October 22, 2020
Three people from Iran’s LGBTQ community who have large followings on Instagram have been arrested by security forces and taken to Evin Prison, IranWire has learned.
The three detainees have been named as Meysam Valipour, Meysam Dehghani, and Alireza Asadi. All three, residents of Tehran, had published explicit posts about their sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as humorous content and posts critical of the Iranian regime.
Although the main reason for the arrests of the three, who are in their early 20s, has not yet been officially announced, unofficial reports hint that they have been targeted for these posts, which were described as “going against the social norms” of the Islamic Republic.
A source close to the three, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told Journalism is Not a Crime, IranWire’s affiliate website: “There was no reason to detain these people other than for their posting of videos, photos and content related to sexual orientation and gender identity on their personal pages. Two weeks ago, two of my friends were arrested at their home and taken to Evin Prison. My other friend was arrested three or four days ago. Two of these guys are transgender. I do not know anything about the details of these detentions because their families will not speak. All I know is that they are in Evin Prison now.”
New Opportunities for Iran’s LGBTQ Communities
Although it’s risky for transgender people to be overtly “out” in Iranian society, particularly given the rife levels of discrimination against the LGBTQ community in general, over the last few years, groups and individuals have become more outspoken on social media, especially Instagram. Many teenagers or people in their early twenties have felt more empowered to discuss private matters and taboo topics regarding sexuality and identity openly and with candor, supported by a growing number of people that share their interests, values and motivations. Many of them have felt freer to do this than teenagers and young people before them, and they have also been more eager to join platforms and online community spaces established outside of Iran. These apps and digital communities have offered a way for Iran’s LGBTQ community to speak, share and be heard, and to give them the tools to determine whether they can or want to fit in with Iranian society, or forge a parallel reality alongside it.
The dangers of these activities are of course much debated and discussed, since Iranian authorities monitor platforms regularly.
Iran’s Powerful Forces to Combat “Immorality”
Iran’s law enforcement unit, or NAJA, regards its remit as enforcing people’s adherence to both the law and the moral principles of the Islamic Republic. In September 2020, the head of NAJA, Seyyed Alireza Adiani, indirectly threatened people who defied these codes, emphasizing how much power and authority Iran’s online police, or FATA, have to crack down on cybercrime and immoral behavior that goes against the religious, cultural, and social values of the Islamic Iran.
FATA, he said, was a “presence on the battlefield” and pursued “jihad in the name of God.”
In recent years, as groups of people have expanded their networks and activities online, Iranian authorities have expanded their operations too, setting out plans to further monitor, target and restrict particular individuals and groups, including activists and influencers. As people encounter new ways to communicate and share information online, they also face greater pressure. Certain platforms and apps have come under particularly fierce fire, and some authorities have repeatedly called for Instagram to be blocked or filtered.
But it is worth pointing out that these groups, including the three people arrested in the first few weeks of October, do not represent all LGBTQ people in Iran. There are large groups of transgender, gay, lesbian and queer people who live in the shadows, and always have, for a range of reasons: fear of judgment, discrimination, violence, exclusion from family and community, and legal problems among them. So the online community many are enjoying and benefiting from — and which poses a risk to many — is only one aspect of the fight, if it can be categorized as such. Working toward greater equality will have to take place across a number of spectrums and institutions, chief among them educational and legal. Until the value of equality is enshrined in Iranian society, the work will remain difficult. The recent arrests give an indication of what life is like for so many, and how far society in Iran and elsewhere in the world has to go.