No Gays in Iran… But Many Same-Sex Couples

New America Media, Commentary, William O. Beeman Posted: Sep 26, 2007

Editor’s Note: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comment that homosexuality does not exist in Iran like it does in the West is true in a sense, writes anthropologist William Beeman. In fact, same-sex relations in Iran do look very different from what is called gay behavior in the West.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was derided for his statement in a Sept. 24 speech at Columbia University that homosexuality doesn't exist in Iran. Though many Americans may find it incredible, differences in the construction of sexual behavior do exist across cultures.

As an anthropologist, I can state with confidence that sexuality varies tremendously between cultures. The notion that one is either "gay" or "straight" does not accord with what we observe in human sexual behavior, which is far more flexible. This categorization is an artifact of American culture, which glories in binary categories for classifying people. Folks that identify as "bisexual" (yet another ambiguous category) in the United States often get grief from both the gay and straight community for "deluding" themselves about their sexuality.

Of course it is impossible to discern precisely what President Ahmadinejad meant in his remarks. But what is true is the construction of same-sex behavior and, indeed, same-sex affection in Iran is extremely different than in Europe and America. There has been a recent phenomenon of Western-style "gay culture" emerging in Iran – replete with gay bars, clubs and house parties – but this is very new, largely limited to the upper classes, and likely not known to President Ahmadinejad, whose social milieu is the middle and lower-middle class. This recent Western-style gay phenomenon is distinct from ordinary same-sex behavior as practiced traditionally in Iran. Indeed, there was not even a word for homosexuality in Persian before the 20th century. It had to be invented. The term used by President Ahmadinejad was “hamjensbaz,” a neologism that literally means, “playing with the same sex.”

In Iran, same-sex sexual behavior is classified rigidly into active and passive roles. The Arabic terms “fa’el” and “maf’oul” (active and passive – actually grammatical terms used to describe active and passive verbs) were the common designation for these roles. The passive partner is still called by the Arabic term “obneh,” or, more crudely, “kuni.” (Kun means anus.) The active vs. passive same-sex preference is well known in the Western world, but it is constructed quite differently in Iran and other Arab and Mediterranean cultures.

Active partners in Iran do not consider themselves to be “homosexual.” Indeed, it is a kind of macho boast in some circles that one has been an active partner with another male. Passive partners are denigrated and carry a life-long stigma if their sexual role is known, even after a single incident. They have been deflowered, as it were, in the same way that women might lose their virginity, and they are considered to be "xarob" or "destroyed."

In actual fact, many men are "versatile" in their sexual activity but if they are known to have relations with other men, they will always claim in public to be the active partner. Same-sex relations between females are undoubtedly practiced, but this is the deepest secret in Iran, and rarely talked about at all.

Emotional relations are very different. Men and women both may become exceptionally attached to people of the same sex, to the point that Westerners would swear that they must have a sexual relationship. It is not necessarily so. Kissing, holding hands, weeping, jealousy, physical contact and all the signs of partnership can exist without any sexual activity or, indeed, with an undercurrent of absolute horror that it might take place, because of the active-passive split in sexual classification and men's fear of being pegged as a passive partner. A man who truly loves another man doesn't want to degrade him by making him a passive sex partner.

More typically, male teenagers who become exceptionally attached may marry sisters in order to become kin to each other, thereby creating a lifelong bond. There is even a quasi-marriage ceremony based on the idea of “muta,” or temporary marriage, through which two men or two women can become fictive “siblings.” This takes care of many things, allowing intimate relations, and intimacy between family relations, but also imposing an even stronger taboo against sexual relations, which would be considered incest.

Iranians who come to Europe and the United States may "discover" that they are "gay" once they are liberated from the rigid cultural system that binds them into these polarized active-passive roles.

To be sure, sodomy is punishable by death in Iran, but such executions have been historically extremely rare compared with the routine incidence of same-sex sexual behavior in Iran. Much was made in the United States of two boys who were executed in the city of Mashhad a few years ago for "being homosexual," as the Western press put it. However, they were executed because they had essentially committed what we would call statutory rape on an under-aged boy. The boy's father was beside himself with rage and grief, and pressed charges. In many such cases, the shame of the family and the victim himself is so great that no one ever finds out.

In the end, both the United States and Iran classify sexuality in a way that fails to accord with the range of actual human proclivities. However, there is no doubt that the two systems are very different.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He has been conducting research in Iran for more than 30 years, and is a fluent speaker of Persian. He is author of Language, Status and Power in Iran and The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other, the second edition of which will be published later this year by the University of Chicago Press.

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User Comments

Tim on Oct 05, 2007 at 07:33:04 said:

Ok, just to clarify: putting your penis into another man\'s rectum is not considered gay in Iran? Call it whatever you want, you\'re gay. Period. The cultural norms don\'t apply to the simple fact of same sex intercourse is homosexual.

i have an example on Sep 30, 2007 at 08:50:32 said:

So I was in Iran traveling with an iranian friend. We were hanging out with some poorer iranians and we went by a military check point. There was a 18 year old officer. As we left our iranian driver said, "see that officer? i did him". Everyone laughed. This is like the article mentions. Here was a tough guy bragging and joking about having an officer be his bi*tch. Its a power thing not a gay thing...kinda like prison in the sex and it doesnt coorespond to all segments of society but the lower class moreso.

RONALD M CONVERSE on Sep 30, 2007 at 07:08:44 said:

I am sure Greg that you are not convinced; find many Americans only want to believe what they want to believe, especially if it is putting down others who are different; I say that as an American gay who has been persecuted in this so called "free" country of the USA

John Hammurabi on Sep 29, 2007 at 15:43:16 said:

President Ahmadinejad was absolutely correct culturally, when he said "there is no homosexuality in Iran, [the former kingdom of the Hamite, "Cyrus the Great"] as in the United States".
Euro-Americans appear to have reacted as if Homosexuality was a universal biological disorder. But in fact, the so-called "gay Gene" is carried predominately by Albinos, a result of melanin deficiancy in the sex chromosomes causing some to carry an extra ys or xs sex gene, or mulitples of an extra gene. Ofcourse there are sexual deviants who simple chose to be lovers of themselves, but most have a biological condition.
It is only "denial" of the true source, and true carriers of the 'deviant sexual gene'that causes the confusion in Europe and America concerning homosexuality.
Gentile medical scientist are aware of the true cause of homosexuality, but will not reveal the truth to the public.
When ever I make the statement that "there was no sexual deviancy in Africa (the land of Ham) until Gentiles brought it there", I receive the same reaction.
My only response is, "research any primitive culture were Gentile men have not spread their sperm, and you'll find no sexual deviancy in that culture."
European Knights Templars are in possess- ion of true world history, and particularly that of the classical Greeks and Romans, I am not referring to those priestly myths concerning 'Romelus and Remus' or the 'Spar-
tans, Croesus and Hercules', but real and geniune "history", that which is true, and not false, concerning classical Greece and Rome.
If the truth be told you will find that the reason the Gentiles/Albinos were not permitted in the temple during Jesus' day is because of the same homosexual delima of today. It was for this cause that he com-manded his disciples:
"Go not into the way of the Gentiles,
and into any of the cities of the Sa-
matitans, enter ye not."
(Matthew 10:5)

David James Vickery on Sep 29, 2007 at 05:04:53 said:

Thanks for your timely and important article. I have submitted it to the Toronto Star who will hopefully publish it. Like many other reasonable people I felt shocked and deeply disturbed by Bollinger's thuggish behaviour.

David James Vickery (Daoud)
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

JBello on Sep 28, 2007 at 19:03:38 said:

I understood as much from the context. I am glad to hear my opinion validated by an expert. As far as bad treatment of Gays in the West goes, it hasn't been so very long since terrible punishments were visited on men who were convicted of being with willing boys or young men whose families needed a scapegoat.
Take the story of Alan Turing, war hero, brilliant code breaker during World War II, father of the computer as we know it. Turing committed suicide after being convicted of being a homosexual (who had an affair with the wrong young man). He spent some time in jail, and then was subjected to ongoing Estrogen treatments to cure his 'disease'. People said he was never the same. This is no surprise. Finally, he gave up and took his own life.
Regardless of the laws regarding homosexuals in Iran, Ahmadinejad is a product of his culture, not it's master.

Ajit on Sep 27, 2007 at 23:07:46 said:

The whole western Mediaworld is so damn busy pouring scorn on Ahmadinejad for his "no gays in Iran" comment. This doesn't sound funny coming from people who mistreated gays only one or two generations ago.
Yes, Indeed there are places like Iran where gays and women are mistreated but then there are some places who are responsible for death of millions of iraqis, for turning many central american countries to mass cemeteries.
Instead of recognising this simple fact and working to resolve conflict by dialogue, Americans insulted in the worst possible manner a guest who came to their home seeking a dialogue.Bollinger may be drowning in congratulatory messages for his hooligan performance.

William Beeman on Sep 26, 2007 at 16:00:51 said:

Please note, the term "statutory rape" was used in the article. Statutory rape may involve the willing participation of the underaged partner, but it is nevertheless actionable because the individual has not reached majority status.

GregV on Sep 26, 2007 at 15:07:31 said:

I am not convinced that the teens who were imprisoned, whipped and executed were any more guilty of "rape" than Genarlow Williams was. That charge was only added by Iranian authorities after International Human Rights Groups denounced the killings.




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