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Gay Iranian boy Sepehr tells us about gay life in Iran

Stefan Arestis
Gay Iranian boy Sepehr tells us about gay life in Iran

Our local friend Sepehr from Shiraz tells us what gay life in Iran is like including his experience of what it's like living with HIV in Iran.

“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who has told you we have that.” So said former Iranian despot, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Columbia University in New York in front of some pretty shocked crowds!

Well, poor dear Mahmoud couldn't be any more mistaken! As with most tyrannical rulers who take this ridiculous “there are no gays in my country” line (Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya to name another!), an LGBTQ community is very much alive and well, albeit forced to go underground and live a closeted life.

Gay couple travel book Nomadic Boys Out in the World

Iran's stance on LGBTQ rights is horrific. Being gay in Iran is not only illegal, but it also carries with it a death sentence. What shocked us the most is this is so enthusiastically enforced by the Iranian government in such a sadistic manner: proudly carrying out death sentences in public. For example, 3 men were publicly sentenced to death in 2011 and another gay man publicly hanged in 2019. Young gay men are not excluded! In 2016, 19-year old Hassan Afshar was publicly hanged for “forced male-to-male anal intercourse”!

We always strive to use our blog to support LGBTQ communities that are forced underground by giving them a voice to inspire action and raise awareness. In this article, we do this by interviewing Sepehr from Shiraz who tells us what gay life is like in Iran. Sepehr is also HIV positive and was very open to giving us his perspective of what it's like living with HIV in Iran. However, for obvious reasons, we've agreed to keep his identity anonymous and have used “Sepehr” as his alias – a common Iranian boy's name, which also means “sky and space” in Persian.

This is Sepehr's story.

Hi Sepehr, please introduce yourself:

My name is Sepehr. I was born in 1990 in the city of Shiraz, located in southern Iran. I am a mechanical engineer in Tehran but my passion has always been for architecture and art, which I pursue as a hobby.

I grew up in and around Shiraz, which is where my parents' home is. Some of my favorite memories in life are also here, such as pruning our olive garden every morning with my mother. I have also lived in several other cities around Iran including Rasht, Mashhad, and Yazd. Today I live and work in Tehran.

Due to the culture of my homeland, I cannot be openly gay so I lead a largely closeted life. I am also HIV positive after being diagnosed in 2017, but as with homosexuality, being HIV positive is also a big taboo in Iran, so I keep this only between myself and my doctors.

When did you realize you were gay?

I was around 14 years old when I first realized that I was “different” from all my friends. For example, I remember gazing into my (male) best friend's beautiful eyes at High School and my heart was beating fast as I spoke to him! He was my first love but I was too afraid to tell him how I felt about him, so I instead wrote anonymous love letters to him.

As a young gay teen, I remember feeling that I was the only man alive who loves in a different way from others. As there was simply no positive visibility of anything related to homosexuality when I was growing up, I felt like an alien.

However, over time, I quickly began to realize that I wasn't alone, I wasn't ill or weird or “different” and that there in fact others out there who feel the same way as me. Discovering this was such an empowering moment in my life!

Sepehr gay guy in Iran running with his father
Coming out brings with it a strong feeling of elation!

Are you out to anyone?

Living in Iran, I have to lead a largely closeted life – for my safety. Therefore, I am only out to a select group of people who I trust wholeheartedly. This includes my parents and my close friends.

How did your parents react when you came out to them?

It happened one afternoon a few years back. Every week when I'd visit my parents they would ask me when I was going to get married (to a girl). This started to grain on me a lot, so one time when I visited, whilst the three of us were watching TV together, I plucked up the courage, grabbed the remote, and switched the TV off. My parents looked at me alarmed and I said to them:

“Mom and dad, I don't love girls, I am not attracted to them. I am attracted to men.”

My parents looked at me in shock, there was a long uncomfortable and awkward silence, and my father finally said:

“You're kidding right?!”

The next day, my mother took me to a psychologist to “guide” me. We went for around 3 sessions until they quickly realized it was a waste of time. They quickly concluded there was nothing wrong with me at all and I was simply leading a life that nature intended.

It took a while for my parents to appreciate this. Still today they don't fully accept or understand that I am gay. However, we've reached the point where we agree that we will not speak about it and I am not to divulge it to anyone for fear of gossip.

I know it was not easy for my parents to see their boy in this ‘unconventional' situation, so a large part of their reaction was induced by shock. They still love me and keep telling me this, however, they have also made it clear that homosexuality is not something that they are able to comprehend. Hopefully, with time, their attitudes will evolve.

Growing up gay in Iran
Pressure from family and society in Iran makes coming out very hard!

What was it like growing up gay in Iran?

I'm not going to lie, it is hard!

The best analogy I can give is that I feel like a bluebird – a happy and innocent bird that doesn't mean any harm to anyone.

This bird loves being in the trees and wants to just spend all day in and around the trees – but those trees don't want the poor bluebird to sit on their branches, or to come anywhere near them! The trees only allow pink colored birds to rest on them – no one knows the reason why.

The trees are all different shades of green, but they only allow the pink birds in and advise all birds to be pink…so the poor bluebird doesn't have its own branch to sit on and feels rejected!

When were you diagnosed with HIV?

Three years ago, I was sweating hard while walking. I had a little bit of pain in my lymphatic glands. I went to an HIV center governed by the health ministry, then after a rapid test, I was diagnosed as POZ. I think it was caused by a previous sexual partner as he was the only person I was with that entire year. However, he later tested negative, so we are not 100% sure he was the cause!

When I was diagnosed with HIV it affected me really badly. I had severe depression for the next 6 months.

I felt so awful – like my life was no longer worth living! However, thanks to the support of my family and close friends I was gradually able to pick myself up and see life from a completely different perspective. I started to take better care of myself, taking more vitamins, doing more sports, paying more attention to my overall fitness, and trying to focus more on being happy.

Today, I feel my life is no different than before. I am undetectable, which means my HIV viral load is so low that it cannot be detected, and I cannot pass it on during sex.

Is it easy to obtain HIV medicine and treatment in hospitals in Iran?

Despite what you may think, it's actually very easy! In fact, all HIV medicines, tests, additional pills, and periodic health check-ups are not only available, but they are free! In this case, my country, as far as I think and I've seen, acts well.  

Also, the doctors I've encountered have been amazing. At first, I was scared to approach them and talk about my sexuality with them. However, my experience with the doctors in Iran has been so positive. I never felt victimized by them for being gay or for having HIV. Even in the HIV Centres in Iran they openly discuss homosexuality in a non-judgmental manner, even offering free condoms to men who are gay.

On one occasion I had to visit a hospital in Yazd because of a chest pain I was experiencing at the time. During my consultation with the doctors, I had to tell them I was HIV positive and that I have sex with other men.

Yet this did not change their manner at all! They continued to be kind and gentle towards me as if I was any other patient, never passing any judgement, and never making any homophobic comments.

How do you meet other gay guys in Iran?

I meet other guys mainly via gay dating apps like Grindr, Hornet, Scruff, and Planet Romeo. Instagram is another very useful social media platform we use to connect with each other. Otherwise, it is quite hard, and I cannot imagine what life was like before they were invented!

Is there a gay scene in Iran?

There is no gay scene as you know it in the West because of the anti-gay laws in Iran. There are no businesses that would dare set themselves up as being “gay” or “gay friendly”! However, there are occasional private ad hoc underground gay parties that happen but they're only advertised last minute by word of mouth, social media, and gay dating apps.

Also, look out for our Iran Pride Day on the fourth Friday of every July, which is celebrated annually in secret since it began in 2010. In 2017, for the first time, the organizers of Iran Pride Day decided to hold the event openly as part of the Amsterdam Gay Pride Festival. Most of them had to cover their faces to protect their identity and avoid prosecution upon their return to Iran. They repeated it again in 2018 and 2019, each year growing bolder.

Is there an active LGBTQ organization in Iran?

There are none because it is illegal for any political parties and organizations to endorse LGBTQ rights in Iran! However, there are a few excellent active LGBTQ organizations outside of the country, particularly in Canada.

The most famous is the International Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR), which was set up by activist Arsham Parsi. The name is inspired by the Underground Railroad that helped African-Americans escape slavery in the 1800s. IRQR helps queer Iranians flee to Turkey and then to Canada for a better life.

An excellent online queer resource I recommend checking out is OutRight Action International's LGBTQ page in Persian.

Iran Pride float in Amsterdam
The fabulous Iran Pride team flying the flag in the canals of Amsterdam

Do you have hopes that homosexuality may be legalized one day in Iran?

Absolutely! I remain very positive about this. There was a time when slavery, colonization, world wars, and government-based massacres were the norm in our world (and sadly still are in some places). Over time it will change, particularly as homosexuality becomes more normalized in our society. However, like most things, it will take time.

Whether this will happen in my lifetime is another question! In the meantime, we continue to fight for progressive change.

Is Iran safe for gay travelers?

It can be! If you head here as a visitor who just wants to experience the natural beauty of my homeland and you keep your sexuality to yourself, you'll be just fine. However, you have to respect the fact that Iran is an extremely conservative religious country, so all romantic displays of affection must be avoided.

I have many foreign gay friends who have traveled to Iran and loved it. They've always had a safe trip, never experiencing any problems.

For example, no one asked them at the airport if they are gay! But in all cases, they kept their sexuality a secret. Bare in mind that you have to apply for a visa beforehand: in this application, gay married couples should declare they are “single” as gay relationships are not recognized in Iran.

You may also be required to confirm your Facebook and Twitter profiles as part of this, so either remove any posts that are critical of the Iranian government, as well as any “gay” posts or, better still, set your profiles to “private” for the duration of your visit.

Iranian gay guys kissing at Pride Amsterdam
Iran Gay Pride in its full glory!

What precautions should gay travelers take when traveling to Iran?

Iran is a lot safer than you may think. Iranians are very kind-hearted people who love connecting with all foreigners. We are proud of our country and love to show it off. Therefore, I guarantee all visitors will feel this warmth when they visit. However, as a gay person, you need to stay in the closet in Iran. Just avoid being openly gay here and especially don't proposition anyone publicly – the gay apps are a lot safer for that.

As stated above, for gay couples, when applying for your Iranian visa, make sure you put “single” in your visa application to avoid it being rejected. Also, when checking into hotels, consider booking single beds instead of a double, especially if you're staying in a small family-owned guesthouse.

Another tip is to be careful with what you post about Iran on social media during your visit as there is strong Internet censorship. It's best to avoid posting anything and save it for after your trip. If you have a very “gay” profile, it may be worth setting it to “private” during your stay or even consider “deactivating” it temporarily until you return back home.

I recommend gay travelers visiting Iran to join this very useful Facebook Expat Group and to also check out this interesting article about gay travel to Iran by two very good friends of mine!!

Our gay tips for Iran all LGBTQ travellers need to read
All LGBTQ travellers to Iran need to read this!

Are gay dating apps blocked or allowed in Iran?

Sadly yes. Iran has very tight Internet censorship laws with thousands of websites and apps blocked, including Grindr, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. You need a VPN to access them. Some of my gay foreign friends who've visited Iran in the past have used this as an opportunity to take a refreshing break from technology!

What are the most beautiful places in Iran you recommend to travelers to visit?

Iran is a really beautiful country with a rich history dating back to the famous Persian Empire. We have many historic places, ancient sites, and 22 UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the Ancient Persepolis ruins, Bam, and the Historic City of Yazd.

My favorite place to visit in Iran is Isfahan. It is famous for the Masjed-e Jāmé “Friday Mosque”, which dates back to 841 AD! Isfahan also has many beautiful bridges, palaces, and other historical buildings to explore.

I also love the capital, Tehran. It has such an exciting vibe, full of markets – like the Grand Bazaar, which is 6.5 miles (10km) long! The Milad Tower of Tehran dominates the skyline of the city, which you can climb for some pretty stunning views!

And you can't talk about Iran without mentioning the super pretty pink mosque in Shiraz – The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque:

The Nasir al-Mulk Pink Mosque in Shiraz
A Pink Mosque! Located in Shiraz (aka The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque)

Are there any famous openly gay Iranian celebrities?

There are no openly gay Iranian celebrities living in Iran, for obvious reasons… However, outside of the country, there are several who are proudly flying the flag for us!

Arsham Parsi is the one I admire the most. He's a human rights activist living in exile in Canada who founded the International Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR) and does a lot to help LGBTQ Iranian seeking refuge abroad.

Mania Akbari is a filmmaker and artist who fled Iran to release her films because her movie explores very controversial issues that are banned in Iran, in particular women's rights and sexual identity. For this reason, she had to flee the country to London, where she lives now in exile. Her escape was the story behind her 2011 movie “From Tehran to London”.

Another gay Iranian I really like is Ali Mafi. Ali is an openly gay Iranian comedian living in San Francisco. I love him because he uses his stand-up routines to talk about what it's like being gay in an Iranian household amongst other things. Oh and there's also Eddie Razaz (Ardalan Razaz Rahmati), an Iranian-Swedish singer/model who came out in May 2010…he's super cute:

Do you plan to live your life in Iran or do you want to move someplace else?

It really depends on what The Sisters of Destiny have in store for me!

I would love to one day lead a simple life with my lover to hand without fear of persecution from anyone. However, at the moment I have an excellent and stable job, I have free access to HIV care, modern medical checks, great friends, and most importantly, an amazing caring mother. Leaving all this behind would be extremely hard for me! I do feel like I have a free and open lifestyle in Tehran although at the same time, I appreciate that I cannot be as “open” as I would like if I was based somewhere like Toronto, London, or Stockholm.

But who knows what lies ahead…I never say never!

Read more travel stories like this in our book!

Like what you read?

We've got more stories and practical tips like this in our gay travel book, Out in the World, available to order now.

Click on the book to order:

Gay couple travel book Nomadic Boys Out in the World

Happy travels are safe travels

We recommend you always take out reputable travel insurance before your next vacation. What happens if you suffer from illness, injury, theft, or a cancellation? Many gay travelers forget about it and regret it when something happens. Better to pay a small price and have peace of mind and not worry.

Stefan Arestis

Hey everyone, I'm Stefan, the curly-haired Greek flavor behind the gay travel blog Nomadic Boys. Together with my other half, I have explored more than 90 countries across 5 continents. What I love most about traveling is discovering the local gay scene, making new friends, learning new cultures. I've written about LGBTQ travel in numerous online publications such as Gaycation Magazine, Gaycities, Gay Times and Pink News as well as for other non-gay-specific publications including Lonely Planet, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post. Check my full bio here.

José María Ravines

Saturday 24th of June 2023

Hi, hello, can I contact that young man called Sepehr via online trough some known social media or something like that? I really wanna ask him many questions, please, because this interview gave me many more doubts, you know? I'm a peruvian, but I'm afraid traveling to Iran and, at the moment, I don't wanna travel to there anyway, so... Please! How can I contact him? PLEASE!

Stefan Arestis

Sunday 25th of June 2023

We definitely recommend the tips he gives in this article for gay travel in Iran.

Harry Mercereau

Tuesday 8th of December 2020

I had a short visit to Tehran for work. I fell in love with the people who were so hospitable and kind. I hope to go back and visit some of the places mentioned in this article.

Stefan Arestis

Wednesday 9th of December 2020

So I hear from all my friends who've also visited!