Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Queerest Denial - Op-Ed from the Wall Street Journal

From the Wall Street Journal

Ahmadinejad says there are no gays in Iran.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been doing a brisk business in harassing, entrapping, lashing, imprisoning and executing homosexuals since nearly the moment it came to power in 1979, with little notice in the West beyond the occasional human-rights report. So when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the startling claim at Columbia University last week that "we do not have homosexuals in Iran like you do in your country," it offered what could have been a learning opportunity to those who think Iran is just another misunderstood regime with an equally misunderstood president.

Such wishful thinking. The Democratic Party's presidential hopefuls spent a fair bit of time Wednesday night debating what to do about Iran, without once mentioning Ahmadinejad's peculiar world view. These are the same debaters who in August went before a gay audience to denounce Bush administration policies as "demeaning" and "degrading" toward gays. In the Nation--a magazine that excoriated Ronald Reagan upon his passing for his "inaction and bigotry against gays"--editor Katrina vanden Heuvel has nothing to say about the subject either. Instead, she devotes her latest column to denouncing last week's symbolic Senate vote to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization.

In the Guardian, another crusading voice from the left on gay rights, foreign-affairs columnist Martin Woollacott lambastes Columbia's president Lee Bollinger for his "mean-spirited" remarks to the Iranian president, which he takes as an indication that "it is still difficult to suggest that Iran has arguments and interests worth considering on their merits." But again, no mention of Mr. Ahmadinejad's attitude toward gays, much less its "merits." And on "progressive" Web sites like Democratic Underground, there are earnest debates about exactly what Mr. Ahmadinejad meant by the word "like," as if he were merely making an academic cultural comparison rather than denying the existence of an entire category of his own citizens.

Long gone are the days when people spoke of the love that dare not speak its name. We are now living in the era of the hate-that-dare-not-be-spoken-about--lest disingenuous neocons use Mr. Ahmadinejad's unfortunate pronouncements to cut off dialogue and beat the drums for war. But if one side of the political spectrum is not to be trusted to discuss the subject, and the other side simply won't, who will?

For that, turn to a revealing and moving documentary by Indian-born journalist Parvez Sharma called "A Jihad for Love," which he describes as a "discussion about Islam through its most unlikely storytellers." Mr. Sharma (who is very far from being a conservative of any kind) spent six years filming his subjects on four continents: They include a gay imam in South Africa, a lesbian couple in Istanbul, an Egyptian who spent a year in prison for being gay before fleeing to Paris, and four young men who fled Iran for their lives and now live as political refugees in Canada.

The documentary is notable for its depiction of the tenacity with which its subjects hold on to their faith despite the wall of bigotry, often homicidal, that confronts them. Nowhere is that seen more vividly than in the plight of the Iranians. Take Arsham Parsi, 27, a subject of Mr. Sharma's who now runs the Iranian Queer Organization (irqo.net) from Toronto. In 2001, he says in a phone interview, "two of my close friends committed suicide because of the bad situation for queer people." Their deaths galvanized him to begin a gay and lesbian support group, conducted furtively and electronically, consisting largely of articles on gay-related subjects from English language sources. The enterprise grew to include six separate electronic magazines. "We used to think we were alone in the world," Mr. Parsi says. "With these magazines, we knew we were not."

In fact, homosexuality has a particularly rich history in Iran--the Qajar dynasty's Nasseruddin Shah, a contemporary of Queen Victoria and ruler of Iran for nearly 50 years, took a Kurdish boy named Malijak as his lifelong lover. It is hardly less present in contemporary Iran, not just in the parks of Tehran but the seminaries of Qom. But Mr. Parsi's activism put him at particular risk. "The police use the Internet to make undercover arrests," he says. "They'll write to say 'I am looking for a partner,' entrap someone, and use their correspondence as evidence." That was the fate of friends of Mr. Parsi, who in 2003 were sentenced to 100 lashes in the space of an hour, and it would have been his, too, had he not fled Iran on word he was about to be arrested.

From Toronto, Mr. Parsi works on asylum cases and continues to publish a newsletter called Cheraq ("Light"), which reaches about 3,000 readers in Iran. Yesterday, it published a selection of letters to Mr. Ahmadinejad by gay Iranians.

"I pray that some false note in the divine composition has you fathering a gay offspring so that the hammer that you've raised over our heads comes down on your very own," writes one. "I recommend you partake in the first Iranian gay Pride parade so you can see for yourself that it will be more glorious and more populated than your Quds day or annual revolution commemoration day parades," writes another, adding that a gay parade would be attended voluntarily, in contrast to "a bunch of schoolchildren and innocent peasants who have been forced to show up to punch the 'world oppressors' in the mouth."

All of this ought to be evidence that, when it comes to the Iranian regime, the gap between bad neocons and pure-of-heart progressives ought to be no more than tactical: This is, ultimately, a regime that needs to go. Not so. Mr. Sharma, for instance, rails in the Huffington Post against the "the Good-vs.-Evil caricature" that he says prevails in Western attitudes toward Iran.

Mr. Sharma is a gifted filmmaker, but his politics remind me of the Socratic observation that poets are poor judges of their own work. Or how else is one supposed to view the scene he captures of Mr. Parsi at last arriving in Toronto and weeping both for the freedom he has gained and his friends still trapped in Islamist captivity? Is it a testament that there is no meaningful difference between free and unfree, Bushworld and Ahmadinejadland? Take that view seriously, and you wind up taking the notion of gay rights, and human rights, too lightly for anyone's good.

Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. His column appears in the Journal Tuesdays.

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