LGBT rights in Iran since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 have come in conflict with the penal code, with international human rights groups claiming floggings and death sentences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Homosexuality is a crime punishable by imprisonment, corporal punishment, or in some cases of sodomy, even execution of the accused is legal under the laws of this country's theocratic Islamic government. Iran insists that it does not execute people for homosexuality, and those executed had either committed rape, murder, or drug trafficking.
In 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking to Columbia University, said, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in [the US]. In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you that we have it.” A spokesperson later stated that his comments were misunderstood. In January 2012, Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary-general of the Iranian High Council for Human Rights, described homosexuality as a "disease," and said that same-sex marriage was "immoral".
Any type of sexual activity outside a heterosexual marriage is forbidden. Transsexuality in Iran is legal if accompanied by a sex change operation; however, transsexuals still report societal intolerance as in most societies.
Although it has some of the strictest laws on sexuality and same-sex relations in the world, Iran also has a reputation for an extremely liberal sex-change operations industry.
According to the BBC, the Iranian regime recently made sexual reassignment even more accessible by announcing that health insurance companies must cover the full cost of sex-change operations, which can cost upward of $3,000.
According to the BBC, Iran performs more sex-change operations than any country in the world except for Thailand; the surgery industry has attracted patients from all over the Middle East and as far away as Eastern Europe. Official statistics for 2007 put the number of transsexuals in Iran between 15,000 and 20,000 people, with unofficial estimates suggesting many more -- up to 150,000, the Guardian reports.
In a country where same-sex relationships are punishable by execution, sex-changing surgeries may mean the difference between life and death.
Iranian-born filmmaker, Tanaz Eshaghian, who brought attention to Iran’s transgender community in her award-winning 2008 documentary film,“Be Like Others,” illustrates the logic behind the law. In one scene of the film, a Muslim cleric explains how Islam supports sex-change surgery. “An action is allowed unless it states specifically in the Quran that an act is a sin. Why is adultery one of the seven deadly sins? Because it specifically says so in the Quran. Because it does not specifically state that sex change is a sin, therefore, we cannot call it a sin.”
Yet while the freedom to change sex might come as a relief to some, Eshaghian also draws attention to the pressure felt by gay men and women in Iran to have sexual reassignment surgeries as a means of legitimizing their sexual orientation. As gay individuals, they are committing a crime. As transsexuals, they can exist under Iranian law.
Ali Askar, a male-to-female who underwent surgery, told the BBC, “If I didn't have to operate, I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't touch God's work."
Gender theorist Afsaneh Najmabadi adds: “For legal and medical authorities, sex change surgeries are explicitly framed as the cure for a diseased abnormality, and on occasion they are proposed as a religioegally sanctioned option for heteronormalizing people with same-sex desires or practices.”