Gay Iran: 6 tips for gay travellers visiting Iran
Iran's human rights record is bad. There is no sugar-coating that. When it comes to gay people, it's almost as bad as it gets, just like other places in the Middle East, such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Most LGBT people who follow the news know the terrible punishments that Iran has imposed for people even suspected of being gay.
Some human rights organisations say that between 4,000-6,000 gay men and lesbians have been executed in Iran since 1979. As recently as April 2017, 30 gay men were arrested in the Isfahan province.
Transgender people fare no better. The only “bright” side is that being transsexual is legal in Iran, but only if accompanied by a gender reassignment surgery. Surprisingly, that surgery can be partially covered by the government. In fact, after Thailand, Iran carries out the most sex reassignment surgeries than any other country in the world.
Is Iran safe for gay citizens? Probably not in general.
Is Iran safe for gay tourists? That's a little more complicated.
Should you boycott Iran?
I am generally opposed to people who say you should boycott countries for human rights issues. Why? Because when it comes to issues like gay rights, I think it's far more productive to travel to these countries, find gay friendly people and businesses (if you can) and support them with your tourist cash. Check out the Nomadic Boys' article about what it's like travelling as a gay couple in Asia, in which they explored this argument in detail.
Plus, in many countries with anti-LGBT policies, human rights violations against gay people generally happen with the citizens of those countries – not tourists.
I was recently in Iran for about 10 days. I really didn't get the sense that gay issues were a top concern for the people who lived there. Iranians are mostly concerned about inflation and putting food on their tables. They probably don't give much thought to gay people – if they think of them at all.
Moreover, it's important to remember that you're going there on vacation – not to advocate for gay rights or to live out your life as you would if you were at home. You're going to visit Persepolis and Tehran and Shiraz, not to participate in a parade.
That said, you have some decisions to make before you go.
Before I embarked on my trip, one of the main concerns of my friends and family was that I would be a gay guy travelling to a country with such strict laws against it.
My usual response was to laugh and say, “Well, I don’t intend to make out with guys in the street.” It was my way of setting the other person and, to a certain extent, myself, at ease.
But when it comes right down to it, you're just going on vacation.
Three rules for visiting Iran
It probably goes without saying that when you visit Iran, you have to keep the “gay” part of your life hidden. That means you have to decide if you can do these 3 things:
i. Avoid public romantic displays of affection
For me this was easy because I was travelling alone, so I had no one to show affection with. My husband didn't travel with me. And even if he did, we're not really people who show much affection in public anyway.
When you're in Iran, you'll often see men holding hands, like you would in many South Asian countries like India and Nepal. It's very common here amongst straight men. However as a Westerner, you should probably avoid doing this.
You don't have to feel too bad about this though. Public displays of affection by couples are generally discouraged, even for straight couples.
ii. Keep your sexual orientation private
The second part was a little harder. Several Iranians asked me, “Are you married?” I simply said “no” (and hoped they didn't notice the indent on my ring finger from my wedding ring, which I left behind).
Did I feel like I was betraying my relationship a bit in this respect? Yes. I didn’t like to say I wasn’t married. But the reality is, you don’t want to have to answer the follow-up questions because those answers will necessarily be lies.
Saying, “Yes! I am. My husband is at home,” might very well be OK with some younger Iranians, but you don’t want to take the chance that you’re talking to a (rare) religious fundamentalist who will make trouble for you.
iii. For couples, refrain from telling people you're together
If you're travelling as a couple, it's obviously a little more difficult to follow any of the three rules. Again it's a decision you're going to have to make before you go – one that might involve breaking a few “couples” habits. If you’re travelling alone, like I did, it’s easy.
Holding hands while walking down the street, the selfie while one gives the other a peck on the cheek. Break those habits for the couple of weeks you’ll be there.
I was recently on an Iranian expats Facebook group (which I highly recommend joining!) and saw a post from a young man in Australia wondering if he and his partner would have issues. Their answer to the Australian was an overwhelming “no”, but as long as he followed the rules, which I've summarised above.
Getting an Iranian visa
When you fill out your visa application form, one of the questions is, “Are you married?”, to which you should check “no”.
Yes, it's a lie, but if you're serious about going, then you don't have a choice.
And to be frank, Iran doesn't recognise marriage between same sex couples anyway, so it’s not really a lie to them (if that makes you feel better!) So tick the “single” box. You may even wish to leave your wedding rings at home, if you wear them.
For more information, check out my in-depth post about how to get an Iranian visa if you’re Canadian or American.
Be aware of what's on your social media before you go to Iran. Have you been critical of the Iranian government on Facebook? Do you post a lot of gay-themed photos or stories on Instagram? Do you re-tweet anti-Iran regime news stories or pro-LGBT links?
If you do, then you need to be very careful. You don't want this to come up while applying for an Iranian tourist visa.
During the visa process, I was never asked about social media. Recently though, I was contacted by a gay couple who told me that they were asked for their Facebook and Twitter profiles during the visa application process. Rohit from this gay couple asked:
So, while we're applying for the Iranian visa, they are asking for our Facebook / Twitter profile. That had me worried, as we have photos on there that show us being married.
So, what do you do?
i. Adjust your privacy settings
First, wait to see if anyone asks to see your social media profiles. They may never ask. If they do though, you may wish to play with your Facebook privacy settings to make albums or photos private if you think they may raise any concerns.
ii. Temporarily deactivate your profile
Personally, I would go farther than that. Deactivate your Facebook profile before you apply for the visa and reactivate it when you get home. Also, delete any tweets and Instagram posts that are critical of Iran or are super gay-themed.
If you want to go to Iran, you have to do what you have to do…!
Checking into hotels
When you check into your hotel as a gay couple, the likelihood is that no one is going to ask you if you’re a couple. They’re just going to assume you’re two men travelling together. No one is going to question you about it!
Having said that, they will likely put you in a room with two separate beds, so you have to be willing to either sleep apart, or push your beds together.
It's also worth noting that of the 4 hotels I stayed at, only one of them was what I would consider fairly soundproof. If you are going to engage in any hotel room fun, keep that in mind!
Enjoy your visit!
I was in Iran for nearly 10 days. That was a pretty short trip, and it was a guided tour. Yet there was never once where I felt the least bit unsafe.
I walked around the cities at night. I even spoke to fellow western guests on my tour about my husband, though I was very selective in what I talked about and to whom I spoke with.
The bottom line is that if you choose to visit Iran, you can be gay; you just can't act gay. It's going to feel a bit like the days before you came out – telling little lies to cover for other little lies.
But if you want to visit Iran, it's just what you have to do.
You may feel like you're betraying who you are. And that’s sort of true. But in this case, you're going to visit a country, which is so rich with history and beauty that not many people get to see. For that reason alone, it’s totally worth it!
This was a guest post by fellow gay blogger Michael Demmons of the TheRTWGuys travel blog:
Michael Demmons is from Canada who is married to Halef from Indonesia. Together they are “theRTWguys”, living in Atlanta, USA. Michael and Halef have travelled to over 50 countries and plan to quit their jobs in 2019 to travel the world full time. Check out their awesome blog, where they write about their travels, scuba diving adventures and comfy airport lounges.
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