During the Vietnam War, it’s commonly joked that all you had to do was say that you were gay and you could avoid the draft. While this was somewhat true at the beginning, as the war progressed you might have had to convince a psychologist if they would even accept the admission at all. For compulsory military service in Iran, the decision of whether or not to reveal their queer identity has many consequences.
Akin to some countries around the world, males 18 years and older must serve in the military for two years in Iran, before or after their university experience. After serving each man is issued a document showing they completed their tour of duty. Without this, an Iranian man cannot legally buy or sell anything, participate in formal activities, be employed by the government, or obtain a passport. Further, many areas in the private sector recruit men specifically because they have served in the military.
Like in the U.S., men and their families try to get out of military service for various reasons. One way this does work is to declare being homosexual. Since this has to be determined, gay Iranian men will be sent to doctors to be examined, usually in the form of an invasive rectal exam. The idea is that if you are a bottom, then you are homosexual, and can be excused from military service. Tops, showing no physical signs of “homosexuality” are declared fit for service. Seems pretty inclusive, doesn’t it?
Sexuality in Iran works a little differently than in the U.S. and other Western nations. Remember former Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country,” comment? Well, in his mind he was correct. He was speaking from the belief of his culture where homosexuality, as a state of equal desire, intimacy, and partnership between to people of the same gender, doesn’t make sense. In the U.S. we’ve gotten beyond sexual roles in relationships (for the most part) but there it makes a huge difference: the top is seen to be the true man and the bottom is equated with the status of a woman. And women can’t serve in the Iranian military.
So what to do with all of these men who have sex with men? Simple, give them operations so they become women. Since Ayatollah Khomeini passed a religious edit in 1979 authorizing sexual reassignment surgeries for “diagnosed transsexuals,” Iran has carried out the second highest number of them, only behind Thailand. This puts many people in an uncomfortable place: remain an openly gay man and risk public discrimination and possible execution, or go through with a surgery and live in a body that doesn’t feel like your own.
A religious cleric responsible for sexual reassignment surgeries, Hojatol Islam Muhammad Mehdi Kariminia elaborated on the topic, saying that, “The discussion [of transsexuals and sexual reassignment surgery] is fundamentally separate from a discussion regarding homosexuals. Absolutely not related. Homosexuals are doing something unnatural and against religion.”
If a man who requests exemption from military service is granted it, he receives an exemption card, which until recently defined the type of exemption based on color and description. Today they are all alike, except for the number of the section or addendum of penal code to which the exemption refers, making discrimination less likely.
Iran’s government and society shows no signs of becoming more tolerant. Hopefully any decisions you have to make this week won’t seem as daunting as those looking at their mandatory military services.