People-to-People Dialogue Key to Human Rights Progress

The July 19 actions marking the anniversary of the execution of two young men in Mashad, Iran, have initiated an important discussion about the role Western LGBT activists can play in relation to persecuted minorities around the world.

We feel the July 19 actions were fundamentally flawed and showed a dangerous trend in LGBT politics, which could lead to a counterproductive, if not outright destructive, situation for sexual minorities in Iran and other countries. The problems are both in the misuse of facts and in a poorly developed strategy that is unlikely to achieve its purported goals. First, the proof that the hangings were carried out because the two young men were lovers has not been verified by any credible organizations. Neither Human Rights Watch nor the International Gay And Lesbian Human Rights Commission could find conclusive evidence of the homophobic nature of the executions, or of a marked increase in homophobic policies by Iran’s new administration. The evidence offered was by a handful of gay activists, journalists, and bloggers who, in some cases, cited second or third-hand hidden conversations with anonymous sources inside Iran. It is disturbing to see some of the most respected veterans of LGBT politics be carried away by such reports.

Our suspicion of the cyber-writers is deepened by the language and attitude that they have adopted to talk about Iran. For example, Peter Tatchel, the head of OutRage!, proclaimed, “This is just the latest barbarity by the Islamo-fascists in Iran,” and he goes on to advocate economic sanctions and political isolation for Iran. And Doug Ireland has repeatedly used the word “pogrom” to refer to the situation of sexual minorities. This language is more in harmony with the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric adopted by the Bush administration than with human rights advocacy. It paints the violence of the Iranian regime as in a class of its own, barbaric and distinct from the presumably civilized violence of the war on Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo.

For this reason, the caveat of “no war with Iran” added to the bottom of the list of demands of the July 19 actions rang hollow and disingenuous. Intentionally or not, this rhetoric adds ammunition to the current U.S. administration’s stated goal of isolating and possibly attacking Iran, a policy that has nothing to do with protecting sexual minorities.

U.S. invasions have always required a liberal-sounding pill to make them digestible for the majority of Americans. In Somalia, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Middle East, that pill has been the condition of women, always quickly forgotten after the actions have gone forward. As recent events have made only more clear, in the Middle East, U.S. actions do not lead to greater security or freedom of any groups of people, least of all persecuted minorities.

So in the same vein, we are seeing Iranian sexual minorities, undeniable victims, held up and named as “gay” (regardless of how they identify themselves) and in need of our intervention. It is perhaps an indication of the times that established, respected veterans of American LGBT activism are following a path laid down by the neoconservatives’ failed attempts at imposed liberation.

This leads us to the second concern, the question of strategy. The actions on July 19 were not thoughtfully tailored to achieve their goal of getting Iran to “stop killing queers and kids.” In fact, the actions were counterproductive and potentially dangerous because their main tactic was to bring international attention to individuals and communities that survive, in part, because of their relative invisibility. Furthermore, if there is in fact no increase in persecution of sexual minorities in Iran, this action could well help instigate it.

In addition, Western activists need to be thoughtful about which Iranians they hold up as “representing” the interests of sexual minorities in Iran. While some groups have come forward with clearly admirable intentions, this very young movement needs time to develop its political analysis and strategies. The Western activists’ claim that they are following the lead of Iranian gays and lesbians is untrue and unacceptable as a justification.

The Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (PGLO), which supported but did not initiate the July 19 actions, is following a road that is politically and strategically misconceived. We fear that the PGLO is in danger of placing itself outside of a strong and inspirational movement within Iran for democracy. Within this movement of intellectuals, trade unionists, and journalists, none has called for economic and political hostility as advocated by the gay activists with whom PGLO has become allied. In fact, the most prominent Iranian activists—from the Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi to the journalist and former political prisoner Akbar Ganji—have specifically called for an opposite kind of politics that does not buy into the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric of racism and hysteria that the Western gay crusaders have fallen into. It is absolutely essential for the PGLO to also distance itself from such people and positions.

Much as in the U.S., the protection of sexual minorities is fundamentally a cultural issue that must be addressed through personal experiences and public debates that draw on values important to the entire community. Iranians are already engaged in these debates. Just one example is the situation of the transsexual people who are at the forefront of a cultural transformation in Iran, demanding greater respect and rights. The case for sexual minorities in Iran might first come through this movement and not from gay or lesbian-identified individuals. Change is already under way, and although it will be a slow, arduous road, it is unlikely to follow a Western pattern or be hastened by Western intervention.

Does this mean there is nothing impassioned LGBT activists in the U.S. can do to support sexual minorities in Iran? No, not at all. But it does mean that activists have to take a broad view of the issue of and be conscious of their own positioning. We have three recommendations for opening up the discussion:

1. Challenge official policies that limit people-to-people contacts between Iran and the West. The U.S. government has put severe limitations on the ability of American citizens and institutions to help and form relations with their Iranian counterparts. The Iranian government has taken similar steps, and in the process, the ignorance and mistrust are growing on both sides. With the emergence of independent organizations advocating for the rights of groups like women, transsexual people, prisoners, and disabled people, among others, the Iranian people have extended their hands, and we need to fight for our right to reach out to them.

2. Stop U.S. aggression toward Iran. If the shadow of U.S. military and economic pressure on the Iranian regime is lessened, the Iranian people will have increased breathing room to deal with their own regime and to resist it in a meaningful way. U.S grandstanding only plays into the hands of the Iranian hardliners, creating an external enemy around which they can rally support.

3. Most importantly, we must come to terms with the fact that we are limited in our ability to effect positive change in the rest of the world. This is the price we pay for living under the shadows of George Bush’s America and a history of Western domination, as our actions are always implicated in our nation’s global power. Therefore, it is first and foremost our responsibility to rein in our own government’s aggression and militarism and to be extremely careful in how we use our power as Westerners. This is a hard pill to swallow for many die-hard activists, but it is a fact that we have to face honestly and courageously. Only then will we be able to build responsible and productive grassroots politics in relation to the rest of the world.

Mitra Roshan and Kourosh Shemirani are founders of QIAm (Queer Iran Alliance). They are both Iranian-American activists and although they are using pseudonyms because they travel to Iran, they welcome all dialogue and contact at