December 15, 2010


In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like you do in your country. This does not exist in our country.
—President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Columbia University, New York, September 24, 2007.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s now infamous denial in September 2007 that homosexuality exists in his country rings as hollow today as it did when the Iranian president made the claim before an audience at New York’s Columbia University more than three years ago.

Iranian authorities continue to process hundreds of applications from men seeking exemption from compulsory military service on the grounds that they are gay or transgender. Several prominent psychiatrists, psychologists, and sexologists, operating with the tacit approval of the state, have counseled hundreds of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Iranians to diagnose and “treat” their sexual “deviancy.” Moreover, Iran has become renowned throughout the world for its relatively large number of sex reassignment surgeries—at least some of which have been performed on Iranians who likely self-identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual but who felt compelled to undergo the procedure to erase the “stain” of homosexuality and become “legal” under Iranian law.[1]

Ahmadinejad’s position that Iran is free of homosexuals is consistent with the Iranian government’s denial of, and intolerance towards, its sexual minorities. The environment in Iran today is such that sexual minorities, who are often the victims of abuse and violence, are instead treated as culprits; the state appears to officially sanction harassment and abuse of LGBT persons by private actors and even police; and LGBT persons are often seen as diseased, criminals, or corrupt agents of Western culture.

Despite official pronouncements, however, it is believed that thousands of Iranians self-identify as members of Iran’s LGBT community, while many others engage in consensual same-sex acts prohibited under Iranian law. There are, of course, no official statistics regarding the size of Iran’s LGBT population, but their existence is acknowledged in many of Iran’s larger urban areas such as Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz. In the capital Tehran, for example, there are public areas known to be hangouts for Iranian LGBT. Some of these areas, such as cafes and restaurants, are associated with more well-to-do and middle class LGBT persons, while others, including several well-known parks, are frequented by LGBT persons who have often been rejected by their families and are living on the fringes of society—particularly gay men and transwomen who resort to prostitution in order to make a living.

This report—based on interviews with more than 125 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Iranians inside and outside Iran over the past five years—documents discrimination and violence against Iran’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens, and others whose sexual practices and gender expression do not conform to socio-religious norms.Human Rights Watch analyzed these abuses within the context of systematic human rights violations perpetrated by the Iranian government against its citizens generally, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, invasions of privacy, mistreatment and torture of detainees, and the lack of due process and fair trial standards.

Iran’s security forces, including police and forces of the hard-line paramilitary basij, rely upon discriminatory laws to harass, arrest, and detain individuals whom they suspect of being gay. The incidents often occur in parks and cafes, but Human Rights Watch also documented cases in which security forces raided homes and monitored internet sites for the purpose of detaining people they suspected of engaging in non-conforming sexual conduct or gender expression. The report also documents instances in which police and basij allegedly ill-treated and in some cases tortured actual or suspected LGBT people, both in public spaces and in detention facilities. Several individuals interviewed made allegations that members of the security forces had sexually assaulted or raped them.

Abuses resulting from the application of Iranian law are also discussed. For example, people charged with sexual crimes often endure summary trials that do not adhere to principles of fairness. Judges overseeing sodomy cases often ignore strict evidentiary guidelines within Iran’s penal code and use questionable investigative methods and evidence that should be inadmissible to decide guilt or innocence. Convictions frequently rely on confessions obtained through torture and extreme psychological pressure, and courts have convicted defendants of sodomy charges based solely on “knowledge of the judge” despite the existence of exculpatory evidence and a lack of inculpatory evidence. Finally, the report considers the plight of LGBT refugees who flee Iran for other countries (Turkey in particular), as well as the dangers faced by Iranians working on issues concerning the rights of sexual minorities.

Iranian law reflects the state’s hostile attitude towards sexual minorities, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Iran’s penal code criminalizes all sexual relations engaged in outside of traditional marriage and specifically bans same-sex conduct regardless of whether it is consensual in nature. The very real threat of prosecution and the serious punishment that awaits those convicted of same-sex crimes constitute discrimination against members of Iran’s LGBT minority whose consensual sexual practices are criminalized under any and all circumstances. For example, Iranian law prohibits sodomy, defined to include both consensual and coerced sexual intercourse between two men. The punishment for same-sex intercourse between two men (lavat) is death and for sexual relations between two women (mosaheqeh) is 100 lashes for the first three offenses and the death penalty for the fourth. Evidence indicates that the punishment has been enforced—the threat of execution is real for Iran’s vulnerable LGBT community.

Legal provisions that criminalize and impose capital punishment for consensual homosexual conduct run afoul of Iran’s obligations under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)—ratified by Iran in 1975—which prohibits death sentences except for “the most serious crimes.”[2] In addition, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) prohibits Iran from sentencing individuals to death for sodomy (or any other crime) allegedly committed while under the age of 18.[3] The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, has called on all state parties to repeal laws criminalizing homosexuality or same-sex conduct. The Iranian government is legally obligated under international human rights treaty law and customary law, and bound by its own treaty commitments and those of previous Iranian governments.[4] The ICCPR’s protections place a mandate for action upon Iranian authorities, including officials who bear responsibility for maintaining security and enforcing the law in Iran.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Iranian government to abolish all laws and other legislation under the Islamic Penal Code that criminalize consensual same-sex conduct, especially those that impose the death penalty, and to cease the harassment, arrest, detention, prosecution, and conviction of LGBT persons or persons who engage in consensual same-sex conduct. Human Rights Watch also calls on authorities to prohibit the public harassment, abuse, or arrest of sexual minorities, individuals thought to be members of the LGBT community, or others (such as “effeminate men”) by security forces, including Iran’s basij units, and to investigate and prosecute members of the security forces who engage in such actions. Any use of testimony or confessions secured, or which appear to have been secured, under torture or threat of torture or other ill-treatment by security forces should be prohibited.

Human Rights Watch also calls on other states and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to implement policies and recommendations to safeguard the rights of Iran’s vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers.

[1]Transgender Iranians have been recognized in Iran since 1987 when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious edict, granting them permission to undergo sex reassignment surgery.


[2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976.

[3]Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted November 20, 1989, G.A. Res. 44/25, annex, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989), entered into force September 2, 1990, art. 6.

[4]The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, opened for signature May 23, 1969, 115 U.N.T.S. 331, establishes that obligations under international agreements are not terminated by a change in government.