LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Sara, a bright young woman studying for a masters at Tehran University, is a lesbian – but if the Iranian authorities had their way, she would change her sex and become a man.
Homosexuality is considered sinful in predominantly Muslim Iran, and homosexual acts are illegal. Sex changes, however, are legal and not sinful and appear to be positively encouraged by doctors and psychologists as “treatment” for people who prefer their own sex.
When Sara came out to her family nine years ago at the age of 20, she was sent to a psychologist who declared after one 40-minute consultation that she should have a sex change.
“She said I was really a man in a woman’s body and I had to change my body to suit my personality. My sister had brought a photo along, (taken when) I was maybe 5 years old. I was wearing boy’s clothes and had a toy gun in my hand and the psychologist emphasised that this photo showed that I was a man,” Sara told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I was shocked because I had never wanted to be a man and I really liked my body. I had never had problems with my female body. I had emotions towards girls, rather than boys, but I could only imagine myself as a girl loving another girl, not as a man.”
Sara’s experience is not unusual, according to a new report by Justice for Iran and 6 Rang, an Iranian lesbian and transgender network, which says lesbian, gay and transgender people routinely come under pressure to have sex reassignment surgery.
When I meet Sara she is heading home to Tehran after studying in Britain. Her short curly hair is tucked under a tweed trilby and she is wearing a dark red shirt and beige trousers. On her fingers are a couple of brightly coloured rings.
In her luggage is the headscarf and light coat all women have to wear when they get off the plane in Tehran.
Sara - not her real name - grew up in a strict religious family in southern Iran.
“At 11 or 12 I felt some emotions for girls but because I grew up in a religious, conventional society I denied it to myself. When I was about 20 I talked to my family about my feelings,” she says.
“At first it was difficult. They tried to convince me that I was wrong and made an appointment with a psychologist.”
She says her family think her lesbianism is a sin because they are religious, but she is lucky - they have not cast her out. Many lesbians and homosexuals are ostracised or forced to marry. Others leave Iran after persecution and death threats - sometimes from their own family.
“Most of my friends have not come out to their families even if they are not religious at all,” Sara says. “One of my friends said if her family knew about her sexual orientation they could kill her.”
Although Sara knew she was lesbian at 20, the stigmatisation of homosexuality meant she didn’t meet another lesbian until she was 26.
“Lesbians are afraid to show their sexual orientation in Iran. The only way we can have contact with each other is via the internet,” said Sara, adding that she was astonished to see lesbians walking hand in hand in Britain.
“It was amazing for me. I couldn’t believe it … In Iran it’s hard for lesbians to find soul mates. They can’t go hand in hand in public.”
Sara has never had a relationship. She fell in love with a girl and believes her feelings could have been returned but the girl - who was religious and conservative - was too afraid.
That fear would be perfectly understandable. Not only is lesbianism severely stigmatised but homosexual acts are illegal. The punishment for lesbian sexual acts is flogging. If someone is caught four times the punishment is death. Men arrested for sodomy face execution.
Sara, who now runs a closed facebook page for women like her, says most lesbians she knows who have consulted a doctor or psychologist have been advised to have a sex change.
“They say homosexuality is a sin. If you are interested in the same sex you have to change. They only accept male-female relationships. If you love a woman, you have to be a man.”