Iran’s LGBTQ community continues to build stronger networks and support groups, bringing about a degree of change in attitudes within society. (Supplied)

By Natasha Schmidt

May 21, 2018

Iran’s LGBTQ community is increasingly using digital media to build solidarity and address mental health issues in the face of persistent pressure from authorities and Iranian society.

According to a new study published on May 17, Iran’s LGBTQ community faces routine harassment and is denied services, including support for mental and sexual health. At the same time, it continues to build stronger networks and support groups, bringing about a degree of change in attitudes within society. The report, Breaking the Silence: Digital Media and LGBTQ Rights in Iran, published to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia, sets out how organizations and individuals use apps and social media to bring about these changes and empower their communities.

The report, by internet freedom and human rights organization Small Media, compiles research based on interviews and surveys, as well as legal and media analysis. Working in conjunction with LGBTQ groups including Spectrum, 6Rang and Radio Ranginkaman, Small Media carried out four online focus groups and 12 interviews, bringing in the views and experiences 26 participants. All interviews and focus groups were conducted in Persian by a Persian speaker from the LGBTQ community.

A History of Discrimination

Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who famously denied that there were any gay and lesbian people in Iran, authorities not only targeted LGBTQ people in public places, harassing them and threatening them with arrest, they attempted to destroy their online communities too — blocking blogs, forums, dating websites and social media platforms. In many ways, not much has changed; most Iranian officials remain hostile toward LGBTQ citizens. Not only are LGBTQ people not recognized under Iranian law, Iran’s penal code criminalizes same-sex relations and sexual activity. Authorities have used Iran’s Computer Crimes Law, which makes it illegal to share content that the government deems “obscene” or that “disseminates lies” to “disturb the public state of mind” to target and punish LGBTQ people. The new report highlights, for example, that a number of administrators for LGBTQ Telegram channels have been detained on these grounds.

Despite President Hassan Rouhani’s promises for greater freedoms and civil rights, these promises remain unrealized — and the LGBTQ community certainly feels the impact of this ongoing repression.

At the same time, there has been a shift in Iranian society’s attitudes to LGBTQ people, with famous Iranian figures including pop superstar Googoosh and actress Behnoush Bakhtiari highlighting the issue and showing public support for LGBTQ rights.

James Marchant, lead researcher on the Small Media report, says there are reasons to be optimistic. ”Although a lot of the people we spoke to are still very anxious about the future, we were encouraged by the stories we were told about more and more young Iranians coming out, with a number finding acceptance from their friends and families,” he told IranWire in an email. “But the progress we’re seeing is slow, and it’s really difficult to understate the challenges the community faces. One in five LGBTQ people we surveyed have been victims of online entrapment, and their stories are really harrowing. We should be under no illusion that there’s a huge amount of work left to do in the battle against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia.”

Digital Resources and Solidarity 

Iran’s LGBTQ community and tech communities that support them are actively developing a wide range of online tools, resources that are constantly being broadened, built on, and improved. These include community hubs for mental health and sexual health support and online meeting places for LGBTQ people, which include dating sites, Telegram channels, and Instagram pages. For example,  “Boyfriends Instagram Bloggers” have become platforms for gay men to share experiences and discuss their daily lives, as well as share photographs of gay life in Iran.

There’s also a lesbian and transgender community portal, which states the following on its “About us” page: “Today, many of us are aware that our sexual orientation is natural, and with faith in our natural right to love a person of our own sex, we are trying together to open a window to a future without prejudice, ‘morality’ and ‘immorality’; a window to a world where our sisters and daughters have no fear of showing their sexual orientation.”

Mental Health and the LGBTQ Community

Iran’s LGBTQ community is extremely vulnerable, and many people are blocked from accessing services for mental and sexual health. “There are no support services for homosexuals,” a lesbian using the name “Elina” told Small Media. “This is very worrying, and there’s always a fear of being exposed, or of them wanting to cure you. Our psychotherapists are sick… the ones on Instagram are also full of stereotypes [about LGBTQ people].” She says the development of online mental health support services is vital.

Clearly, some of the tools and resources the report highlights are offering this much-needed support. But mental services in general are overstretched and in a country where mental health remains a taboo — one 2011 study the reports cites “suggested that 40 percent of mentally ill respondents in Tehran experienced high levels of stigma because of their illness” —  this crisis in Iran’s LGBTQ community continues to be troubling.

And because many LGBTQ people in Iran are already marginalized, they often are unable to identify that they have a mental health problem. This, coupled with a lack of understanding within Iran’s medical and psychiatric professions about gender identity and the unique problems LGBTQ people face, makes finding solutions all the more challenging.

Like with many vulnerable communities in Iran, the online safety and digital security of LGBTQ people in Iran is crucial. The community continues to face threats, particularly in relation to dating apps and social media platforms. Authorities regularly threaten people with online surveillance and harassment, as well as entrapment — where authorities may pose as a member of the LGBTQ community to incriminate and then punish individuals or group.

Small Media’s report urges “digital security experts and digital rights organizations to work with the LGBTQ community to develop security resources targeting the full range of community spaces in which LGBTQ people congregate, with a focus on under-examined spaces such as Instagram.”

Despite the Rouhani administration’s failure to meet its promise of ushering in greater freedoms, it does represent what the report describes as “a more conciliatory and socially liberal face to the world.” This shift presents an opportunity for civil society — including those advocating for LGBTQ people and their rights — to use technology and digital tools to bring about change. As the Islamic Republic continues to face huge economic, political and cultural challenges — challenges that will not be made any easier by the recent news that US sanctions will be reinstated — this community will need all the support it can get from rights advocates, tech experts and innovators, from both inside and outside the country.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.