Film Explores Sex Changes in Iran

Iran is one of eight countries where homosexuality is a crime punishable by death—but also a country in which sex-change operations are legal, said Organization for Refuge Asylum and Migration founder Neil Grungras in a discussion last night about LGBT rights in the Middle East.

The event featured a 30-minute screening of the movie “Be Like Others,” an official selection of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival which explored the nuanced and complicated social phenomenon of sex reassignment surgery in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran, described by Grungras as a country fraught with strict and conservative social mores, is among the “most dangerous countries in world to be LBGT in terms of government persecution.”

Grungras traced the origins of the unusual permissibility of—and sometimes even the encouragement and subsidization of—sex-change operations in the otherwise conservative country to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. After the Iranian Revolution, Khomeini issued a religious edict to make sex reassignment surgery permissible for “diagnosed transsexuals,” giving rise to a generation of young Iranian men adopting transsexual identities, Grungras said.

“The government ideology is, if you are homosexual, you must have been born into the wrong body, so the only obstacle that remains is to change sex,” he said. “The complex situation in Iran includes social stigma, legislation, subsidies, and corruption that comes together tend to compel or force people who are lesbian and gay to have sex reassignment.”

The government position on sex-change surgeries can leave individuals who are transgender or choose not to opt for surgery in an uncomfortable situation, he added.

Emma Q. Wang ‘12, co-chair of Queer Students and Allies—which co-sponored the event along with the Harvard Undergraduate Legal Committee, Trans Task Force, and the Radcliffe Union of Students—said she plans to stay involved with ORAM, the first organization focusing exclusively on refugees fleeing from sexual and gender-based violence. She plans to write her thesis on LBGT individuals who have successfully sought asylum in the United States.

Wang, Samuel J. Bakkila ’11-’12, and Jia Hui Lee ‘12 worked at ORAM for two weeks over January Term at its headquarters in San Francisco, where they compiled country profiles and examined benefits for refugees in certain countries, such as housing stipends or subsidies for HIV treatment.

“I learned a lot about issues facing refugees,” Lee said. “It got me thinking about law school.”

— Staff writer Nadia L. Farjood can be reached at nadiafarjood@college.harvard.edu.

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