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SDSU grad student tells what it's like being gay in Iran, where it is illegal to be gay

SAN DIEGO -- "Painter" is a graduate student at San Diego State University who wishes to remain anonymous because of the danger he could face back home in Iran if he openly reveals his sexual orientation.

He will be called Painter because his favorite pastime and passion is painting.

Iranians can be arrested for being gay or lesbian, Painter said. If a person is simply accused of having sex with a person of the same gender, he or she can be executed, often by public stoning, he said.

In a turn that may seem odd to the western world, a proposed solution to homosexuality in Iran is having a sex-change operation. Transsexuals, unlike homosexuals, “exist” under Iranian law, and there is pressure on gays and lesbians to have sex-reassignment surgeries.

But, Saghi Ghahraman, head of the Toronto-based organization that helps LGBT refugees, Iranian Queer Organization, told Global Post that having a sex change does not necessarily translate into becoming accepted in Iran.

“I don’t know what would happen to me if I go back,” Painter said.

Painter moved to his new apartment near SDSU this summer. His paintings are already hanging on the walls. He sat on a kitchen stool as he watched over his boiling Ghormeh sabzi, a Persian dish he refers to as “green stew.”

His bright blue Adidas T-shirt and pair of light pink shorts compliment his tall, dark and handsome features.

“I really like to wear colorful clothes,” Painter said. “In Iran if a guy wears pink or green pants, he gets called girly or gay.”

Painter moved to San Diego almost a year ago to start his engineering program. He is three semesters from graduation, and said he is not planning to return to his hometown in Iran.

“I don’t think I will have the life that I want there,” Painter said. “If I go back, I’ll be in the closet forever.”

Shortly before Painter moved away, an ex-boyfriend began revealing Painter’s sexual orientation to their group of friends. Painter said he flew to another country for a job interview. When he came back home, his parents told him they had received an “unfortunate phone call” and that his ex-boyfriend had also told them.

“There was a big fight when I came back,” Painter said. “I had to lie to them, because they couldn't accept it.”

They forced him to see a psychologist, but his psychologist did not attempt to change him. She told him not to push himself to anything, Painter said.

“She said, ‘if you’re gay, then you’re gay. It’s not a bad thing,’” Painter said. “If I was 99.99% sure that I was gay, that helped me be completely sure.”

Painter blames the lack of acceptance of gays and lesbians in Iran on the lack of a positive image for them. The first time he ever saw men living an openly gay life was through satellite television, which his parents obtained illegally. Painter said everyone has satellite television in Iran.

“It’s illegal, but everyone has it, even the religious or traditional people,” Painter said.

According to Painter, the television content was mostly from European or Arabic channels. Also, the NBA played at night, and he used his interest in basketball as an excuse to stay up late and watch television. During breaks, he flipped channels and found a French channel called Pink TV and they played the UK series “Queer As Folk.”

“It was the first time I saw something gay-explicit on TV,” Painter said. “It was the first episode, when Brian takes Justin to his house. I still remember that.”

His other outlet to gay life later became the Internet, and a chat room where he met another gay man from his university. Painter said new media has the potential to improve visibility for gays and lesbians in Iran.

“It is easy to find themselves as technology improves,” Painter said. “It helps them know that it’s not only them, but more people there. Two or three gays, they had to be silent. 10 million gays cannot be silent.”

Painter broke the silence to his siblings this year. He came out to his brother face to face, who then helped him tell their older sister. According to Painter, his siblings were accepting because they live outside of Iran, where they have been exposed to other gays and lesbians.

“It made it easier for them because they saw,” Painter said. “In Iran, they couldn’t accept it, but now they saw and they kind of accepted that being gay was not what they had in mind in Iran.”

Painter said his brother was relatively more accepting than his sister. She at first advised him to consider women one last time.

“I told her that I’m not a kid anymore, that I passed that confusion and that I know what I want,” Painter said. “She said, ‘OK.’”

Living on his own in San Diego and being more independent without the pressure to be straight has helped him accomplish more, Painter said.

“It was a big step for me to be here,” he said. “When your mind is busy and you don’t feel comfortable, it affects all your activities. Being here, I am not worried about being gay. I have peace of mind to work on other things.”