Iran and the Death of Gay Activism

The architect of Iran’s lethal anti-gay crackdown, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will be in New York City next week, where he will address the United Nations General Assembly on September 14.

Yet, despite the fact that every major Western European capital has seen demonstrations against the reign of terror targeting gays in the Islamic Republic of Iran—where homosexuality is a capital crime—not a single gay or human rights organization here has seen fit to call a protest timed for Ahmadinejad’s U.N. address.

The new wave of anti-gay repression in Iran came to world attention with the torture and hanging of two gay teenagers in the city of Mashad on July 19; they were each lashed 228 times before having the nooses placed around their necks. In response to the world-wide protests of these executions, the anti-gay crackdown has been stepped up considerably by the Ahmadinejad government—which has been branded as flaunting international law that forbids the torture and execution of minors under two treaties to which Iran is signatory.

Not only have readers of this newspaper been able to follow this story through the reports I’ve written for Gay City News, Iran’s gay repression has been extensively covered in other media—Gay Cable News in New York has repeatedly talked about the tragic situation of Iranian gays, Jason Bellini and the fledgling news team at the national gay TV network LOGO have devoted two reports to it, national gay news outlets like Page One Q and have done likewise, and the gay blogosphere has been loudly echoing these reports.

Sentient gay news consumers cannot possibly ignore the gay tragedy unfolding in Iran.

Ahmadinejad came to power in significant measure through a campaign against “moral corruption,” which included a crusade against homosexuality as evidence of Western “decadence,” as Christopher de Bellaigue makes clear in his extensive report from Tehran in the August 11 New York Review of Books. Ahmadinejad pledged a government whose “every project, every method, and every administrative mechanism has been extracted from the heart of Islam”—and multiple Iranian gay groups and activists have begged the West to understand that, in practice, fulfilling this promise has meant that criminal charges of all sorts, particularly rape, have been trumped up against gay people as part of the ongoing persecution under the institutionally homophobic Sharia law that governs everything in Iran.

More executions of young men thought to be gay have been reported or scheduled. Just weeks ago, a 29-year-old gay Iranian in London who’d been ordered to be deported back to Iran killed himself, rather than face what he was convinced was certain torture and execution by Ahmadinejad’s homo-hating clerical zealots. In the last several weeks, we have received reports that gay Iranians who were expected to arrive in the West have been blocked from fleeing Iran—since Ahmadinejad’s government is afraid that the horrific stories of repression they would tell would further inflame world sentiment against the Sharia-inspired wave of terror, at a time when Iran is deep in delicate negotiations with the Western powers over its development of nuclear weapons.

Iran has no free press. Reporters Without Borders has named Iran’s senior spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini—the “Guide of the Islamic Republic”—as one of the world’s foremost “predators of press freedom,” newspapers have been suspended and journalists critical of the Ahmadinejad regime thrown into prison, bloggers have been arrested, and blogs serving gays and women have been blocked or shut down. That is why gay Iranians inside the Islamic Republic keep telling us they desperately need Western gay groups to keep attention focused on the reign of terror of which they are victims.

But even though the international criminal Ahmadinejad is coming to our town, the silence here is deafening. Where is the leadership from the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force? Where are the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats? Where are the so-called gay radicals like Queer Fist? Where are our gay elected officials, numerous in New York City? They’re all inventing excuses not to protest the Ahmadinejad visit and Iran’s executions of gays and minor children. In San Francisco, activist Michael Petrelis and a handful of friends organized in just days a demonstration and press conference on the Iran crackdown that drew participation from San Francisco’s mayor and gay elected officials, garnered much media attention, and led to the passage of a resolution by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors condemning the horrifying situation of gays in Iran and the executions of Iranian gays.

Nothing of the sort in the Big Apple. I’m not one who thinks a demonstration is inevitably the only useful form of protest—but in this instance, given a homophobic government in Washington that won’t lift a finger for Iranian gays, it certainly seems an appropriate—indeed, vital—response to what’s happening in Iran. Yet New York’s huge gay population and our gay organizations are averting their eyes from this scandal, and waiting for the next sale at Prada or the next White Party.

The silence on Iran here underscores a deeper problem—the death of gay activism. There was a time in this town when something like Ahmadinejad’s visit would have occasioned a massive outpouring of protest and outrage. But the complacent and self-satisfied embourgeoisement of our gay institutions in the last couple of decades, and the replacement of an in-your-face gay consciousness with passive checkbook-and-credit-card “activism”—a label it barely merits—coupled with an insularity that refuses to fully embrace the plight of oppressed gays in countries other than our own and internalize an internationalist gay perspective that knows no borders are problems that we and our community need to be discussing and debating. There desperately needs to be a revival of the movement spirit that created the larger, freer cultural space that privileged gays now enjoy. The ahistoricity of so many younger gays, who ignore much of the heritage of the movement years, needs to be combated.

And we need to remember that there are times—like Ahmadinejad’s September 14 visit to our town—when it’s dishonorable for gay people not to be takin’ it to the streets.

A coalition of Iranian exile organizations has called a protest demonstration against Ahmadinejad — timed to coincide with his speech — for September 14 at 11.00 A.M. in Hammarskold Plaza, First Avenue at East 47th Street, a stone''s throw from the U.N. building. The call to the demonstration doesn''t mention that same-sex love is a crime in Iran punishable by death, or refer to the anti-gay crackdown — there''s a considerable amount of homophobia in parts of the Iranian exile community too. But, if you want to demonstrate your outrage at Iran''s anti-gay reign of terror, you can make your own sign and show up — if you wave your home-made sign on behalf of Iran''s gays in front of the TV cameras, it just might get some attention. Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at