Gay Iran: How safe is it for LGBTQ travellers?

Stefan Arestis

This post was co-written with the awesome gay travel blogger Michael Demmons of the TheRTWGuys who visited Iran as a solo LGBTQ traveller and shares his first-hand experience in this blog post.

Iran's human rights record is dire. There's no sugar-coating that. When it comes to LGBTQ rights, Iran is as bad as it can get! Most people who follow the news will have heard about the terrible punishments that Iran has imposed for people even suspected of being gay!

So, why on earth are we even daring to publish such an article promoting gay travel to Iran in the first place?

Let's make one thing clear, our intention is not to promote gay travel to Iran. Iran is not a gay travel destination and it won't be for the foreseeable future! However, for adventurous LGBTQ travellers who are already set on the idea of visiting Iran, they should be aware of the law and follow the tips we set out in this guide so they can experience a safe trip in Iran. 

In this article, we explore these arguments in detail as well as giving comprehensive guidance and safety tips based on Michael's first-hand experience to fellow LGBTQ travellers who also want to visit Iran.

Don't forget…

Gay dating apps such as Grindr or Scruff are blocked in Iran. Before heading off, make sure you get a VPN which will not only give you full access to all your favourite apps and websites, which are otherwise blocked in Iran, but you will also be surfing the Net anonymously.

LGBTQ rights in Iran

Let's just start by saying there are none!

Homosexuality is very illegal in Iran and can even lead to execution. Various human rights organisations have reported that between 4,000-6,000 gay men and lesbian women have been executed in Iran since 1979. As recently as September 2019, gay men have been publicly executed in Iran and the government staunchly endorses it!

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, surgery can even be partially or fully funded by the government! This has made Iran the second most common country to carry out the most sex reassignment surgeries in the world after Thailand.

Is Iran safe for gay citizens? Probably not in general.

Is Iran safe for gay tourists? That's a little more complicated to answer…

Is Iran safe for gay travellers?

I was in Iran as a solo gay traveller for 10 days as part of a guided tour. My husband didn't come with me on this trip. I personally felt safe the entire time. I walked around the cities at night and 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).

To bluntly answer the question, how safe will you be in Iran as an LGBTQ traveller depends on how far back into the closet you're willing to go…as long as you avoid all PDAs, keep the rainbow flags at home, set your social media settings to private or even consider deactivating them temporarily, “then you'll be just fine!!”

The bottom line is that if you choose to visit Iran, you can be gay; nobody needs to know… 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, I think it’s totally worth it!

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:

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 such as 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.

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.

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, as I did, it’s easy.

Holding hands while walking down the street, the selfie while one gives the other a peck on the cheek…sadly these are the habits you need to steer clear from during your trip in Iran.

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 guy was an overwhelming “no”, but on condition that he follow the rules summarised above.

Gay Iran tips for LGBTQ travellers
A Pink Mosque! Located in Shiraz (aka The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque)

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.

Gay Iran visa application

Check your social media

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?

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.

Consider temporarily deactivating 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…!

Gay Iran tips for LGBTQ travellers
The Tomb of Hafetz in Shiraz

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!

The best things to do in Iran

As mentioned above, this is a country which is so rich with culture, history and beauty. For me, the entire pantomime of ‘going back in the closet' was worthwhile just to experience some of these many wonderful things that so few people in the world will have also seen:

Visit Esfahan

Isfahan, also known as Esfahan in English, is the third-largest city in Iran but was once one of the biggest cities in the world. It is famous for its beautiful Perso-Islamic architecture with grand boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, tiled mosques and minarets almost everywhere you look. The majestic palaces and Islamic buildings around the Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square are a real highlight, while the square itself is one of the largest in the world as well as a UNESCO world heritage site. Don’t miss out on strolling along one of the nine bridges over the Zayandeh River while you're here.


Explore Tehran

If you’re travelling to Iran then you definitely need to spend some time in the capital city of Tehran. It is a bustling, lively and super hip city. The skyline is dominated by the Milad Tower, which is the sixth-tallest tower in the world that you can also ascend for epic views of the city. You can even have a romantic dinner in the fancy revolving restaurant. Don’t miss out on the Grand Bazaar, which features over 10 kilometres of shops selling everything from carpets to jewellery. Tehran is also home to the National Museum of Iran as well as Golestan Palace: a magnificent 19th-century Qajar royal abode.


Do some Bazaar shopping

You have to spend some time shopping in a Bazaar in Iran, it's an experience in itself! Some of the best are in the capital, as well as in cities like Esfahan, Shiraz, Kerman and Kashan. The most famous is the Bazaar of Tabriz, a UNESCO world heritage site since it’s one of the oldest bazaars in Iran and the largest covered bazaar in the world! This particular bazaar was even mentioned by Marco Polo, who passed through while travelling the Silk Road. Nearly any city you visit in Iran will have a bazaar worth exploring, where you can taste local foods and find lots of beautiful handicrafts to take home with you.


Head to Yazd

Another UNESCO world heritage site (Iran sure has a lot of them!) is Yazd, a unique desert city with beautiful Persian architecture. The Old Town area is particularly interesting, with mud-brick buildings and magnificent windcatcher towers, which gave the city its nickname as the “City of Windcatchers”. There are a lot of Zoroastrian Fire Temples (more about those later) here, as well as the Towers of Silence where Zoroastrians would leave their dead to be picked clean by carrion birds. For something a little less gruesome-sounding, Yazd is also famous for having the most bicycles per capita in Iran. 


Hike in the Alamut Valley

The Alamut Valley region of Iran is both visually beautiful and historically interesting
Road From Qazvin into Valley of the Assassins, Iran” by Julia Maudlin is licensed under CC BY 2.0 | cropped from original

If you like getting out into nature then you should definitely explore and hike in the legendary Alamut Valley region. With the soaring peaks of the Alborz Mountains in the distance, this area is also home to the famous Castles of the Assassins – the remains of fortresses that once belonged to the medieval world’s most feared religious cult. It takes about 3/4 hours to get to the Alamut Valley from Tehran, driving through twisting roads and passes while looking out the window at the beautiful mountains covered with cherry trees. The landscapes are simply breathtaking, so this is an excellent excursion if you like to challenge yourself.


Eat some Iranian food!

This almost goes without saying but Iran’s cuisine is both varied and delicious. Most main meals in Iran are based on rice with meat, vegetables and nuts. Herbs and fruit also make up a lot of the traditional dishes, so expect to see lots of these for sale in local bazaars alongside many different spices. While different types of kebabs are most associated with Iran, we also love their hearty stews and ash, which is a kind of thick soup. For drinking, bear in mind that Iran is an alcohol-free country, but instead try the delicious sweet chai tea as well as a plethora of yummy non-alcoholic beers in a variety of flavours. 


Seek out a Zoroastrian temple

While you're in Iran you should visit a Zoroastrian fire temple
Fravahar Symbol” by David Stanley is licensed under CC BY 2.0 | cropped from original

We mentioned the Zoroastrians when talking about Yazd, and you should definitely explore their otherworldly fire temples. Zoroastrianism is one of the world's oldest continuously practised religions, which originated in Iran around the 6th century BC. There are many Zoroastrian fire temples in Iran, where there are ever-burning fires which the Zoroastrians revere. The fire inside the Yazd Atash Behram temple in Yazd has been continuously burning for over 1,500 years! While you can’t actually enter the inner sanctum if you’re not a Zoroastrian yourself, you can often visit other parts of the temples.


Explore Ancient Persepolis

Another one of Iran’s incredible UNESCO listed heritage sites is the ruins of Persepolis, an ancient city that was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. You might have heard of the Achaemenid Empire as the Persian Empire, the one that invaded Greece and defeated the 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. Persepolis was founded by Darius I, and completed during the reign of Xerxes I, who led the invasion of Greece. While much of the city was damaged during Alexander the Great’s conquests, there are still plenty of beautiful and impressive structures to visit today.


Visit Mashhad's Haram-e Razavi

Gay Iran - make sure you visit the biggest mosque in the world, the holy shrine of Imam Reza
29012011052 Mashhad, Iran” by Ninara is licensed under CC BY 2.0 | cropped from original

Mashad is Iran’s second-biggest city and home to some amazing monuments like the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza. This is the biggest mosque in the world, which contains the mausoleum of Imam Reza, a museum, a library, a cemetery, the Razavi University of Islamic Sciences, a dining hall for pilgrims, vast prayer halls and other buildings. Imam Reza was a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, so this is a very important site for Muslims. Non-Muslims can visit most of the Haram’s outer courtyards, but they're not allowed inside the complex’s two holiest buildings.


Feel like Indiana Jones at more ancient sites

If you're in Iran make sure you visit the impressive Chogha Zanbil Ziggurat ruins in the desert
Ziggurat Choga Zanbil” by poplar is licensed under CC BY 2.0 | cropped from original

Three other incredible UNESCO listed heritage sites are all located close to each other in the southwest Khuzestan Province. This area is often called the ‘birthplace of Iran’ because it has the oldest history. The ancient city of Susa (also sometimes called Shush) features a castle, acropolis and palace remnants. Nearby city Shushtar is home to an amazing historic hydraulic system with water mills, dams, tunnels and canals. Definitely don’t miss out on seeing the massive remains of the Chogha Zanbil Ziggurat – with its desert location and bulk, this spot is sure to impress even the most jaded traveller.


Go skiing in the Alborz Mountains

Gay travel to Iran - you might be surprised to know you can ski in Iran on the Alborz Mountains!
Alborz Mountains, Iran” by Ninara is licensed under CC BY 2.0 | cropped from original

You might not think of snow when you think of Iran, but the northern Alborz mountains are actually a popular skiing destination with local Iranians. The ski resorts of Shemshak and Dizin are both about two hours drive from Tehran with high altitudes which make them perfect for powder junkies. The area is amazing for skiing in the winter as well as for hiking in the warmer months. Nature-lovers will be happy to keep an eye out for wildlife such as deer, sheep, ibex and eagles, although you will also need to be careful you don’t annoy any wild boar or bears!


Experience an oasis village

If you want to experience a true desert oasis in Iran, head to the village of Garmeh
Desert oasis” by Gabriel White is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 | cropped from original

Yeah, I just mentioned skiing, but you simply can’t go to Iran without experiencing the desert! Immersed amongst the date palms and unique crumbling castles, Garmeh is a classic desert oasis village, built using rustic mud-bricks. The village is 1500 years old, but becoming a bit of a popular destination for travellers looking to experience traditional Iranian desert life. While staying here you can organise camel-rides further into the desert, hikes to hot-water springs and excursions to the nearby salt flats. Just be aware that it does get ridiculously hot in summer, so you may want to visit during the cooler shoulder season.


So should you boycott Iran?

Why should we go giving our hard-earned dolly dollars and pink pounds to a regime that simply wants to see us dead?

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.

Gay Iran tips for gay travellers
Michael at the Azadi Tower in Tehran

For more inspiration:

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Gay Iran 6 tips for gay travellers to Iran

Happy travels are safe travels

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Stefan Arestis

Stefan is the co-founder, editor and author the gay travel blog nomadicboys.com. As a travel nerd, he has explored more than 80 countries across 5 continents. What he loves the most about travelling is discovering the local gay scene, making new friends and learning new cultures. His advice about LGBTQ travel has been featured in Gay Times, Gaycities, Pink News, Gay Star News, Attitude and Towleroad. He has also written about gay travel for other non-gay specific publications including Lonely Planet, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Huffington Post. Stefan is also a qualified lawyer, having practised as a commercial property litigator in London for over 10 years. He left his lawyer days behind to work full time on Nomadic Boys with his husband Sebastien. Find out more about Nomadic Boys.

27 thoughts on “Gay Iran: How safe is it for LGBTQ travellers?”

  1. is it dangerous i am flirting with iranian guys from iran on social media? i wish i could be in a relationship with a handsome persian guy. please advise.

  2. I have been in Iran for 3 months before and I can say that Iran surprised me by all means. Because of the media I was assuming that there were so many ignorant and conservative people all around Iran but no! Iranian people were really friendly and caring. I’ve also met so many gay friends too. Reading about Iran from a gay perspective was amazing. Thanks Michael for this detalied post and that you for sharing.

  3. I’d love to visit Iran. Everything I’ve heard from people who have actually been there indicates people are warm and welcoming. And of course there is the incredible history and culture. But after reading your article, I realized that at least for me, having to take even one step back into the closet makes Iran literally a “no go” for me. I’ve done that in the past when visiting other countries, and I’m done with that. No more.

  4. hi I am Iranian too. its not really that bad you say. I kiss guys in public. but not on the street where everybody can see me. nowadays many people are okay with that. actually there is some statements in laws of Iran that could get gay people killed. but its not like “you are gay, you should be killed”. if two people in Iran want to have sex and they both are satisfied, law can’t kill them. I had a teacher who was a lawyer. he told me that. it is really hard to get killed by law. like, 4 men must have seen you “doing gay sex” to prove it. and that law is like for whores who make people to have sex. not two men who are just together. after all it is not that bad. I date guys in Iran and I have sex too. but I don’t talk about it in public. thats all. sorry for the wrong English. I don’t know much.

  5. im iranian and i have to say you are right , but pepole of iran are very kind , most of pepole dont notice you are gay or not ,but iranian regime hate gay pepole and arrest them ,i can help turiist whi want visit iran

  6. I am Iranian and if I wanted to advise my gay friends I would not change a word of what you said- awesome job in screening your travel destination culture. There are a lot of underground parties and gay groups in Iran but I would encourage to stay away from it. I hope you enjoyed the food, hospitality and my hometown Esfahan. Miss my gay friends (Ahmad and Goli) still living high life in there. Love love love the last pic of Michael and Halef wearning their rings in Iran! Love never fails.

  7. Iran is one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. I found there a lot of information about Iran out there, however most of it is either false or out of date. As a visitor to Iran, there are several things that must to know before an arrival. Crossing the Road is Probably the Most Dangerous in Iran. Crossing the road in Iran is terrifying. Be Prepared for Some Crazy Drivers.

  8. Michael that boycott point is dead on dude! I love your take because it focuses on love, harmony and open-ness. Force negates. Power wins. Or love wins. Respect local culture. This is exactly how change happens. When we try to will our views, that is how change is resisted, and this also leads to all types of problems. Thanks for the rocking share guys 🙂

    Ryan

    • Thank you, Ryan. I’ve always had a policy of not boycotting countries (unless I thought there was imminent danger). I am pretty socially active and aware, so if I boycotted every country that I thought was wrong about something – even terribly wrong – then it would severely limit my movement. Gay rights, women’s rights, extreme wealth inequality, oppression, discrimination against native populations, lack of freedom for the media, etc.

      Pretty soon, you run out of places to visit. There are so many beautiful things and people to see in the world. In Iran, I really had to see Persepolis – the seat of ancient Persia that was invaded by Alexander the Great. If I was to wait until Tehran was having gay pride parades, I’d never see it in my lifetime.

      The goal should be to do what you can to change it – not necessarily boycott it. I think Stefan and Sebastien summed it up pretty well – at least about gay rights – in the post we linked in this article.

      Be socially aware. Work to change it. Speak up. Donate money and time. And, just as importantly, get out, meet, and spend your tourist dollars with the people affected by the things you’re outraged about.

  9. Thanks for those tips ! Always a good thing to discover out of the road destination and people. More over we could think that Iran is honnest, rules are the same for everyone not like some other countries which apply restrictive law to its own citizens but apply welcoming treatments and does not apply laws for pink dollars tourists. It is a chance, for your as a tourist and for the people you will met in the way, to increase your awarness of the gay life of other person and wider their horizon !

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