures on LGBT rights were being aired, with Tavaana fans writing to express their appreciation for the range of human rights issues being explored openly, right in their living rooms.  By the end of 2015, a post about Belgian legislation allowing job seekers three gender options received thoughtful (and well “liked”) responses that were unimaginable even just a couple years prior, such as: “All human beings and sexual orientations are equal,” or: “It’s a scientific question…people with diverse sexual orientations possess normal psychological health.” One called homosexuality a “reality of nature that ought to be talked about again and again so that folks are aware of it and don’t think of gay people they interact with as aliens, but rather as people like us who are just a little different.” When one user commented that “these are all physical and behavioral disorders…why is the media adding so much fuel? This is the question!!!”, other users stepped in quickly to respond that “our bodies in the world (human and animals and even plants) have a variety of sexual orientations…differences are not disorders.”

While LGBT Iranians continue to face some of the world’s worst violations of their rights, Tavaana’s work helps Iranians move closer to the day when more Iranians will echo the Tavaana user who said of marriage equality, “Any reasonable freedom which does not harm others serves to promote democracy and helps us attain the other freedoms to which all human beings are entitled.”

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